Paul Weitz and Sam Elliott Talk About the Making of ‘Grandma’

grandma tomlin and elliott

Grandma” marked the great Lily Tomlin’s first leading role in a motion picture in 27 years, the last being 1988’s “Big Business” in which she starred opposite Bette Midler. Here she plays Ellie Reid, a misanthropic poet who is still mourning the death of her longtime partner. As the movie begins, Ellie coldly breaks up with her girlfriend (played by Judy Greer) and is met by her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who desperately needs $600 dollars by sundown for an abortion. This leads Ellie and Sage to go on a road trip to get the money, and they find themselves uncovering dark secrets from the past which must be reckoned with.

“Grandma’s” press conference was held back in 2015 at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California, and it was attended by Tomlin, the movie’s writer and director Paul Weitz, and co-star Sam Elliott.

Weitz’s previous films include “American Pie” which he co-directed with his brother Chris, “About a Boy” which featured one of Hugh Grant’s best performances, and “Being Flynn” which starred Robert De Niro and Paul Dano. Weitz previously worked with Tomlin on the movie “Admission,” and this led him to write the part of Ellie Reid with her in mind.

grandma movie poster

When it comes to writing a screenplay, one has to wonder how somebody does that. Does the writer treat it like a journey where they don’t know how it will end, or do they have the beginning, middle and end in mind when they start writing? I asked Weitz about this, and he gave us some insight on his writing process and of what story is really all about for him.

Paul Weitz: In terms of the script, I do think it’s a good sign for me when I kind of know what the ending is. It’s very clear that Sage ends up learning so much from Lily’s character in the movie like learning how to stand up for herself and learning not to shy away from the fight. It’s not clear to me what Lily’s character has gained from this until the end when this sort of fierce love that she has had for her dead partner, she’s able to let go of that guilt because of the protectiveness and kindness to her granddaughter. The most emotional thing in the movie to me is not the moment where Lily is crying. It’s actually a moment where she’s laughing and she’s thinking about some old joke that her partner said which made her laugh. It’s a really private moment and I really like that, and I like that it’s about letting go of stuff and moving on to something with a lot of up to miss him despite all the crap she’s been through.

Elliott plays Karl, one of Ellie’s former lovers who is quite perturbed by her sudden reappearance in his life. The actor is of course known for his deep and resonant voice which has served him well in one movie after another whether it’s “The Big Lebowski” or “Thank You for Smoking.” This led to my question of how he manages to keep his voice so deep and bold after so many years.

Sam Elliott: Uh, I don’t know. It actually gets deeper as time goes on if that makes sense. I’ve been blessed with it I guess. I sang very early on. My mom used to drag me to sing in a choir when I was a kid, and I was always involved with these acapella choruses and different things always through school. Its good fortune as it turns out. It’s not a matter of management, it’s just gravity.

“Grandma” is a terrific comedy drama filled with strong dialogue and terrific performances, and it is worth checking out. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Exclusive Interview with Yana Novikova about ‘The Tribe’

The Tribe Yana photo

Yana Novikova is one of the stars of the critically acclaimed Ukrainian drama “The Tribe” which was written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. It opens up on a shy young boy named Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) who has just arrived at a boarding school for the deaf, and he soon finds himself being initiated into the school’s gang which deals heavily in robbery, bribery and prostitution. But just as he becomes like any other member, he falls in love with one of his female classmates, Anna (Yana Novikova), and this triggers a series of events which in turn leads to an unnerving and unforgettable conclusion.

The cast of “The Tribe” is made up of deaf, non-professional actors, and it contains no subtitles and no narration. Yana has one of the movie’s most challenging roles as her character works after school as a prostitute in order to save up money for a visa. She dives into her role fearlessly, and it’s a role which required a lot from her in terms of nudity and raw emotions. That’s not even to mention the scene where Anna gets an abortion, a subject which remains taboo in many societies.

It was a great pleasure for me to talk with Yana back in 2014 while she was in Los Angeles, and she was joined by two sign language interpreters who helped bring her beautifully long answers to light. For a first time actress, she gives an exceptionally brave performance.

The Tribe movie poster 1

Ben Kenber: How were you cast in “The Tribe?”

