a SIFF 2017 review
Talking Landline with Gillian Robespierre, Abby Quinn and an Interview-Crashing Jenny Slate
The New York set divorce-related comedy Landline revolving around two sisters and their complicated, constantly evolving relationship is the follow-up film for writer/director Gillian Robespierre, co-writer Elisabeth Holm and actress Jenny Slate after their outstanding first feature Obvious Child set the critical world ablaze back in 2014. While not as complex or as consistently magnificent, this sophomore effort is still a fresh, funny and deeply personal little familial frolic, one overflowing in authentic truth and emotional ebullience that had me grinning ear-to-ear by the time it reached its warm-hearted conclusion. It’s a movie that feels as if it were conceived from the very instant you start watching it, and in some ways this isn’t all that far from the truth.
“[Landline] sort of hit us, Elizabeth and I, while we were touring around with Obvious Child,” explains Robespierre. “Spending time in hotel rooms, away from our normal lives. Just sort of talking about what we wanted to do next, but then derailing, and talking about our lives again. We’re both New York City kids, born and raised and a couple of years apart. We didn’t know each other growing up, of course; I’m a lot older than Liz. What we did have [are] parents who divorced when we were in our teenage years. These similar experiences where our families, while they were shifting, they didn’t necessarily shift to make it worse. We actually became closer with our siblings, we each have brothers, my brother is five years older than me, and for the first time ever in our relationship we became friends.”
“We maybe even smoked a little pot together,” she adds with a crooked smile and a knowing laugh. “But [my brother and I] bonded over our parent’s divorce. And my mom became somebody who I grew closer to and our relationship shifted. I was no longer just the child that she was feeding; we were actually talking as close friends. And I was a teenager, so it wasn’t like she was treating me as an adult; I was a child. I was on the verge of adulthood. Our families grew closer from the experience instead of it tearing us apart, even though we were configured in a different way and not under one roof. I think maybe that happens more often than we share. I think so. Those were loud whispers, and they were whispers Elizabeth and I seemed to share.”
We were entering the home stretch of the 25-day Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) and I was sitting in a suite at the Pan Pacific Hotel with Robespierre and one of her film’s primary stars, newcomer Abby Quinn, discussing Landline. What proceeded was one of the craziest, most interesting and just plain fun interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of, the 25-30 minutes we spent together filled with its fair share of impossible to anticipate surprise.
The movie concerns itself with a pair of Manhattan sisters, Dana (Slate) and Ali (Quinn), the latter of whom discovers her father Alan (John Turturro) is having an affair right underneath their mother Pat’s (Edie Falco) nose. What follows is a relationship comedy where the two young women manage to discover they have more in common than they knew, while the familial bond finds itself strengthened by unexpected strife. It’s that rare film where divorce isn’t the end but is instead a brand new beginning, and while the plot of the film is hardly as radical as Robespierre and Slate’s Obvious Child, a romantic comedy revolving around abortion, that does not make this sophomore outing any less marvelous as far as intelligently multifaceted entertainment is concerned.
“It always excites us to share a story that doesn’t feel super developed in our culture and in our narratives on our screen,” explains Robespierre. “I feel like it’s also really nice to tell stories about women and for women. I’m going to take Lifetime televisions’ tagline, because those are my favorite stories to read. And I think that I like making art for us and not for them. I’m not trying to divide genders here, but I do feel like the stories that I gravitate towards are stories about women.”
As for Quinn, as a young actress just starting out, even after attending a raucous and energetic premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s understandable she still feels moderately amazed to be in the same room as her director and talking about a motion picture where she co-stars alongside someone like Jenny Slate. But the young actress knew from the moment she read the script she wanted to be a part of this production, and as such was determined to do whatever she needed to hopefully impress Robespierre and potentially secure the role.
“Well, I definitely didn’t try to think too much about it, auditioning,” she attempts to explain with a slightly embarrassed smile. “Like, everything excited me about it [the script], I was almost too into it, but I tried to stop thinking about it all as soon as I auditioned because I was like, this is never, ever going to go anywhere. But I was just obsessed with it when I read it! It was just so good. I think the first thing that hit me was the character of Ali; we’re pretty different. She’s really outspoken and free to say whatever she feels. I sometimes filter things and she doesn’t have a filter, doesn’t care what people think. So, the first couple of times I auditioned I was just really into that, focusing on that. It got me really excited to portray something so different from who I am. Then, also, I had just seen Obvious Child a couple of weeks before getting the audition. It was amazing.”
“I think I followed all of you guys on Instagram, or something right after that,” she says turning towards Robespierre with a hesitant laugh. “I just felt like, you were the coolest people ever.”
“So yeah, I don’t know,” Quinn remarks, turning back my direction. “I was so excited about everything. The script was just really well written. Even if there wasn’t a part for me, I would still have read it and loved it.”
