PLAYING AT SIFF | A conversation with 'Landline' director Gillian Robespierre, stars Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn

If you didn’t see any movies at this year’s film festival, you’re in luck: You still get to see “Landline,” Gillian Robespierre’s new movie, for the first time. If you already saw it then you’re in luck: You get to see it again.

Robespierre, who made “Obvious Child” with co-writer Elizabeth Holm and star Jenny Slate in 2014, reunites the crew here to tell a story of two sisters (Slate and Abby Quinn) in the 1990s who investigate when it seems like their father is having an affair.

Like “Obvious Child” before it, “Landline” has a kind of easy and nuanced naturalism baked into every step. Holm and Robespierre have a knack for imbuing their characters with a good sense of humor and a non-judgemental way of presenting their actions as choices, without good or bad tacked onto them. The film gets how sisters fight and families banter and loves laugh and how quickly hearts can break. And it knows how to appropriately utilize the 90s and not overplay its hand (Hillary Clinton’s “women’s rights are human rights” speech in the background of a marital squabble, for instance).

We sat down with Robespierre and her two stars to talk about what making the movie was like, where they focus themselves, and how easy it was to be on set. “Landline” will be in theaters July 21.


“Obvious Child” was your first big feature, but now you’ve been in quite a few. What’s changed between movies for you and Gillian?

Jenny Slate: Gil and I are very close—we became very close after “Obvious Child,” and during it. But it’s strange it seems we’ve both become our women selves. Of course we were women then, but we’ve grown so much from being able to do our work, and do it the way that we want to. I think once you get the taste for that, that you’re doing something in your own style—it’s sort of like working out, you can’t stop.


You’ve said “Gillian doesn’t objectify” you, that she allows you to be “sexual, without being sexualized.” What is that experience like as an actress?

JS: The experience working with Gillian and playing various characters who are sexually active, who have sexual preference, who have their own experience with their reproductive cycles —when you take away the objectification, when you take away the notion that a woman’s sexuality is something that can become a commodity, you really open her up to being seen as a whole individual. And, of course, that is a joyous thing to perform.


Is that something you think about as an actress?

JS: I think about it now. I think before I made “Obvious Child” I wasn’t as empowered as I am now, and Gillian gave me that experience. And I think we are all abled to be empowered; you don’t have to be in “Obvious Child” in order to set a standard for yourself and your work about how you want to be seen and how you want to see images of women out there. I will say once you’re woken up in that way you won’t ever want to turn back.


You’ve said that some inspiration for this film came as a child of divorce during the 1990s — what did you think was missing from the canon of “divorce films” that you wanted to fulfill with “Landline”?

Gillian Robespierre: Not even the happy ending but the normal ending. The fact that it’s not the ending of a family, that families look and act many different ways; they constantly reconfigure throughout our childhoods, even if we stay all together under one roof. It’s just the idea that we come in all shapes and sizes, and as humans we don’t operate the same way throughout our lives. So just giving it a normal ending, where it’s not just some scorned wife throwing clothes out the window.


Do you find there’s a difference writing female characters versus the male characters?

GR: Usually the female characters are always our focus. We try to make the male characters as three dimensional as possible, and give them real story arcs and real personalities, and even—we have the hunky male character, and we want him to not be such a cliched lothario. And I’m definitely telling stories from a female point of view and making them the highlight and the main focus. Those are my favorite stories in TV and books. That’s sort of all I really want to tell at this moment, is stories about women and for women. That doesn’t disclude a gender, but I’m just not interested at this moment of watching a male go through an existential crisis. I think there’s many ways to tell that story, and I think we’ve seen a lot of them, but I’m just not interested in telling that story.


Do you find you have to fight more to tell these stories?

GR: I think often we hear how to make a character more likable, and often my response is, I don’t need to make this character more likable, I need to make them complex and have a full story arc. And whether at one point in the movie you’re rooting for her or not, it’s so subjective. So all I have to do is be honest with how I’m putting this character into the world and onto the screen, and let people make their judgemental decisions by themselves. Because everyone is judgemental! I’m trying to tell a non-judgemental story, where the women can cheat and lie and not be punished for it.


Gillian and Elizabeth let their female characters be sexual without being judged; there’s that easy nuance to both their movies. Was that something you were looking for? What’s it like entering into the film world after an experience like that?

Abby Quinn: In some ways it was something I was looking for. It’s not my first film but it’s my first big role, and I think the biggest movie I’ve been a part of. And I feel so lucky that this is the role I had to kind of enter this world with. And the character, for me, is very free and she doesn’t care what people think. She’s unapologetic. (In the film) it’s one of the first times she has sex, but it’s not shown in a way that’s typical of teenage experiences. She kind of takes control...I think that’s really powerful and it’s something I noticed right away when I read it.


You’ve mentioned in other interviews that it was nice to be a teen who didn’t have social media in your role. What kind of connections did you find with your character?

AQ: I think there’s just nothing to hide behind—which I think is very helpful, just with my character, because I think if she had had a cell phone she would’ve been on it 24/7, just as a way to ignore people, like sitting at the dinner people. But instead she has to come up with really clever things to say, and she’s kind of a fighter. And it wouldn’t have been easy to find that if I had been texting under the table.

...there’s an honesty I found in her that is sort of missing in a lot of people today.


Was it different being in a women-centric set and crew and cast? What was that like as someone just starting out?

AQ: I’d seen “Obvious Child” randomly on Amazon three weeks before getting the audition. And I’d already known Jenny from being on “Parks and Recreation,” and just being funny and cool. So I had already looked up to these women…I thought they were really talented (and) just being on set, it felt like a very safe space...I don’t think it would’ve been that open and safe feeling for me had it not been with Gillian and Jenny. Like I talked to Jenny a lot about having sex on screen—and then, probably because I was coached through it by her, it wasn’t weird at all. But I know I would’ve felt like I was being perceived in a different way had it been a male director. Not different bad, just different.