Over the past few years, comedian Jenny Slate has made an impression on television through scene-stealing performances as “Pretty Liz,” a vacuous publicist locked in an eternal war of passive-aggression with her best friend/enemy on The Kroll Show, and as Mona-Lisa, the even more demented sister of Ben Schwartz’s Jean-Ralphio on Parks & Recreation. Now, Slate is making a remarkably assured transition to cinematic leading lady as Obvious Child’s Donna Stern, a foul-mouthed but big-hearted stand-up comedian who’s impregnated by a charming stranger. The tender, filthy romantic comedy—which costars Gaby Hoffmann, Jake Lacy, Richard Kind, and Gabe Liedman—was a big winner at Sundance, earning rave reviews for first-time feature director Gillian Robespierre and Slate, who first played the role Robespierre’s 2009 short film of the same name. The pair recently sat down with The Dissolve to talk about finding their creative voice, the film’s evolution, and their enduring affection for You’ve Got Mail.
The Dissolve: The Obvious Child poster quotes my Sundance coverage, where I called it the “most winning abortion-themed rom-com ever made.” I feel a little strange about that—it was a little facetious. Do you think there’s an overarching theme to Obvious Child?
Gillian Robespierre: Growing up, dealing with your late 20s, and that confusion of having not quite made it to where you thought you would be. Self-esteem is definitely something we’re also tackling. I think Donna starts off really passive and meek, not necessarily onstage, but definitely offstage, and things just happen to her. Her boyfriend is sleeping with her friend, and she’s not “poor me, poor me,” but she definitely has a victim type of personality. It’s very subtle, but I think it’s also very relatable. I think I had that in my 20s, and I think she’s trying to grow up and figure all that stuff out.
We give her a couple other things to figure out, like how to deal with the complexity and the relationship with her mom. It’s about good relationships you have and need in your late 20s, where everything is sort of a question mark, and the only way to figure it out is to talk about it. Donna does that onstage and offstage with her friends. When she’s dealing with the abortion issue, she’s already made the decision, and it’s done pretty swiftly. She’s not emotionally, intellectually, financially ready to be a mother, but she’s not taking it as something that’s easy to go through. She’s asking a lot of questions, and she’s curious, and she’s dealing with it in, I think, the most grown-up, sophisticated, rational way she can. That anyone can—but this is just her story.
The Dissolve: How did this project come about?
Robespierre: We just wanted to bring a tone of authenticity and realism to movie-making in a way that we hadn’t seen in romantic comedies before, and bring a character to life who had previously always been sort of dull, and always blonde and unbelievable, and not relatable, and make that character somebody we recognize, that we could laugh with, and laugh at and relate to. So that’s sort of where it started. We wrote the short in 2009, my friends Anna [Bean] and Karen [Maine] and I got together and wrote it, cast Jenny in it, and it ignited a nice conversation on the Internet, and also did pretty well on the festival circuit.
The Dissolve: Was the idea always to see if you could expand it into a feature film?
Robespierre: Not initially. We didn’t have that mad-scientist thoughtfulness yet. We just really wanted to tell the story, and we didn’t have the money to tell it in a feature. We wanted to tell it in this small way.
Jenny Slate: And I’m glad for that, because the discovery process was really learning, “There is something more here.” I think that’s good, and it’s often harder when you’re doing something small, because you feel it’s a means to an end in terms of getting something larger made. There’s a million ways for you to trip yourself up.
Robespierre: Right. “We’ll just take care of it when we tackle the feature.” We didn’t have that. We wanted to tell the story and complete it in this short. When it got really exciting was in the editing room, and watching Jenny’s performance, and how it started conversations outside of our little world. That’s when I thought, “This could be told in a bigger way.” What was also helpful was having a short to show potential investors, not just lay a script on them. Me being a first-time filmmaker, and Jenny’s career took off in those years that I went and wrote—I think it was all perfect timing.
“You have to be really careful to watch out for the difference between banding together, and being grouped together by people who don’t understand you.”
Slate: Yeah, because by the time we all came back together, we’d both grown so much, and I was much more self-aware when we made this movie than I was when we made the short. Like Donna, I was much more active, or at least much more careful about my choices, and secure in my right to be satisfied in my work rather than just have it, which is a luxury you gain when you start to get momentum in your career. I used to think, “I’ll do it, whatever it is, I’ll do it.” Because sometimes you just have to work. I’m sure I’ll be in that position again, but I felt like this movie was the first personal choice I made for myself, “I want to do this.” I felt like I was ready to do it because I had grown up a bit.
The Dissolve: How do you feel about the romantic-comedy genre in general?
Slate: I loved them, love them. I think my favorite one right now is You’ve Got Mail, which is really '90s, and it’s not necessarily the heyday of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movement. But I really like it, because I like how New York is in it.
Robespierre: It’s timeless. Except for the AOL dial-up opening.
Slate: I guess I feel nostalgic for that time.
Robespierre: It’s the Upper West Side in the fall. It’ll always look that way until it doesn’t.
The Dissolve: One of my favorite things about You’ve Got Mail is the casting of Dave Chappelle as Tom Hanks’ best friend. I want to live in a world where Tom Hanks and Dave Chappelle just hang out.
Robespierre: Steals every scene he’s in.
Slate: And Parker Posey as his girlfriend.