“I think we originally auditioned Abby for a tree,” adds the director while giving her young star a gentle poke in the shoulder, a giant grin plastered in the center of her face. “Honestly, though, Abby is terrific. At this point, I can’t even imagine having made the movie without her.”
It’s at this point where the interview went a little sideways. In a positive way, mind you, but off the rails a tiny bit all the same.
As Quinn and I were discussing her first days on the set — “It was nerve-wracking,” she unashamedly proclaims, “I couldn’t believe I was standing there with John and Edie…” — Robespierre was busy texting on her phone, trying hard to finish what she was doing as quickly and as quietly as she could without interrupting our conversation.
“In a way it was more nerve wracking just talking to them,” continues the actress while the director continues to type away. “Being there with them as people, in-between takes and all of that, because like I had to talk to them like we’re all in a room together, before we filmed, and I kept thinking, that’s John Turturro and Edie Falco! But then as soon as we started shooting, I got back into character again. That was less nerve-wracking, actually acting with them.
“But they’re both incredible so it didn’t feel like I had to force anything. It just felt really natural. But yeah, being in their presence as people was more nerve-wracking than actually doing a scene with them.”
“I’m so sorry,” interjects Robespierre. “Jenny wanted to know where we were. She’s a little lost.”
The film’s main star, Jenny Slate wasn’t scheduled to arrive until closer to the film’s SIFF screening later in the day, her schedule sadly not allowing for her to do very many interviews with Seattle press. My assumption was that she must have just arrived at the airport and was texting Robespierre to figure out where she needed to go. I could not have been more wrong. Not that I knew that, especially considering I was deep in the process of maximizing my limited time with the director and her actress, doing what I could to keep our interview as focused and on topic as was possible.
“Well, I think it started with our own experiences,” said Robespierre after I turned the conversation back towards her and Holm’s delicately elaborate script. “As I had already mentioned, we’re New Yorkers. New York City was sort of our backyard, our playground. I think that once we figured out that we wanted to write about these two sisters and the relationship of them growing closer together it all clicked. Yet, in real life we have brothers, so we suddenly realized that maybe we were a little bit writing about our relationship as two friends. But we only can say that now after, you know, being away from the project. But I do think all stories start with your own experiences…”
“Hello?” says someone exuberantly as they enter the room, interrupting the director mid-sentence, my mouth hitting the floor in astonishment as Jenny Slate comes marching into the room. But my shock is nothing compared to that on the part of the actress, Slate stopping dead in her tracks as we all turn our necks to see her suddenly appearing as if out of nowhere. “I’m so sorry,” she says in honest sincerity. “I had no idea.”
“…and hopefully grow,” finishes Robespierre as she tries to contain her own happily startled laughter.
“So, can I get involved in this?” asks Slate with a wry smile. “Can I come and sit, too?”
“You can if they don’t mind,” I respond off-the-cuff, still trying to contain my own completely unprofessional and flabbergasted state of mind.
“Jenny’s late,” states Robespierre with a grin.
“Sorry that I interrupted you,” states the actress as she plops on the couch right between her director and co-star nonchalantly. “Keep talking. I’m not even here. I’ll be quiet.”
“No,” Robespierre responds with friendly needling, “You’re here. And you’re never quiet.” She adds that last jab as Slate feigns embarrassment, the director jumping into finishing her previous thought as if she was never interrupted in the first place. “I was just saying that all stories start with the personal and then hopefully become less of a journal entry and more of, you know, a story as they progress. Your imagination can take off. Anything is possible.
“Jenny was always going to play Dana. It’s really nice to be able to start working with actors as soon as possible. On Indie films, you don’t get that. You don’t get rehearsal time. You don’t get any time to sort of create and collaborate with these characters. That’s why casting is so important. Cast the right people, there’s very little work to be done with them. You just give them the role and see what they do with it. I think that’s my job as director, to really make sure the right actors are filling the right roles.”
“You’re the director?” Slate interjects sardonically. “And here I thought you were just being bossy.”
“See?” responds Robespierre, giving me a sprightly smirk. “She’s never quiet.”
Hoping that would indeed be the case, I ask the star what it meant to her knowing that, not only was the part of Dana written with her specifically in mind, but also that her Obvious Child director wanted to closely collaborate in order that they could figure out who this particular character was together. What was that like? Was there any added pressure?
“I think it’s a great privilege,” answers Slate. “It’s not necessary to do that as an actress. Sometimes I like to sort of just really be obedient to someone else’s totally different thought system and creation. Sometimes I really like to work with more of a partnership. Gillian and I know each other really well, which also means that we trust each other in exploring new territories that might be kind of vulnerable. Maybe they’re so new that we don’t know how to speak about them yet. It’s almost like, through her direction, I do a performance that, for me, feels like a sharpening of my own language. So it’s a privilege. It really is a treasure trove.”
