Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm are a filmmaking team best known for their 2014 abortion comedy “Obvious Child.” Their newest film, “Landline,” which the duo co-wrote and Robespierre directed and Holm produced, focuses on a New York-based family in the 1990s as they struggle with love, divorce, and sisterhood. Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, John Turturro, and newcomer (and breakout) Abby Quinn star.
I talked to Robespierre and Holm about their relationship, how they cast Slate in “Obvious Child,” and why they chose to set “Landline” in the ’90s.
“Landline” made its world premiere at Sundance in January and hits theaters July 21. Find screening info here.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Kaidia Pickels.
W&H: Tell us a little bit about how you became collaborators.
Gr: Our collaboration started way, way back in the year 2011. We met at a film mixer that the Independent Filmmaker Project was sponsoring. We were each in the program in different sections: Liz was finishing up her movie “Welcome to Pine Hill,” and I was there with a very early stage of “Obvious Child” as a feature.
It was [something like] speed dating — I didn’t have a producer on board and I was kind of fibbing and saying I did. Up until that meeting it was hard to find somebody who wanted to take this project all the way with me, who had faith in the story and the determination to get the funding for it.
Liz and I met at that mixer and we were drinking wine and having sliders, and we bumped into each other — more like gravitated toward each other — and started talking, but not about our projects. We just talked about being female filmmakers and having boyfriends and trying to sort of toggle between a relationship and also our desires to make movies. It was just a very natural conversation — maybe a little natural drunk conversation — but we liked each other.
We had a friend date the next day, and that’s where things got a little bit more businesslike in a way, and we started talking about what we wanted to do. I told her about “Obvious Child.” Liz had watched the short and I gave her the script to read.
The next night, over more wine and sliders, we decided to do it. About a two years later, we were filming it, but we spent a lot of time working on the script and getting that in place before shooting. We both also had day jobs — Liz worked at Kickstarter and I was at the Director’s Guild of America.
Eh: I think the older you get, the harder it is to make friends and find new people that you actually want to spend real time with, and it was just really exciting for both of us to connect that quickly to want to tell the same kinds of stories. I totally fell in love with Gillian on day one.
Gr: I think if you look back in your own life at those magical moments with the person who means so much to you throughout the course of your life, it is sort of like a romantic comedy in a way. It’s very instantaneous, and you have a feeling, but whether or not you act on it immediately or you’re too shy, there are so many factors. Luckily neither Liz nor I were shy that night or the following day.
Eh: We’re not shy people.
W&H: Now neither of you have day jobs. This is your day job now.
Eh: After “Obvious Child” came out at Sundance, it was acquired by A24 and we went back to our day jobs. I continued to run film for Kickstarter and Liz continued to be at the Director’s Guild. Then we went out to La and pitched a very vague idea that we had for what was then “Untitled Divorce Comedy” about three women in one family all dealing with divorce in New York in the ’90s.
We found a company that was excited to work with us. That afforded us the opportunity to leave our day jobs and go back into filmmaking full-time — for now. Who knows? I’m sure I will have a day job again very soon, but for now, we’re just filmmakers, which is pretty wild and exciting and we’re very grateful.
W&H: How did “Obvious Child” and “Landline’s” star, Jenny Slate, come into your life?
Gr: I met Jenny in 2009 while she was doing stand-up comedy in Brooklyn with her comedy partners Gabe Liedman and Max Silvestri. I had written “Obvious Child” the short with my friends Karen Maine and Anna Bean, and we were looking to cast the role of Donna, but we were having a hard time.
We went through all the channels that you do when you have literally no budget — Craigslist was one of those channels, and Backstage.com, and we held some interviews and saw a lot of great New York actresses, but they didn’t have that certain ability to live really comfortably in the comedic world as well as the dramatic world.
We went to live comedy, which is something we were doing back then anyway — I was really a huge fan of comedy and I still am — but I saw Jenny perform, and she was just telling a story. She wasn’t going up there necessarily telling jokes that had classic punchlines, but more weaving a story that had ups and downs and was so relatable and sad at moments and suddenly you’re cracking up. She felt like a sister, or a camp friend, or myself in ways. We sent her the script for the short through a friend we had in common, she read it, and she said yes.
