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Jenny Slate, Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm have gotten really good about finding the comedy in what could easily be seen as something tragic.
The actress, writer-director and writer-producer, respectively, went from an abortion rom-com, Obvious Child, into a movie about infidelity and divorce that also happens to be a ’90s-set comedy. Landline, out today, is set in 1995 New York and follows two sisters, played by Jenny Slate and relative newcomer Abby Quinn, and a mother (Edie Falco) discovering and handling the fallout of their dad/husband’s (John Turturro) affair in their own unique ways.
Slate, Robespierre and Holm talked to The Hollywood Reporter about making their second feature film together, recreating ’90s New York (“we had to add a lot of trash”) and giving someone the finger for the first time (“it was at a dance at camp”).
After the success of Obvious Child, did you guys jump right in and start working on Landline?
Gillian Robespierre: No, no, no. We’re one project-minded kind of gals. Obvious Child wrapped and we went to Sundance and it changed our lives, we sold it to A24, came back from Sundance in 2014. Jenny went to L.A., Liz and I went back to New York — we had day jobs to get back to. We used vacation hours to go to Sundance. We didn’t quit until we had the very rough idea of wanting to make a comedy that takes place in the ’90s, following three women in one family.
Liz and I are both from New York City and our parents both divorced in the ’90s when we were teenagers and that’s sort of where this story started, with our personal lives. Then through the course of writing it for a year it turned into something bigger. And that’s sort of how it started — over wine, as it always does.
How did the process of rehearsing and getting Landline into production compare to Obvious Child?
Robespierre: We always knew Jenny was going to be Dana, so we started collaborating with her on her character early on, sending her drafts, talking about it, definitely ping-ponging ideas with her, which is such a delight to have because it’s so nice to be with actors as early as you can. With small films and independent films, you don’t have any rehearsal time and actors don’t have much time with their characters.
Jenny Slate: And it was a little fancier. We had some sort of a trailer this time. On Obvious Child it was like, “And your holding will be the basement of this, uh, church where there’s been a flood but anyways here’s a bucket for you to sit on but also you have to go to the bathroom in the bucket because the bathroom’s broken.”
To be asked back to work with Gillian and Liz ends up being more important to me than to be asked at all. It’s about someone wanting to accept you even though they know that you’ve probably grown and changed; someone who’s seen you and knows you and worked with you before is asking you to do something new. That means that they see something deep within you and they’re willing to let you move and grow. That’s a huge luxury.
How was it recreating New York City in the 1990s?
Robespierre: 2017 New York is crazy. You have Starbucks and Duane Reades all over, but our DP did a good job at framing all of that out. And we had to add a lot of trash. Also, Abby Quinn, who plays Jenny’s little sister in the movie, she was born a year after the movie is supposed to be taking place, so I had to teach her how to put a quarter in the pay phone.
Elisabeth Holm: I had to teach her how to smoke a cigarette. I felt like I could die, teaching someone that — like a sister — was cool.
Robespierre: I had always wanted a sister, but I had a brother.
Slate: I have two sisters, and I love them very much. I had a very different relationship with them than Dana has with Ali (Quinn). I remember going to people’s houses when we were little and feeling really uncomfortable when they would fight with their siblings. Like we weren’t allowed to say “shut up.” Like I can’t remember the first time in my life I said “shut up” for real. I can remember when I first gave the finger.
Was it to your sisters?
Slate: No, it was at a dance at camp. I gave it to a boy. Well, this girl Debbie asked me to do it because this boy called another girl, Danielle, Strawberry Shortcake because she had a sunburn and freckles. Which is so ’90s. Nobody now would know who that is. So, Debbie was like “Did you hear what they did to Danielle? This is what we are gonna do: I am gonna go up and tap him on the shoulder and you give the finger and then I’ll say something.” So we did it, like, for Danielle! Anyways, I liked fighting with Abby.
Along with the sister relationship, the mother-daughter relationships felt just as realistic.
Holm: We definitely pulled from our own lives. We are both kind of obsessed with our moms and now Gillian is a mom and [Robespierre’s daughter] Alice is obsessed with you.
Robespierre: She’s in for it.
Holm: [Laughs] I do think it is really important to us to show a mother who is a badass at work and not just seen as nagging the kids and the husband. She can be tough, for sure, and we talked a lot about female likability. Eventually we decided we don’t give a shit about that and that we cared more about making characters that feel real.
With these two movies (Obvious Child and now Landline) you are taking things that have always been billed as big dramatic events like abortions and divorce and have grounded them and pushed them to the back of your narrative behind the characters.
Holm: We really strive to make work that makes people feel a little bit less alone in their experiences and lets them know that they’re going to be okay going through that or because of that experience. I don’t know if we normalize them so much or that they are totally normal to begin with. [We want] to tell stories about real women having real experiences and all of the complexity of that and sort of the rainbow of emotions and conversations and opportunities that come with that.
It’s a lot of collaboration with each other. What Gillian and I are writing together, we have a rigorous kind of vetting process between each other, really making sure that everything our characters do and say and feel seems honest to one another and the way characters talk sounds like how we really talk or how that character would speak at that place and that time going through those experiences.
Slate: It does start with the script. If you’re reading it and you feel embarrassed to say the lines, not because of the content but because they feel gimmicky or that they’re in support of a structure moving plot along or just creating an image that feels dishonest, I think I have a reaction in my body; I can feel it in my throat. It’s a version of that feeling that I used to have when I was a little girl where you’re upset, you don’t want to cry so instead of crying your throat gets tight. That’s what it feels like in my emotions. It’s sort of a reaction to that.
With two films together, is there any genre or time period you three want to tackle in the future?
Holm: We are all pretty obsessed with A League of Their Own. Gil and I often joke about doing a sports movie. Like a volleyball movie set in Hawaii.
Slate: I wish we could do something in the ’40s. In the two movies we’ve made, I always keep an eye on the wardrobe. I just love the way Gil and Liz dress me. I would really like to do a movie [in the ’40s] where there is that dated femininity and I want to play someone who is trying to push through that. It’s about the first lady to put on pants. It’s called Slacks!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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