Sisters Ali (Abby Quinn) and Dana (Jenny Slate) are in slow-burn crisis mode. Dana doesn’t know if she can commit to her partner Ben (Jay Duplass), while Ali’s pathological dejection may mean she skips college altogether. A chance discovery complicates matters: Ali learns her father (John Turturro) is writing bawdy, terrible erotic poetry for someone that’s not their mother (Edie Falco). This mess is the heart of Landline, a bracing comedy drama from screenwriters Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm. Like their previous film, Obvious Child, Robespierre – who also directed – skips the easy route in favor of sharp, observant characters who eschew all romantic comedy archetypes. Landline also has a nostalgic streak: it is set in the 1990s, when both her and Holm came of age, so alongside the caustic dialogue there are retro pop-culture references and terrible fashion. It is a terrific comedy, earning its bittersweet ending, to the point where it may inspire you to call your parents or siblings. I recently had the chance to talk with Robespierre, Holm, and Quinn about their film, the challenges of shooting, and public access pornography.
Brightest Young Things: Where did the idea for Landline first come about?
Gillian Robespierre: It started soon after Obvious Child. Liz and I sold the movie to A24 at Sundance, then we started doing meetings, talking to press, that whole thing. Everyone was asking, “What are you going to do next?”
BYT: I think I asked you that question.
GR: [laughs] And we just put end credits on our movie! While on tour, we were talking, drinking wine, staying up way too late. We just started talking about our lives: Liz and I are both from New York, we both came of age in the 1990s. Our parents divorced when we were teenagers. We had this oddly similar experience, where the demise of our parent’s relationship helped bring our families together. Our moms are big parts of our lives, but back then, we didn’t view them as women. They weren’t real humans, but through the process of the divorce, our mothers become strong, real, vulnerable women.
Elisabeth Holm: We come from families full of love. Our parents are people, and people are flawed. For us, it was about seeing our parents as humans, our siblings as friends. We connected in ways we hadn’t before. Also, the summer while we were writing the movie, I got engaged and Gillian just had a baby. There were certainly times in my life where I thought I’d never get married. Thinking about monogamy – its imperfections and difficulties – it got me thinking about the ways we become our parents, or don’t.
BYT: The characters in Landline can be mean to each other, albeit in funny ways. How do you thread the line between keeping this prickly dialogue, while making sure you don’t lose the audience?
GR: I hate the word “likable.” When I’m sitting in meetings, talking about the characters we’ve developed, why are you forcing likability on them? This is especially true of female characters. There are so many movies where the men are flawed. We love those men, and we love those movies! Yes, I’m looking at you, Woody Allen. When a woman has flaws, trying to figure things out through an existential crisis, it can be seen as grating or unlikable. If someone asks me how we get the audience on her side, the answer is, “We don’t care.” Relatable matters more than likable. I want people to feel laughter and sympathy, without me manipulating them too much. Audiences are really smart! They don’t need the cookie cutter blonde who goes through a makeover – even though I love makeover movies – in order to sink into a scene.
BYT: How much are you thinking about romantic comedy tropes during your writing/shooting process?
GR: Not too much. Whenever I’m working with actors like Jenny, what matters most is whether I’m getting the best of the scene. We want to make it as authentic as possible, without being a documentary.
BYT: Landline is set in the 1990s, and you have several exterior scenes in the movie. Was it tough to make sure the camera didn’t catch anything too modern?
EH: There were plenty of Citi Bikes, people on cell phones, and selfie sticks.
GH: Did you see the selfie stick!?!?!?
BYT: No! There was a selfie stick?
GH: That’s because we got rid of it! [laughs]
EH: We shot a real Halloween parade [during the movie’s climax] because we never would have the money to do it otherwise. There were plenty of things to avoid, and we had to be specific about how we scouted locations – in terms of where we shot and the angles we used. We worked with a wonderful team that figured out how to create this world on our budgeted schedule.
GH: Also, families don’t meet on the street to hang out. Our story was about internal struggles, so a lot of things took place in the home. We bought the 1990s into these four walls: we had CDs, we had old phones, and so on.
BYT: I definitely did the thing where I took the phone with a long cord, bringing into my bedroom so I could talk to the girl I had a crush on.
GH: I loved the feeling of having a phone ring and wondering [whispers] “Who is it??!?!” You just didn’t know. This was before caller ID. You could star-69 someone, occasionally.
BYT: That cost money, though! I think it was something like 75 cents per use.
GH: You definitely didn’t want to get caught when your parents got your phone bill.
BYT: I know you mentioned you both have brothers, but I wanted to talk about the relationship between the two sisters in Landline. What did you want to nail about sisterhood, and what about it do you think is overlooked about it in pop culture?