Yana Novikova: During my time in Belarus, which was my hometown, I was going to college and was studying engineering, tailoring and was busy with my studies. There was an acting program nearby. I was not involved with that, but I was called by a friend of mine about the fact that in Kiev, Ukraine they had a college for the deaf. So the Ukrainian friend of mine was telling me about how they had acting classes and you could learn about dance and movement and things like that. My friend told me that there was an audition taking place in Kiev, Ukraine, and it was in two weeks. So, I had two weeks to prepare for this audition before I flew out to Kiev. To start my preparation of my rehearsal I had to tell my parents about the audition, and at first my mom said no, absolutely not. She was shocked this was my plan that I wanted to do. She said, “You don’t have friends out there in Kiev. Do you even know the city?” So mom was very concerned. “You can’t drop out of college, you know? You are working on getting your degree” at the college I was attending at Belarus. I had to strongly express to her that, even though I was involved in my studies at college, I really wanted to get into acting. My mom told me repeatedly no and I had to calm her down and convince her, so I changed my story a little bit and told my mom that I was going to be visiting friends in Kiev. So, I had to lie a little bit and I did everything secretive. But I made my preparations, I flew to Kiev and stayed with a group of deaf friends and there was a group of writers there. I didn’t know who the writer was, I didn’t know who the director was, but that director was looking at who had auditioned. He was just sort of incognito. We didn’t know that he was there and he was watching all this. I got completely involved and completely absorbed in rehearsing in preparing for the audition. They tell me that, after the audition, they were going to be selecting three people and I was like, “Three people? That’s it, out of this whole group of 10?” They said there’s just not enough scholarship money to audition for this program. There’s only enough scholarship money to accept three deaf people for this acting program. I was so upset when I wasn’t chosen. I cried and I asked them questions about why I wasn’t selected, “What were you looking for? Were you more concerned about my logistical issues about living so far away? Was that an issue; would I be able to pay for the dorm or not or things like that? What were the selections based on?” And they said, “Well you’re better off staying in Belarus and continuing on with your college and your studies.” And I said, “No, my heart is not in engineering. My heart is not in sewing and tailoring. I really want to get into acting.” So we went back and forth and back and forth, and they repeatedly told me no and that they were not selecting me. But the director, who was present, made time and came up to me and said “Well perhaps if you’re willing to fly to Kiev for the next production and try out for that audition, we have an audition for another project coming up called The Tribe.” So, I ultimately did that. I flew back to Kiev and auditioned. There were about 300 people who auditioned for the film, a long line of people all deaf. They took photographs of us as part of the audition process, they got our profiles and everything, they got information, and after the audition they told us to check the Internet to look and see if your name shows up on the list to see if you were selected. So, for about a week I kept my close eye on the casting list, and when I finally saw my name on that list and that I was chosen I was thrilled. During that process there was actually another very small film project that was going on that I was given a very, very small role in. It gave me an opportunity to do some rehearsal and do some practice in the role as a boy actually, a little rebellious boy character. So I had this real short, small role in this other project, so while I was filming and preparing for that, the director really took a hard look at me and evaluated me during that whole process, and then in September I was already chosen for my role in The Tribe. I was so happy. I completely dropped out of college and I told one of my professors and he was like, “Why are you quitting? You don’t like college? You don’t like what you’re doing?” And I said, “No. I’m actually an actress and I’m getting into acting.” And I let the professor know that I got a job and the professor was like, “Are you joking?” I said, “No I’m actually going to be acting in a film.” So, once I did that I went home and packed, and still my mom didn’t know at that time what had taken place and that I was chosen for this film. So I was in the middle of my packing process and mom came in and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well I was chosen to be an actress in a film.” My mom said, “Are you joking? You dropped out of college and you are completely shifting your plan?” I said yeah and my mom obviously got very, very upset and told me no I don’t want you to do this. So I ignored what she told me and I flew to the Ukraine and started filming The Tribe, and I actually didn’t see my parents for the whole month of September. I did stay in contact with my parents, but I didn’t see them in person. Once the production was done, I found out that it was chosen to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival and won some awards and things like that. Finally, through that process and learning about that on the Internet, my parents finally started to believe in me and that’s when the nudity issue came up and that I had to be nude in the film. I said, “Well mom and dad, that’s part of the acting work and life.” So I was so happy that finally I was actually a real actress and that I was a real thing.”

BK: Speaking of the nudity, you were asked to do some things that are not easy for any actor to do. How did you manage to get comfortable with the actors and the crew during the scenes where you had to be nude?

YN: The very first scene, I was just nude from the top up when the boy pushed the new student into our dorm room. But the script actually said that I was just going to be wearing a small little bra type thing, so that was what I was expecting at first during the filming of the first scene. And the director said, “Well actually, do you mind… Let’s time out for a second. I think the scene would do better with nude from the top up without the bra.” So I was like whoa, really? That was really overwhelming. I was upset at that point. I considered myself an actress and I wanted to get into my role, but I wasn’t expecting that. The director and his wife, they talked me down and calmed me down and said this was part of acting, “You don’t need to feel uncomfortable. Just focus on the beauty of the film in its entirety.” They gave me some different films to watch and to help get myself more into my preparation and into the role to help give me some ideas, and there is one specific French film called “Blue is the Warmest Color.” That specific film I watched and it had a significant impact on me. That really, really got me to change my point of view. The director decided to tell me more about the film itself which also went to the Cannes Film Festival and explained the process it had gone through, and I was full of questions about it. So, after seeing and learning more about that movie, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” I started to ask Myroslav, “So is it possible that ‘The Tribe’ could be that successful? Could it make it to Cannes and have the same level of success that the French film for that?” At that point in the whole process I hadn’t been finally selected for that full role, so we were just in rehearsals in that part of the process. So then when it was suggested to me that I watch that other film and started asking Myroslav those questions, it was at that point in time that my point of view completely changed. I got completely into the role during the rehearsals and everything, and I decided at that point I was fine with going with Miroslav’s direction of going full nude, and I wanted to prove to him that I could do it and that I was capable and that the film could make it to Cannes. So, it was a change in my point of view and my focus. During the scene where Sergey and I had to practice nudity, what we did to rehearse for that part was that we got into the nudity slowly so day by day by day we would remove more and more clothing as we rehearsed that scene. So we did all the rehearsal and then the actual filming took place, and finally everything just came together. Everything just melded so we filmed, and little by little by little by little the clothes came off as part of the filming process of that scene, and after we had done that scene it was no problem for me. We just completely filmed the whole thing, and then the next scene was the sex scene where we were in the 69 position. Our characters really grew. We became closer with one another and love developed. Our characters started to love one another, and love requires so many different ingredients and all these small and different elements being in tune with one another and showing that connection to the camera. Both myself and Sergey, it was our very, very first experience doing that type of thing and we were able to connect, and the rest is history.

BK: Another big scene for your character is when she has the abortion, and it’s a very brave scene in the movie. Myroslav explained to me that it was all an illusion, but your acting and the nurse there made it seem very real. How did you go about preparing for that particular scene?

YN: Thank you for that complement on that scene. When I learned that the abortion scene was part of the film, I didn’t have a problem doing it. I knew that it was part of the movie, but the challenge for me was that I didn’t have any real life experience with an abortion. So I had to do my research. I checked on the Internet, I interviewed and spoken to other women who had been through that experience and I tried to incorporate all those different elements into myself and then actually put those into that very scene. The other girl who was active in the film, she and I were in the same boat. She had never had that personal experience, so she and I and a director went to an actual medical clinic where they do those types of things, and the doctor there shared with us everything we needed to know about the abortion process. So, when the filming began the very next morning, it was a very long day. There were many, many takes and many retakes. We had to start from the beginning of the scene, walk-in and take off my clothing and go through the emotional part of it; the crying and the whole thing. And then we had to cut many, many times. We had to stop. Filming that scene went from morning until night. We went through a lot of tissues. I went through a lot of tissues that day. I was completely exhausted. I had to really try my best to conserve my energy before filming and then film the scene, be completely exhausted and then try and find that energy again and film the emotional parts again. It was exhausting and at that time I was trying to connect with the character and going through that abortion experience, and as a woman I tried to really reflect what it was really like and really tried to show it accurately. The director really worked with me to really draw out my genuine emotions to reflect that character. The goal was so that the audience could connect with that character and really connect with what she was really going through, and that scene was very, very important. It had a big impact in the movie. It actually was showing the beauty of what that person was going through. That’s how I would describe it. It was very, very hard work, and it was something I wanted to share.

BK: Were you aware from the get-go that this movie was going to be shown without subtitles or any narration, and how did you feel about that?

YN: I definitely was aware of that fact and I thought it was cool. I liked it because, for myself, when I watch a film I don’t like to look at the action and then have to look down and read. It’s work to do that to watch a film. It’s almost impossible sometimes to get everything all at once. I thought it was cooler because then the audience could really focus on the actual character and all the different elements of the character and really get into that, and so I absolutely completely supported Myroslav in his position to make the film without subtitles.

BK: It’s great because, even if you don’t know sign language, you still get the gist of what’s going on in the movie from scene to scene.

