“We didn’t straighten our hair in the 90s!” Landline at Sundance

Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Jenny Slate appear in <i>Landline</i> by Gillian Robespierre, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Chris Teague.

Landline, the sure-footed follow-up to Obvious Child from Brooklyn-based co-writers Gillian Robespierre and Liz Holm, opens with a not-so-hot sex scene in the woods of upstate New York. While Dana (Jenny Slate) braces herself against a tree, her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) gives her everything he’s got from behind. “Is this good?” he asks, mid thrust.  “No,” she answers matter-of-factly. It’s a wonderfully honest moment in a wonderfully honest film: Landline, which just premiered at Sundance, where it was picked up for theatrical distribution by Amazon Studios, explores—with a great deal of humor and sensitivity—the limits and rewards of monogamy.

A 30-something graphic designer, Dana is the kind of happy-go-lucky girl who doesn’t feel the need to overanalyze things. But when she runs into her college flame at a party, the opportunity for unrestrained sexual pleasure tempts her away from her perhaps overly comfortable relationship. At the same time that she’s beginning to question her feelings for her fiancé, her wayward younger sister Ali (played by fantastic newcomer Abby Quinn) discovers that their father (John Turturro) has been having an affair with a mystery woman, and the two rekindle their sisterly bond while trying to track her down.

The film is set in 1995, so it’s fitting that a secret of this magnitude would be uncovered by way of erotic poems cached on a floppy disc in the family’s very clunky home computer. It’s also truly a treat to watch a story unfold in a world free from the visual and narrative impositions of all things Apple. There are no cellphones in Landline, so when Dana tells Ben she’s moving back in with her parents for a while, there’s very little he can do to keep tabs on her and she begins to revel in a sense of independence she’s never experienced before.

Whereas Obvious Child belonged entirely to Jenny Slate, Landline is a well-balanced ensemble piece that grants equal weight to all three of its inextricably linked leading ladies: Dana, Ali, and their mother, Pat, played by the always great Edie Falco. Despite being at very different stages in their lives, they’re all facing similar questions surrounding who they are and who they would like to be—and how the men they’re attached to do or don’t fit into that equation.

Brooklyn Magazine caught up with writer/director Gillian Robespierre and writer/producer Liz Holm shortly after their Sundance premiere to talk about their creative process and the moment they decided to quit their day jobs.

Brooklyn Magazine: The film is set in 1995 and there’s wonderful freedom from technology. If this was set now, we’d be seeing Jenny Slate looking up her college flame on Facebook, etc. and she wouldn’t be able to run away from her boyfriend the way she does. What was it about this story, for you, that made you want to set it in this particular year?

Liz Holm: We always thought about telling a story about all these women in one family, growing out of our own experience—we’re both born and raised New Yorkers, our parents both divorced when we were teenagers—so it’s a bit of a personal story for both of us and New York in the 90s is very personal for both of us. But for sure, you hit the nail on the head in terms of wanting to avoid stalking exes on Facebook, people texting each other, seeing tweets, looking at those screens instead of a beautiful floppy disc. We wanted to tell a story of people being forced to connect with each other, and connect honestly, and actually talk to each other.

Gillian Robespierre: The story always comes first. It wasn’t like let’s make a movie that’s set in the 90s and then come up with the family after. It was family first, story and structure next, and then the 90s crept in pretty early because from pretty early on we didn’t want to have to use those devices you mentioned in our storytelling. It was a kind of clever—not so clever—way to get around that. It was the same thing with Obvious Child. We just wanted to tell a story about a woman who has an abortion. That was that, and then we created the whole world around her. We didn’t want to fixate too heavily on a gimmick, but rather on feeling something.

In terms of the dialogue, which is as authentically funny as your last film, there’s a lot of banter and quite a few zingers that feel like they’re inside jokes from your own life. A personal favorite was “You wanna get high and watch Zelig?” 

Gillian: [Laughs] I don’t know what you’re talking about!

Liz: That actually got a big laugh in the screening yesterday.

Gillian: That made me feel really, really good.

How much is drawn specifically from your own conversations vs. created for these particular characters?