As far as partnerships were concerned, there was also the one between the two actresses. “It sort of just clicked in,” states Quinn with a bit of a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. “I can’t really explain how it happened.”
“Yeah,” adds Slate, “I wish we had a good answer for that question. Something like we went camping and bonded over a campfire next to a lake. Something like that.”
“I think we had a rehearsal and then we kind of just jumped into it,” Quinn responds. “But it did develop over time. I think it was like, I don’t know, as time went on we became more comfortable, the nuances were just clearer. But the first day, there was something there, definitely. Something clicked.”
“They’re smart,” proclaims Robespierre. “Thoughtful individuals. And when you have two actors who are like that they can come together and create a bond because there already is one. They’re lovely humans. But they’re also smart, talented actors.”
“We also have, I think, a lovely common connection,” continues Slate. “One of the things I noticed about Abby that I like in myself is that she’s very curious. She’s very gentle. I feel like Abby always seemed to me to be steadier than I am. I’m a chatterbox, and as the one who’s older, sometimes that can almost be embarrassing. To be such a chatterbox in front of such a self-possessed young woman, I feel like it was a wonderful combination. We were both excited to be there.”
“And that put me at ease,” answers Quinn. “When I first meet people, I don’t know, I’m quiet, that’s just how I am. So Jenny was being Jenny, it put me at ease. I was like okay, someone else is talking, so I can be me and just be okay with that.”
Obvious Child was a massive critical hit, garnering a number of awards and nominations including a couple of Film Independent Spirit Awards, Best First Feature and Best Female Lead. For Slate and Robespierre, while they did their best to not acknowledge the pressure of joining forces once again for a follow-up, it’s also not like they didn’t know it was there all the same. “Yes, you know the pressure is there, but you try to turn that noise off as much as possible when you’re on the next project and just move forward and try not to look back,” explains the actress. “I don’t know how to operate otherwise. If I was always living in the past movie or relationship or anything that happened prior to the moment you’re in currently, I don’t know how you could possibly get out of it.”
“It’s hard,” continues the director. “I feel the same way. I do acknowledge the pressure. It’s hard as someone who is interested in throwing themselves into the future, throwing themselves into the spaces to feel like you come with a fanfare of work that is done because you just want to feel that further inertia of creating something fresh, something original and new.
“I feel a lot of pressure to entertain and keep my body of work in a place of consistent output. I feel like if you become too concerned with it, the pressure, then you actually slow yourself down and you limit yourself. You can’t do your job. It’s kind of like you have to acknowledge the thought and then let it be there but not really synthesize the pressure into something potentially negative. It could end up being like a shitty poison pill you have to take every day. You don’t want that.”
It’s at this moment we get the signal we have to wrap things up, all three ladies letting out a collective sigh, Slate apologizing once again for eating into my time with her sudden appearance in the middle of our interview. “Yeah,” laughs Robespierre. “It’s all your fault. I’m sure Sara’s crushed you’ve ruined her interview.”
We all know this isn’t the case at all. If anything, Slate’s impromptu appearance has made our chat all the more invigorating and unique. More, considering how exciting this whole interview has proven to be, I’m genuinely interested to learn what each of these women hope audiences are talking about after they get the chance to give Landline a look.
“These guys,” says Robespierre, pointing and smiling at her two stars, “the relationship that blossoms in the edit and then the chemistry these two sisters have, it’s exactly what you said earlier, it feels like you were in a room with these siblings. That you had a similar experience growing up and it all feels like something you can connect to. I’d love it if we get that kind of reaction from audiences.”
“I agree with that,” responds Slate. “But I also think that our film, the way I feel at least, is that it shows through this pretty natural story that humans suffer when they’re not given the chance to make all of the choices that they want to make. When they feel that their options are limited they react in a way that reveals how deeply they feel trapped. There are three women in this story, there are men, too, but there’s a mother and her two daughters, all of whom are faced with being penned into a certain identity. They’re being cornered into a certain identity. Whether it’s Edie saying, ‘When was the last time anybody in this house looked at me?’ Or Dana saying, ‘I’m flailing. I don’t even know if I’m allowed to ask the questions I want to ask.’ Or Ali saying, ‘I’m living in a family of hypocrites,’ and having to choose if she wants to have a boyfriend and watch the same shit unfold, or try to go out there on her own and see what happens. I think it is a movie about choice and how important that is.”
“Yeah,” says Quinn. “That’s all so beautiful and true. But it’s also kind of what Gillian was saying at the beginning. The movie is just a different way of looking at family. And at relationships. That it’s not always black and white. And that we become, I mean the whole family, I guess, we come together in the end. We start off as kind of like strangers and then use this heartbreaking thing to come together. I want people to notice and feel the sadness but then also walk away with a good feeling, too. That would be great.”
– Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle