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obvious_childPOO HUMOUR

A Chat with the writing/directing/producing team behind OBVIOUS CHILD: Gillian Robespierre and Liz Holm

As the summer continues, one of our favourite comedies of the year, OBVIOUS CHILD, continues to expand to more theatres and more cities. Writer/Director, Gillian Robespierre, and writer/producer, Liz Holm, were in Toronto recently to promote the film and we were fortunate enough to sit down with the pair to discuss the film’s uncensored humour, Jenny Slate, and the “Abortion rom-com”.

Black Sheep Reviews: Can you talk about the process of adapting your 2009 short into a feature?

Gillian Robespierre: It was a five-year long process. It started in 2009 when my friends Anna Bean, Karen Maine, and I wrote it together. I directed it and I produced it and we made it with no money. It starred Jenny Slate and it was right before her career took off. She went on her SNL audition during our wrap party and was telling us all about Lorne Michaels and the SNL stage. It had a really nice festival run, not that many people really watch short films, but people who did watch it, really connected to it and encouraged me to turn it into something bigger. I met Liz in 2011 at a filmmaker mixer. She was finishing this wonderful film called WELCOME TO PINE HILL and I was there in a program with nothing, just a very early draft of the feature. I didn’t have a partner. I just kept telling people that my producer was in the bathroom, but it turns out she kind of was! She just didn’t know it yet. We met at a free sliders night at the end of the whole weeklong event and we connected as friends, as New Yorkers. We went to have wine and mac & cheese and decided to make this movie together. For a year and a half, Liz and Karen and myself worked on the script and expanded it from this idea that had a beginning and middle and end but wasn’t a feature. The heart of the feature and the short are the same, but it’s totally different at the same time. We had the opportunity to explore the romantic comedy genre and the bump-ins that you would have with the male lead and modernize it.


Liz Holm: And explore the world of a stand-up comedian.

GR: Yeah, that wasn’t in the short.

LH: Donna became a stand-up and you got to meet her parents and her friends and her world, and the role of Max. In the short, he was more of a lovely little hipster. One of the many things I loved about the short, besides just being sweet and charming and funny and smart, was how honest it was and that it wasn’t a movie about will Donna or won’t she have an abortion.

GR: It was fun. It was fun to give her parents a voice and to create characters that would soon be played by Richard Kind and Polly Draper. I mean, that exceeded our dreams when Richard said yes. He came with energy, ideas, and was a really good team player. He and Jenny had great chemistry. Then again, Jenny has chemistry with pretty much everybody on the planet.

BSR: The film is often being labeled as an “abortion rom-com”. How do you feel about that? Do you think it boils the film down to…

LH: To a tweet?

BSR: Sure.

LH: It’s a tweet friendly phrase because it’s very short.

GR: But it never used to be tweet friendly saying abortion in a tweet.

LH: Well I mean because it’s short, not because of the content.

GR: Oh…

LH: I mean in the sense of how many characters it is. It’s a sound bite. It’s a very sort of…

GR: Short hand.

LH: Yeah. It’s a shorthand that I think we feel doesn’t really do the film justice. We’re never flip about a woman having a complex emotional experience and the parts of the film that deal with that part of Donna’s life try to be honest and authentic and sensitive to that experience. There’s a lot of comedy in the film and there’s the occasional joke or two that explores this, but it’s definitely not an “abortion comedy”. I don’t think there’s such a genre for a reason.


Gillian Robespierre (left) and Liz Holm (right). Photo credit: Ernesto di Stefano for the Canadian Film Centre.


GR: But at the same time we’re also really excited that it’s being written about and I think lifting the stigma from the word just being in print. It’s definitely a choice that millions of women will make in their lifetime, but it’s one that is silenced in our culture and from mainstream movies.

BSR: Was the whole film scripted including Donna’s stand up? Or was any of that Jenny improvising?