Liz: [Laughs]. A lot of it is pretty damn specific. But it’s really important to us that our characters sound like real humans and talk to each other the way people talk. We spend a lot of our time reading our work aloud—doing a terrible job of acting—but reading our work back and forth to each other to make sure it feels natural. So for sure, there’s plenty of insider bits and shared knowledge of our lives but there’s also stuff we made up.

gillian robespierre-liz holm

What’s your process working together as co-writers? Are you sitting together in one room dictating to each other, or passing back drafts? How does it work, practically?

Gillian: Practically it’s actually pretty simple. One person will write one scene, another will write the next one. We don’t write in the same room, we don’t dictate to each other. Because, while Liz is a faster typer, she does get mad if I just start rattling things off, like say this! Put this down! It’s distracting. But we definitely punch up lines together, or try to figure out a better joke in the same room, but it does start with just talking and just not thinking so much about dialogue. It’s about crating what the family looks like and then into the structure, and then we open up Final Draft. But that’s after a very lengthy process. And then in the script phase, we trade things back and forth: whatever I write she touches, whatever she writes I touch. And it becomes very much a two-headed monster—but it does start just as a conversation.

Liz: I think you summarized that perfectly. We really just talk about story and character and where we’d like to see things go, and different ways a scene might propel the next one, and then we go off into our caves and write and then share.

 Remind me, did you guys to to school together?

Gillian: No, Liz is eight years older than me. [Laughs]. I’m kidding, I’m eight years older than Liz. It’s my favorite joke to say. Liz is like, stop saying that joke!

Liz: We actually met about five and a half years ago at an IFP film mixer, I was there finishing a movie I was producing and [Gillian] was there and had an early draft of Obvious Child and she was looking for a producer and we just sort of chatted over a bunch of shitty free wine and tiny hamburgers. We didn’t really want to talk about projects. We just discovered we were both New Yorkers and wanted to talk about boys, and our parents’ divorces and how we wanted to make a movie about all that shit.

Gillian: What was cool about that New York mixer was that it’s such a small group of filmmakers in New York, compared to the Los Angeles scene—not that I know much about that world. But we weren’t pitching to each other, we were just speaking and I think that’s how our relationship continues to be. It’s not like we’re setting out to write this movie because we think it will be do this specific thing for our careers, or that it would be good to tell a story about abortion because its going to be really sensationalist. These are just our stories; we have to get out stories we feel like are in darkness and need to see the light, stories that we connect to. But we don’t have ulterior motives…for now. [Laughs] We might.

Last time we met you were at New Directors with Obvious Child and Liz, you were still working at Kickstarter and Gillian you were working at The Directors Guild, if I remember correctly. When did filmmaking become a secure enough situation to leave your day jobs?

Liz: Yeah, we both had full-time day jobs, and were working on Obvious Child on nights and weekends. And then we went out to LA shortly after Obvious Child came out –

Gillian: Just to visit! I want to make that clear, this is Brooklyn Magazine!

Liz: [Laughs] And sort of unintentionally we wound up being out there pitching this movie, that was then a vague concept of an untitled divorce comedy, and now is a titled, monogamy-family-honesty-dramatic-comedy…

Gillian:…ensemble piece.

Liz: And we were lucky enough to find folks who wanted to make this movie with us, and they afforded us the chance to quit those very lovely day jobs and make movies full time.

OK, so the success of Obvious Child was pretty immediately felt.

Gillian: I guess so. But I remember as soon as we both got back to New York after Sundance we both went straight back to work—I has used all my vacation days for festivals, and because it’s such a corporate job I had to go right back.

Liz: Yeah, I remember when we would have these phone calls and you would be in the broom closet at the Director’s Guild and I would be standing outside Kickstarter, chain smoking, being like “OK, are we really doing this? I’m gonna tell my boss, are you gonna tell your boss??” It was like being robbers who decided to rob a bank and skip town, it was a really magical moment.

This is your second collaboration with Jenny Slate. I know Obvious Child was written specifically for her, was this one as well?

Liz: Yeah, we knew we wanted to work with Jenny again and we wanted to write something for her that was different from Donna Stern—even though Donna Stern and Dana Jacobs are very close names [laughs].

Gillian: We’re not idiots, but we just are lazy [laughs].

Liz: We’re lazy Jews. But we knew Jenny wanted to do something that was different than Obvious Child, and didn’t want to repeat herself.

Gillian: And we didn’t want to repeat ourselves as filmmakers either. We didn’t want to go and make Obvious Child Two.

