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FILM CHAT: Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre discuss Obvious Child

August 28, 2014

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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It’s a chilly and overcast Thursday afternoon in London. I’ve just returned in the UK after spending two blissful weeks back home in Sicily with my family. Impossible to deny how my end-of-summer-induced mood isn’t the most cheerful. Yet the second I step into the room where I’m supposed to interview comedy genius Jenny Slate and exciting new filmmaker Gillian Robespierre the clouds go away and I’m inundated with these two beautiful and talented women’s bright smiles.

They’re in town to promote the UK release of Robespierre’s feature film debut Obvious Child that opens in theatres on August 29th after premiering to critical acclaim at the latest Sundance Film Festival back in January. The lovely writer/director is a born and raised New Yorker who has made several short films including the 2009’s Obvious Child upon which her first feature is based and that also starred the wonderful Jenny Slate.

Speaking of Jenny, if you criminally still don’t know her, no need to worry since Obvious Child is destined to consecrate her career and expand her immense innate talent to wider audiences. However, if like me you’re a TV addict I’m sure you’re already familiar with her impossible-to-resist comedic energy profusely dispensed on many shows like Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, Raising Hope, House Of Lies, The Kroll Show and Parks & Recreation.

Obvious Child is the anti-romcom we’ve been waiting for: a genuine look at an authentic female character, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) who gets dumped, fired and pregnant just in time for Valentine’s Day. But the film also deals with one of the most controversial social issues of our time, abortion, and does that once again in a rare honest way. You can find more on the film in my review on Candid’s film page.

When I met Jenny and Gillian I wanted to avoid asking them the same questions all over again and given how I only had the standard fifteen minutes, I focused my attention on two topics: the challenging tone of the film and the way they think their work might affect and inspire people.

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I believe that tone is the hardest thing to accomplish for both screenwriters and filmmakers and dramedy is most certainly the trickiest genre in that respect. The Sundance Film Festival where Obvious Child premiered has often become a showcase for films that try too hard at being quirky. Yours is never anything short of genuine, honest and authentic. How did you manage in your respective roles of actor and filmmaker to find this great balance between the laugh-out-loud moments and the deep ones? They complete each other and never overlap but graciously blend in together.

Gillian: In each stage of moviemaking to keep your tone alive is very important. It starts when you create the idea and you sit down to write it. We didn’t want to write a script that had a joke per page. We wanted the story to be very natural, the characters to feel very natural and to feel like we’re just flies on the wall in this woman’s life. We tend to do that in real life anyway, have one moment where you’re on the verge of crying and then you make a joke about it the next moment. I think that’s more true to life and so it’s about taking those nuances and those small moments that really matter and putting them on screen. Then on set it was really important for us to keep that same tone. So Jenny did a really great job of sort of pulling back ‘cause she’s naturally hilarious and pretty much anything she says or does, even if it’s silent, with her eyes, can be too funny. I think she knew going into it, that she would bring her natural humor and tone to the character. So we were very aware of not being overly jokey with the dialogue. I’m also not very precious with my dialogue. If something didn’t sound natural and Jenny or any of the actors would say: “Listen, this is strange, do you mind if I go this way?” I’d reply: “Of course.” If that feels strange to say with a camera and thirty people around you, lighting you, let’s not say it.

Jenny: Which is rare also. That’s one of Gillian’s strengths, one of her many.

Gillian: I think being artificial is something that we really wanted to be very far away from for this movie. Even the way we lit it. It was never going to be brightly lit like lots of comedies usually do. We really took time creating the look of the film. We made sure we were taking our inspiration from movies of the 70s where they looked more natural. We shot all on location. We didn’t create Donna’s apartment on a sound stage and then smear vaseline on the lens to make sure everyone looks like they’re on The View, which is a daytime show in the US.

Yes, I’m well aware. I’ve lived in the US for five years.

Jenny: Then, you know the gem that is The View. (Chuckles.)

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Gillian: Each stage of the movie we asked ourselves: “what would Barbara Walters do? (Laughs.) Jokes aside, we were very thorough right from pre-production. We would wonder for instance: “What is this character going to wear? Is she going to wear a G-string that matches her bra?

Jenny: No way! She’s going to wear regular underwear. We had a conversation before we shot where we talked about how when Donna is in her house, she should not be wearing a bra. The first thing I do when I go home is whip it off! And then sweatpants go on. You know, she’s not going to look like shit but she’s going to look authentic. It sounds shallow and superficial to say that what the character wears lends so much to whether or not she seems like a real woman but it’s true.

