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First-Time Filmmakers: "Obvious Child" Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre

We spoke to director Gillian Robespierre about her first-time feature starring Jenny Slate, "Obvious Child"

by Emerson Rosenthal
Jul 3 2014, 7:00pm

Image via A24

Every few years a low-key indie film by a first-time feature director comes along that not only raises the bar for other filmmakers, but generates an international conversation around the social issues it addresses. This year, following the success of her original 2009 short film of the same name, writer/director Gillian Robespierre's feature debut, Obvious Child, is that movie.

Hailed by NPR as "a revolution of small, embarrassing truths," and by Sundance as an "unlikely, yet winning, combination of scatological humor, raw human honesty, and sweet romance," the 83-minute romantic comedy is a revelation for its protagonist, comedian Jenny Slate, and a stunning debut for Robespierre. 

In the phone conversation we had with the writer/director of Obvious Child, we talked what it's like to direct your first feature and about the nature of collaboratively adapting a short film. In the process, Robespierre was informed that Katy Perry gave her film a shout-out to 52,000,000 Twitter followers. Below, our interview with Gillian Robespierre— it's kind of a big deal.

Images via

The Creators Project: In the "literal" vein of first-time filmmakers, you’re not one— you were making short films for years before Obvious Child. First off, what's it like to direct a feature, versus a short film?

Gillian Robespierre: A lot of people would still call me a first time filmmaker, because, I think a feature is a whole lot different than a short, especially when you have more of a budget. All of my shorts cost between zero and, you know, $500. Actually, I spent about $2000 on my thesis because I took a bunch of girls in New York City to summer camp. It was about fat camp, so I did a casting call, went through Backstage— I was pretty ambitious, even in film school. I always did two shorts a year, and spent my own money on them.

The way that my producer, Elisabeth Holm and I ran our set was really a combination of how I liked to work on my shorts in film school, just on a bigger scale. I had never had been the boss of thirty people and that was really strange— I felt a lot of the weight of that. Not that I couldn't make mistakes or anything, but to have to put a payroll company together, and all those things. It takes away from the creative side, and that's why you have a UPM [unit production manager] and a line producer to deal with those issues.

Being someone who came from film school who wrote, directed, produced, and at one time edited, until I realized I was a terrible editor, my own things, the control freak in me had a hard time relinquishing those tasks to other people. It was like playing tug of war. When I finally let go, my life changed completely; it was really exciting to just be able to focus on the scenes and working with the actors and the DP. For me it was about relinquishing control— from the short to the feature.

So, instead of taking steps to maintain the "short film" feel, you left it up to your own, in-the-moment decisions. Do you feel that, in turn, retained the original short's tone?  

Yeah. You can’t focus on the importance of setting up a shot, or, you know, getting the best from the actor when you have to do everything. You're driving, picking up the equipment, and picking out all the wardrobe... I definitely did all that on the feature, but just in a smaller role. I really had to trust our costume designer to interpret the script, and all the means that we had and then show me her interpretation. It’s more collaborative, opening yourself up to other voices and other peoples' talents. That’s really exciting, and that’s what made me want to be a filmmaker in the first place.

Was it the same for adapting the original short's screenplay to feature length?

I love writing with partners. I started with Anna Bean and Karen Maine on the short in 2009, and then when I expanded it into the feature, Karen continued writing with me. Anna went to graduate school and became a social worker— she’s really the best person out of everyone— and then Elisabeth Holm came on.

We met at a film mixer at Brooklyn Bowl that neither of us wanted to go to. We both were part of IFP and she was finishing up a project called Welcome to Pine Hill and I was there in the early stages of the Obvious Child feature. I had a draft and just kept on lying, saying I had a producer but they were in the bathroom. It was very awkward— I was looking for the right partner, and I went to this mixer because I wanted dinner and it was in the neighborhood. [Elisabeth Holm] was there, and we just started talking and found out we were both from New York. We got kind of smitten with each other and just wanted to hang out. On a friend date, over a bottle of wine and some mac and cheese, we decided to partner up. 

Once she got on board as producer, and she was part of the story collaboration as well, the whole movie took off. Its so exciting when you start to find people that are like-minded, who want to help tell your story and are excited and come with the same about of enthusiasm that you have. It was the perfect partnership. We each got three months off to make the movie, did a couple weeks of pre-production, and then shot for 18 days and went back to work. It was like our maternity leave. Then, we edited with Casey Brooks in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on nights and weekends, because we were both back at work. Now, we're going back to my kitchen and we're gonna write a feature about divorce. We already sold the idea, so that’s really exciting.

That is really exciting. So what kind of a collaborator are you? Are you more of the, "write this down,"-type, or the scribe?

I’m a little controlling, but I’m also very open. I would say that I'm the scribe, and then we pass it around like a hot potato. I don’t write with other people in the room— that’s very distracting. I like writing at home, alone in my kitchen with a little NPR in the background, but barely, but I love talking about story and arcs and characters and themes within a group, and then going off on my own, under a rock, and then, you know, passing it along and hearing give their own ideas. It's a true collaboration.

Sounds like it. Early on, the intimate moment in [main character] Donna's bedroom reminded me a lot of the behind-the-scenes of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. How much of the film was improvised?

Well, Jenny had a heart attack in that scene and— no, that scene was definitely a combination of what was on the page and improvisational work from the fabulous Jenny Slate. She had a scene where she was drinking wine, and we were going take after take of different ways she could drink it, some of which I directed. Then, she just walked up to me and was like, "I got something."

I was like, "Okay, you want to tell me?"

She’s like, "Nahhh, I got something." That was improv. It was definitely collaboration, starting with the script. We won this amazing in-kind grant from the San Francisco Film Society, Rooftop, which was awesome because it’s an equipment grant, and Tribeca All-Access which was great, because it was a cash grant. This was a trade where they flew the actors— Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, and Jenny, myself, and Liz [Holm] to San Francisco. It was cool because no one lived in San Francisco, so we didn’t have any distractions.

We did a table read in the morning, hiked in the afternoon, and then workshopped all the stand-up comedy stuff. All of the comedy was born that day, as well as improvised the day of. Some jokes were lent to us, like, Cyrus Mcqueen plays a comedian who has a little cameo right before the David Cross scene. We didn't write his comedy. 

Did you prepare differently to work with, you know, "Hollywood" actors?

Richard Kind, Polly Draper, and David Cross are definitely idols. I was listening to David Cross’s comedy records and obviously was a huge fan of Mr. Show in college. Mentally, I prepared everyday the same way. It was a pretty aggressive 18-hour shoot, so you have to be super focused, but of course nerves went differently when working with strangers. I’ve known Jenny and we've had a sort of silent and not-so-silent way of communicating that was really symbiotic— we just understood each others voices, and more than that, we knew Donna’s voice, because we’d been working on it for five years. 

So I prepared the same way I would have any day. When nerves take over, you just sort of ride through them. Richard Kind is not scary once you meet him. You know, I had the hives from laughing, because everything he said made me laugh, so I had to be a little more professional. And Polly and Jenny’s scene was really difficult. That’s a big scene in the movie— a lot of tears— and I thought it turned out beautiful. Before that scene, the three of us sat on a bed in the apartment that we shot in and just talked like women, and shared things with each other that I think lent to the vulnerability to that scene.

It's an incredibly poignant moment. When it came to shooting the film, how involved were you, behind the camera?

I operated the camera. No— I was the camera. I was the human Steadicam. [Laughs]

Chris Teague was our amazing DP. He had two movies at Sundance, and we were in pre-production together for about two weeks. We were sitting and watching Annie Hall, scrubbing through it, and just talking about Gordon Willis’s style. Something that I really wanted in Obvious Child was for the camera to be stationary. We did a couple hand-held scenes, but it was very controlled, and Chris was down not only to do that, but to really did study Gordon Willis’s style. He emailed the first AD on Hannah and Her Sisters, and that was really cool for him. They obviously had a lot more money and a lot more time rehearsing, because there was tape all over the floor of their scene. Because there was so much movement in the scene— one character leaves frame and comes back— its very intricate.

We wanted to mimic that, but then also take on our own style, and wanted Jenny’s performance, and the comedy, and the heart, and the dialogue to shine, not necessarily the camera work. But back to Annie Hall— we were sitting and watching this scene where Diane Keaton is performing her song and she’s bombing and there's this purple light on her and she just looks so beautiful and ethereal and alone... I was just like, "Oh that light is very pretty, we should do something like that," and we never spoke about it again.

Then, on the first day of shooting at Trash Bar, where we shot all the stand-up scenes, Chris nudged me and said, "See the purple light?" And it was there, and it was so special that he brought back the Annie Hall light.

That must have felt good.

It felt great. But he’s an accomplished DP— I think part of being a good director is not telling people how to do their jobs. Obviously, if a shot didn’t feel right, or if it was too close, or too far away, or not exactly what we talked about, we would talk about it, but we were really in sync with each other because of the time we got to prep. It's not a lot of time— I think too much time is harmful, because then you overanalyze everything and everything changes anyways— but at the same time, you’ve managed to— OMG, I just got an email that Katy Perry tweeted about the movie.

No way.

Yes way. "For the most genuine laugh of the summer go see Obvious Child, with one of my favorite comedians @JennySlate." Ahhhhh!

Thats huge!

She has 54 million followers... Julia Lewis tweeted us, Ellen Page, Mike Rubiglia, Dan Savage, Christian Bell— it’s so cool, but Katy Perry is huge!

Major congratulations. So how has the conversation changed between you and your crew?From the early excitement of just making the project into a feature versus, you know, the momentum, and the point where you now have something that's capital “V,” Very Important?

I don’t talk to my crew anymore, because I’m... No, [laughs] I’m kidding.

It's really exciting. We made this! We started this story five years ago, and we’re really proud of it— I’m really proud of it. Every year, we worked harder on the script. We thought somebody would tell the story before us, but it turns out, it doesn’t matter. The truth is, this is just one woman’s story, and I think there are multiple ways this story can be told, and each storyteller comes at it from their cultural experiences. We were just trying this one experience out, because we felt that this particular experience— a safe, judgment-free abortion— was missing from mainstream movies, and silent in our culture. There’s a lot of other things that are missing from mainstream movies, and a lot of exciting stories, and a lot of great storytellers, able to make TV shows now, and make wonderful movies, and I think it’s a really exciting time. And, I’m glad, you know, that Obvious Child is in movie theaters.

We are, too. Congratulations again, and thanks for speaking with us!

Thank you!

Obvious Child is in theaters nationwide. To learn more, visit the film's official website

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