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How To Play Infidelity, Divorce, And Old Technology For Laughs

Talking with Gillian Robespierre about ‘Landline’

by Rachel Davies

Growing up, romantic comedies were a mainstay of my family’s VHS circulation, like any family comprised of mostly girls. On any wistful night now, these same rom-coms pull me in on Netflix. The impulse is half fueled by a sense of nostalgia and half because they are genuinely very entertaining. Now that I’m a grown person with a different, more balanced outlook on life, these movies, which I still love, sadly conflict with everything I hope the world can be, thanks to their adherence to rigid gender roles and inherently conservative attitudes. Times have changed, but the rom-com didn't—until recently.

In 2014, Gillian Robespierre showed audiences with her film, Obvious Child, that a movie can be fueled by a familiar story structure while boasting progressive politics. It's the only rom-com I can think of that portrays a non-traumatic abortion. Robespierre accomplished this while still making a movie as equally entertaining as those of my youth, and skipped heavy-handedness all together in her representation of the tricky subject.

In her new '90s New York set-flick Landline, Robespierre depicts the process of divorce—a topic that’s also typically portrayed in a harsh, unforgiving light. Starring Jenny Slate as Dana, older sister of New York teen Ali, played by Abby Quinn, Landline illustrates how the familial shift that takes place in a midst of divorce is not necessarily all negative. “Look at us having sister time,” Dana says to Ali at one point, a sardonic reference to how the family's drama is actually pulling them closer together, rather than pushing them further apart.

Recently, we talked to Robespierre about working with longtime collaborators, making a period piece, and what role parents play in the adult lives of their children.

Something that both Obvious Child and Landline touch on is the huge influence parents have on how their children see themselves. What interests you about this?

Yeah, I think we touched on it briefly in Obvious Child with the depth and importance of the mother-daughter relationship, but we weren’t quite yet finished. We wanted to elaborate on that more in Landline, and open it up to the connection and impact both parents and siblings have on who you are as a person. We came into making Landline because we wanted to show a family that came together through change. 

My co-writer Liz Holm and I shared a similar experience as kids—when we were teenagers, our parents divorced. It was a really formative year for us because we weren’t young. We were really aware and awake humans. We sort of saw what was going on. Growing up in the ‘90s, most of our friends’ parents were already divorced. Our parents were like the holdouts, really. But when it was happening, our siblings became friends for the very first time. My brother is five years older than me, Liz’s brother is three or four years older than her. Before that, they were kind of like older uncle types in our house. My brother went off to college, and I sort of took over the room, and he came back around the same time that they were getting a divorce. He was in his early 20s and I was 16. We became friends and cohorts. It was a wonderful moment for us! It was the first time we saw our mothers as these complex women who were funny and vulnerable and strong. They weren’t just these women who were forcing rules onto us. My father became someone who I would hang out with on the weekends. He would take me to the Angelika [an independent movie theater in New York City], and we would watch movies together. Our relationship before that was totally different. 

[Before,] we were all living under one roof, but we weren’t really communicating. We were stuck in our little designated roles that we’d carved so many years before. We couldn’t get out of them. Nobody was talking to each other. I think the divorce, as sad as it was, also shook us alive and we woke up! It changed us for the better. That’s sort of the thesis of the story—that divorce doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of a family or have such a negative impact. It can actually be the beginning of this new chapter that has a little more hope to it than a typical scorned woman throwing clothes out of the window. That scene is something that I’ve never seen in real life—I’ve seen clothes on the street, and I wondered how they got there, but sometimes it’s not so dramatic, it’s just a garbage truck dumping on the street. We wanted to show characters who make mistakes, who lie and cheat, but it doesn’t define them. They can still recover from it and be empathetic and kind humans who are just trying to figure it all out. 

When I first watched the trailer, I feel that I processed it as being a movie set in the '90s, and then thought about it centering around this divorce. Did you want to make a movie about a divorce or the '90s? 

For sure [a divorce movie]. The movie didn’t come about because we wanted to make a movie that takes place in New York City in the 1990s. It first started with the story and creating the look and feel of this family. [We] really focused on the three women in the family and how women deal with infidelity, monogamy, and existential crisis in their own lives. This happened early on, but then the '90s became a real factor in telling this story. We didn’t want to rely on texting or social media as part of this family’s story. I think, for us, it started as this personal tale, but then evolved more and more into fiction. Then we were really able to create characters who aren’t necessarily us, and yet, we sort of embody each one of our characters in some shape. Even John Turturro's character [who plays the dad]. 

Something that was really wonderful when watching Landline was hearing the really old printer, or seeing a floppy disk, or visiting a record store. There are these different sensory experiences that we forget we used to have.

The dot matrix printer took us half the day to figure out how to work! [Those things were] logistical nightmares, but really important in our childhoods! I think a lot of people who watch this can feel nostalgic for that, but also… no one really wants to use a pay phone again! 