YN: Yes, absolutely. You get the gist, you get the story, you get the emotion, you see the facial expressions and all of that is obvious. It’s impossible to not understand from the beginning to the very, very end. It’s a very colorful film. It’s easy to understand. Everything is right there and presented visually for you. It’s like a person kind of going through and really experiencing that life and gives them that idea of getting into that story.

BK: In the end this is not a movie about deaf people but about people trapped in a situation that does not offer them an easy escape, and that’s what’s great about it. It’s not about one kind of people because it’s really universal in its themes.

YN: Yes, it is universal, absolutely. It’s both. It incorporates the deaf world and there was no interpreting needed actually. You understand the concepts and it’s beautiful. There’s no interpretation of language and it applies to all walks of life and the emotional parts of it as well. It applies to everyone. The emotions are universal. Everyone feels the same emotions. It’s very explicit.

I want to thank Yana very much for taking the time to talk with me. “The Tribe” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. For those movie buffs who are very interested in having a unique cinematic experience, this is a must see.

 

Jenny Slate Makes a Lasting Impression on us in ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Jenny Slate

We all know Jenny Slate from her brief tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” and she has since left an impression on us with “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and on episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” But in Gillian Robespierre’sObvious Child,” Slate gives one of the best breakout performances of 2014 which will stay with you long after the movie has ended. As comedian Donna Stern, we watch as her life hits rock bottom after she gets dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job in rapid succession. Then after a one-night stand with a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy), she finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. She decides to get an abortion, and it all leads up to the best/worst Valentine’s Day she’s ever had.

Obvious Child movie poster

I was very excited to meet Slate when she arrived for a roundtable interview at the “Obvious Child” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. I told her I came out of the movie wanting to hug her character, and she replied that was great and exactly the way we were supposed to feel (I couldn’t agree more). The movie is advertised as being the first “abortion comedy” ever, but that’s far too simplistic a description. To me, it was about how Donna learns how to empower herself and trust people again after having her heart broken, and Slate felt the same way.

Jenny Slate: It’s not representative of what the film actually does or how it unfolds. I guess, trying to look on the positive side, if people think that’s all that it is when they go and see the film, they will be delighted to see how complex and thoughtful it is and funny. If you think about it as just the story of one woman trying to understand the process of going from passive to active and trying to understand how to make choices you’d think, well why would I try to shy away from that? That’s a human story and I should just tell it.

“Obvious Child” derives its title from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. The discussion about the song led Slate to talk about when she used to ride the subway while she was a college student living in New York. She reminisced about how, when the train went through a tunnel, the window across from her would become a mirror, and this usually happened when she had headphones on.

JS: I remember sophomore year of college I would listen to, on repeat, the “Amelie” soundtrack and just imagine myself as a woman in a movie that was about a woman. It’s pretty interesting that I got to do it. I think a lot of people connected music that way. It makes them feel like they’re in a movie.

In the movie, Slate’s character is a comedian who does a stand-up act at a club in Brooklyn. The way Slate performs Donna’s act, you can’t help but think all her material was improvised, but Slate made it clear those scenes were the result of her collaboration with Robespierre.

JS: Gillian wrote this stand up based off of the style that I perform in; sort of loose storytelling, very instant with the audience, a conversation that’s evolving and not clubby or anything like that. She wrote it, we cut it down, we did some workshopping where I improvised a set based off of what she had written, and she recorded that, rewrote it, and then on the day of the shoot the shooting draft of the film had that stand-up set that we turned into bullet points so that I was not memorized and that it could be natural. You would have the feel of Donna feeling it out, and we talked about it and then I went up and went through these subjects that Gillian had set out and some of them are exact lines of her writing and some of them are lines that came up during it, and she would also call out to me during the shooting and be like, you know, circle back to talking about dirty underwear or whatever. And then I would go back and, during that time of walking backwards, new material would come in. I think if somebody says to me that it’s okay to work and it’s okay to be loose then I go with that. It’s in my nature to be playful and it’s my nature to feel a little bit claustrophobic with the rules, and that’s something I often just have to deal with and work through. You can’t improvise on every job, and you should be good enough at acting that you can say your lines. But for Gillian to say you can be a little looser and for her to be comfortable enough in what she had written to be flexible was an amazing testament to her. We are just a good pair.

One actress who was brought up with much excitement during this interview was Gaby Hoffman who plays Donna’s roommate, Nellie. Hoffman is best known for playing Kevin Costner’s daughter in “Field of Dreams” and for playing Maizy Russell in “Uncle Buck.” The interesting thing is that Slate and Hoffman actually look a lot alike to where you want to see them play sisters in a movie together. As it turns out, Hoffman’s career proved to have a major effect on Slate’s.

