One of the most talked about and much-loved films out of this year's Sundance Film Festival was the comedy OBVIOUS CHILD, concerning stand-up comedian Donna (Jenny Slate), who gets dumped by her boyfriend and then immediately pregnant after her first time sleeping with a new, nice guy (Jake Lacy). The film is different than most (really all) romantic comedies in that it takes a very hard look at the stuff that makes up the Hollywood rom-com and blows it to bits, especially when Donna decides to get an abortion. If you think the film gets super serious just because of that part of the story, think again.
Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre (the pair also made an OBVIOUS CHILD short in 2009) have found a wonderful way of transitioning Donna's feelings about her plight into her stand-up act, and the results are raw, brutal and essential honest comedy.
Slate was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" for only a year, but many people learned her name thanks to her notoriously dropping the f-bomb in her very first on-air sketch. Since then she's been a staple playing great featured characters in shows like "Bored to Death," "Parks & Recreation," "Kroll Show," "House of Lies," "Hello Ladies," and "Girls." She's might be best known for providing the voice of Marcel in the "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" shorts (a new one is said to be on the way, along with a companion book before year's end). She also has a couple of ensemble films coming out in the next year, including THE LONGEST WEEK, from first-time feature writer-director Peter Glanz; and DIGGING FOR FIRE, director and co-writer (with Jake Johnson) Joe Swanberg's recently shot film. Slate will also be in the new FX comedy series "Married," set to premiere July 17, starring Nat Faxon and Judy Greer.
OBVIOUS CHILD marks Robespierre's feature debut, and she's planning a "divorce comedy" as her next feature; I can't wait. I sat down with the two in Chicago recently, and had a fantastic time talking about the plight of rom-coms and the place of abortion in mainstream entertainment. Please enjoy my talk with Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre…
Capone: I love the way that the film reverse engineers the romantic comedy, and that like your character, Donna, would never be a lead in a Hollywood romantic comedy, mainly because she swears too much, and because of that whole abortion thing at the end. But there is still a really sweet romance at the center of this. Can you talk a bit about why you took that approach to the story?
Gillian Robespierre: Well, I’ve always liked the Best Friend role in romantic comedies. She was always a character who I could relate to more, who was funnier, had the better lines, had the better life, had the freedom to take chances and make choices that were funnier and more relatable. And that’s true, but it’s also short handed. It’s also an idea of being frustrated with how we’re represented by mainstream Hollywood media and films.
Capone: "We" meaning women?
GR: We meaning women. And while those movies have been part of my heart and soul for my whole life--and the ones that I love, I love, and they will never be erased by the shit ones--I think the shit ones are what made and spurred telling the story this way, and how we told it with Donna being not a button-nosed, fair-haired lady. She's somebody who I saw on the screen who could be my friend or who could be me.
Capone: So you basically took the Judy Greer character out of so many of these films and made her the lead.
GR: We love Judy.
Jenny Slate: I love Judy.
Capone: To sidetrack here for a second, I’ve been seeing commercials for this new show on FX…
Capone: Yes, and I just saw like a fleeting glimpse of a person, I believe is you.
JS: I’m in it!
Capone: I thought as much, but imdb.com doesn't have you listed in it, so I wasn't sure at first.
JS: Yeah. it’s me, Judy, Nat Faxon, Brett Gelman, and John Hodgman. My husband’s played by Paul Reiser. Yeah, I’m in it, I'm a series regular, but they’ve mostly showed Nat and Judy in that promo, I think because that’s from the pilot. I don’t know what else is compiled yet.
GR: It’s so good.
JS: Yeah, it’s going to be really funny, I think.
Capone: Now that we've got that straight, I think one of the only people in the OBVIOUS CHILD story who might have had a shot in a regular romantic comedy is Jake [Lacy], but he just seems like he would fit in this anywhere. Did you deliberately set out to find a guy that fits that fairly standard-issue male role in a romantic comedy and then surround him with something a little different?
GR: I think so. When looking for the Max character, we wanted somebody who was polar opposite to Donna and who would also surprise the audience and have some complexity underneath, and Jake is that guy, because he’s actually a really funny, funny comedian and funny actor.
