Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm on Exploring Taboo Subjects Honestly in ‘Landline’

     July 21, 2017

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Set in 1990s Manhattan, the heartfelt and funny dramedy Landline follows two sisters who suspect that their father (John Turturro) may be having an affair. The recently engaged Dana (Jenny Slate) is struggling with her own fidelity while her wild teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn) keeps pushing boundaries, and through it all, the two try to uncover the truth before letting their mother know (Edie Falco).

During this phone interview with Collider, director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm (who also made Obvious Child with Slate) talked about what they learned from making Obvious Child together, how they wanted to approach the subject of divorce for Landline, gauging the truth of the emotions for each other, examining taboo subjects in a very real way, how close the finished product is to their original vision for the film, deleted scenes, what they enjoy about working with each other, and trying to figure out the next thing they’ll write.

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Image via Amazon Studios

Collider:  As a team, along with Jenny Slate, you guys had great success with Obvious Child. Did the success of that film affect or change the way you wanted to approach whatever the project after that would be? 

GILLIAN ROBESPIERRE:  Obvious Child was all of our first feature. Jenny had been in other movies and she did a great job, but that was her first leading role and we wrote it for her. It was based off of a short that she was in, but it was tailor made for her. Same with Landline. We all came of age on set together. And through the process of releasing it into the world and getting some nice attention, we became this really tight threesome. We knew that we wanted to go back and try it again. We didn’t know how we were going to do it or what we were going to say, but we knew that we wanted to try it again, as a triangle of witches, which we often call ourselves. So, Liz and I went back to New York and Jenny went to L.A., and Liz and I started talking about our lives and the families that we grew up in. We’re both native New Yorkers whose parents divorced when we were teenagers, and our families grew together instead of being torn apart in a very cliche way. Being around other kids and children of divorce, I definitely found my friends’ parents not speaking, but that didn’t happen for Liz and I. Our parents became humans and, for the first time, our moms became these very vulnerable women. They were always strong women, running our houses, but they became real. We both had brothers. We did not have that strong sisterhood in our youth. And Liz and I have an age gap between us. While writing this, we didn’t even talk about it, but part of that sister relationship is a little bit the relationship that Liz and I had, not that we were ever fighting in the car and calling each other bitches. But there have been some car rides where I’ve gotten a little tense and I’ve made Liz get out of the car.

ELISABETH HOLM:  When we first got to L.A., we were in a parking lot for half an hour because she snapped.

ROBESPIERRE:  It’s a tough business and it’s also a collaborative business, so when you find people that you have a shorthand with, who push you and help you grow and you do the same for them, you don’t want to lose that. It’s really exciting to be able to do it again. We did it with a pilot, as well, and that was a fun experiment to dip our toes in television. You’ll never see it, though. It’s so great to work with people you know and love and trust, but also open up the world. For Obvious Child, it was a very small crew. We weren’t union and there were 30 people on set.

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Image via Amazon Studios

HOLM:  And Jenny was in every single frame, except the shot of the poop.

ROBESPIERRE:  This was a bigger set and a bigger crew with new department heads. It really opened up the creative family in a wonderful way. It was an ensemble piece. We got to work with the amazing, talented Edie Falco, John Turturro, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock and all of those amazing talents. And then, we got to discover Abby Quinn, who blew us away in her audition. She came in and had this confidence, but also a real teenage demeanor. She blew us away in person. It’s not 1995, so we had the ability to Google her and we saw that she had this amazing talent. She’s a singer and guitar player. We saw a talent show she did in high school, and she did an acoustic version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” She was just an amazing young woman. Also, in the audition, we could tell that she had straightened her hair and had these beautiful curls underneath it. Liz and I have curls, and Jenny has curls, and we were looking to cast somebody who looks like Jenny’s sister and could really hold her own in strength and comedy. I think Abby had all of those attributes that we were looking for.

One of the best compliments that I can give this film is that it feels absolutely real and true in its emotions, especially in its exploration of family and relationships. What do you guys use to gauge that? Do you gauge things for each other? 

