Movie Interviews
9:46 am
Sun June 8, 2014

'Obvious Child' Tells An Abortion Story With Rom-Com Heart

Originally published on Sun June 8, 2014 4:34 pm

Obvious Child's story goes like this: Boy dumps girl; girl is sad; girl rebounds with nice guy she meets at a bar, and then things get complicated. Comedian Jenny Slate plays Donna, the main character:

"Donna's in her late 20s. She's a comedian in Brooklyn. ... It's going pretty well for her at the start of the film. [But then] she ends up getting dumped and fired and then pregnant all in time for Valentine's Day. ... It all really starts to circle the drain a little bit."

Slate and director Gillian Robespierre join NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about the challenges of making a romantic comedy about abortion.


Interview Highlights

On how Slate and Robespierre first met

Robespierre: Jenny in real life is an amazing stand-up comedian. I first met her in 2009 while she was on stage. She was performing at a free comedy club — not even a club, it was more of like a hole behind a bar. I remember it being very sweaty back there.

Slate: And the bathrooms were upsetting, as they tend to be ...

Robespierre: ... in Brooklyn, yeah.

On the difference between Slate's comedy and that of her character, Donna

Slate: My comedy is unplanned in a way and it is confessional, but I think Donna is much more passive than I am. ... She is zero to 100 with nothing in between. I think my comedy tends to be just as open, but I do have boundaries.

On whether Slate has ever drunk-dialed an ex like Donna does in the film

Slate: You know what, Gillian and I were talking yesterday about how I have not ever done this. Maybe some texts, but usually the people that I call when I'm drunk are my parents. ... I have drunk-dialed my parents quite a number of times and my mom picks up the phone and goes, "Jen, what's wrong?" And usually it's just, "I just love you, I wanted you and dad to know that I love you." And then they tell me to get some water.

On the film's unexpected shift from edgy and irreverent to a sweet ending

Robespierre: We really love romantic comedies, and that's sort of the genre that we wanted to stick to. And the question was never "Will they?" or "Won't they?" — "Will Donna, or won't she, have an abortion?" It was: "Will she be able to tell the [rebound] character?" And, I think: "How is he going to react to it?" And I think we always wanted it to be a happy ending. And we leave them where we find them, just sort of getting to know each other.

On the challenges of making a comedy about abortion

Slate: You'll notice that there aren't a lot of jokes about abortion in the film. And I think what we tried to do with the comedy was just make sure that it made us laugh, that it wasn't trying to be glib or flippant or too hip. I'm not a fan of the too-cool-for-school vibe; I think it's good to be thoughtful. And we started from there.

Sometimes we put a toe over the line, and I think that's good. I think it's good to be flexible with the boundaries, a little bit, of what we think is OK to joke about to show ourselves that it's not so fragile and so rigid that everything's gonna break if we change our language or change our viewpoint.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our next story goes like this - boy dumps girl. Girl is sad. Girl rebounds with nice guy she meets at a bar. But then things gets complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OBVIOUS CHILD")

GABBY HOFFMAN: (As Nellie) Oh, my God. You didn't use a condom with pee farter.

JENNY SLATE: (As Donna Stern) I remember seeing a condom. I just don't, like, know exactly what it did.

MARTIN: "Obvious Child" is a new film directed by Gillian Robespierre. Comedian Jenny Slate plays the main character, Donna, who is also a stand-up comic and uses her routine to work out the hard stuff happening in her life - a breakup, a layoff and an unexpected pregnancy.

Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate joined me in our Washington, D.C. studios to talk about what is, in many ways, a classic romantic comedy, except that the comedy is centerstage. I want to start with you, Jenny, if you don't mind kind of placing us in the life of Donna, who is the main character in "Obvious Child." Where is this young woman right now in her life?

SLATE: Donna's in her late 20s. She's a comedian in Brooklyn. It's natural for her to be on stage. She likes it up there. It's going pretty well for her at the start of the film. She ends up getting dumped and fired and then pregnant all in time for Valentine's Day.

MARTIN: Such a good week.

SLATE: Yeah. It's...

MARTIN: (Laughter) Or couple weeks.

SLATE: It all really starts to circle the drain a little bit pretty quickly.

