Warning: Mild spoilers for Landline ahead.
Before making Landline, her second film, set in 1995 New York, Gillian Robespierre was still working her day job at the Director's Guild in New York City, which didn't involve any filmmaking at all. She and her co-writer, Elisabeth Holm, had made their first feature, Obvious Child, on nights and weekends. After the film’s huge success at Sundance, they returned to their day jobs, taking interviews from the New York Times during their lunch break.
"I had really good medical insurance, the same kind as Steven Spielberg, and I really like going to my gynecologist and my dermatologist," Robespierre says. "I like all my 'ists'. I was a very practical person, but I had this dream to make movies and tell stories and to direct them."
If Obvious Child was the inception of that dream, Landline, which has no UK release date just yet, is the full-on REM state (and despite this sleep metaphor, is immensely entertaining). The film is a touching and honest comedy about the coming together of a family after two sisters — 17-year-old Ali (Abby Quinn) and Dana (Jenny Slate), who's in her mid-twenties — find out their father (John Turturro) has been cheating on their mother (Edie Falco) for years. And guess what? He's not the only cheater in the family.
If that plot doesn't sound funny to you, then you don't know Robespierre. The director excels at finding the comedy in tragedy, while emphasising female stories that are often left untold.
On the eve of Landline's release, we caught up with the director to ask what makes Jenny Slate her muse, unlikeable female characters, and her advice for aspiring filmmakers.
How did you come up with the idea for Landline?
"Basically, it happened when we were on tour with Obvious Child. Hanging out in hotel rooms, eating chicken tenders, just talking. It always starts with talking. The worst question press can ask — but it's necessary — is 'What's next?' I didn't really have an idea.
"Liz [Holm] and I are both products of divorce. Our parents divorced when we were sixteen; most of our friends' parents were already divorced. We're from that generation where divorce was the norm, and it didn't really feel taboo any longer. What happened in our case, which is kind of cool, was that our families grew together. We were stagnant and they were all in their designated roles. No one was really communicating — our parents sure as hell weren't. I have an older brother, so does Liz. We weren't close. When our family started unraveling and positions were shifting, we gained a new love and friendship together.
"My brother and I started to hang out, and he maybe taught me how to smoke pot a little bit. My mom became a woman in my eyes. She wasn't just a woman who was helping me with college essays or forcing me to clean my room before I went out. She was a vulnerable, funny dimensional woman. Getting to see that side of her changed our relationship and my relationship with my dad. We all became much freer as we shifted. So, we wanted to tell that story where divorce is not the end of a story, but the beginning of a new chapter. A happy ending. Sort of the same where in Obvious Child, a woman having an abortion isn't the end of their life, but a new phase. A new way to look at yourself. That's where it started. Then, we really wanted to focus on the women in one family: three generations of women."
I was going to ask, what's it like writing for a 17-year-old when you're in your 30s?
"Very freeing; very nice. We always wanted the teenager to be the smartest one in the family, even though...when we were teens we always thought that we were right, I never was. I still kind of have that idea of myself. She was the old soul of the family. The wisest one, but still making horrible teenager mistakes — more cautious in many ways than other family members. Then, obviously wanting to write for Jenny [Slate] again. We really enjoy writing for her. She is my muse and just a pleasure to collaborate with and a warm, funny human and friend, but also a very talented actress."
This is the third time you've worked with her — what is it about her that as a director you find so compelling?
"Fourth! Because we did the short. We did the short, the Obvious Child feature, [an] FX [pilot], and now. It's a real collaboration. It's also nice meeting new actors and new crew members who push you in different ways. What I love about Jenny is that we get each other. We know how to communicate almost like a married couple. Same with Liz. I think the three of us create a force of strength. It's a very collaborative business. I would never take full credit for making a movie by myself. It starts with the writing, but each phase you meet with department heads. You share your ideas, but then they come back with their own. I feel like that's why I got into filmmaking. I really love collaborating, and I really love expanding on one story and seeing it through other people's eyes. Then, at the end, you release it, and it's only seen that way. Jenny and I just have that shorthand with each other, but we also wanted to push each other. We created a character that is, hopefully, not like Donna in Obvious Child. We want to continue and grow as storytellers and filmmakers and collaborators and try to push each other forever on new projects."
I love that you focus on the three generations of women. What does the female gaze mean to you, as someone who's behind the camera?
