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Q&A: Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate Dish on ‘Obvious Child’

Director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate of the new film “Obvious Child.”
Director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate of the new film “Obvious Child.”A24

Considering the predictable plots and fairy tale endings of most Hollywood romantic comedies, “Obvious Child” is a refreshing take on the played out genre because it’s not only hilarious, but also unabashedly honest.

The film, based on a 2009 short of the same name, chronicles the chaotic life of Donna Stern — played by Milton native Jenny Slate — a quirky, 20-something comedian who’s in a bit of a pickle after she gets pregnant after a one-night stand with the affable Max (Jake Lacy). Taking the route less traveled in comedic cinema (but often taken by many women in real life), Donna decides to have an abortion.

While critics have been buzzing about ”Obvious Child” because of it’s honest portrayal of such a hot button topic, director Gillian Robespierre didn’t want it to be the focus of the film, as she just wanted to create a movie that felt authentic and real.

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I recently chatted with Robespierre and Slate at the Eliot Hotel to talk about the making of “Obvious Child,” their goals for the film, and more.

Boston.com: How important was it for you to make sure that the film showcased realistic and authentic interactions between characters, especially the female characters in Donna’s life?

Gillian Robespierre: We really wanted the tone to be as relatable and realistic as possible. Those are the two R’s I keep on throwing out. The movies that I like are the movies that really delve into the characters and make them not super perfect and clean, have some flaws, but also show them in a complex, realistic way. So, when we sat down to write the feature and creating all the women in Donna’s world, we wanted them to be just as exciting as Donna was. I think by doing that, you make characters and you find women who are going to take those characters and make them their own. I think Gaby [Hoffmann] and Polly [Draper] did a really good job with their characters.

Boston.com: One of the most interesting scenes in the film for me was when Donna and her friends debated over whether she should tell Jake Lacy’s character, Max, about her decision to have an abortion. Why did you feel the need to highlight the process of informing the father about the pregnancy?

Robespierre: For Donna, she is just somebody who wants to be honest with everyone in her life, and she doesn’t really have many secrets, on stage or off stage. I think that she’s a really good person. She didn’t want to tell Jake Lacy’s character because she was nervous and because she wasn’t feeling confident. She was confident in her decision, she wasn’t confident whether this guy would freak out.

Jenny Slate: She was just like, “I don’t know what that will be. Do I even want to do that? Do I have to do that?”

Robespierre: She wasn’t sure of herself, so being able to do something as big as telling a stranger that this is what you’re going through felt too big for her. So, I think that she had a group of friends around her to give her both sides. Ultimately, the decision was her own.

Boston.com: How much of yourself did you put into the character of Donna?

Slate: I think that I’m similar to Donna in the type of humor that we enjoy. You’re always putting yourself into your work. There’s no separation, it’s just how you use yourself and transform. But did I go to work and be myself? [Laughs] No. It’s hard to be natural in front of a camera, but the more that it seems that there’s a flow between me and Donna and that she’s a real person, I think that’s good. You know, in the dramatic scenes, it wasn’t like I was going into the scene where Donna is crying in the bed with her mom and then we would call cut and I would still be crying. There is a clear line and I didn’t totally sacrifice myself for the role.

Boston.com: Speaking of the more dramatic scenes in “Obvious Child,” was it hard for you to transition into that type of on camera work after being involved in strictly comedy for so long?

Slate: It wasn’t hard, I think, because I was really, really excited. Usually what is difficult for me are things that make me feel scared. That’s when difficulties rather than challenges arise. I didn’t feel like it was hard because I was so excited and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I felt so connected to the script that it didn’t feel hard, but it did feel complicated.

Boston.com: What attracted you to the role and why did you, Gillian, decide to pick Jenny to play Donna?

Robespierre: It was a combination of fate, of meeting, but also, I wanted somebody like Jenny, or exactly like Jenny, to play Donna. The original script wasn’t written for an actress or an actor in particular. It was more of a broad idea of what kind woman we wanted to depict in this movie who was really funny, really vulnerable and lovable, and also had dramatic chops.

And that’s all we wanted, which sounds easy breezy right? Nope! It wasn’t. When we — we meaning Anna Bean and Karen Maine who co-created the short with me — went to go see this free comedy show and Jenny was on the stage, it was really one of those comic strip, light bulbs went on over our head [moments]. There she was. There was the person that we had in mind, in the flesh, telling these stories that made us cry, laugh cry, so hard. Luckily, she said yes when we sent her the script and it took off from there and we wrote the feature for Jenny.

Slate: Gillian’s answer kind of gives my answer because, basically, she created this thing that was like, to me, the most genuine, authentic character I had ever been given to read. There was so much for me to do and there was a new story to be told and really wonderful people to work with. It felt like something that gets given to people who have a little more under their belt in terms of acting. Just such a gift and it had everything I wanted to do.