Slate: “If I ever get out of here, I’m getting my eyes lasered.”
Robespierre: “How do you sleep?”
Slate: “I take a wonderful over-the-counter.” It’s so good. We both love romantic comedies.
“The more that you realize your voice isn’t being heard, the more you want to speak in it.”
Robespierre: It comes from the late ’70s Woody Allen to the ’80s Woody Allen, and then we’ll stop there with Woody Allen. The ’90s indie romantic comedies from the Weinstein heyday. I feel like Walking And Talking and The Squid And The Whale, in a way, I think is a romantic comedy with New York, but it’s more of a character study, I guess. I just watched When Harry Met Sally, Say Anything, The Graduate, Groundhog Day. I think it’s the past maybe five years that the studios have been driving home these losers.
Slate: They put a lot of women in them that are not funny, and then they say they’re funny because they’re “quirky” because they, like, fall down, or their shirts are on inside-out. If that’s the amount of flaw that you are willing to accept in a woman, I don’t know, I just don’t like that.
Robespierre: What makes the movies we listed—we shoot on location, you don’t shoot a person’s apartment on a soundstage, because it feels fake and phony. I think what’s great about all the Nora Ephron movies and When Harry Met Sally is that they shot in real locations, and they lit it so everyone could look normal.
The Dissolve: Rom-coms are targeted at women, but it’s rare for them to have a strong female perspective or point of view, as Obvious Child does. Why do you think romantic comedies with strong female perspectives aren’t more prevalent, other than gross sexism?
Robespierre: Well, it’s clear that it’s sexism. Watching the news last night [about the Elliot Rodgers massacre] was devastating. Sexism in our culture is rampant, and we haven’t been so successful crushing it. We have, in some ways, but the fact that there’s websites that are just hateful toward women…
The Dissolve: It’s just so pervasive, it can be kind of overwhelming.
Slate: Yeah, it can be, but it can also be more that you don’t hear your perspective being expressed, and the more you realize your voice isn’t being heard, the more you want to speak in it. I’m not by nature a combative person, and in general I don’t love conflict. But there’s a part of me that’s just so aware that something needs to change, and I’m very aware of the ways in which I can change it. It’s by being active, it’s by continuing to put those stories out there, even if those stories are from my perspective in my stand-up. My life is specific to me, it’s not the “everywoman.” There’s a real difference between saying, “Hey everyone, let’s all get together and speak in one voice, and create one place for ourselves,” and “No, there should be equal places for everybody—all the voices talking at once, all the different ones.” There’s not just one voice for women, there’s not just one time for women in comedy, there’s not one project that speaks for all women. You have to be really careful to watch out for the difference between banding together, and being grouped together by people who don’t understand you.
Robespierre: [Obvious Child] was a real collaboration of women that we know, our own personalities infused. Jenny’s humor is a lot different than mine, but we’re also similar.
The Dissolve: How would you say it’s different, and how would you say it’s similar?
Slate: Gil’s more brassy than I am, a little more sarcastic. I just don’t have that function. I enjoy Donna’s sarcastic moments. To me, that’s the equivalent of being in an action movie or something. It’s doing something that’s so unnatural to me, and it’s very delightful for me to watch it and think, “I think that comes off.” In life, if I would even dare to be sarcastic, I’d feel nervous.
The Dissolve: Why?
Slate: I’m very sensitive, and I get my feelings hurt easily, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I would much rather tease with love. Sarcasm is so cut-and-dried. I like earnestness.
Robespierre: What’s nice about Donna and the person we were trying to create is that she is a little bit sarcastic, but mostly, her humor onstage and off seems inward. It’s always reflections of herself. She’s not going to be the stand-up comedian who does crowd work, or makes people feel bad about what’s in their purse, or what’s on their head. Even though fedoras should be made fun of.
Slate: I wouldn’t even say sarcastic, I would say she’s a smart aleck. She’s a little bit of a smartass, and I really really like that. But she’s only a smartass to her mom. She’s not even really a smartass to her boyfriend who dumps her at the beginning. She’s more just quick-tongued. When she says, “Are you such a dick that you’re looking at your phone while you’re dumping me?” and he says, “I don’t know where to look,” and she’s like [gesturing to herself], “Well, this is probably a good area for you to look,” she’s calling out that he’s stupid, but she’s not ever saying, “What you’re doing is stupid.” She can’t help but craft it a little bit into a joke. And that’s how she fights. But she doesn’t really see that as part of her strength.
The Dissolve: How did the Paul Simon song “The Obvious Child” end up in the film? It’s such a huge song for such a modest film.
Robespierre: Writing the short, I didn’t have a title, and then I wrote the scene where Donna’s doing this sort of foreplay moment, drunkenly dancing around to Paul Simon’s The Rhythm Of The Saints. It was in the short, and it was something I really didn’t want to lose for the feature, but potentially we could have, because it’s a very popular song, he’s a very popular artist. Paul Simon Music—run by his brother—connected to the story and luckily, we were able to keep it. But calling the movie Obvious Child wasn’t an accident. We titled it. It felt perfect, because it had a sort of ambiguity to how people were going to see that title. Is Donna an obvious child? Is it just the song in the movie? It’s one of those things where I hate to overanalyze it, but people seem to love to overanalyze it, and I really like that.