Gillian: There are lots of movies where the protagonist is a struggling writer and she’s wearing Prada shoes. That’s ridiculous. Anyway to get back to the point, each step of the way it’s about being true to the voice that’s right for the story you set out to tell. For instance in the editing room as well, you made sure the tone felt right. You could’ve definitely edited ten jokes back to back but then I felt it wouldn’t be fun anymore. So we were very thoughtful about when we were going to take everyone up and bring them back down and create that feeling of you being a real audience member when she’s performing the stand-up and then you’re sitting next to her while she and her friends are eating Thai food, without being Cinéma Vérité. We’re not doing hand-held documentary style. We’re creating scenes and letting the dialogue and the actors bring you into them and staying very stationary ‘cause it’s all about the characters. And then there’s the action scene…

Jenny: Oh yeah right, the one with all the shooting machine guns and stuff…

Gillian: I feel like the action scene is when you throw your coffee in order to hide while stalking your ex!

Jenny: Yeah, I actually love the physicality of that scene, how Donna throws it as she’s lurching behind the car…

Gillian: Or when she’s drunk on stage! That’s a good action scene!

And the dancing in bed with Max! That’s a great use of montage.

Jenny: Yeah, I love the dancing!

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I’m just curious about your process Jenny because as Gillian said, the energy is palpable whenever you’re around. I first got to know you through Parks & Recreation when I was living in LA and I was like “who’s this girl?” and now that I’m a fan, to me you’re like a Lea Michelle type with a comedic energy a la Robin Williams, literally lighting up a room when you get in and I actually added you to my Natural Anti-Depressant category.

Jenny: Aww, that’s so nice!

It’s true, whatever you do, you don’t have to speak or anything, I just laugh right away. But then you also go into some deeper places in the film like for instance that beautiful scene between Donna and her mom. That’s really touching and one of my favorites as it took me to a place I wasn’t expecting. So I was wondering, since you naturally have all this energy, is there something that you need to do in order to tone yourself down and go to a more intimate, inner place for those kinds of scenes?

Jenny: I have a lot of energy. It’s true. It is in my nature to go for the joke but that’s actually not the way Donna is. She’s very funny but I’m much more gregarious than her and much more bubbly. I think we shaped her like a much more typical New Yorker. Her energy is a bit cooler. And for me, one thing that I had to focus on was stillness, being still and not reaching when the character was supposed to be funny. And I guess I also had to trust in that there are just as powerful ways of expressing myself than my biggest muscles which are my comedy muscles or that’s at least what I thought. And then it turned out that when we were done filming I felt very confident in myself as a well-rounded performer and I felt really into that, very excited. I truly think it’s made my comedy performances better. There’s a show that I’m on called The Kroll Show, a Comedy Central show. We just finished our third season and I genuinely felt much more agile while doing it.

Let’s switch over to the more serious side of the film. Just like you, I hated the way some people have labeled Obvious Child as the abortion comedy. I do think though that the film is quite bold and brave for the way it deals with the topic, especially nowadays, and I feel it falls in the category of cinema that I like the most: the one that inspires audiences. I truly believe cinema can save lives and help people. Do you guys ever feel a responsibility both as a performer and a filmmaker and that your work can really change lives?

Gillian: I know that movies changed my life. I’ve been watching them since I was little and I had to overcome extreme shyness and dyslexia and just your general run of the mill anti-socialness because of my shyness and I escaped by watching movies. They were so important to me throughout my life and still are. I still feel the safest when I’m watching a movie. While making them, I try not to think so much about responsibility rather than just creating a story that is both captivating and entertaining but also meaningful and just showing humans doing human things and saying things that might not be perfect and not seeking perfection.

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Jenny: You know, I think I’ll always remember you for calling me a natural antidepressant. That is so nice! It means a lot to me. Look, we’re all going to do what we’re going to do but as far as I’m concerned, I do think that if you’re in the public, you have a creative voice and people are starting to pay attention, then you have a responsibility to yourself, to challenge yourself to create new and interesting things but I also feel an urge to make people happy and I want to be happy and I want to feel less alone in the world. I think people want to feel that way too so if that is a talent that I have or that I’m developing I think I have a responsibility to use it as often and as well as I can.

I thank Jenny and Gillian for their time and the kind words. I get out of the building and despite the weather being still gloomy I feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Mission accomplished Jenny: you’ve made me as happy as a child can be. And trust me, there’s nothing obvious about me.

Obvious Child
is out in UK cinemas on August 29th

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor