Tribeca Grantee Shines at Sundance

23 Jan 2014 -

(Above: Actor Jenny Slate as Donna Stern in Obvious Child.)

By Catherine Mirra

Gillian Robespierre, a grantee of two film-making programs funded by the Time Warner Foundation, premiered her first feature film, Obvious Child, this past Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.  Born and raised in New York, Gillian is an alumnus of the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) and its Tribeca All Access (TAA) program, which champions the filmmakers of tomorrow. Time Warner Foundation is a major supporter of TAA, and works closely with them to discover and nurture the next generation of storytellers.  The program provides filmmakers with grants and the professional development necessary to complete their films and bring them to the big screen.  

After graduating from the School of Visual Arts’ Film & Video Program, Gillian went on to direct several short films before she penned her first feature, Obvious Child, in 2009Four years later, and right after its Sundance Film Festival debut last Friday, A24 Films picked up North American distribution rights for the feature.  

The Hollywood Reporter raves, “Raunchy humor laced with gradually revealed vulnerability makes for a winning combination in Obvious Child, a raucously funny and appealing female-centric comedy that launches very promising talent on both sides of the camera.” And The Guardian calls Obvious Child, “a glorious jumping bean comedy that moves from the profane to the poignant in the blink of an eye. It's beautifully cooked by writer-director Gillian Robespierre.”

We chatted with Gillian about Tribeca All Access and the inspiration that led her to Obvious Child.

Tell us about your experience in the Tribeca All Access program. How did it help shape your film?

TFI's fiscal support undoubtedly helped tremendously. But beyond the money, having institutional support on a project like Obvious Child was so important. We know that a first-time woman writer/director with a romantic comedy about a young woman is not always an industry representative's first choice on paper (!), but the TFI TAA program provides a vital platform for underrepresented voices to be heard. It was in TAA's one-on-one meetings where we got the opportunity to do just that. Obvious Child wrapped principle photography the night before our industry meetings. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, my producer Elisabeth Holm and I made it on time and we had great meetings and found out that we could pitch our movie running on less than 5 hours of sleep!

How did you come upon the idea for this film? What inspired it? 

I’m attracted to telling stories about people who are real. I first made the "Obvious Child" short film in the winter of 2009 with my friends Anna Bean and Karen Maine. We were frustrated by the limited representations of young women's experience with pregnancy, let alone growing up. We were waiting to see a more honest film, or at least a story that was closer to many of the stories we knew. We weren’t sure how long that wait was going to be, so we decided to tell the story ourselves. The short starred Jenny Slate and had a pretty nice festival run. When we shared it on the Internet it was really exciting to see that people were actually watching it! But what was even cooler were the conversations the movie ignited. That truly encouraged and inspired me to expand to feature-length, to share this film and these conversations with even more people.

Are any characters in the film loosely based on anyone you know? Did you draw on personal experience to develop the idea for the film?

Creating the voice of Donna was a collaborative effort with the exceptionally funny and intelligent women Anna Bean, Karen Maine, Elisabeth Holm and Jenny Slate. Donna has pieces of all of us, but most of all she’s a real person who feels and does real things in the real world. We weren’t afraid to borrow experiences and feelings from our own lives but more than that we weren’t afraid to show a character that has many sides.

Actors Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman with filmmaker Gillian Robespierre

How did you discover the cast? What made you pick the main characters in the film?

On a chilly fall evening in Brooklyn, my co-creator Anna Bean and I went to a free comedy show called Big Terrific. We had yet to cast the role of Donna and to be honest we were having difficulty. Jenny Slate was the co-host with Gabe Liedman and Max Silvestri. During the opening bit Anna and I looked at each other, our smiles and eyes were silently screaming, “we found Donna!” Much like Donna, Jenny has the perfect combination of lewdness and heart. I immediately connected to her material. It felt like she was a long-lost sister or best-friend, and I saw that other people in the crowd were feeling the exact same way. My face hurt from laughing and we knew that we had to send Jenny the script. That evening I also fell in love with Gabe Liedman and later wrote the role of Donna’s best-friend Joey for him. The character Nellie played by the talented Gaby Hoffmann was really fun for me to write as I feel closest to her character. She’s a curmudgeon with a big heart. Jake Lacy plays Max and he’s a combination of some wonderful, smart men I know.

Is there anything else we can share with readers about the film?

I think comedy can be found in difficult situations and I think the biggest misconception/critique people already formed about Obvious Child, a movie they haven’t seen yet, is “how are you making a rom-com about abortion?" My straightforward answer is we didn’t. There are romantic and comedic moments in the film but not specifically about the abortion.  Donna Stern is a sincere and comedic person who is going through a difficult time in her life and I think there are ways to laugh even in those hard-to-breathe moments. This is one person’s story and not an agenda-driven movie.  Obvious Child's goal was to tell an honest story about what happens to a person who loses their confidence and the ability to trust other humans after a bad break-up. We also wanted to illuminate the emotional complexity of a choice that's always wrought with conflict and to de-stigmatize it. And whatever their politics, we hope viewers will consider, debate, and share Donna's story. 

Catherine Mirra is Manager, Corporate Communications, for Time Warner Inc.