Donna is not having a good winter. Her boyfriend is sleeping with her best friend, and she just lost her job. Donna’s only flash of happiness comes in the form of Max, a straight-laced dude who responds well to her offbeat humor, and they have a one night stand. The hilarious new comedy Obvious Child is primarily about happens next: Donna gets pregnant, and schedules an abortion for Valentines Day. She struggles with how to break the news to Max and her mother, while her friends support her and never judge her choice. Without any trepidation about the choice to abort, Obvious Child is subversive because it dares to treat Donna’s decision like an ordinary one.
Directed by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate, Obvious Child started out as a short film, then was developed into a feature thanks to a successful Kickstarter Campaign and the support of A24 Films (the film was a hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival). It’s a unique romantic comedy: Obvious Child has scatological humor but it’s never gross, none of its characters are cliches, and it has a stunning command of tone even when Donna enters the abortion clinic. I recently had the chance to talk to Slate and Robespierre about their writing process, Planned Parenthood, and oddly shaped penises.
The film opens with Donna performing stand-up comedy. How did you rehearse/prepare that part of Donna’s life?
JS: Luckily I’ve been doing stand-up since I was 22, so I’m comfortable on a stage, but I’ve never done stand-up in my own style as somebody else. What was most important to me was that it was authentic, so I didn’t prepare that much, to be honest. I didn’t memorize what Gill wrote… Oh, no, there’s a spider. I can see it.
Oh, there’s a spider on the ground! Do you want me to get it?
JS: I’m fine with it.
GR: I’m cool with spiders being killed.
[I get up, grab a tissue, catch the spider, and walk towards a trash can.]
GR: You have to flush it! I’m such a control freak.
Is there a bathroom here? [I find the bathroom, then flush the spider down the toilet.]
JS: I’m sorry! I know we only have a little bit of time, but you’re really getting us as ourselves.
Not a problem.
JS: Anyway, we worked the stand-up a lot. We’d been to San Francisco, where I improvised on stand-up that Gillian that written, then she recorded my improvisations and written more. I knew some of the lines [in the opening scene], but my approach for it was to be less prepared so that I could be spontaneous and we could have that energy on the stage.
GR: The movie is scripted, but the stand-up is really just bullet points and starters. Jenny’s an amazing comedian, so the only smart thing I could do was get out of her way. All I did was take notes and make sure she was Donna, hitting all the right points. If there was something we wanted to go back to, we’d just go back and do the scene again. We didn’t get a lot of rehearsal time for the whole film, and for the stand-up comedy it’s probably best we didn’t over-rehearse. For the rest of the film, we rehearsed while the crew was lighting around us.
A lot of shots were framed so that they seemed to reflect what Donna felt or was thinking. Were those moments happenstance or were they planned?
GR: We always stuck to our shot list. Our DP, Chris Teague, is an amazing cinematographer, and he actually had two films at Sundance this year: Obvious Child, and the other one was Appropriate Behavior, which is another New York City that’s written, directed, and starring a woman. Chris and I talked about for two weeks before we started shooting in order to get a sense of how we wanted the movie to look. We didn’t want anything too precious, or hand-held. We did some hand-held work, but it’s very controlled. Donna’s life is intimate: we only see a couple of her friends, we see her mom, we see the interiors of her New York Life, her Brooklyn life. We didn’t want these sweeping New York City scenes where Donna is running around Central Park. Hopefully her life didn’t feel too claustrophobic since New York apartments can be so small!
Earlier you were talking about the stand-up scenes were loose, which made me curious about a joke that seemed more deliberate. I don’t remember it exactly, but it happens late in the film and Donna uses the word, “murder.”
JS: That’s probably the moment where we put a tow over the line. Our first goal was to make everything thoughtful and funny. If it didn’t make us laugh, it wasn’t going in the script. We’re not trying to be tough or rough about the subject matter, but we’re also not trying to tiptoe or hold the subject matter in our hands like it’s a fragile bird. What we striving for, and what I think we achieved, was a firm grip. In order for that to work, the script has to be funny first. If it’s cheesy or too rough, then it doesn’t belong in our film.
Later this evening you’re doing a Q&A about the film with a vice president at Planned Parenthood. How and when did the relationship with that organization start?
GR: For the short film, we screened with NARAL New York. We actually sent Planned Parenthood an early draft because we wanted to make sure it was written correctly. I’m referring to the scenes in the doctor’s office, not the comedy [laughs].
