I saw “Obvious Child,” the Jenny Slate-starring comedy written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, at Sundance in January. It hit all the right notes, but the main takeaway — no doubt influenced by the capsule reviews and clicky headlines — was that it was an abortion-themed comedy. It was convenient and put an entire movie in a nice little box, and when A24 bought the film, it created the internet-friendly prospect of a new wave of buzzword headlines upon its summer release.
But I watched the movie again last week, and something struck me: I realized it’s less about abortion than it is a movie about a person — a stand-up comic played by Slate — unraveling when she loses her job, gets dumped, and yes, finds out she’s pregnant after a one-night stand (with Jake Lacy). With the support of her best friends (Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman), she decides to have an abortion very early on, and the film never wavers from that inevitable end.
So really, the bulk of the movie isn’t about the decision, but, as Slate herself told TheWrap, “always about the journey of the individual.”
Abortion, Robespierre said, “is the easiest thing that journalists have seemed to glom on to.” Which is a shame, she said, because, “we don’t necessarily think it’s the easiest thing and best way to describe our movie.”
Of course, they’re not complaining (especially not with the word “Abortion” at the top of their poster), because mostly, they just want people writing about the film. And thus, the following is Slate and Robespierre’s conversation with TheWrap about “Obvious Child.”
So why did you make that initial short film? I know it was four or five years ago now.
Robespierre: Yeah, it was in 2009. Again we wanted to show the struggle of a funny and sweet and realistic female main character who was both sort of going through post-breakup, navigating those really raw and awful feelings, and we also wanted to depict an abortion in a different way. So we just took those two ideas and slammed them together and Jenny was in it, which was amazing, and Donna was not a stand-up yet, and she was a lot younger, we were all a lot younger. Donna was just a different person, we were different people. And then when it grew into the feature, we were able to explore and expand on her self-sabotaging ways.
I think the late 20’s breakdown is different than the early 20’s breakdown.
Robespierre: We put a lot more pressure on ourselves. “Why don’t I have it figured out yet? I felt like I was supposed to be completely settled.” And that’s not the case. They all lied to us. We love not being in our 20’s anymore. It was fun, it was slightly destructive, a lot of good stories came out of it, but I’m really — not that we’re fully formed and I don’t know that anyone will ever die fully formed — but I think there’s something that happens when you turn 30.
Slate: You’re released from that secret adolescence that no one told you about. I really feel much better now that I’m in my 30’s.
Robespierre: I still feel like there’s a part of me that’s still adolescent.
Slate: Well, me too.
Robespierre: I’m always going to want ice cream cake.
Slate: That’s the good part, that’s childhood! The shitty turmoil where you’re not exactly sure if your self is big or small or a wild animal or a boring sheet of paper, you’re just not sure where you fall. You have hints, and when you get a certain taste of yourself, you almost get heartsick to be who you want to be, but you’re not there yet and you just don’t have everything available to you. You’re just waiting to grow.
Robespierre: And yet you still have to pay rent and figure out health insurance and seem normal and not rely on things that you didn’t think you’re supposed to still be relying on, like your parents, emotionally and financially.
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I turned 28 last week and saw the movie “Neighbors,” and it made me nervous because I was siding with the older people.
Slate: I side with Zac Efron‘s bare chest. His pecs. Whatever studio it was, I was there for a meeting, and there was a big poster of him without his shirt on, and I literally, before someone was like, “Do you like that poster?” just stood in front of that poster going, “What the fuck?” and just staring at his bare chest for so long. Beautiful physique, that gentleman. He looks pretty great, so congrats to him.
How often, during this press tour and since Sundance, have you gotten asked about women directors and women in comedy?
Slate: It’s not the most prevalent.
Robespierre: Mostly during our Q&As, when we’re in the theater, they have questions about what they just watched. They have questions about what rings true to them, not about women in comedy or me being a female director. Just real questions about how did you get this movie made? How did you make the performances so natural? It’s really just filmmaking questions and story questions.
But those questions come from journalists, and I worked at the Directors’ Guild of America for seven years and I sat through a lot of board meetings falling asleep — they pump so much AC in that room so we were all awake somehow at seven in the morning — and the numbers are bad for women directors, for TV shows and feature films.
But I listened to those numbers and I sat in those meetings, but I just didn’t let them affect me. We didn’t ask for permission to tell this story, and I didn’t use anything but what I had in my brain to tell this story. We were trying to be honest and authentic and that’s it. That was our only motive.
Do you think all the conversation on the internet — which rarely involve studio executives commenting — actually translates to changes?
Robespierre: Yeah, I don’t know. I think audiences just want a change and a shift in tone, and I think television and movies are making that shift, and we’re just excited to be part of it, and a part of a world where these other creators are telling stories they want to tell them.
Slate: When Donna, in “Obvious Child,” is in the abortion clinic, and everything is clinical and sterile, I think it’s touching for her and I think that it’s overwhelming for her, because she’s the most human thing that is there while she’s lying on that table. And I think that’s why she cries a little bit. Have you ever just felt yourself so much that you just cry out of the joy and pain of being an individual with a lot of options? It’s that. That sticks out for her. She’s the only self in the room, and she’s protected and safe by doing something new and pretty scary. It’s straightforward, the camera is right on her. No music. It’s spare.
Robespierre: The emotion isn’t spare, you can see a lot in Jenny’s performance behind her eyes, just little sparks that she gives, so I think that’s where all the feeling comes from. We’re just alone with her in that moment.
Did you shoot the movie in order? Was that one of the last things you shot?
Robespierre: Not in order, but Planned Parenthood was one of the last days we shot. It was one of the most perfect days we had. I feel like the crew and cast and everyone really got together that day and figured it out. Not that the first day is terrible, but the first day is scary because you’re getting to know each other, it’s the first day of camp, nobody knows each other’s names yet and you’re embarrassed.
Slate: Our dressing rooms were exam rooms. Jake had his own exam room. We had luckily gotten to know each other well enough at that point and I think that really helped the waiting room scene. We had each made a mix for the car, we had an hour drive or so. It felt like we were in the height of camp. Everyone knew how to do their job.
Was it a difficult day to shoot? A relief? What was it like to be there?
Robespierre: It was great to be there. And useful. We shot the scene in the short in an orthopedic doctors’ office, and the scene was really good in the short, but I think being at a Planned Parenthood, I think you don’t need to be a method actor to do acting but I think that it was a combination of us really all being in sync that day, and Jake and Jenny really knowing what they wanted to do with that scene.
Slate: I thought a lot about it.
There is a debate in the movie over whether she should tell Jake about the pregnancy, and that is a conversation that carries over after the movie. And the way she does it, with stand-up, was interesting.
Slate: I think it’s individual to each person, and the way that Donna does it is so specific to her that, you know, you could never say that the film is wagging its finger and saying, “This is how you should do it if you’re a cool person.” It is specific to Donna. It is so one woman’s story, but what we’re calling attention to is that there is a process that involves many, many different choices and moving pieces. And this is three different individuals, a man and a woman and another woman tossing them around. And they all have their own opinion and would all do different things.