HOLM:  That is honestly the best compliment that we could receive. I’m gonna tear up! I’m having an emo day. I do think Gillian and I are a litmus test for each other. When we write together, we talk a lot about story and character. We both go off into our separate caves and work on scenes, and then we bring them back to each other and share. We read them out loud and speak the dialogue, and then we trade, and it’s rinse and repeat. Through that process, what we’re always striving for is dialogue and moments that do feel real and do feel lived in. These are characters that we know and this is the way that they talk. When we read each other’s pages, there are moments that make us laugh out loud or make us cry, and if we can do it to each other, we know that there’s something there. We both are just really nosy eavesdroppers when it comes to listening to other people, and we put some of that into our words, as well. A lot of it is stuff we’ve heard or said or done before.

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Image via Amazon Studios

First, you made an abortion comedy, and then you tackled the subject of infidelity. Do you guys specifically enjoy exploring what many people see as taboo subjects and forcing people to look at and examine it in a very real way? 

ROBESPIERRE:  It’s a little bit of both. We certainly did want to turn the divorce narrative on its ass a little bit. Not that divorce isn’t messy or complicated or sad, much like abortion, but it was an opportunity to really become closer through honesty and to connect to these people in our family, in a very real way, and we really valued that. We have grown closer with each individual member of our family through that process, and that can be true for a lot of people. Hopefully with everything we do, we’ll tell stories that make people feel a little less alone and like they’re going to be okay. That’s what we seek out in the movies that we love and that we watch, over and over again, so to offer that to other people is where we want to be.

How close is this final product to what you originally envisioned the film to be, and are there some deleted scenes that we might get to see? 

ROBESPIERRE:  Yeah, there are deleted scenes, and some fun ones, that hopefully we can get on the DVD extras, if they’re still making DVDs. But, it’s really not that many scenes. Most every scene, we wrote and shot. We did not deviate from the script, as much as we did doing the stand-up for Jenny’s Obvious Child stand-up segments. For that, Liz and I wrote comedy and Jenny was like, “This is good, guys, but this isn’t comedy. This is a monologue in a play.” So, it was half-written and half-improved for the comedy in Obvious Child. But this was one of those things where we gave the script to actors and everyone really loved it. That’s how we got so many amazing, talented, seasoned veteran actors to join the project. They were excited to tell this story in this way. On set and in rehearsals, it’s always time for them to take over and embody these characters. They’re living in these people, for 25 days. We lived in them for two years, writing them, but then it’s time to relinquish them and let these amazing humans take over and put their thoughts and personality and ideas into them, live with them, and act them. There’s always room for change and happy accidents to occur, once the actors take over.

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Image via Amazon Studios

HOLM:  There’s always a little compromise when there are other people involved when you’re not making a small movie by yourself in New York, that’s totally 100% yours, like Obvious Child was. We had amazing financiers on that movie who really gave us free reign to do whatever we wanted, and this one was different. There was more of a structure, in terms of it being financed by a production company that had more notes than we’ve ever come across in the process. It wasn’t because the movie was in shambles. That was just the company that we were working with. I think it was about balancing everyone’s desires, but keeping the integrity of your script and your vision alive.

What do you guys most enjoy about working with each other, and what do you think Jenny Slate brings to that mix? 

HOLM:  Writing for Jenny is a breeze for us and a pleasure. It’s the most enjoyable experience to write for her with her in mind, but then have her take it and elevate it to a new plateau. And for us, writing together is fulfilling because it’s nice to have a partner in that space. It can be very lonely and depressing to be a writer, and to be alone in your own head. To have a gauge there and to have somebody to calm you the fuck down or amp you up is nice. It’s nice to have a like-minded partner, and Jenny is also like-minded. We’re all cut from the same neurotic cloth. It’s a cloth that we really like and it’s very comfortable, but we also let it breathe and we’re really good at pushing each other. It’s definitely not a status quo situation. We really push hard.

Do you guys know what you’ll be doing next?

HOLM:  Gillian directed some episodes of Casual. And Jenny and I are working on a Marcel the Shell movie. We’re both stretching different muscles, and then we’re starting to think about writing new things and what’s next for a new story. Gillian is also taking care of her beautiful daughter, and I’m making sure that my husband doesn’t feel neglected.

Landline opens in limited release on July 21st, and nationwide on August 4th.

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