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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Gillian Robespierre

Sundance Women Directors: Meet Gillian Robespierre

Gillian Robespierre has written and directed several short films, including “Chunk” in 2006, which follows an overweight teen forced to attend fat camp, and “Obvious Child” in 2009. Her feature-length version of Obvious Child, a Kickstarter-funded romantic comedy starring Jenny Slate, will debut at Sundance on January 17th.

Please give us your description of the film.

Obvious Child is a comedy about what happens when Brooklyn comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) gets dumped, fired and pregnant just in time for the worst/best Valentine’s Day of her life. That’s the elevator pitch. I think Donna is a naturally funny, intelligent woman in her late twenties who is slowly shedding the remaining traits of her youth. She is forever prodded by her parents to make better choices and act more like an “adult.” Donna’s forced to do just that when a one-night stand leads to a difficult decision that does and does not define the rest of her life. Though confident in her choice, Donna must gain the confidence to believe in her talent, herself, and the best in those around her, especially one surprisingly decent guy (Jake Lacy) who just might make this the worst/best Valentine’s Day a little bit better.

What made you write this story?

I’m attracted to telling stories about people who feel and do real things in the real world. I first made the “Obvious Child” short film in the Winter of 2009 with my friends Anna Bean and Karen Maine. We were frustrated by the limited representations of young women’s experience with pregnancy, let alone growing up. We were waiting to see a more honest film, or at least, a story that was closer to many of the stories we knew. We weren’t sure how long that wait was going to be, so we decided to tell the story ourselves. The short starred Jenny Slate and had a pretty nice festival run. When we shared it on the Internet, it was really exciting to see that people were actually watching it! But what was even cooler were the conversations the movie ignited. That truly encouraged and inspired me to expand to feature-length, to share this film and these conversations with even more people.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

I had a lot of anxiety about an 18-day shoot with not a lot of rehearsal time. I really like to rehearse. We did get one day in San Francisco to work with the actors due to an amazing in-kind development grant the San Francisco Film Society awarded us. But other than that, we had no time prior to our first day of principle photography to actually rehearse. Oh, and it was pilot season! Never schedule an indie movie shoot around pilot season. 

So I had to embrace the day and pack as much rehearsal time in while our spry DP, Chris Teague, and his amazing crew lit around us. Obviously, prep is always a stressful and challenging dance, but with the right team in place, I wanna give a quick shout out to the producing team: Elisabeth Holm, Susan Leber, Geoff Quan, and Luisa Conlon. We got through it and had a pretty stress- and accident-free shoot. The very first take I ruined because I was laughing, which I think was a good sign.

What advice do you have for other female directors?

Make sure you have the right partner, business and companion. I actually think this is good advice for both sexes. Making a movie is so ridiculously awesome, strange, and hard, but in the end it’s all about who you partner up with. My main business squeeze is Elisabeth Holm. She was instrumental not only in raising funds, but also in the development of the entire project. She’s incredibly passionate about filmmaking and about the story we were trying to tell together. She stood next to me through thick and thin, sickness and in health, DCP QC’ing and so much more. And my life partner also had to be pretty awesome through that process. I’m happy to say he didn’t dump me and we’re going to make it official in 2014! 

What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

I think the biggest misconception/critique people have already formed about Obvious Child, a movie they haven’t seen yet, is “How are you making a romcom about abortion?” My straightforward answer is, We didn’t. There are romantic and comedic moments in the film, but not specifically about the abortion. Donna Stern is a sincere and comedic person who is going through a difficult time in her life and I think there are ways to laugh even in those serious, hard-to-breathe moments. This is one person’s story and not an agenda-driven movie.

Obvious Child‘s goal was to tell an honest story about what happens to a person who loses their confidence and the ability to trust other humans after a bad break-up. We also wanted to illuminate the emotional complexity of a choice that’s always wrought with conflict and to de-stigmatize it. And whatever their politics, we hope viewers will consider, debate, and share Donna’s story. 

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

There are more distribution channels than ever before. Whether it’s theatrical, VOD, uploading it yourself to Vimeo or community screenings, there are so many exciting ways to share your movie. I think it’s really exciting but all that comes with some challenges, like how to find your own audience and actually engage and have your film connect with them. I think a filmmaker now has to be their own marketing entity as well. I’m still testing the Twitter waters, but I’m slowly getting into it. Of course I love stalking people on Facebook and I can’t deny the power it has with reaching people. We just successfully raised $35,000 on Kickstarter and I only had to send one email to friends and family. The rest was word-of-mouth through social media.

Name your favorite women directed film and why.

Don’t make me answer this! OK. I’m going to have to say Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking. It came out at pivotal time for me, 1996! As a full-blown indoor kid who grew up on a steady diet of 80s movies, I was definitely left thinking that all love stories ended with a makeover and a date to the prom and that love depicted in a movie is always between a man and a woman. 

I was floored when I saw Walking and Talking because it’s a story about two women best friends and how they deal with the ups and downs in their relationship. Anne Heche is preparing to get married and Catherine Keener is struggling as a single lady living in the West Village. This was when the Village was affordable. There are so many elements to love about this movie. Katherine Keener, Anne Heche, Liev Schreiber, the dialogue, the music by Billy Bragg, New York City, but most of all the real friendship and love between Anne and Catherine. That is what really stuck with me to this day. I definitely still own a VHS copy of it and I think about it often when I sit down to try to write. 

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