"It's so funny, I just feel like it's my gaze. My gaze is all over the place. I was a real quiet kid — I was shy and I had dyslexia. I watched women more closely than I watched men, but I definitely had crushes on boys from afar. I thought they were little sexual beings and I was a sexual being, but I love watching women. I love watching movies with women. I loved watching older girls, how they would dress and do their hair. I had a crush on my friend's older sister who had these great curls. I had curly hair and I didn't know how to do it until I watched Amy Beth do her hair. I was like 'Oh, she's so fucking cool.' I just like to observe and put characters on the screen in a non-judgmental way. The people in Landline cheat. A lot of the characters tell lies and are holding onto really dark secrets. I'm trying to not project too much judgment on them and let them live and be free on screen and not really punish them for fucking up. Especially the women. We so often punish women. We made this movie during the election. We thought Hillary [Clinton] was going to be President. We saw a woman be punished for lying, but her counterpart, or whatever he fucking is, never told the truth once, and now he's the President."
I was going to ask you about the Hillary moment in the movie. Did you mean to pay tribute to her like that?
"Yeah, it was one hundred percent intentional. We had to buy the pink suit."
It was awesome, but I saw the movie post-election, so it kind of broke my heart.
"It changed the scene. It made it so much heavier and darker. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek — a little bit parallel. Edie is very similar to Hillary in the sense that they're both strong, powerful matriarchs whose husbands cheat on them. Their strength and vulnerability shine through all of that. Also, it was supposed to be a really funny joke. It was supposed to be a punchline. Turns out, when we were editing, and she lost, all of a sudden that scene became heavy and had a cloud of darkness around it. I don't mind that cloud of darkness in terms of the movie. In life, I hate the cloud. It totally made it a better scene because it brought some weight to it."
You talked about being non-judgmental. That's something I love about Obvious Child and also in Landline. They both deal with very serious topics in a very comical way and in a very non-judgmental way. Is that how you process things? Do you process grief through comedy?
"Oh, for sure. Everything is deflection. That's not just me. It's a normal trait that we use comedy in so many places where sadness creeps in, and real darkness creeps in. I remember at my grandfather's funeral they were playing "Taps." It was a military funeral, but it was not a decorated military funeral. It was one guy put in a tape of "Taps" into a boom box and propped it up on a grave. It just was so sad and funny, and I just started giggling. I was sad. He was my only grandparent, too, that I remembered. I was really devastated that he passed, but also saw the comedy in this very tragic moment of listening to "Taps" on a boombox. My whole family–this is how we deal with it. We went to a diner in New Jersey and ate grilled cheeses and tuna melts and talked about him and cried. That was how we got through it. I think that's how other families get through the mess. It's also healthy to let the tears fly and come out and sit in grief. Just try not to sit in it too long. Liz and I, we're empathetic. We like to tell stories that we can empathise with humans instead of make them these black and white people who are either victims or predators. Flawed humans, but lovable. Not even likeable. That's okay not to be. Some of these characters aren't liked all the time."
People have such problems with the unlikable woman. Jenny Slate's character most of the time is not all that likable, but she's also sweet and lovable. It works. Did you think about that while you were writing?
"A lot of times, the notes you get from financiers or studio execs are that the female characters need to be likeable. My response to that is not just "Why?", but also "Fuck you!" I don't see that note on my male characters. I also don't see that in movies that I'm watching a lot of. My whole life I've watched men go through existential crises, and not be super likeable. Every Woody Allen movie — I love a lot of them up until 1984. That's a note that only really pertains to women, for some reason. I know that reason, which is misogyny. The reason is scary, and it's depressing. So, trying to create women who are dimensional, who are good and bad, who are likeable, but also relatable is the goal in movies that I like to watch and make."
What made you decide to set in the nineties?
"Well, it wasn't just so we didn't have to put Facebook in the movie, but that was a nice bonus. Early on, we knew that we didn't want to have to rely on social media for a story about a family who's falling apart. When there's any sort of hint of cheating, it's just so easy to have them find out on Facebook, but beyond that, Liz and I came of age in New York City in the nineties. It's a personal story. It started off personal and then grew into more and more fiction and less like a journal entry. It felt like an era that was far enough away that we could set a movie in it."
"We didn't know that going into production! We started writing this a long time ago. It definitely is coming back. Abby Quinn, Ali in our movie, when we were at Sundance and we were all watching Friends together, she was like "Is Rachel going to end up with Ross?". She didn't know the answer! I had to teach her to use a payphone in the movie, how to smoke cigarettes. She is wonderful and nothing like her character. She's an amazing break out."
Do you have any advice for women who are looking to go into directing or writing?
"I hate giving advice, but I also love giving advice. I would just say, it's a marathon. So, gear up, have a lot of Gatorade, put Band-Aids in front of your nipples — I don't know. I don't run, but I know there's chafing involved. It takes a while. To not compromise and if you can, make your first movie without a ton of permission. Just go out and make it and don't ask for anyone's permission. Hopefully, you'll have support along the way from the right people."
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