Over that winter we spent about three days shooting “Obvious Child” the short, and we sent it out into the world and a couple of really great feminist blogs picked it up and started talking about it. Jenny then got on “Saturday Night Live,” and well, she cursed on her first episode and all of a sudden overnight she became the woman who said “fuck” on “SNL,” but then the second or third thing that was visible [about her] was “Obvious Child.”
People connected to the short, which spurred me to go on and turn it into a feature so more people could see it and we could expand on the story. The story evolved into Liz joining the family, and then it became a real family. Jenny, Liz, and myself made a movie in a bubble and it kind of changed our lives.
W&H: I love that you’re a happy feminist family.
Eh: [Laughs] I like it too! And we let dudes come in, and we definitely love writing for men as well, giving them roles that are challenging and that show a vulnerable side. You can be a tough dad but also kind of a clown and vulnerable at the same time. No one should be defined by one thing only or one characteristic only, so hopefully we get to write for and do justice to both men and women.
W&H: Talk a little bit about the ’90s. I still have a landline, but I didn’t realize until I was reading the press notes that you named it for the landline phone that is no longer in our world. Why did you want to tell a story set in that period?
Gr: Liz and I are both born-and-raised New Yorkers who grew up in the ’90s. Our parents divorced in the ’90s when we were teenagers. The movie definitely starts with our personal stories, and that was a time when we and our families were collectively coming of age, so it started from there. We also knew we wanted to tell a story where there were family secrets, lies, lack of communication, and ultimately communication.
We wanted to see people connect, human-to-human, and didn’t want to tell a story where someone finds out about cheating through Facebook, or meets somebody on Tinder or is looking at text messages. There is so much media now that does that and some of it is really successful, but we just wanted to go back to a simpler time, where maybe the only “evil technology” was the one family computer where we discover really, really shitty poetry.
Eh: I think we are really part of this weird generation that’s a combo of old millennials and young Gen-Xers. I lived half of my life without a cellphone, and the other half very much with one, and I strongly remember the time before cellphones became essential. It was the very, very last moment before cellphones and email took over everybody’s lives and where you could all be connected constantly.
For “Landline”, the title grows from wanting to set the tone for the time period, but also it being the family hub and the family hearth, this thing that connects the family together. To us it just really meant “home.”
W&H: If you had to each give your log line for the movie, what would it be?
Eh: I think when we started pitching the movie, it was about three women in one family dealing with divorce in New York in the ’90s, and then once we got into shooting and editing we discovered that it was a love story between these two sisters.
When it came time to apply into festivals, all of a sudden our logline had sisters in it, which I don’t think it did when we started, and that’s been a really lovely shift that we’re excited about. Neither one of us actually has sisters. We both have brothers and we kind of are each other’s sisters. It’s been cool to see how that has changed over time.
W&H: You have a big discovery, a girl about to break out, in Abby Quinn. How did you find her?
Gr: It was easy and not easy. We always knew that role was going to be more difficult to cast because we needed somebody who looked and felt like a teenager who grew up in New York City, so she needed to be a little bit tough, and she needed to get into some darker, deep scenes. She also had to act against Jenny Slate and John Turturro and Edie Falco, so we went with a casting director in New York called Doug Aibel and Stephanie Holbrook and they sent us a bunch of tapes of amazing young actresses.
Abby Quinn really stood out for so many reasons. One was just that her tape was exactly what I described. She looked like a teenager, she had strength in her delivery of the lines, but then she had this infectious giggle and was able to be childlike and wise at the same time.
Then, we got to sort of snoop around the internet because it is not 1995, and we found this amazing video of her singing Britney Spears’s “Toxic” at a high school talent show. She did it acoustic and she had this beautiful voice, so we rewrote the role a little bit for her so we could have her character sing and showcase a young woman who is talented and able to do many things.
It’s not a movie about a singer/songwriter who’s on the cusp of stardom, but just a young woman who’s a badass, and who’s in many ways the wisest person in the family while being the youngest. Liz and I are both the youngest in our families, and we’re pretty fuckin’ smart.
W&H: What are we going to see from you two next?
Gr: Liz is doing a feature version of “Marcel the Shell” with Jenny. I just directed two episodes of a TV show called “Casual” and I’m doing two more episodes of a show on HBO called “Higher.”
We’re also going to go back into the cave and write. I did a show on television, and I found out that directing other people’s words is kind of fun and interesting, and I got to really focus on directing and not all that other shit.
“Landline’s” Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm on Jenny Slate, the ’90s, and Sisterhood was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.