“Landline” reunites the team who made Gillian Robespierre’s 2014 Sundance smash hit “Obvious Child,” but the films’ star and muse, Jenny Slate, bristles at the idea of the new film representing any kind of sequel.
“It’s not similar,” Slate said from the Sundance Film Festival. “‘Landline’ is not the same as ‘Obvious Child,’ except that Gil has a real knack for crafting characters that truly seem that they’re plucked out of our world, whether or not it’s a period piece or it’s taking place six months ago.”
“Landline,” as it happens, is a period piece, one that reunites Robespierre with her “Obvious Child” star and that film’s screenwriter and producer, Elisabeth Holm. “We all collided in this great way,” Robespierre said. “And it was all familial and wonderful, and why not try to hold on to that?”
“Landline” does return to some familiar territory, at least when it comes to the complex and original female characters who populate the story. Set in the mid-’90s, “Landline” follows the romantic trials of a single Manhattan family, including Edie Falco as matriarch Patty, John Turturro as her philandering husband Alan, along with Slate as their eldest daughter Dana and bonafide breakout Abby Quinn as her precocious teen sister Ali.
When the wise-beyond-her-years Ali discovers Alan is cheating on Patty, it throws her world into a tailspin, just as Dana is grappling with her own romantic crisis.
Like “Obvious Child,” Robespierre’s new film is populated by complicated, messy, real women who love each other fiercely. However, the final product has so far not connected as strongly with Sundance audiences. While “Obvious Child” was a near-instant smash when it bowed three years ago, “Landline” debuted Friday to strong reviews but without much festival buzz.
For one thing, “Landline” is a more mainstream endeavor, one that doesn’t come close to the same subversive humor that made the so-called “abortion comedy” such a unique offering at what can be a very crowded festival.
“I think that we try very hard to shine light on stories that are and have been dark,” Robespierre said. “But I do like telling stories about women who are unapologetically themselves and are flawed humans. Men and women; they’re flawed humans.”
She added with a laugh, “There’s more shit you can put them through when they’re flawed.”
“Obvious Child” it’s not, but without “Obvious Child,” there would be no “Landline.”
“We were on the road with ‘Obvious Child,’ constantly talking about our parents, our New York lives, our boyfriends, just growing up in the city, and those were all things that had always connected us and made us fast friends and collaborators from the beginning,” Holm explained. “It was just a natural outgrowth to go from talking about all this shit over wine to writing some of it down.”
For “Landline,” they wanted to go in a new direction, though one that held fast to their aims to always tell true, relatable stories about real people.
“We wanted to show a divorce narrative where a family actually grew closer through this experience, got to know themselves, and each other a little more honestly,” Holm said.
After Oddlot Entertainment came on board the project (“They actually paid us to sit around in our pajamas and write this movie, which is pretty awesome,” said Holm), Holm and Robespierre set about breaking down their story and characters. One choice was easy: casting Slate.
“When we sat down and decided to make ‘Landline,’ we always wanted Jenny to play the role of the older sister,” Robespierre said. “We shared versions. Each draft that we wrote, we’d send to Jenny.”
Having Slate as a collaborator was essential to Robespierre and Holm, and went a long way to make “Landline” ring true.
“You don’t get a lot of time on independent films with actors,” Robespierre said. “What’s great about having Jenny available so early on is that she doesn’t read us the lines. We had deep and meaningful conversations in shaping her.”
Finding their second leading lady required a different process, but one seemingly as charmed as the one that brought the trio together to begin with.
Although the discovery of Alan’s affair (thanks to some really bad poetry Ali finds on their period-appropriate iMac) is the film’s inciting incident and Dana’s own tryst with a college pal (Finn Whitrock) keeps the overarching themes of fidelity and forgiveness ticking right along, Ali is the film’s true center. A flinty and funny teenager who is smart enough to counsel her family on their foibles and dumb enough to try heroin on a lark, the role required someone capable of playing both sides without missing a step.
Enter Abby Quinn. With just three other roles under her belt (fans can catch her in an upcoming episode of “Black Mirror”) and bearing a striking resemblance to Slate, Quinn is the real discovery of “Landline.”
“We saw her tape and were immediately like, ‘Oh, she’s our girl,'” Holm said. “She nailed it. She was wearing those little ’90s baby barrettes. It was a nice touch, but it wasn’t over the top.”
Quinn admits she was eager to appeal to the period sensibilities of the film, though she was initially afraid it backfired. “When I walked in, I had Doc Martens on, ’cause those are ’90s,” Quinn remembered. “And I get upstairs and three other girls have on Doc Martens.”
She didn’t need to worry.
“We were really drawn to Abby because she has this old soul, but is also still a young spirit,” Holm said. “There were a lot of women we saw who were either already 35, or they didn’t have that wisdom and that depth and complexity. Abby really had both.”
Quinn immediately gravitated to the honesty of the script; like Robespierre and Holm, her parents divorced when she was a kid, but she relished the chance to play someone very different than herself.
“I don’t think I was ever as cutthroat as Ali,” she said. “But I knew where she was coming from because I have been there, and to me it just felt like she didn’t know how to express just wanting to communicate in a healthy way with her family when she’s frustrated.”
Despite helping shape Dana from the ground up, Slate was nervous about making her character not just different from her “Obvious Child” character, Donna, but from Slate herself.
“Gil is one of my very close friends,” Slate explained. “So the potential for me showing up and doing the things that come most naturally to me is actually sort of dangerous. But she’s such a good director that that’s not really going to happen. She would say things like, ‘That’s Jenny, that’s not Dana.'”
Although Slate admits she’s much more like Donna than she is Dana, she clearly spent a lot of time considering her characters’ motivations.
“She’s a rigid person,” Slate said. “She’s neurotic and she’s just a bit squeaky… She’s too caught up in asking what is allowed. As if that is even a thing. And that’s something that I’ve only learned, I would say within the last 2 months, I have learned to stop asking what is allowed.”
The ’90s-era setting provided a smart way to build out the characters’ worlds and to push them even closer together, and adds in an extra element that’s way more commercial than anything in “Obvious Child.”
“It was important to us that the period wasn’t just a gimmick or a punchline, and that you could tell that it was from another time, but it wasn’t over the top,” Holm said.
As the cast’s youngest member, Quinn had to be clued into a lot of weird ’90s details, like how to use a payphone (Slate: “I had to teach Abby where to put the coin in!”) and embracing some strange fashion choices (Quinn loved the overalls, but was baffled by the chain choker she wears for much of the film).
Payphone confusion aside, Quinn appreciated making a film where her savvy teen character couldn’t hide behind a phone. “It was kind of a relief not having to film something when texting my best friend or when I am breaking up with my boyfriend, because all of it was right here,” she said. “You had to be there with one another.”
Said Robespierre, “There are times where the ’90s, I think, is funny, and people can get a little chuckle from. But we never really go too far.”
The trio hope that audiences will also see themselves in the film, period setting or not.
“Women feeling like this movie was made for them is truly the most lovely and awesome compliment,” Holm said. “We want women to feel like we tell stories that they can connect to.”
And those stories come directly from the women who created them.
“This business is tough, and it’s rough and people are fake and liars,” Robespierre said. “And Jenny and Liz and myself are many things and…”
Slate finished her thought, “We’re not fake and liars.”
“Landline” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.