JS: And he has his own sense of what’s funny and makes really clear choices. And yes, he is like typically handsome and has biceps and stuff that you notice through his t-shirt.
GR: [sarcastically] I never noticed his biceps.
JS: No, nobody ever noticed how he looked in his t-shirts.
GR: I should have said, “Jake, come stand over here.”
JS: Yeah, yeah. Gabe [Liedman, who plays Donna's gay best friend] and I were not talking about his like cantaloupe buns or whatever. Yeah, in terms of sexual harassment on set, he’s the only person who got harassed. He is typically handsome, and what’s not typical about him is his character. And what I like about the romantic-comedy genre, what often happens in it, and it happens in our movie too, what is delightful is after there’s been a setback, after there’s been like a dumping of some sort, it’s watching the self care after that. For example, Gwyneth Paltrow cuts her hair and goes blonde. Right?
GR: SLIDING DOORS
JS: Yeah, exactly. Or whatever.
GR: The montage.
JS: Or someone like paints a garage, and now it’s like a craft studio, or whatever.
GR: In our movie, Donna shaves her legs getting ready for her abortion.
JS: Yeah, yeah. There’s that delightful moment that I love in romantic comedies when the man who will fall in love with the lead sees her for the first time like is delighted by something special and new that he doesn’t have in his life. And what’s often disappointing is that you have a really hot dude looking at a really hot lady, and you don’t believe that he’s delighted by anything special; you just believe that he’s simply delighted, because she’s perfect. And I think in our movie, you see that even though Jake’s character, Max, is a business school student--he probably works in finance, he doesn’t listen to indie music or something or whatever. He’s probably a Dave Matthew’s Band dude.
GR: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
JS: No, not at all. But he sees Donna and he’s like, “I have a taste for that weird thing that I’ve never seen before.” He encourages it.
GR: He’s excited, yeah. And it ignites something in him, too, that is the sleeper funny guy that maybe he didn’t know he had, or wasn’t able to showcase with the boring girls that he was dating before Donna.
Capone: I like the idea that he finds her exotic.
JS: Yeah! A rare bird, like a rare, weird bird with a beautiful beak.
GR: But he also doesn’t want to whisk her away and get married at city hall and then have some weird, strange life. He’s supporting her decision.
Capone: Yeah. I love that the film actually dares to ask, can someone start a relationship this way? Can they have this be the first thing that they go through together and still probably be a couple? It happens all the time, probably, but you just never see that in movies.
GR: Yet it's the last thing that happens in the movie.
Capone: Exactly. The very last thing is this very little hopeful moment between them that is really sweet. I think people will hopefully remember that.
JS: And it doesn’t end in like the Shakespearian sense, where like all comedies end in a wedding. And that’s not the point in the movie is it to end in a union. The point of the movie is for you to be taken through an experience.
Capone: Jenny, I’ve seen a video of you doing sketch comedy before SNL. Did you do stand up like this?
JS: That’s how I started. I still do stand up.
GR: It’s not on the internet.
JS: I don’t like people to record my stuff, because it is mostly about my family, and it is very much in the style of Donna. My style is Donna’s style, but my topics are not necessarily her topics. She’s a little bit rougher than I am, or she’s interested in different things. I’m really interested in my formative years, in my slow body development, and how that formed my sense of sexuality as a woman. That’s what really interests me--horniness that’s unfulfilled when you’re a teenager. A lot of my standup is about masturbating as a kid not knowing that I was doing it in public, embarrassing things that would be embarrassing, but they’re just memories and stuff.
GR: We all do it.
JS: It’s a confessional. I always wanted to be an actress, always. And I grew up idolizing performers like Lily Tomlin and Ruth Gordon, and obviously Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett, Madeline Kahn, really vibrant women who had very, very unique sense of style and were actresses.
GR: Did you ever see Whoopi’s one-woman show on Broadway?
JS: No. I love Whoopi too.
GR: She did characters.
Capone: The old HBO one?
GR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. She’s wearing leather.
JS: She did like the valley girl thing, right?