GR: Yeah, it was both. It was definitely Jenny being a stand-up since she was twenty-two. She and Gabe Liedman, who plays Joey in the film, were a comic duo. They met during Y2K and became this fantastic comedy due on the Brooklyn scene. That’s when I saw Jenny performing her standup in 2009. When we decided to make her a stand-up comedian, Liz and I wrote stand-up and Jenny was very excited about being able to take her skills as a stand-up comedian and put them into Donna, The only thing they have that’s similar is the sort of confessional-style story telling and that same face and poise. I think Jenny’s a lot less chaotic on stage. She would never perform super wasted. She’s been doing it for so many years and is a fabulous stand-up. Donna is at the beginning of her career and she’s trying to find her voice. She’s also not super filtered at first and she doesn’t censor herself at all and I think that Jenny does. Jenny is very thoughtful about her stories on stage and Donna is just learning that. But because she’s such an amazing stand-up, the script became bullet-points for Jenny to use on the day of shooting and a lot of cool things happened because one, it looks like a real comedy show and I think what was so nice about the script being there was that some jokes made it and some were boring that day and didn’t. One or two jokes were even leant to us from Jenny’s act. It was a process that went through a lot of different…

LH: Drafts and iterations.

GR: I’m trying to think of a more poetic word. Wheels? That doesn’t make sense.

LH: Incarnations? Churning? I don’t know.

BSR: As you mentioned, the stand-up in the film surely is uncensored. Were you ever worried that it wasn’t going to click with people?

GR: We just wanted it to be funny.

LH: We were worried it wasn’t going to be funny and full of heart at the same time. I don’t think we were ever worried about that. We were definitely conscious that there’s a certain type of say… poop joke humour. I like poo humour.

GR (stirring her iced coffee): This coffee kind of looks like poo…


LH: Yeah. That, like when cranked up to such a degree and is sort of only the only thing in a film, can be alienating. But I think the movie tries to be balanced in the different types of humour and the different types of jokes. Bodies are something that everybody’s got and it’s not about a girl telling fart jokes, it’s about a human talking about human experiences. Some of those are bodily and some of those are a totally different type of humour. Hopefully there’s something in there that everyone can connect to. My favourite joke that Donna tells on stage is the bit about Susan and the car phone, where she’s saying, “What’s that Susan? Will do.” That gets me hardest.

GR: We’re watching the character mature onstage and off stage and by the end she’s owned her sort of craft and her style of how she wants to live on stage and off stage have changed. It’s very subtle, but I think during the last bit she’s not as reckless. She’s got a joke and there’s a punch line in it. It doesn’t get a big laugh and it’s not meant to. It’s meant to be more of a thoughtful statement and break the ice a little bit.

BSR: The response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive. Did you expect that at all when you were making the film?

GR: We’re really proud of it. It’s been five years in the making and I think you make something and you’re in a bubble of all the people that collaborated on it, but that’s a tiny bubble. When you finally release it out into the world you really hope that people connect to it and write positive things about it and feel positive things about themselves when they leave the theatre. It’s a movie you hope stays with an audience for a long time. Those are all hopes, it doesn’t mean you can get that and we’re very excited about the connections that people have made to the film. People come up to us at screenings and festivals. It’s really cool to meet people after the film and have them say, “Thanks!” or “Did you have a hidden camera in my apartment? Donna is me and I am Donna!” That’s really really cool. There’s nothing false about that.

LH: We’re really lucky and really grateful for it. It’s totally surreal. We were at a restaurant with Jenny in L.A. the weekend after the film opened and a woman came up to our table and was like, “Excuse me, are you the woman in…” and Gillian and I had just assumed she would be talking about Parks and Recreation or House of Lies or the million other things that Jenny has done; But she said, “Are you the woman in Obvious Child?” We all just immediately started crying. It was so unbelievable. It’s been a trip to say the least.

OBVIOUS CHILD is playing in select cities now. You can read our 4-Sheep review of the film here.

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