Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child may appropriately be dubbed “the first abortion comedy,” but by no means is it asking us to laugh at a controversial medical procedure resulting in the termination of a pregnancy. It’s more like, “Hey, shit happens, and you’re allowed to laugh through it”. Obvious Child asks us to laugh with Donna, a 27-year-old aspiring comedian who finds herself pregnant after a night of drunken rebound sex, as she undertakes an issue that to many of us currently navigating the modern dating environment is very, very relevant. We talk about it. A lot. So why shouldn’t our movies? And Robespierre is not insensitive to the topic, in the least. She manages to balance the heaviness of the film’s topic with its comedic tone in a way that feels a lot like life off-camera. Donna encompasses this, finding herself in a rather low point—dumped, losing her job, undesirably with-child—she uses her comedy as a place to both express and perhaps navigate through the darkness. She has no qualms in expressing dirty details about her love life, as well as her thoughts on vaginas, dirty panties, and farts alike, but also encapsulates the messy emotional struggle of young adulthood with the gentility of someone who is clearly still in the process of growing. One of my favorite moments of the film happens towards the end: an overhead shot shows Donna on the operating table, obviously drugged-up, having just been informed that the operation that has been anticipated, discussed repeatedly, and finally, yes, joked about for the better part of the last two weeks of her life, is about to happen for real, and silent teardrops begin to roll down her cheeks. She is then shown in the post-op room where a number of young women sit in various stages of stupor-like state, having all just been through the same emotional and relatively “routine” experience. The camera focuses on one girl whose face Donna is studying; she turns to Donna and smiles weakly, and Donna reciprocates. Maybe the decision was an “easy” one for Donna (and these other young adult women) in the sense that she knew she was not ready to be a mother, but it is definitely not a joke to her. Like any other 27 year-old unsure about what the future might hold, she’s just taking it one step at a time. And if she wants to crack a joke or two along the way, who can blame her?
I had the pleasure of chatting with Gillian Robespierre, a writer-director who represents a breed of filmmaker that is finally starting to get some long overdue attention. Robespierre is not only a female filmmaker, but also a feminist filmmaker—and not just because her film focuses on a female lead and a very female topic. What makes Robespierre’s work feminist is that she is a female filmmaker who is making movies her way.
DR: Would you consider this a feminist film? And if so, how?
GR: Definitely. The main character, Donna (played by Jenny Slate)—the comedy is from her point of view and she doesn’t hold anything back. I don’t think fart jokes are “male humor,” I think that’s a very old fashioned way to think about jokes, but I do think she has an openness to her comedy that is body-related and related to what vaginas do, and things that are heavily talked about—abortion, for example. I feel like speaking about those topics and speaking openly as she does in the script and the movie is definitely from a very feminist point-of-view. But we made it hopefully so that all audiences, all humans—whether or not they have a penis or vagina in their pants—think it’s funny.
DR: What would you like this film to do in paving the way for other female filmmakers who want to make films with female leads/focusing on possibly taboo (and female) topics such as abortion?
GR: It’s hard, I hate giving advice because I feel like every filmmaker is different—and should be different—and Obvious Child is not a blueprint for how every woman should deal with an unplanned pregnancy, and also not the blueprint for how every filmmaker should approach movies. I was really passionate about the story and telling it in a certain way and that included teaming up with collaborators that were likeminded, starting with my producer, Elisabeth Holms, who was instrumental in finding investors who really were excited to give us money. We worked well outside the studio system, we made it for a reasonable price tag, and we did all that because we didn’t want to ask permission from anybody, and we just wanted to tell Donna’s story in this way. We also went out for a lot of grants; there’s a ton of grants that are really for storytellers/filmmakers who don’t have a voice in mainstream media: Tribeca All Access, Rooftop, etc. There’s really a wonderful amount of opportunity and money out there, you just have to search for it and then work really hard to get it, with applications, writing essays, etc. It’s like getting into college, really. Which is tedious, but it’s helpful—it prepares you for your “first day of school” because you know how to talk about your film, you know how to talk about yourself, you know how to be really smart with other filmmakers. You meet a lot of really interesting filmmakers when you go to those horrible, horrible mixers. So I guess my only advice is to tell your story, and if it’s about a woman protagonist and you’re finding it hard to get funding I would just continue working on it and find the people who are likeminded and want to share your story.
DR: Elisabeth Holms, your producer, works for Kickstarter which seems like it’s been such a blessing for so many independent filmmakers.
GR: Yes, it’s really cool in so many ways. We did our Kickstarter campaign at the very end of the whole process for two reasons: we wanted finishing funds, so we didn’t ask for a ton of money, we kept our expectations kind of reasonable. Also there were so many fans of the short, and Jenny, so it was used not just to raise equity but also raise awareness of the project.
DR: One of my favorite things about film is music, and how music is used, and I loved how music was used in Obvious Child—what was important to you about using music in the film?