JS: I have always wanted to be an actress since I was young and can’t remember anything else. It was my ultimate desire, and she was my age and acting when I was growing up. I used to think I looked like her and was just like, oh I want to be like that girl. And when I got to meet her in my adulthood, I was like totally blown away in general just because I was such a huge fan. After getting past that, the real ultimate moment of just like being totally floored was discovering her personality. She’s very wise, really open and just like really no nonsense. She’s very fearless and I think she sets the bar really high for performance, and I felt that in a good way. I wanted to impress her, and I just think she’s the closest you can get to like a goddess. She’s got that real mythical vibe.

Now many people may say Slate is just playing herself in this movie, but this is the kind of unfair assumption we tend to make about actors in general. We may think we know an actor from reading about them in magazines or seeing them on the countless talk shows on television, but while Slate is a stand-up comedian like Donna, she was quick to point out the differences between herself and her character. Most importantly, she does not expound endlessly on her personal life like Donna does.

JS: I don’t do it. It just never seems right to me, but I’m not Donna. I know my boundaries and I think, although my standup is about like being horny and diarrhea and things like that, I still feel like it’s paired with really nice manners. I think the cornerstone of having nice manners is to have an equal exchange. Someone says how are you, and I say fine how are you, and Donna does not understand boundaries and limits at the beginning of the film. For me, I get it. My relationships are precious and I don’t talk about my husband on stage unless it’s something flattering. But even if it was something flattering that was going to embarrass him, I wouldn’t do it because there’s just too much to talk about.

Seriously, Jenny Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” is one of the best and most moving I saw in 2014, and it’s a must see even for those who, like me, are not fans of romantic comedies. Regardless of how you feel about the Valentine’s Day Donna ends up having, it’s a lot better than the one Slate told us about from her past.

JS: I had a really bad Valentine’s Day one year because I had a really shitty boyfriend who forgot that it was Valentine’s Day, and he gave me his digital camera in a sock. Wow, thanks! Such a bummer, the worst present ever. That’s like a present that a baby would give to somebody. I never wanted a digital camera in general. I don’t care, I don’t like technology. I just wanted some fucking chocolate. Look around you! There’s hearts everywhere! Fucking get it right! Dammit! My husband is so good at Valentine’s Day. He rules at it. No socks.

Gillian Robespierre Sets the Record Straight about ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Gillian on set

Obvious Child” marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it is one of the most assured directorial debuts I have seen in some time. It tells the story of aspiring stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate in a star making performance) whose life has just hit rock bottom. As the movie starts, she gets dumped by her boyfriend, fired from her job, and then finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand. Suffice to say, this is not the best of times for her. But at the same time, what happens from there results in one of the best romantic comedies you could ever hope to see.

Obvious Child movie poster

Now since Donna decides to get an abortion, “Obvious Child” has been labeled by many as the first ever “abortion comedy.” But while Robespierre is glad this has given her movie far more attention than she ever expected, she does not share this point of view. During an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, she made this very clear.

Gillian Robespierre: That’s not why we made this movie, to be called an abortion comedy, because we don’t think it is. I don’t think abortions are funny or hilarious, and I think that shorthand leads to believe we’ve been flippant or glib with the topic. We wanted to accomplish a couple of things with making this movie, and one was making a romantic comedy that was very entertaining, had a lot of romance, had a really funny leading lady, and had somebody who was recognizable onscreen who felt like she could be you or your sister or your best friend. And her parents were recognizable and her best friends were recognizable in a genre that sometimes doesn’t seem relatable. That’s what we wanted to do and really wanted to show. And we wanted to take some stigma away from abortion at the same time and show a procedure that was not full of regret and shame. Donna doesn’t put it on herself and her friends and the characters around her don’t put it on her either. That’s simply all we wanted to accomplish.

Indeed, the movie is really about how Donna picks herself up from her depressed state, comes to empower herself, and eventually learns to trust other people again after getting her heart shattered. This allows Robespierre to find humor in the more serious moments, and at the same time she succeeds in keeping things both human and intimate. These days it seems incredibly difficult to make a movie with such down to earth characters, but she pulls this off with what seems like relative ease.