MARTIN: And I do love that she's a stand-up comic.

SLATE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let's hear a clip of her on stage. This is near the beginning of the film, and it's after she's been dumped by her boyfriend. She has been drinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OBVIOUS CHILD")

SLATE: (As Donna Stern) I was recently dumped up with. My very nice, close friend, who's such a nice person, decided to sleep with my boyfriend. I would love to just murder-suicide them.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So this character could of been anything. She could have been an investment banker. She could have been a hairstylist just as long as she had that kind of sharp wit, probably would've worked narratively. But Gillian, what did Donna being a comic give you in terms of opportunities in this film besides great scenes like the one we just heard?

GILLIAN ROBESPIERRE: Yeah. Many things. One is Jenny, in real life, is an amazing stand-up comedian. I first met her in 2009 while she was on stage. She was performing in at free comedy club, not even a club. It was more of like a hole behind a bar. I remember being very sweaty back there.

SLATE: And the bathrooms were upsetting as they tend to be.

ROBESPIERRE: ...In Brooklyn. Yeah.

MARTIN: Is your comedy in your real life like the comedy that we see Donna do?

SLATE: My comedy is unplanned in a way, and it is confessional. But I think Donna is much more passive than I am in her comedy. At first she's just kind of letting it rip. She is 0 to 100 with nothing in between. I think my comedy tends to be just as open, but I do have boundaries.

MARTIN: One of my favorite scenes in the film is after the breakup. Donna is not over it, and there is this classic scene where she's struggling to come to grips, again, with the help of a little wine.

SLATE: A lot of wine.

MARTIN: A lot of wine...

SLATE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In the evening. And she starts to make repeated phone calls her ex-boyfriend - many, many voicemail messages.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OBVIOUS CHILD")

SLATE: (As Donna Stern) Have a great life. I'll be here with my normal HPV that 1 in 4 nice women have. And there will not be an apology message for this apology message. Good bye.

MARTIN: I get the sense, Jenny, you may have left a couple of these in your lifetime.

SLATE: You know what? Gillian and I were both talking yesterday about how I have not ever done this. Maybe some texts, but usually, the people that I call when I'm drunk are my parents.

MARTIN: Really?

SLATE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Odd choice.

SLATE: A lot of teary things. I tend to be a happy drunk. And usually, when I'm sad, I don't go to the bottle. I go to...

ROBESPIERRE: ...Crack.

SLATE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBESPIERRE: Hitting the pipe.

SLATE: Yeah. That's right. Yeah. I have drunk-dialed my parents quite a number of times. And my ma picks up the phone and goes, Jen, what's wrong?

(LAUGHTER)

SLATE: And usually, it's I just love you. I wanted you and dad to know that I love you. And then they tell me to get some water.

MARTIN: In the end, this ends up being such a sweet film. And I wasn't expecting it because it has a very edgy, irreverent personality throughout. And the romance between Donna and Max evolves.

SLATE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And it's so sweet and lovely. Did you ever think about turning it on its head and making it into something darker?

ROBESPIERRE: No. We really love romantic comedies. And that's sort of the genre that we wanted to stick to. The question was never will Donna or won't she have an abortion? It was will she be able to tell the Max character, and how is he going to react to it? And I think we always wanted it to be a happy ending. And we leave them where we find them, just sort of getting to know each other.

MARTIN: Was it difficult at all to find jokes about abortion?

SLATE: Well, actually, you'll notice that there aren't a lot of jokes about abortion in the film. And I think what we tried to do with the comedy was to just make sure that it made us laugh. That it wasn't trying to be glib or flippant or too hip. I'm not a fan of the too-cool-for-school vibe. I think it's good to be thoughtful. And sometimes, we put a toe over the line. And I think that's good. I think it's good to be flexible with the boundaries, a little bit, of what we think is, like, OK to joke about to show ourselves that it's so fragile and so rigid that, you know, everything is going to break if we just change our language or change our viewpoint.

MARTIN: The film is called "Obvious Child." It stars Jenny Slate. And it was directly by Gillian Robespierre. Thanks to you both for coming in.

SLATE: Thank you.

ROBESPIERRE: It was great. Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.