GR: Uh huh, with long luxurious blonde hair, and she would wear a white t-shirt over her head. It’s amazing.
JS: Oh my god, no, I never saw it. Yeah, I like that stuff, and I wanted to play unique parts like they got, but when I graduated from college and I lived in New York, I really did not know how to start my career, and I did sketch and improv in college. So Gabe who plays Joey in the film, he and I became standup partners, and we started to do standup as a 22 year olds. We were a gay guy and a girl duo. We started at a club called Rififi, which isn’t there anymore, at 11th between 1st and 2nd. People have described it as sort of a CBGB's of alt-comedy, because starting there then, like two years ahead of us, or maybe a few years ahead of us were Nick Kroll, Aziz Ansari, John Mulaney, Pete Holmes, Eugene Mirman, Demetri Martin, Chelsea Peretti. We all met there and started there, and every night you could go there, and one of us would be there doing it, and it was amazing. But that was how I felt would be the most genuine way for me to start, because I was afraid of the cattle calls. I didn’t want anything gross to happen to me, So I became gross [laughs].
Capone: The three different stand-up routines that we see in the film are almost like chapter headings, or maybe they’re more like mile markers. Did you design it that way? The last one show, the one right before the abortion, it really reminded me of Tig Notaro’s cancer performance, it really is pure confession, getting everyone on her side about a really touchy subject. Tell me about mapping out those three routines.
GR: Yeah, when we were sitting down and writing the three bits, I didn’t want it to be a movie about a stand-up comedian, but we wanted to use Donna’s experience on stage and her storytelling ways on stage as a place where she can reveal everything or hide everything. But usually she reveals, but it’s in a subtle way that she’s hiding and fighting her defenses. So, when we sat down and wrote it, especially the end comedy, I was like, "How is she not going to sound like a douche bag and a horrible person for telling this to a crowd?"
JS: Yeah, that’s hard and selft indulgent.
GR: With the guy there. Is that rude? Is she going to look hateful and really disgusting. And then Tig did her thing, and I bought it, I listened to it, and it was wonderful. While these are very different bits, I still wrestled with the idea of, is Donna’s character going to be resented by the real audience? Not the audience in the club, but real audiences, when they’re watching her perform this bit? But we went for it anyway, and with a great editor, Casey Brooks, and with a great performance by Jenny, I think found the fine line of being confessional for herself, and people could relate to that kind of confessional--rawness rather than it being, "The only way she could tell him was on stage."
JS: Yeah, that’s not what it is.
GR: She wasn’t doing it for him; she was doing it for herself.
Capone: You don’t get a sense that the routine was in any way different because he was there.
JS: Right. She invites him, "If you’re going to be there, you’re going to be there, I’m going to be doing this." What I liked about it, what I felt that I needed in order to make it be all of the things that Gillian wanted, was to be able to still give into that instinct of wanting to make people laugh. And that's one of the main things in our movie, that instinct is always there, even if you’re saying something that is more serious to you, more pressing, there’s an urgency, you’re saying something. And that just because there is humor woven in that instinct to make a laugh roll out, it doesn’t mean that you’re being thoughtles or selfish, or masturbatory or glib or flip or whatever. It’s just part of the expression and part of the package. And so when I got up there, to be able to not have it be a monologue that you would use to get into acting school. That was my fear is that I was not going to seem natural, because I didn’t at first understand the instinct to get up and do that. Then I realized, no I get the instinct. It’s the same as always. The instinct is to be open and to share herself and have that connection, and this is her life now, and to obey that instinct of trying to shine through humor.
Capone: Any time abortion is brought up in a TV show or a movie, it seems like lately the formula is: unwanted pregnancy, the woman makes a decision to do this, makes the appointment, ends up in the doctor's office, and then changes her mind and walks out. That way you cover your bases--the people who are pro choice will think, “Okay, that was her decision.” And the people that are pro-life will think, “Ok, she didn’t do it. Good.” I didn’t know going into this film that it was actually going to go all the way. I thought that there was always a possibility she'd back out.
JS: People are trained to think that.