GR: I think what was most important was about when to use it and when not to use it. My fiancé [Chris Bordeaux] composed a beautiful, beautiful score. It was very, at times, emotionally driving in all the right ways. When I think about the scene of Donna having the actual procedure, lying on the table, there are so many ways we could’ve put that scene together—he could’ve composed a beautiful score that would’ve been really powerful and heartfelt but it was really important for me to have Donna alone. I wanted the audience to bring their own emotions to it—I didn’t want to lead them. So that was a choice we made to keep that a silent part of the film—a film that has so much talking in it, a lot of music, a lot of body humor. It was just this idea of when to peel back, when to know to be silent and when to be really gregarious, and I think it’s walking the line of not wanting to lead the audience too far. Let your audience be the smart, awesome people they are!
DR: I actually listened to the audio commentary you did for the film, and you made a comment about not wanting to “make a comedy that has a joke every second,” and that contrast between the comedy and the moments with a little bit of heaviness, especially with the music was just done so well.
GR: That’s all Chris Bordeaux’s doin’. There were a lot of bands, and also friends of friends who lent us their music, and then of course there’s the Paul Simon song [“The Obvious Child”].
DR: Where did that come from, the use of the Paul Simon song?
GR: That came from the short. It was sort of an idea we had in 2009, it was a song that I was playing a lot in my mid-twenties. I was revisiting it because I think I was revisiting a lot of the music I had listened to in the car growing up, you know when you’re little you kind of resent it, you wanna put your Walkman on and listen to Debbie Gibson, or whatever, but it was always the soundtrack of my childhood (Paul Simon). So when I was in my twenties and I stumbled upon The Rhythm of the Saints, and that song, it just became the soundtrack to my mid-twenties and it was just this idea to put the song up against foreplay, you know two characters who are wasted and are about to have sex, perhaps unprotected sex.
DR: Why was it important to you to include stand-up comedy in the film? Is comedy something that you’ve always enjoyed yourself?
GR: Yes! I’ve loved, loved comedy/stand-up since I was little. My dad inspired me to sort of listen to it when I was little. I didn’t understand the jokes but I was never censored. I remember he’d listen to Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor—I even watched Eddie Murphy’s Raw when I was, like, five years old. I didn’t understand what he was saying at all, but I could sense the energy, especially coming off of my parents who were laughing hysterically. So I’ve always been a fan of comedy. I’ve never had the dream to pursue it myself. I don’t really have the confidence to get up on stage like that. When I was in my mid-twenties making the short version of Obvious Child I would go see a lot of comedy with my friends, Anna Bean and Karen Maine—we co-created the story/short together—going to UCB, Rififi, Union Hall, and I was watching all these amazing comedians who were nothing like the comedians my dad had played. They were these storytellers talking about very personal things, especially Jenny. When I finally saw Jenny in 2009 that was really something that was so inspiring. She was talking about dry-humping furniture (and I really related to that), growing up in a haunted house, her parents and her siblings, and it was very gentle but also extremely funny. I felt like were we instant friends even though I hadn’t talked to her at all, I was just in the audience—she just made me feel so comfortable. We offered her the role of Donna, and then what was fun about transforming the short into the feature was we could expand on Donna’s world and give her a job. And while we didn’t write the short for Jenny, she definitely turned it into something of her own and I wrote the feature one hundred percent for her, and as it became more and more a movie for Jenny it just dawned on me and my co-writers that this character should be a stand-up because Jenny is such a great stand-up on her own. Then it was also fun to explore ways to talk about a character who has confidence onstage but really zero offstage. You have a person who is losing her confidence due to a bad breakup, which I think is very relatable as well, and to try and figure out not necessarily if she’s going to have the abortion or not (that was never going be the conflict in the movie) but finding out how to gain her confidence back. She loses it onstage a little bit, and she doesn’t really know how to talk to the people in her life, other than her two best friends. I think it’s finding that path to honesty with yourself and with the ones around you, and gaining your life back after being kind of shattered in pieces. So that was sort of the gist with the stand-up. It was really fun to collaborate with Jenny on all that.
DR: I felt there was definitely a commentary on the sort of divide a lot of New Yorkers feel between so-called Manhattanites and Brooklynites, and I thought it was interesting that Max [Jake Lacy] be someone who was so “Manhattan” where Donna is so Brooklyn. Was that divide between the two characters intentional?
GR: Oh yeah. I keep bringing up the short but it was this idea of how to take something that already had a beginning, middle, and end, and how to expand it and one was definitely to transform the “baby daddy” character into somebody who we could watch for eighty-three minutes. We decided to go with that sort of perfect rom-commy dilemma of these two characters not meant to be together, but somehow they keep on bumping into each other. I think we took that structure and the genre that we love and we sort of modernized it. I wanted to make Max not a doormat but really in awe of Donna’s personality, her talent, and her power. Her comedy is extremely powerful and extremely funny, and vulnerable and empathetic and all those things, but ultimately we wanted to create the kind of character who had never been around a woman like this before, who is really excited by it. And she’s excited by him because I think for many years she was probably dating, you know, guys who live in lofts, don’t clean their teeth, like being dirty is cool, and that’s not Donna either. I think she’s just a rare breed of a person who needs/likes people around her. I think we all do! You don’t see it until you’re ready. I think that happens in Obvious Child—she’s ready to accept her power but she’s also ready to accept really that she’s not going to stand for idiots anymore.
Don’t stand for idiots? Work hard? Make films your own way? She may not feel comfortable doling it out, but Robespierre’s inadvertent advice is some of the best I can imagine for female filmmakers, women, and human beings in general.