Planned Parenthood didn’t give you any comedy notes or anything?
JS: [with a serious voice] “Maybe you should put this fart joke here.”
GR: [laughs] They read the script, they loved it, they were really excited about this movie being made so they helped out in any way they could. We’re psyched to be paired up with them because they’re an important voice. I wanted to shoot in a real Planned Parenthood because it’s hard to mimic the tone of that place.
So what did they say about Donna visits there?
GR: I can’t recall, exactly, but it wasn’t heavy handed. I think they suggested I switch around one or two lines. I wanted to make sure people wouldn’t question the film’s credibility so I tried to keep it as authentic as possible.
What type of jokes do you wish would appear in romantic comedies more often?
JS: I’m thinking of the jokes that I love, and they’re the teasing, impromptu, nickname jokes. I love the scene in Sleepless in Seattle where young Jonah makes fun of the laugh of the woman Tom Hanks’ character is dating. I don’t remember why, but I always love that.
GR: What does he call her?
JS: I don’t remember – I think he says she laughs like a hyena or something – but I like that sort of personal stuff. I loved the line, “You didn’t use a condom with pee-farter.” You know it’s something [Donna and her friend] have been talking about.
If a friend of yours is dating somebody new, when is the appropriate time to switch from a nickname to a first name?
JS: Some people never make it.
GR: My friend dated a guy and I still don’t know his name. We just called him “Necklace” because he work a necklace, which I think is a bad idea on men.
Oh, wow, I thought you said “neckless” as if the guy literally had no neck.
GR: No, no, the nickname would never be a comment on him.
JS: My friend dated guy once and I didn’t know his name so we called him “Traffic Cone” because his dick looked like a traffic cone.
GR: That’s disgusting [giggles].
JS: Bummer for him, right? But the name sticks because that guy was an asshole to my friend.
GR: Yeah, Necklace was an asshole, too.
JS: Nicknames that highlight a flaw will only stick around if the guy turns out to be a bummer.
Has there been a difference in how men and women reacted to the film? Has it surprised you at all?
JS: Actually, what surprised me was an across the board reaction to the comedy. It’s just a positive reaction: our comedy is not trying to be cooler or edgier than anyone else. Our comedy is based in storytelling and since it’s about a comedian who’s a natural storyteller, I think it leaves people feeling… satisfied. That’s been the most exciting thing for us. Certainly there have been women who have come up to us after screenings to share their personal stories.
GR: So have men!
JS: Yeah, at the screening yesterday there was a man with a story. I think there’s just a trend toward openness. I don’t think we started the trend, but I think it’s safe to say we’re both happy to be part of it.
How much of Nellie, Donna’s friend played by Gaby Hoffman, is in either of you?
GR: I got a lot of Nellie in me. I liked writing her because all the things I was holding back in Donna I got to put in Nellie. She has a lot more rules, and I think she’s strict with herself as well as her friends. Also, she’s very maternal and loving. She’s a protector of Donna, but she’ll call her out, too. She’s a little curmudgeon.
The last scene of the film involves people watching a classic movie. Why did you go with that one in particular?
GR: There are a lot of Valentines Day themed movies on TV on the 14th. That one felt the best to me because it really is about 10 hours long, especially with commercials.
It even has an intermission.
GR: Are you kidding me? Really?
JS: It does! I’ve seen it a big fancy theater at The Wang Center in Boston, and there was a true intermission.
GR: Oh, wow! I wanted watching the film to be a new experience for the characters there. With You’ve Got Mail or When Harry Met Sally, one of my favorites, it would feel too precious.
One of things I loved about Obvious Child is that you never hear the woman Donna’s ex is sleeping with. Was there ever a point where that character was in the movie?
GR: In earlier versions of the script, Kate – we gave her a name – had more prominence. But then I thought, “This is Donna’s story. Let’s focus on Donna.” We only wanted the scene where Donna sees Kate walking out of her ex’s apartment. What matters is that she’s very tall and very thin. And in the end, the dog stole the show.
JS: The dog was intense! That was dog was like my personality. It was always going forward, straining against the leash. Whose dog was it?
GR: It belonged to the friend of one of the producers. I don’t know what kind it was. At one point, the dog jumped up and snapped at my hand.
JS: Gillian doesn’t like dogs.
I’m more of a cat person, too. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!
JS: Thank you!
GR: Yeah, thank you so much.
Obvious Child opens in New York on June 6th and in DC on June 13th.