GR: Yeah, we’re definitely brainwashed by many, many movies to think that way, even though our trailer gives it away, people still don’t know that Donna’s going to have the procedure. And I like that, that’s okay. I can say it and blow the ending in every single interview, because that’s not what the movie is totally about anyway. But those are stories that we have seen so many times, and it is a real story that does happen. I just was sick of seeing it. We wanted to tell the other side.
Capone: Yeah, and you handled that whole section of the film so positively.
JS: I'm glad you think that.
Capone: She’s not skipping into it.
GR: We cut that scene, where she skipped and fell [laughs].
Capone: That whole conversation just in the waiting room is so nice andso supportive.
GR: Yeah, it's awkward like a first date is, but loving like they’ve been friends for forever, in a way.
Capone: Even that part we never see.
JS: It was important to me that they have that moment when he’s like, “I’m sorry I left.” And she’s like, “I also did something really, really weird.” I’m glad that they called it out, that they both did that.
GR: In real life, it’s so nice to have both people apologize and be sort of self aware. “I did this, and I did this.”
JS: "Right, and you know what? We’re going to do weird things over and over again, because we’re always going to be trying to figure out exactly how to behave in a way that best suits us in our situation."
GR: "I’m not going to run, I’m here with you and for you."
Capone: Does Donna change at all because of this event?
GR: I don’t think it’s one of those arcs that you see in those traditional scripts that script writing teachers are like, “Where’s the arc? Where’s the conflict?” And we have a little bit of conflict in the movie. It’s mostly an inner conflict about gaining confidence and courage to tell your mom and tell this guy what’s going on, and to gain her confidence back on stage after bombing so terribly, and feeling like the whole world is doing something to her, instead of being a part of her life, in a less passive way. But I think her arc is just what happens in your late 20s. You don’t notice. It’s not like one event changes you and makes you a smarter, better human. It’s collective events that happen all throughout your life that make you at least get out of your 20s luckily, hopefully alive, stronger and empowered. I think we’re not showing the classic arc, but we’re taking a snippet of the arc, of this drama in her life, and we haven't tied it up neatly at the end, because that’s not authentic.
Capone: I’ve got to ask about Gaby Hoffmann, because she is everywhere right now, and it’s so great to see her back on the boards again. Talk about her contribution to this story and that character, because she’s great.
GR: Yeah. Well, Jenny sent her the script and said, “Be in this movie with me.”
JS: Yeah, that’s how we got Gaby.
GR: And luckily she said yes. When Jenny suggested using Gaby, it was like, yes, let’s do this. She was a big part of a lot of movies we mentioned earlier, romantic comedies that she was a child in. And she’s such a good actress. When she was on "Louie," in that second season, breaking up with herself, and in CRYSTAL FAIRY. Well, I hadn’t seen CRYSTAL FAIRY yet, but in "Louie" she just resurrected herself as this amazing adult actress, a person that I wanted to work with. When she said yes, we definitely jumped for joy and then we re-wrote for Gaby.
JS: She was at once like wild animal, but completely like no bullshit person who I find to be a force of great strength. She’s just really, really strong and lends great strength, and makes other people stronger around her. I was talking to her, I remember when we went to San Francisco to workshop the script on a grant through the San Francisco Film Society, and I was like talking to her about a costume fitting I had, and I was like, “Oh god, sorry, I haven’t had a bikini wax.” And she looked at me and was like, “I didn’t know we were supposed to apologize for that.” And I was like, “Yeah you’re right. I’ll never apologize for that again.” And I just didn’t think about it.
GR: And the monologue in the movie, I feel like from any other actress I felt like could really be monologue-y, like a PSA almost. It just would have rang true out of any other woman’s mouth, but it was so strong and so heartfelt and right when Gaby says her lines.
JS: Yeah, she makes me really pumped about how far I could go in terms of being courageous, and really, really letting it all go in a performance. And to have her there standing on the side while my character’s doing standup, it lends an authenticity to it. And Gabe and I met her because she used to come and watch our comedy shows.
Capone: Thank you both so much. Best of luck with this.
JS: Really nice to meet you. I’m so glad you enjoyed the film.