Boston.com: This is your first time as the director of a feature length film and this is your first time as a leading women. Has it been daunting being involved in such a buzzed about movie?

Robespierre: I think what was exciting is that we just didn’t know and didn’t think that far ahead. We were self-aware, but also plowed through it because it was really important for us to work together and tell the story. We didn’t think about all the firsts we were doing. We were just doing them.

Slate: Yeah, I didn’t feel anything daunting at all. Just that same sense of really just wanting to get going and doing.

Robespierre: Making movies is hard. To get as far as we got, which was raising equity and having money to hire a full, real crew, who weren’t just working for free, was amazing. But it wasn’t daunting, it just felt exciting and lucky. But also, we put in a [expletive] ton of hard work to get there.

Boston.com: There’s been surprisingly little backlash from pro-lifers against “Obvious Child” so far. Did you encounter any resistance from those sorts of people while making the film? If not, what were some of your biggest challenges during production?

Robespierre: The challenges in creating it was just trying to make a funny movie. It wasn’t about the issue that we slid in, it was mostly about trying to tell a story in an entertaining way and working hard on developing what was a very concise short and making it bigger. Part of that puzzle piece was my very close friend and creative partner, Elisabeth Holm, who is our producer on “Obvious Child.”

She and I spent a year developing the script together, on nights and weekends because we both had full-time jobs. We would meet on Saturdays and write on Sundays. We did all of our casting and crewing up at a bar in the East Village, that I’m pretty sure the bartender thought that we were prostitutes. We were in there every night from 6 to 9:30, and a bunch of men would come in and meet with us. Then they would leave and another man would come in, or a woman, men and women, so we looked really good at our jobs.

Boston.com: Between this film and the immense popularity of HBO’s “Girls,” there seems to be more stronger and diverse female voices being featured on screen. Would you agree?

Robespierre: I feel like there’s just a momentum going on out there, that’s not just about women stories. It’s these authentic stories, storytellers seeking to tell stories that have honest characters. I see that, definitely in “Girls,” but I also see that in “Louie” and a lot of other shows that I can’t think of right now. What’s happening, it feels like part of a movement, and I’m just happy to be a part of it. I didn’t start it, but I feel really good to be a part of it. I think what’s going to help is that audiences are excited to see these stories too.

Boston.com: As a female writer and director, what was your approach to creating the male characters in the film?

Robespierre: What male characters? [Laughs] I’m kidding. That was me being glib. We wanted to make Max somebody who was the antithesis of Donna on the exterior, but had something going on behind his blue, blue eyes. What it was that he was a supportive sweet guy, but not a door mat. We didn’t want to make a guy who is going to just do whatever Donna tells him to do.

Slate: That’s not attractive. [Laughs]

Robespierre: He makes mistakes too and his boat shoes belie him. He pees and farts and has accidents. He’s not a perfectly formed person either, and neither is Donna, but they’re really supportive of each other. And you can see that, not even just about the choice or will he show up in the end and take her to her appointment. It was about will he just show up and be present with her, and I think he is. You can see that in how good he is at being in awe of Donna, but also giving it back to her.

Boston.com: One scene with another male character in the film, the creepy comic/friend Sam, played by David Cross, reminded me of the #YesAllWomen trend that’s taken over social media. Have you been keeping up with that and did any similar themes play into the making of the film in general?

Slate: I’ve got to say, I haven’t.

Robespierre: We’ve been on the road...

Slate: I should be keeping up.

Robespierre: What’s unfortunate is, like, we’re not by the publications that we read. Like, in my home, I read the New York Times...

Slate: You read the newspaper newspaper, like someone’s grand-ma-ma.

Robespierre: [Laughs] But like, I’m watching a lot of CNBC and Fox News in these [expletive] hotel rooms and it’s just making my head spin. It just makes me really sad. It doesn’t feel like we’ve come too far, but then it feels like we have come far because we’re talking about it right now. We’re talking about sexism on Fox News, those people’s heads talking that I want to punch, but it is still a discussion and people are getting really mad. I’m wondering, is that because the movement, the women’s movement, has come very far?

But then, there’s a part of me that doesn’t really believe that because sexism is so rampant and this freak accident, which is not an accident, but this freak moment in our history is just really scary. But the hashtag thing, because we do interviews all day and screenings all night, I haven’t been going on Twitter that much or Facebook either. But I’m excited that people are feeling empowered by such a horrific event instead of feeling meek.

Boston.com: What do you hope audiences come away with after they’ve seen the film?

Robespierre: I just want it to stick with them the way my favorite movies stick with me, and I think about them for years. That’s really all I want — and a fur coat.

Slate: Yeah, you want that fur coat girl. [Laughs] I want people to feel good. I want them to have this movie, like, be something that they can reach into their memory and think of and laugh.

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