GR: I think when we talk sometimes even in one sentence, offstage or on stage in a movie or in real life, sometimes we write comedy and tragedy in one beat. I think we’re just trying to take that sort of natural tone that we have and put it on the screen and cut out all the fat that movies and romantic comedies have and have the tone just be very realistic. Donna is a naturally funny character so in one beat she’ll be saying something very self-deprecating, and in the next second she’ll be saying something very sweet and heartfelt. I think that’s just how we interact with each other. To me, it’s just a realistic portrayal of how modern people speak to each other.

When it came to the movie’s title, Robespierre admitted it came from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. She explained why she chose it.

GR: I don’t think Donna is a child or an obvious child. I think Donna is somebody who’s not ready for what the late 20’s is giving her, and she thought she would be someplace else,” Robespierre said. “She didn’t know that the late 20’s is just as hard as her early 20’s, and she’s just trying to figure out how to be confident in where her voice is on and offstage. She’s just trying to figure out how to take over this passivity that seems to be a running narrative in her life, and I think she’s mature and thoughtful, and I think she’s doing something that needs to be done.

The fact Robespierre chose the title of a Paul Simon song for her movie made me wonder if the lyrics played a big part in her decision.

GR: I’m a rhythm girl. I do know the lyrics to the song, I’ve read the liner notes, and I think that determines the feel of the song. It’s not just like drum and bass, it’s obviously Paul Simon’s beautiful poetry that he’s written. But I just liked it for nostalgic reasons and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I listened to that song a lot when I was little in my car looking out the window, making up my little movie ideas; ‘Oh look at that tree, I feel like I’m in a movie.’

Of course, with this movie being a comedy, you come out of it wondering how many of its scenes were improvised instead of scripted. When you have a strong comedic talent heading your cast, we are quick to believe the director had no choice but to let their main star rewrite the screenplay themselves. But to hear Robespierre say it, the job of a director is to work with people instead of for them.

GR: I think filmmaking makes me really excited about being a filmmaker, and wanting to do this in the first place is that you get the chance to collaborate with a lot of smart, creative, intelligent actors, cinematographers, and editors. Every step of the way is collaboration, and what Jenny and I found in each other was a tone of how we like to speak with one another, and a comfortability of where our parameters are. I was very comfortable with letting Jenny go because she knows Donna just as well as I do, and we were really on the same page. So if a word didn’t feel true and if a sentence would have been funnier this way, I was very malleable. I have an ego, but it’s a different kind of ego.

“Obvious Child” started off as a short film Robespierre made, and it made me wonder about the differences between making a short as opposed to a feature length movie. Her immediate response was time and money as she never had enough of either, but she did go into more detail about what she had to deal with this time around.

GR: We had a crew of 30 people which was very new for me. The short was just four or five people all from film school. This was a real movie set where my producer Elizabeth (Holm) and I worked really hard to hire a crew. We were a boss and paid thirty people, and there’s something really exciting about that and really scary about that. To be somebody’s employer comes with, I think, a lot of heaviness and respect for the people who work for you and who were coming in every day and bringing in so much of themselves to their roles whether it’s Jenny coming in every day focused, but also the crafty person and the DP and the gaffer. Everybody was full-fucking focused.

Still, with “Obvious Child” dealing with the divisive issue of abortion, people can’t help but think pro-life supporters have been giving the filmmakers and actors a lot of grief. Robespierre responded she hasn’t personally received any feedback from any pro-life groups, and she again reiterated her movie is not an abortion comedy. In my opinion, I liked how it dealt with abortion in an intelligent and refreshing manner. Movies like “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” both which I loved, sidestep abortion in favor of dealing with unplanned pregnancies in another way. But in this post Roe vs. Wade world, it’s surprising we haven’t had more movies like “Obvious Child.” But while it may seem like a revolutionary movie, Robespierre made it clear she wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel.

GR: There’s room for other storytellers out there. I think just because one movie is tackling unplanned pregnancy that ends in childbirth, that’s a real narrative and that’s a story that happens. We’re tackling it in a different way but also making it a comedy using a genre that we love which is the romantic comedy. I was just watching “Knocked Up” last night, it was on TBS, and I laughed my head off.

“Obvious Child” was, in my opinion, one of the ten best movies of 2014. While Jenny Slate is getting the praise she deserves for her performance, the movie’s success is really thanks to Gillian Robespierre whose work here bodes well for the great future she has ahead of her. In a sea of independent films which constantly get lost in the shuffle of all the superhero blockbusters being unleashed on us, it’s great to see a movie like this get the attention it deserves.

Image, poster and featurette courtesy of A24.

