We interviewed Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm, the writer/director of Obvious Child, a film about much more than abortion stigma. This new modern-day, feminist flick not only reconstitutes the traditional rom-com, but its underrated content has also sparked the kind of movement and dialogue we've all been waiting for.
If you haven't seen the film, there ARE spoilers in this interview, so beware. Otherwise, ENJOY!
I have to be honest, when I went to see the film I thought it was going to be a story about abortion, but really that was only one element of this modern romantic comedy. When you were writing and developing the film, did you realize how strong of an impact that storyline would have?
G: It was always gonna be one part of Donna’s story and experience that we wanted to capture, but we never wanted it to be the entire film. We wanted people to grow with Donna, even though it’s a subtle growth, to go from the beginning of the film where she suffers from a blast to her confidence. She’s somebody who starts out sort of meek, and while she’s empowered onstage as a standup comedian, offstage she feels like her boyfriend cheated on her because there’s something wrong with her, when in fact, like Gaby Hoffman’s character said, “He’s just a fuckin’ asshole and a sociopath.” We’re watching Donna grow into her voice on and offstage. It’s a complicated thing that we all go through in our late 20s, thinking that we were supposed to be in one place, and actually being in a different place than you thought, and feeling comfortable and confident with that.
E: We never wanted the conflict of the film to be “Will she or won’t she get the abortion?” It’s a serious, complex emotional experience that she has, but it’s always clear and it’s a decisive choice. Trying to figure out the rom-com of it all, I think it was more about will she or won’t she tell Max. Will she have the courage to let someone in, and be honest both with herself and her mother; that’s what we really wanted to be the heart of that journey.
I had a friend of mine say to me, “Does she get the abortion in the film? Because if not, I’m not seeing it.” It seemed really pivotal that Jenny’s character goes through with the procedure to tell this story. As a filmmaker, why do you think depicting abortion in a pragmatic, diligent way is so scarce in cinema when it affects so many women’s lives?
G: That’s a good question. There are so many outcomes to unplanned pregnancy and so many emotions and stories involved in the millions of women who go through the abortion procedure. I can’t speak for other storytellers, we just felt like this story hadn’t been told in this particular way; because it’s a tough story, to take knowledge that the stigma of judgment is so prevalent, to humanize somebody’s experience, and for people to connect to Donna’s voice as somebody who is funny and vulnerable and a little raunchy at times. That’s really all we wanted from telling this person’s experience with their unplanned pregnancy. And there’s so many stories out there, there’s so many ways to discuss it, but you know, this is the reality. Thousands of women face unplanned pregnancy each year. Each story is different; we just wanted Donna’s to be safe and free of shame.
It was refreshing to watch a “non-traditional” woman in a female lead, rather than be typecast as the quirky roommate, etc., as if those women’s stories aren’t compelling. Do you think there is more of an opportunity, and a receptive audience, for films showcasing unconventional, unique women?
E: Absolutely. I think we’re working in a really exciting time where there is more room for a multiplicity of voices and different narratives and different leads. We’re really grateful to be a part of that wave.
G: From Louie, to GIRLS, to Broad City, to- I would even say Mad Men, which still has a heightened and elevated story. The storyteller is coming from an authentic place and wanting to seek a tone in its characters that feels real for audience members. We’re excited about all the amazing storytellers out there right now. I watch so much television and so many movies. I’m really excited about where movies are going.
In the beginning scenes where Donna is doing stand-up and talking about her relationship, it seems like her boyfriend’s character can’t handle it and feels really threatened. I often find that men are intimidated by extremely funny, witty women—was this idea something you played with?
G: Definitely, but mostly we wanted to highlight that Jake Lacy’s character, Max, who becomes the main man and romance in the movie, is in awe of her comedy. And that’s a polar opposite to Ryan’s character, played by the fabulous Paul Briganti. Two guys in her life: One is clearly not supportive about her voice and the other one, who doesn’t seem like he would be the right choice, because on the outside he looks like a frat-bro who is boring, actually loves her humor, loves her face, loves her strong voice, but also can tell a joke too, and can play around and be playful with her. That’s really what we wanted to show. That you can have a supportive man in your life without overpowering you.
What about this specific time in our society is creating a momentum where there’s room being made for dynamic female characters and stories? With Orange Is the New Black and GIRLS and Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie project, it seems like there’s an onslaught of strong female voices, but why now?
E: It feels like a shift that’s happening and a movement. I think each of these voices adds to this kind of synergy. I think people get excited and every one of the shows you mentioned gets such a positive reaction from an audience that’s so hungry—not to see an unconventional character—but to see someone that they connect to, that they recognize, that feels fun and authentic, and in some ways is probably more true to convention of what regular humans are actually like, but is still entertaining. I think there’s just a snowball of realizing that audiences do want this—that people are yearning for this. But art creates art. Art generates more art. We’re lucky to be wrapped up in that movement.
G: This summer, people can see Transformers 3D and go see our movie, too. And I think popcorn and cherry Coke goes well with both of those stories. I think the same person can wanna go see both of those movies.
How do you think women’s issues have evolved from the time you made the original short to the production of the full-length film made? What perceptions in our culture influenced the changes and additions in the time-gap between the two?
G: This is a kind of bummer question.
Is it? I’m sorry!
G: No! Not your question, the answer. I made a short film in 2009. Liz and I started working on the feature in 2011, and spent each minute trying to elaborate and make the script as good as it can be before we went into production, and I always thought the longer we took, this would no longer be an issue…
E: Or someone else would tell the story for us.
G: I’m not an expert, but women’s reproductive rights are still under attack and even stronger than they were in 2009 and access is getting harder in a lot of places in the United States—that’s why I said this was a bummer question.
E: We know there are versions of Donna Stern’s story that would be so vastly different if she didn’t live in New York City. There’s a hundred different versions of this movie, for so many different people from so many different backgrounds and experiences. We’re really excited to show a safe, healthy procedure where she comes out okay. And we know that there are many women for whom that is not such an easy thing to do. We hope that people follow her, have the opportunity to see this and talk about it.
G: Yeah, talk about to their friends, with their parents, have it be something that you don’t feel so secretive about. Obviously, this is not a blueprint for what women need to do or should do, but the idea is that it makes you feel less alone. It’s a story that I hope women connect to and can take away from this.
E: But they should dance around in their underwear. Everyone should do that.