GH: I think the pool scene is the epitome of what it’s like to be a sister. It’s weird to be so close to someone that, in one second, you’re just having the best time, but in another it switches – so you call someone you love more than anything a cunt. I think that was family and closeness is, especially when it’s difficult to control who you are. The sisterhood story was always in the script: they start off not very close, with a big age gap and not much time under the same roof. What brings them together is how the family is taking on this new shape. We discovered something a little different was happening, however, as we were editing the film. The chemistry between Jenny and Abby was magical, so we turned it up a little bit more. It’s nice to have another chance of a rewrite; the edit is the last stage.
BYT: Abby, what was it like when you started working on scenes with Jenny? Did you spend a lot of time off camera?
Abby Quinn: Well, we met the day before filming. I think we had dinner, plus a read-through, so I think I met her around two times total? Our relationship built naturally. The first couple scenes were when our characters were supposed to be distant, which is easier to do right off the bat because the instinct is to withhold stuff from each other. During the pool scene and the dance scene, which happened a couple weeks later, I did feel closer to her. I have a younger sister, and it’s like [Gillian] was saying: we’ll text each other constantly for two weeks, and then we get into a huge fight the moment we’re both home. [The script] did an amazing job of capturing that dynamic.
BYT: I don’t have a sister, but I could relate to it. I’m an older brother – I have a brother who is four years younger than me– and there was one summer where we sometimes worked as lifeguards in the same pool. We’d be goofing off, then in the next instant there would be a drowning attempt.
GH: I’m glad you didn’t call your brother.
BYT: He was spry!
GH: Plus boys are different. They’re like bears!
EH: With family, though, you have license to be a totally erratic lunatic, and they have to take your back. You’re war buddies, going through whatever with your parents. You know your lives/experiences more intimately than anyone else, so you don’t have to communicate to share/understand a feeling.
AQ: It’s just an eye roll.
BYT: So how did working on this movie change your relationship with your sister?
AQ: We’re very close now. She’s one of my best friends. When I was in middle school, my attitude was more like Ali. But my sister is eighteen now, so when I was filming she was the same age as my character. I could relate everything in the script to what was going on in my sister’s life. I did talk some scenes through with her.
GR, EH: [in unison] Awwww.
AQ: I should add I’m a little sister, too. I’ve got two older brothers, so I had a lot to draw from.
BYT: Obvious Child was funded through a Kickstarter and A24, while Landline is being released through Amazon. Now that you’ve had these similar, but slightly different experiences to get your work distributed, what do you think about the state of indie movies?
GR: We’ll be screening Landline at the new Whole Foods movie theater [laughs]. No, what’s great about Amazon is that they value proper screening/opening. We’re going to be in theaters, and they value that experience. There’s something special about watching a dramatic comedy in a dark room, with strangers, where we have to turn our phones off. But they also have Amazon Prime, a platform where we can soon live forever and forever. It’s a good way to marry tradition with the future. Netflix, on the other hand, just puts their movies on Netflix.
EH: I think it really depends on the project. Amazon is amazing not just because they’re committed to theatrical releases, but they also incredible filmmakers. Jill Soloway, for example, is a huge hero of ours. They don’t just care about movie theaters. They care about stories, and storytellers. No matter the platform, we’ve been able to see amazing work on our home screens.
BYT: One thing I appreciate about Landline is that men are not the focus. John Turturro and Jay Duplass are great actors, but this is not a story really about them. When you were writing, how much did you flush them out? Was the plan to cut away from them, or just focus on the sisters/mother?
EH: When we started, we know it would be three women in one family going through this experience. That was the crux of our pitch. We love men, and care about men in our lives. It was important that they be equally well-rounded, but women were always going to be the focus. We wanted to see things through their eyes, which is still so rare. It only became better once we cast John and Jay, who both bring so much to the table.
BYT: You mentioned your families went through divorces. Since the film is so specific, I was wondering how much else was pulled from real life? Did either of your dads toss shrimp into their mouths at hibachi restaurants?
GR: I may or may not have a CD skip while I was trying to make out with a boy.
EH: Gillian ate a lot of hibachi, I shared a lot of cigarettes on the bathroom floor with my mom. There are bits and pieces all up in this film.
GR: We both stayed up late watching Robin Byrd.
EH: That’s right! A lot of Robin Byrd in both our homes.
BYT: That was New York public access, right? What was her show like?
GR: It’s playing in the scene where Ali is on the phone with her boyfriend. Her show was semi-pornographic, but she talked a lot about stuff like how to put on a condom, or what a dental dam is like. She took calls, and wore really skimpy outfits. It was the first piece of feminist art I ever saw, and she also had a super-thick Long Island accent.
BYT: That’s a good place to end it, I guess!
EH: Google Robin Byrd and have a great rest of your day.
LANDLINE opens at E Street Cinema and Arclight Bethesda on July 28th.