Obvious Child: Gillian Robespierre on Sarcasm-Free Comedy

Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre’s name is pronounced with a hard G like Gillian Jacobs. It’s important to know these things, because you don’t want to assume just by reading them in print. I met Robespierre in Los Angeles after her film opened in select cities. The film premiered at Sundance, where A24 picked it up for distribution, and will be expanding into more theaters this month. Jenny Slate plays Donna Stern, a standup comedian who decides to have an abortion, and starts to get to know the one-night stand who got her pregnant. Robespierre and I discussed the unique tone of the film and the original short that inspired the feature.

Related: SXSW 2014 Review: Obvious Child


CraveOnline: How would you describe the tone of this movie?

Gillian Robespierre: I would say the tone we tried to stick with is honest, thoughtful, free of sarcasm and funny, but with some gentleness too.


I called it “raunchy-whimsical.” Does that work?

Yeah. I feel like anyone can call it anything they want and they clearly do. I like raunchy-whimsical. It’s so funny because I never use the word whimsical. I use raunchy and I have been told that I am raunchy but I’ve never been told that I’m whimsical or I make things that are whimsical, but I like it.


Well, “pee pee missiles” is baby talk but it’s dirty.

Oh, you think that’s baby talk?


Well, it sounds whimsical and raunchy at the same time.

Okay. Yeah, I never thought that was baby talk but that’s what’s so fun about releasing this movie out finally from this little bubble that we’ve been living in for so long and having other people bring their own thoughts and feelings to it. It’s really important that people do that and that’s why you make movies.


It’s not a high concept, is it?

I mean, I was high. No, I’m kidding. It’s something that we felt we wanted to tell and I think we didn’t want to think about the parameters or the chatter that was going to happen after. We just needed to tell this story.


A lot of comedy gets serious all of a sudden. Is Obvious Child always both?

Yeah, I think those are the things that I like in real life and those are also the moments that I like in movies, so just combining my favorite moments in film and life and putting it into Obvious Child, those were all inspirations for sure. I don’t think we crossed the line too many times. I think we try to stay thoughtful and every now and then Donna will say something super raunchy, but I think she’s earned it because you’ve gotten to know her through different self-sabotaging events that we put her through. She’s in every single frame. Jenny’s in every single frame so I think by the time she says something that’s a little off color or over the line, we’ve earned that moment.


Both the film and Donna herself own all of her mistakes, don’t they?

I mean, I don’t know if she’s super self-aware when she’s on stage. I think the opening routine and especially when she’s bombing, she really just is letting everything go. There’s no filter. The repercussions she felt from the first act was that she got dumped, but ultimately that guy’s been cheating on her. It’s not her act. That’s not the real reason why he left her. He’s a scumbag and has been cheating on her but she internalizes it and she takes one sentence that he says and makes herself meek and small and a victim. I think we’re following her through that subtlety of what happens when you’re trying to become more active and less passive in your life.


Did Jenny write any of the standup herself?

It was a real collaboration. It started with what was on the page. The whole movie is scripted. There was room and always hope that there was going to be collaboration because that’s how Jenny and I like to work. I’m not a standup comedian so what was on the page was not true standup. It was like a monologue. Jenny took a look and she’s like, “This is awesome. I can’t wait.” She was really excited that Donna became a standup in the feature, but she wanted it to be really good standup so we workshopped it in San Francisco.

We won an in-kind grant and my producer, Elisabeth Holm, who’s also a story collaborator and writer on the film, and I went out to San Francisco with Jenny, Gabe [Liedman] and Gaby Hoffman because they had already attached themselves to the project. We all flew out, spent the morning doing table reads which is really important for comedy, just seeing what jokes are landing in that room. Very intelligent and harsh critics I think because they’re the funniest people I know. Then in the afternoon, we set up a little mini-stage and Jenny, based on the page, workshopped and found new material and I recorded it all.

I went back to Brooklyn and I cobbled together a whole new bit based on what we’d workshopped that day. Some of the original jokes got in there, so it’s cool. Then on the day of, we used the script as really bullet points. Jenny is a really amazing comedian. The one thing I’ve learned making this movie, which is my first feature, is you hire these amazing collaborators for a reason. From the D.P. to your actors, they are really smart and they’re coming with a lot of their own ideas. If you talk to each other and communicate the tone, then their ideas are going to work because they know the tone. Jenny and I were really true to the tone of Donna and I felt really comfortable letting her go. Man, that was fabulous.


Is Donna working material in every conversation she has in real life?

I don’t think she’s like that. I think Donna is just a naturally funny person and when she’s off stage, she’s going to use comedy sometimes as deflection but she’s also going to use it because she doesn’t know how not to use it. It’s just part of her makeup, which was nice to know because when we wanted Donna to be more quiet and more thoughtful and pensive, those were fun places to go to. It was just finding the pacing, because we didn’t want to make a movie that was like joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. It needed to feel more natural and feel like a conversation and less like a movie about standup. That’s not what I was trying to make, a movie about a standup comedian.


I think it goes back to what you said earlier, that it’s free of sarcasm. Sarcasm sort of grates on me too, so I was trying to think about why Donna didn’t feel sarcastic. I thought maybe she’s just working material, trying stuff out and maybe it’ll be funny, maybe it won’t.

I think she’s just an earnest character and she’s going to be the same on and off stage. She’s a little bolder on stage, a little more empowered, not so nervous about judgments being passed on her. Off stage, I think she’s a little more shy and I think definitely afraid of what her mom thinks of her. She thinks by telling her that she’s pregnant that the mom’s going to be disappointed and judge her in a way that Donna herself judges herself off stage.

It turns out what happened is these two women get together and they take on a different complex relationship. I don’t think they’re going to be the same mother-daughter they were in the beginning of the film. I think the mom’s going to stop making Excel spreadsheets and I think she’s going to trust her daughter and I think Donna’s going to be more open with her mother. I think it’s the budding of what a mother-daughter relationship turns into when you’re in your late 20s and in your 30s.


That’s pretty optimistic. You think she’ll really stop making spreadsheets? That’s a huge breakthrough.

I do. I think she’s finally figured out how to trust her daughter and talk to her as an adult woman instead of like a child.


I always love running gags, like when Max’s shoes keep coming back. Were there every more instances of those and is that something you’re a fan of too?

I guess so because I do it a lot. There’s the discharge that comes back, the crocs come back. I guess I do love callbacks to things. Perhaps that’s just from going to see a lot of standup when comedians do that. It makes you feel like you’re in it together.


Will the short be on the DVD?

We don’t know. Hopefully. I’m proud of the short. It’s not that we took it off the internet because it’s horrible. It was good for a tiny little thing. We just want people to judge the feature on its own. There are some rights issues to the Paul Simon song. I think it’s really important. I like watching shorts that filmmakers have made. Lynne Ramsay, Ratcatcher has all of her shorts that she made on that DVD and it’s incredible to watch a filmmaker grow and see where their ideas came from. So hopefully.


I never saw the short so it would be the first time for me.

Yeah, it’ll be fun to let it out once everyone’s seen the feature.


And now that you’ve tackled abortion, your next film is about divorce?

That’s right.


What can you say about that?

Elisabeth Holm and I are heading back to Brooklyn after this magical press tour. It takes place in New York City and we’re writing a role for Jenny. 


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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.