Liz: That’s a hard movie to make a sequel for.

Gillian: No, but you know, we didn’t want to make another movie about a woman who tells a lot of filthy jokes, etc. So as much as we wanted Jenny to grow as an actress, we wanted to grow as filmmakers, but we definitely wanted to work with her so we created this character as far away as possible from Jenny and from Donna Stern.

Her dramatic scenes were really strong in this film. She’s really good at crying!

 Liz: She cries, you cry, right? So many people tell me any time Jenny wells up they were welling, too.

There are some really wonderful details in this film that only a woman would think to include. I loved the scene where Edie Falco tweezes a hair from her chest.

Gillian: From her nipple!! [Laughs] I’m glad you appreciated that.

The film is really honest about female sexuality in way you don’t see too often on screen.

Gillian: Well it’s funny because in Obvious Child we didn’t actually show sex, so in this film we wanted to make sure all the female characters fucked. And yet, the sex is very unsatisfying a lot of the time. The only one we see actually have an orgasm is Edie Falco’s character, and it’s sort of bittersweet.

Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn appear in Landline by Gillian Robespierre, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jojo Whilden.

That opening scene is another good example of sexual honesty; typically in movies if the dude asks the question “is this good?” the answer is inevitably yes. And she’s just like, no… of course this is terrible!

Gillian: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s like just fucking come already!

Liz: We had so many versions of the opening scene that we call “tree sex” but we wanted to show not just an uncomfortable moment, but it’s that place in a long-term relationship where you are loving, and you’re trying—

Gillian: —but you’re planning to be spontaneous.

Liz: Exactly, you have to plan to have sex in the woods. Its not like you’re so into each other that you have to fuck right here, right now.

Gillian: And then you want it to be over as fast as possible.

This is such a well-balanced ensemble piece, each story arc really gets its fair share of attention. When you were writing did you find yourselves getting carried away with any one thread in particular and having to recalibrate?

Gillian: The biggest change actually happened in the editing process. From the beginning of course it was really an ensemble story, but in editing while watching the Jenny and Abby Quinn scenes it really, truly became a love story between these two sisters. That sister bonding was always part of the film, it’s not like we made it up in post…

Liz: …but it became clear that that was the love story of the movie.

Gillian: Yeah, and there were some scenes that we cut because we wanted it to be more of a sister movie. Not a lot—most of what we shot actually ended up in the film, but we sort of changed the way the baton was tossed off and made sure that Abby and Jenny were always sort of next to each other and that their stories were parallel to each other.

Abby Quinn was great in this. I haven’t seen her in anything prior.

Gillian: Isn’t she the fucking best?  Get ready to see her in more! She’s such a lovely person, too. She’s nothing like her character. She doesn’t drink or smoke. I had to teach her how to smoke. I had to smoke a couple for her…

Liz: We knew she was going to be a true breakout, and it’s so awesome reading press that says exactly that. She’s awesome—

Gillian: She auditioned with straight hair and I could tell that she straightened it, because we both have really curly hair. And there was this moment where Liz and I were just like “She’s one of us!!” We did one look where we blew her hair out for the rave scene and were going back and forth about which way it should be but decided curly all the way! We didn’t straighten our hair in the 90s!

It’s a testament to your writing that this family feels so real, specifically because it seems they actually share this specific brand of humor that only comes from living together forever. How did you make sure the actors were on the same page in that way? Did you stick all your actors in an apartment before the shoot and force them to bond?

Gillian: Well John and Edie knew each other. They’ve known each other for many years. Edie has worked with John’s cousin on The Sopranos and yet, they’ve never acted together. They were very excited to do this movie because they wanted to work together. So they had that spark and a sort of familial, familiar, relationship. But unfortunately with indie films you don’t really have the budget or the ability to lock people in rooms. A lot of it has to do with having a great casting director working really hard to find and connect the right actors together and then just crossing our fingers and hoping that it worked. Jenny and Abby are magical together. John and Edie are such a pleasure to watch and Jay Duplass and Finn Wittrock are just the nicest boys and so funny and down to try things.

Liz: And Gillian as a director really encourages people to be playful, and feel comfortable saying whatever version of the words feels the most honest and familial and real. It’s a testament to you as a director that that sense of familial trust and familiarity is there.


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