 

‘Obvious Child’ Ranks Among My Favorite Rom Coms of All Time

Obvious Child movie poster

Uh-oh, I think I’m becoming a fan of romantic comedies. For the longest time, I have been avoiding them like the plague as they feature characters whose problems don’t even compare to what I go through, dialogue which makes me cringe in such an incredibly painful way, and acting that is embarrassing and flat. But just as the genre looks to be finally dying out, 2014 brought us movies like “What If” and “The One I Love” which succeed in reinvigorating it to where I got surprised in a way I didn’t expect. But moreover, these movies have provided us with down to earth characters we can actually relate to instead of sneer at in bitterness.

Of all the romantic comedies released in 2014, I doubt I will see one better than “Obvious Child.” It marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it’s a very confident and assured debut as she follows the trials and tribulations of a twenty-something woman whose life hits a low point which leaves her in a depressed funk. It also deals with a very touchy subject in a way both intelligent and very refreshing, and that makes this rom com a brilliantly subversive one.

Former “Saturday Night Live” star Jenny Slate stars as Donna Stern, a comedian and bookstore employee who is about to go through one of the worst periods of her life. “Obvious Child” starts with Donna’s boyfriend dumping her which leaves her utterly devastated, and then she is informed the bookstore she works at will be closing which will leave her out of a job. This leads her sinking into a depressed state which results in one of her worst stand up gigs ever, but on that same night she meets a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy) with whom she strikes up an easy-going conversation. From there, the two of them have a night of fun where Max accidentally farts in Donna’s face, and they end up having sex after an exuberant dancing session to Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” a song from which this movie gets its name.

Not long afterwards, Donna discovers this one-night stand has gotten her pregnant, something she is not the least bit prepared for. As a result, she decides to get an abortion but finds she has to wait a few days before the doctors can perform the procedure. During this time, she wonders about whether or not to tell Max about her decision, and the movie chronicles her journey towards the best/worst Valentine’s Day she has ever had.

Many have been describing “Obvious Child” as the first ever abortion comedy, but that description doesn’t do it justice. Yes, abortion is a theme here, but it’s not what this movie is about. The main focus is on how Donna’s unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time in her life, and it proves to be a journey both rough and, at times, truly hilarious.

Many of us remember Slate from her brief stint on “SNL” where she accidentally let the F-word slip out of her mouth. She left after only season, but she has since made a name for herself on “Parks & Recreations” and “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” proves to be a huge breakthrough for her, and you just want to hug her after watching this movie. She infuses Donna with a lot of heart and makes you relate to her struggles as life constantly throws an endless number of curveballs in her direction, and we get so emotionally absorbed in Donna’s journey as she faces up to her responsibilities and rises above her misery which threatens to consume her completely. Slate is both warm and funny at the same time, and that’s not always an easy combination to pull off. It’s one of the best performances from an actress I have seen this year.

Slate is also backed up by a terrific supporting cast which features characters who come to reveal things about themselves we wouldn’t otherwise have known. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as Donna’s friend and roommate Nellie, Richard Kind is drolly amusing as Donna’s father Jacob, Polly Draper has some very moving moments as Donna’s mother Nancy, Gabe Liedman is a hoot as everyone’s gay best friend Joey, and David Cross has some hilarious scenes as Sam, a comedian and a guy who just doesn’t get what’s going on around him.

I also have to give Jake Lacy a lot of credit as he makes Max a truly nice guy we never find ourselves snickering at. Roles like these are often very bland and don’t give actors a lot to work with, but Lacy makes you believe Max is the real deal and the kind of significant other we all hope to find in our own lives. Max could have been the most boring and thankless character in “Obvious Child,” but Lacy keeps him from becoming this with a lot of humor and charm.

When it comes to the abortion issue, which has already split people on “Obvious Child” (particularly those who haven’t even bothered to see it), Robespierre handles it in a manner which is actually very refreshing. She’s not out to demonize abortion, but she also doesn’t make light of it either. In this Roe vs. Wade world we have been living in for the past few decades, I’m surprised we haven’t had more movies like this one.

Robespierre has created a truly wonderful film I am very eager to see again soon, and it’s one of the most intelligent rom-coms to come out in some time. “Obvious Child” really left a smile on my face as I walked out of the theater. Regardless of whether or not you have gone through what Donna has, or whether you’re a man or a woman for that matter, you can sympathize with what she goes through as we have all hit a rocky point in our lives. What’s great is how she rises above her problems and becomes a stronger person as a result. Robespierre and company confront the painful moments in these characters lives with a lot of intelligence and warmth, and it’s also really funny. It’s deep, but it also had me laughing a lot.

