Gillian Robespierre has struck a cultural chord with her debut feature, Obvious Child. While the Jenny Slate vehicle rankled some merely by earning the descriptor “the abortion comedy” in the press, it has also generated a lot of positive buzz and chatter thanks to its accessibility and authenticity. Just ahead of the nationwide rollout-––the film hits theaters everywhere on June 27–– of her festival darling, Robespierre jumped on a call and shared everything from what inspired Obvious Child (and some of its plot elements) to how she went about adapting the feature from her 2009 short of the same name, and plenty in-between.
Below are five revelations from that conversation.
The short-to-feature process was gratifying, but not without challenges:
“The short and the feature are very, very different, but also the heart is the same. It was one of those really awesome, tedious endeavors where we went really big in a couple of drafts trying to expand, and finally after going to big, going back to the heart of Donna’s journey and just really expanding on her family, expanding on her friends and expanding on her job and her world and her being a comedian, and finding conflict around the rom-com parts of her life. Which are the Max side of her life. The will she or won’t she have the courage to tell someone, him, something big and to be honest with herself and her mother, but that was always going to be the conflict. It was never going to be a film about will she or won’t she get the abortion.“
The way Jenny Slate got involved was pretty serendipitous:
“Well, the short was written without knowing who Jenny Slate was. My co-creators Anna and Karen and I were just hanging out, we were in the middle of pre-production, looking for our Donna, but we’re also in our early twenties looking for some free comedy! [laughs] We’re kind of nerds. So we went to Big Terrific, which is where Jenny and Gabe Liedman––who eventually makes his way into the film, the feature, he plays Joey––were doing this amazing, hosting this amazing comedy night. So it was a lot of young, budding, emerging, Brooklyn comedians. But, they were the hosts and Jenny got on the stage and she was telling stories about her childhood and growing up in a haunted house––they were so funny and raunchy, but gentle that we knew she had to be our Donna. Luckily, we had a friend in common, so I sent her the script, and a couple days later we were sitting around my kitchen table, drinking beers, talking about making a movie together. Once we started actually making the short, that’s when Donna really came alive. Jenny is such a good actress and so funny, but she also has such great dramatic range. It was such a real pleasure collaborating and working with her on the short, when it came down to make the story bigger, it had to be for Jenny.”
A lot of work went into crafting the stand-up scenes:
“It was a very meticulous process. First you know, Liz and I wrote comedy for Jenny, no way did we expect Jenny to be Jenny Slate in this movie, she’s Donna Stern. And Jenny was very sweet when she said 'This is funny, this is great, this is not standup. This is a monologue in the play.' We got a day to workshop it in San Francisco with the grant that we won, so that was phase two, which was, Jenny did some improv based on the script, then I went back to Brooklyn and rewrote. And three was taking what was on the page and making it into bullet points before Jenny went up and did her scenes. She really found a tone that we worked really hard creating, but also improvisational moments came out of the actual shooting of the film, that were just so beautiful. Then step--I don’t know what number I’m on--four was taking an hour of footage and really crafting a cohesive story together... from our beautiful material... It was a real wonderful collaboration. It took a lot of heart and life to get there.”
Knowing that audiences have connected with the tone-of-life feel of the film means a lot:
“It’s really nice to know that this movie is connecting with audiences. When writing something you hope it does, but sometimes it ends up being something that only you and your mom like and your parents like. So, we made this with the intention and the hope that people connect to it, and it really feels like they have. I’m really excited about this next step where it’s released out and the movie takes over and people can judge it on their own, and it’s no longer me guarding it, it’s just out there.”
Robespierre is already hard at work on her next project:
“Elizabeth Holm and I are taking this summer to write out next feature, it’s a comedy, and right now it’s called Untitled Divorce Comedy, and it also takes place in New York.”