How the Women Behind 'Landline' Flipped the Divorce Narrative on Its Head
We spoke to Jenny Slate, Gillian Robespierre, and Elisabeth Holm about their new film "Landline," a dark comedy that examines divorce and infidelity.
Obvious Child, the 2014 romantic comedy about a 20-something stand-up comic in Brooklyn who gets an abortion after a one-night stand, was hailed as a game-changer for feminist cinema. As it turns out, it was a game-changer behind the scenes, too. "Obvious Child changed all of our lives in different ways; we knew that we wanted to try it again," Gillian Robespierre, the film's writer and director, told Broadly. "It was a really good triangle, and I think we were really just excited to get another shot at it, and try something new."
The "really good triangle" she was referring to is herself, writer and producer Elisabeth Holm, and the films' star, Jenny Slate. By "something new," she meant Landline, which premieres July 21. The film takes place in New York City in the mid-90s, and chronicles a family coming together through divorce rather than being torn apart by it. At its center are two sisters, who are generations apart, and polar opposites besides: Dana, a 30-something who is wound too tight and always follow the rules, played by Slate, and Abby Quinn as Ali, a somewhat reckless teenager. Other subplots pepper the movie throughout. The parents, played by Edie Falco and John Turturro, aren't the only ones who struggle with infidelity issues—Dana, who's engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), finds herself crashing at her parents' place for a bit too long while she tries to figure out if she's really ready to commit, and Ali flirts with the kind of dangerous fun only afforded to city kids: sex, drugs, and, keeping with the 90s theme, raves.
"We wanted to flip the divorce narrative on the ass. We wanted to show three stages of women's maturity where you see what divorce looks like within the family construct," Robespierre said. For her and Holm, the story was a personal one. "We both grew up in New York in the 90s and our parents divorced when we were teenagers, and we had this very similar experience where our families grew together instead of apart through the process," Robespierre said.
The personal resonance of the time and place wasn't the only reason they decided to set the film in the 90s. According to Holm, the choice also had to do with "wanting to avoid technology and wanting to avoid telling a story where people are communicating over texts and tweets and discovering shit on Facebook, and wanting to force our characters to actually communicate." (In a montage scene at one point, we see Dana, over the course of days or weeks, trying to get Ben's attention by camping out outside their shared apartment, waiting for him to come outside.) "Or not," she added, laughing, "but [to] have to have to do it a little bit more face-to-face."
Slate found the pre-digital aspect appealing, too. "I don't love our cell phone culture — it bums me out, and I was really interested in playing a woman who feels limited and silenced, and who has kind of done everything by the rules, and has existed with a lot of certainty about who she is, and who is really slowly becoming uncertain and doesn't have all of the ways that we have now, with our different technologies, to check out," she said over the phone.
Slate continued, "The ways in which my character acts out in this movie are, to me, really major. You know, she can't just get into a texting thing with a guy and hopefully blow off some steam that way. She has to look at everything in the face, she has to really be in contact with the people that she's choosing, with the people that she's hurting or abandoning."
"Also, the 90s are fun!" she added, on a less serious note. "I was really excited about the wardrobe." And her wardrobe was amazing: "Oh my god, it was full suede!" she said effusively of a brown blazer I'd coveted while watching the film. Countless elements of Landline resonated with me, as a 90s kid—my favorite Archers of Loaf song came on at one point, and Ali's bedspread was the very Marimekko comforter I had growing up (I later learned it was the same comforter Robespierre had growing up, too, and that the production designer recreated it for the film). When a payphone arrived on set, Robespierre said she had to teach Abby Quinn, who was born in 1996, how to use it.
Nostalgic charm aside, Landline is a thoughtful and complex examination of family. The questions it poses are not just hypothetical ones—for Holm and Robespierre, the film was also, in part, an investigation. In the midst of writing Landline, Holm got married, and Robespierre, a newlywed, had a baby. During the writing process, Holm said, she was very conscious of "being part of this divorce generation, where a lot of us still want to love and build partnerships and believe that we can create something lasting," despite knowing firsthand that such partnerships can and will crumble. "How the hell do we all do that, and why do we do that to ourselves and to each other? [was] something that was…interesting to me to explore."
In an effort to answer the elusive, Can women have it all? question, or really, in this instance, How do women do it all? I asked Robespierre how she was able to juggle having a baby and making a film simultaneously. Holm chimed in with a response, "How she did it is because she's a fucking superhero!" Robespierre pumped on set, shot the movie when her daughter was just 10 months old, edited at 12 months. "I look back and… I don't know how I had the stamina to just pump while we were location scouting, or in the green room, and John Turturro would be sitting there reading the paper while I was just pumping, and he's like, 'I've seen it all! I'm not looking, don't worry!'" she said, smiling.
When I asked if they'd all work together again, it immediately felt like a silly question. "Yeah, it's a long life, and hopefully we get to be in this business for a long time and grow individually and together," Robespierre responded.
Slate expressed the same sentiment when we spoke: "I hope to collaborate with Gillian and Liz for the rest of my life. As long as they'll have me, I'll show up, that is for sure," she said.