* * * * out of * * * *

FYI: This review was written shortly before this movie went into wide release.

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Abortion Stories Women Tell poster

Was there ever a time when abortion didn’t seem like such a controversial issue? Well, if there was, that certainly long, long, long time ago. Even with the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which gave every woman in the United States the right to have an abortion, many have still been doing their damndest to get it overturned. Never mind that the Supreme Court has the final say on issues like this, never mind that Roe v. Wade was passed to stop women dying from abortions, and never mind that abortions make up a very tiny percentage of the work Planned Parenthood does; people are still swayed by their emotions more than facts, and many have to be reminded of the importance of the separation between church and state.

The HBO documentary “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is not out to take sides on this contentious debate. Instead, it gives women the opportunity to talk about their experiences with both pregnancy and abortion and to tell their own stories without any filters. Some men are heard on this too, but the focus is on women on both sides of the fence as they are the ones who have to deal not just with their decisions but also the aftermath they are unwilling exposed to.

The documentary starts off with a pro-life rally in Missouri where supporters chant “all in Christ” and an elected representative tells them they are making progress in closing clinics in the state as they now “have the ability to look inside the womb.” But the focus quickly shifts to a title card which states since 2011, more than half of the United States have significantly restricted access to abortions, and those restrictions have increased from year to year. Abortion opponents may not be able to overturn Roe v. Wade, but they have managed to find ways around it.

Missouri at this time has only one abortion clinic which means the women who live there are more likely to drive many miles across the state border into Illinois to seek help. The documentary looks at the daily happenings at the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois where employees do their best to help women in need of health care even while they are constantly harassed by protestors. None of them have any shame over the work they do, and that’s even if some consider themselves the black sheep of their family as a result.

The stories we hear cover different spectrums of the abortion debate. There’s Amie, a 30-year-old single mom who works 70 to 90 hours a week to make ends meet and cannot afford to have another baby right now. We get to meet Sarah who has discovered her baby will have lungs missing and won’t survive long after birth. Then there’s Kathy whose house is filled with various religious objects, and she is setting up a peaceful pro-life march to get what she sees as God’s message across to others. And there’s no forgetting Alexis who is 17 years old and pregnant, whose mother died when she was just 8 and who gets picked on at school because of her condition. It’s painful to see how isolated all these women are from the rest of society as the stigma of abortion is still all too harsh. Granted, Kathy might not seem as isolated, but there is a strong sense of loneliness about her as she pursues her quest to end abortions.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, herself a Missouri resident, presents all these women’s stories without any judgment. She has given them a forum to speak their minds, and they all need to be heard regardless of how we feel about this infinitely taboo subject. There’s no narration to be found here as Tragos is not looking to steer the conversation one way or another, and this is even though the number of pro-lifers interview here pales in comparison to the pro-choice advocates. But for what it’s worth, the pro-life women interviewed here come across as very nice and full of much love, and this is in sharp contrast to those protestors (mostly men) who stand outside the clinic berating anybody and everybody who enters it.

But for me, the most important takeaway from “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is that none of the women featured here take the issue of abortion lightly. Why would they? Many people who oppose abortion treat those who have had one with such disgusting disdain as if to say they never bothered to put much thought into what they were doing. But as Representative Jackie Speier said in a session of congress, the thought that anyone enters into such a decision with a cavalier attitude is just “preposterous.”

It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by what these women go through. Plus, one cannot but be infuriated at those protestors who hold up signs featuring what looks like aborted fetuses which are disgusting and unforgivably cruel as they do nothing more than try to manipulate the actions of people they have no interest in knowing personally. Tragos briefly gets to interview one of the most outspoken pro-lifers who follows a clinic escort all the way to her car, begging her to repent. He talks about a law in California which punishes someone with not one, but two murders when they kill a pregnant woman. Whoever this person is, he may need to look at the California law book more closely.

With the United States currently entering the most contentious of Presidential elections, the future of Roe v. Wade is in more danger than ever. But watching “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is a stark reminder of how women are still treated like a minority even though they make up more than fifty percent of the world’s population. This documentary will bring about a fury of emotions for everyone who watches it, but the one thing to keep in mind is all the women featured here are no different from one another. They believe in the same things and have more in common than they bother to realize.

I also have to quote Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times here as he made an excellent point in his review I wish I had made myself:

“The key to understanding why ‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell’ is a quietly powerful documentary is not the first word in the title, but the final three.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.