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Obvious Child director and star talk mining laughs from touchy subject

Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate from Obvious Child
Writer/director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate from Obvious Child. Photo courtesy of A24

The new film Obvious Child isn't your typical romantic comedy, and not just because it deals with a touchy topic: abortion. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate combine to make a film that's not only funny and heartfelt, but also one that's bracingly honest.

Robespierre and Slate sat down for a roundtable interview to talk about the divisive nature of abortion, how well they worked together and the respect women deserve in comedy.

CultureMap: Abortion is not an easy topic from which to mine laughs. What gave you the confidence that you could actually make it work?

Robespierre: We just wanted to tell a story about a woman who was actually funny and who was really relatable in a romantic comedy. Somebody who looked like us and spoke like us and went through a breakup the same way we go through breakups. And we also wanted to show an abortion that was regret-free, that didn’t have the stigma of judgment and shame surrounding it.

 “We were trying to make an entertaining movie that was full of jokes, but also had quiet, heartfelt moments,” says director Gillian Robespierre.

We just took those two ideas and smashed them together. We didn’t ask permission; we just told the story that we thought would satisfy us and also hopefully people who watched it. We were trying to make an entertaining movie that was full of jokes, but also had quiet, heartfelt moments.

Slate: We didn’t feel like we needed to get confidence. I think we had it. It’s kind of like, “Where’d you get the confidence to talk to your best friend?” Well, I knew them, and we knew this story. That’s why we told it, that’s why we’re comfortable with it and that’s why a lot of people like it.

Media roundtable: There’s a great air of playfulness in this movie, but there’s also a lot of honest and sour moments that I appreciated. How did you achieve that tonal balance?

Robespierre: I think we just tried to take what was authentic in our lives and how our friends talk and how we talk around a kitchen table or at a bar, and inject that into a movie. And we worked really hard on the script. The story collaborators — Karen Maine and Elizabeth Holm and I — really took time with creating the character.

And then when Jenny was shooting every single day, she knew exactly what she wanted Donna to sound like. When things didn’t ring true to us, we would correct. If it didn’t sound right, we would change it to make it funnier and also more authentic.

Media roundtable: Donna and Max’s relationship is so sweet and moving. I think that’s attractive to a lot of younger women because it’s showing real men and women. How long did it take to get the chemistry right between Jenny and Jake (Lacy)?

Robespierre: The chemistry between Jake and Jenny was just magical. I think it was two people who were serious about seeking tone that was authentic in the characters and bringing themselves into that. They worked really hard to get there. They’re also two people who are naturally funny. Jake is a fabulous straight man who, in between takes, was …

Slate: Hyper!

“That’s why I do comedy: because I love people and I love to be funny. It comes from my nature and not my gender,” says star Jenny Slate.

Robespierre: Super hyper, cracking Jenny up, cracking us all up, and he had to pull back on that. He knew when to use it and when to bring it back. You could tell that he was really excited about this character because he was a nice guy.

Slate: I think I’m more shy than he is. He has a lot of energy and we are opposites in that way, but we really like each other’s senses of humor.

Media roundtable: I love funny women. When did you first realize that you had a bent for that, and more important, realized that it was okay to have that and want to do that?

Slate: It was always okay; my parents encouraged it. I think I started to feel athletic at comedy, that it was a strength of mine, probably at summer camp when we would do skits. I just always felt this zoom of energy that was unlike anything else I felt. It was a real ignition being turned.

We had two VHS tapes from the first 25 years of Saturday Night Live, and my dad showed a clip of Gilda Radner doing The Judy Miller Show, and he was like, “That’s you. That’s what you’re like. It’s useful what you’re like. You can do that.” I always wanted to be like a bouncing ball like that. I don’t why, but I always wanted it.

CultureMap: The film is shorter than I expected it to be. Is there anything else you would’ve liked to explore more but couldn’t for whatever reason?

Robespierre: No, the script was exactly the script; we didn’t cut anything out. I like my comedies — I was gonna use Gabe’s line — like my men, short and sweet. We worked so hard on the script — it’s been four-and-a-half years — and we trimmed all the fat in the story to make it this concise, straightforward, 83-minute long movie.

There’s nothing on the cutting-room floor except a couple of great jokes that hopefully you’ll see on the DVD extras.

Media roundtable: The film is produced, directed by and stars women — comedy seems like such a man’s world. Can you talk about being bold enough to flip the script?

Slate: I gotta say, I don’t think of it as a man’s world. I don’t think Gilda Radner would appreciate that. I don’t think Lily Tomlin would. Or Carol Burnett or Rosalind Russell. I think people keep saying that because it’s just a big statement that seems strong enough to stand on its own. But it isn’t. It’s just a funny people’s world.

That’s why I do comedy: because I love people and I love to be funny. It comes from my nature and not my gender. I think the sooner we try to say that the comedy world is for funny people, the sooner we’ll all be better off. Just get past the bullshit and start to make some good jokes.

Robespierre: And good movies.

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