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.

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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.

 

Exclusive Interview with Dana Ben-Ari on her Documentary ‘Breastmilk’

breastmilk-documentary-poster

The documentary “Breastmilk” marks the directorial debut of Dana Ben-Ari, and it deals with a subject we think we know a lot but really don’t: breast feeding. It follows first-time mothers of different ages and backgrounds as they deal with the breast feeding process in various ways, and it documents the successes and struggles they are forced to endure. While some are pro-breast feeding, others find themselves relieved at not having to go through with it. But throughout “Breastmilk,” Ben-Ari never judges the families and prefers to present their stories as objectively as possible. Sure, there are a number of instructional videos, books, experts, lactation experts and do-it-yourself guides you can find on YouTube, but there really hasn’t been a film which explores real people going through this process before this one.

I got to speak with Ben-Ari while she was in town to do press for “Breastmilk,” and I congratulated her on making a documentary which will appeal to both women and men. It certainly promotes a lot of discussion on breast feeding, and it will be interesting to hear what people who see this documentary have to say about it. We talked about what drew her to make “Breastmilk,” how she went about choosing its participants, what surprised her most about the making of it, and the importance of including gay couples in this debate as well.

Ben Kenber: What was your main inspiration for wanting to make this documentary?

Dana Ben-Ari: Well I am a mother myself and I am pro-breastfeeding, and I’ve seen many women in many families struggle and go through these similar experiences. I thought that this would be fun and interesting to explore on camera because I think that it is part of a larger conversation around feminism, and I thought that voicing and making these experiences visible would be very helpful and important.

BK: In regards to the people who participated in this documentary, how did you go about selecting them?

DBA: We posted various flyers and we posted on parent sites and groups and word-of-mouth and friends. We had an overwhelming amount of emails and stories shared, and then we realized that we wanted to find pregnant women who were carrying their first child so that we could have a more immediate first time experience. We started with that, and then I wanted to have a few other families participate in the conversation because I thought that families with slightly older kids, as you see sprinkled throughout the film, just provide a little bit of a different perspective than the young families who are going through it for the first time. That’s how we came out with that balance.

BK: Have you kept in touch with the participants since you finished making this documentary?

DBA: Yeah, a few of them came to one of the Saturday night screenings and then the Sunday screening. We’ve been in touch. A few people have moved out of New York, but the ones in New York try to come to the screenings when they can.

BK: Were there any really big surprises while you were making this documentary?

DBA: I learned a lot about filmmaking because this is my first film, so that was quite interesting. I had a great cinematographer (Jake Clennell) who taught me how to be in the room but still respect the space and the experience, and we really learned a lot about being patient and giving that families time. What also stood out was how vulnerable all of these families are and how women are still oppressed.

BK: One woman talks about how women are still made to feel bad about their bodies, and that’s a shame. You get the feeling that people who say that probably don’t understand what the experience is like, and we are seeing that experience in front of us. They are doing the best they can.

DBA: Right. All of these families are doing the best that they can.

BK: One of my favorite scenes is when a white couple goes to one of the black mothers and gets bags of breast milk. It reminded me of picture I saw in a magazine where a heart from a white person was placed next to a heart from a black person, and you see that there’s no difference between them. It’s the same thing with the breast milk because, in the end, milk is milk. How did you come to get that scene?

DBA: We knew that we wanted to show some donations, and I looked for women who were looking for milk donations. One of the women that we had been following did have a lot of milk that she wanted to donate, and I asked her if she wanted us to help her find somebody. So we followed the adoptive mother through a number of attempts, and then we also had this one. We had a couple more milk donations scenes that didn’t make the cut, and we were just left with this one which was really a great scene because so much gets covered. There’s so much you can discuss from that one little moment, and that was very natural actually (those reactions).

BK: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to capture but were unable to for one reason or another?

DBA: Not so much. I’m quite happy with everything. We packed so much in. I wish we’d have more time to develop more stories, but as far as 90 minutes go I think we covered quite a lot. There’s so much there that I think people may not have thought of, and it just inspires these questions and their interest.

BK: Going back to what the cinematographer told you about respecting the space, can you talk a little bit more about that?

DBA: He is very good and very talented at what he does, but he also is very good at being very social and knows how to make people feel comfortable. But then also, as a mother myself, I had some experiences with what some of these families were going through, and I really did not get too involved in their journey. So even if some couples were arguing over a formula I really stayed out of it, and that was something he and I discussed that we were not going to get involved in. We were just going to let things play out. Of course, if somebody had asked me privately off camera certain things I would tell them, but we really didn’t want to affect their decisions and their experiences. So I think we did a good job with respecting their choices and their decisions.

BK: I also liked how the documentary dealt with gay couples, both male and female, and you sort of wonder how certain couples deal with that or not being able to give their children breast milk (men can’t, but they do keep trying). It’s great to see them in the groups because what they go through is no different from what anybody else is going through. Was that what you were hoping to show?

DBA: Yeah, I loved that too. I think it’s like dropping certain things without an editorial just to make people think about what is family and what is community and what does it mean to be male, what does it mean to be female, all of those questions. While there are some differences, the similarities sometimes are really much greater than we realize. I think that those are wonderful moments in the film, and I think it’s important to include a diverse group because our country is diverse. If we just focused on the one or two examples I think we miss a lot.

BK: A couple of days ago I saw the movie “Neighbors” which stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, and there is a scene where Seth gets sprayed with Rose’s breast milk. I was reminded of that when you show the montage of women squeezing the breast to show how much milk can come out of them, and it made the scene from “Neighbors” seem more realistic as a result. What was it like filming that montage?

DBA: Oh that was a lot of fun (laughs). That was a lot of fun and a lot of women had not really had that experience before, so we left those women feeling very satisfied that they got something of the experience. But really, this movie is about community and the body and how we’ve become and how nice it is for women to get reacquainted with their bodies and also just accept themselves as women. That was one of those celebratory moments in the film and humorous as well.

BK: Are you planning a follow up documentary to “Breastmilk” or do you have different plans for the future?

DBA: Well I have some ideas but not a follow-up to this. Some people are asking if there’s going to be a “Breastmilk 2;” no, I don’t think so. But I hope to be involved in something fun again soon. I do have to see this through, you know? It’s the first film so I have to do the short film tour and be available for press as much as possible.

BK: How involved were the executive producers, Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, in the making of this documentary?

DBA: Well they came on after everything was done, and they’ve been very helpful and supportive in promoting it. That’s really more of our relationship, promoting and reaching a wider audience. They’ve been great.

I really want to thank Dana Ben-Ari for taking the time to talk with me. “Breastmilk” is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. Click here to view the movie’s website for more information.

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