Do you feel like you were working a lot more closely with props and costuming than you would normally?

I always work really closely with props and costuming, but indeed, with this film, everything had to be double- and triple-checked. With each department head, we created a mood board, and a lot of the photos were anything from our own yearbook photos to strangers’ yearbooks. We also got things from my and Liz’s apartments growing up; the Marimekko bedding that’s in Dana and Ali’s bedroom is inspired by bedding that I had. Liz and I both had wall-to-wall carpeting. There are those tiny TVs that have the VHS player attached to it. The epicenter of our home was either the television we would all gather around together, or it was the landline. Whether it was being ripped out of your wall because you were on too late, or whether you were hovering over it waiting for that person to call. It was definitely the only way we communicated with our friends, it was so important to tie us all together. That’s sort of why we named the movie Landline.

From what I understand, for Obvious Child, you wrote the screenplay by yourself, but the story was based on something you wrote with Karen Maine and Liz Holm. With Landline you worked with Liz more closely, right?

Yeah, so the Obvious Child short, I co-wrote with Anna Bean and Karen Maine, and for the feature, I worked closely with Liz and Karen on developing the story. We definitely brought it to the feature that is together. Landline isn’t the first time that Liz and I have written together, but it’s the first time we’ve done something from scratch that wasn’t based on work I had done before. It was fun! The way we work is we don’t do it side by side, because who can write with someone across from them? I have a very low attention span; if I see Liz, I’m going to want to talk to her. We work in our own separate caves. I write from bed, and I don’t think Liz wants to crawl in bed with me. We come together and read scenes out loud to each other. Each scene has been touched by us. We rework things and often, at the tail end, that’s when the jokes are coming. The bones and the structure, we talk a lot before we separate to write, and then we come back together. It’s really nice to have that. So often in independent films, you don’t have actors available for any length of rehearsal. The dialogue we write is very naturalistic, so we have each other to read the lines. Not very well, but we can get the dialogue to a really nice spot where it feels natural. Everything changes once these amazing actors come on board. The most important part of directing, and really doing it successfully, is casting the right actors and letting them be free within these roles.

Both of your movies are set in New York, and you see all of these locally iconic places, like Other Music, before it shut down, or Brooklyn comedy clubs in Obvious Child. Do you see your stories as essentially New York?

Being a born and raised New Yorker, this place is very much a part of my being and in my veins. It’s not intimidating or scary to live here or to shoot here because it’s all I’ve known. What’s scary would be to shoot in Hawaii. [laughs] But that’s also really exciting! I just shot two episodes of a show called Casual, which is a beautiful TV show on Hulu about a family and relationships, but it’s in Los Angeles. It was really exciting to leave my zip code for palm trees and to dip my toes into what other cities feel like. I love New York. This is my home, I think I’ll be calling it home for a long, long time, but I also enjoy exploring characters. I don’t think I’ll necessarily always shoot in New York City. Have I gotten it out of my system? Probably not. [laughs] But I’m excited to explore new areas and new characters.

What’s the experience like going and shooting something like Casual, and then returning to working so closely with longtime collaborators like Liz and Jenny Slate?

I was nervous! I was nervous to be on a set without home team advantage, with my DP and my collaborators, but Casual is a wonderful show. The showrunners are another team, so I got to be on the outside of what a team looked like. They were really trusting of me, and I love the DP on the show. I think a good set starts from up top, and that was a great set! I loved being able to really focus on directing and not have to really have all the same interactions [involved with] creating [my] own project. I was walking into a well-oiled machine. I got to work closely with actors and focus on directing and setting up shots with the DP. I didn’t have to look at budgets or any of those distractions, which are wonderful and part of what I love about making movies but they are sometimes a distraction from just the beauty of tunnel vision direction. It was really exciting, I’m going to do it again on a show called Crashing for HBO.  

Your movies represent things that are sometimes seen as simply negative, like cheating and abortion. Do you feel there are any movies you grew up watching that inspired you to represent these stories or are you more inspired by a lack of them?

It starts with the lack of them, but once I get into the thesis and the idea, I definitely get inspired by movies that came before. For Obvious Child, it was really the lack of abortion narrative that seemed like more of the norm. It felt missing from mainstream movies, yet I used the romantic comedy genre as the three-act structure because that’s a genre I love so well, I hold it so close to me. I wanted to rattle it a little. Change it a little, but still be respectful of the structure. For divorce and infidelity, so often I see movies where men are allowed to cheat and lie and not get punished, but often in movies and real life—our election, for example—women are not able to grow from their experiences. They’re not able to lie and cheat without consequences. I really wanted to show a woman who could do that and not be vilified, but be someone who you not only love but relate to. 

Landline is out today.