From director David Wnendt and screenwriter Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, the indie drama The Sunlit Night follows aspiring painter Frances (Jenny Slate), who finds herself leaving New York City to spend some time in Arctic Norway, for an assignment that she hopes will inspire her. Working for an unforgiving mentor who’s also a master painter (Fridtjov Såheim) turns out to be an unexpected experience, but it reinvigorates Frances, as she sets out on her own path forward.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Slate (who also produced this film) speaks about this story of a woman trying to find where her power lies, how deeply she responded to the mentor-student relationship, finding the comedy within the characters, and what it was like to work in 24 hours of sunlight in Arctic Norway. She also discusses why she wanted to include her family in her Netflix comedy special Stage Fright, whether she’ll stay involved with Big Mouth, and the Looney Tunes script that she wrote.
COLLIDER: This seems like a film that would be hard to describe to someone. When something like this comes your way, is it a situation where you just have to read the script because a description could never fully do it justice?
JENNY SLATE: Yeah. It’s funny, it feels like the things that I’ve chosen to do, on my own time, are all completely impossible to describe, for sure. But that said, this movie is not that hard to figure out. It’s just how you wanna frame it. There’s a way to frame it that makes it sound basic and like you’ve heard it before. “A woman gets broken up with, and so she goes on a trip to find herself.” And then, there’s another way, where you really can see it as a story of a woman who is sitting inside an identity that she’s been told is right for her, but the world is acting on her, in a way that says, “You’re actually not fit for what you think you’re fit for.” She has to internally figure out where her power lies. That, to me, is the central struggle of the story.
There’s something so interesting about her being judged by these people, at the beginning and the end of the movie. They’re judging her artwork, and it’s so weird to have her sit there and take their criticism, whether good or bad from people, who otherwise don’t really have an effect on her life.
SLATE: Yeah. The first thing you see in the film is Frances, and you hear the critique first, but you don’t know who it’s being given to. You see the painting, and the painting is bad. I think everyone would agree, it’s not great. And then, you see her and she’s almost breathless with having to carry the weight of that really, really heavy critique that just is relentless. It’s just, “This is not good. What you’ve tried to do is actually making me angry, and I don’t wanna even talk about it anymore because it’s so bad.”
It’s her holding that disbelief, that she didn’t even realize the extent to which she’s so unfit, is the first thing that you learn about the character. I don’t know, it’s nice to have someone like that at the center, rather than some really self-assured woman, who’s just gonna go to the Arctic and let it hit her in the face. Instead, you see a woman, and you’re really not sure of her capabilities and she’s not sure of them, either. We don’t know if it’s permissible for her to be the person that we follow. She gives us no guarantees of success, and we have to step outside of those narrative expectations, and go somewhere else.
Frances is such an interesting character because even though you would think she would show up at this place, shut down and not wanting to deal with anybody else, she has these really interesting experiences with quite unique people, along the way.
SLATE: Yeah, and the people are not caricatures or tropes. For me, at least, performing those scenes, you don’t fall into trying to make them like, “Okay, this is a scene between mentor and student. We know how this goes.” With the character of Nils (Såheim), who Frances is there to be the apprentice of, his grumpiness is identifiable, but how she reacts to it is really a special thing that grows between them. It’s not always good, but I feel like those were my favorite scenes to shoot.
I love their dynamic because they don’t say a lot, but there’s so much going on between them.
SLATE: Yeah, if I would do anything again, I would just write more scenes with Nils and get more into that relationship. Sometimes you’re on set and suddenly you realize, “Oh, this is really interesting. This other thing should have been our focus.” When I watch the film now, I love Fridtjov’s performance so much, and I loved being able to act with him.
There’s also an odd Viking re-enactors village, which is not something you find in every movie, which allows for actors like Zach Galifianakis and Gillian Anderson to be there, hanging around. What was it like to share scenes with them and their character?
SLATE: I didn’t get to do a lot of scenes with Gillian. I got to hang around with her, which was incredibly fun, and I’m so lucky that I even got to meet her. I’m such a big fan. And Zach has been my friend for over a decade. It was really, really nice to work with him in this space that is to the side of comedy. It’s not exactly outside of comedy, but we’re really trying to do something. You can’t step out of these characters, in order to reach for comedy. You have to find it within them. Zach is always really surprising and really fun to work with, and also just such a kind sweetheart.
You also have a goat for a co-star, which I would imagine is an unusual experience. What was it like to work with the goat? Were there goat mishaps, especially since I would imagine that you can’t train a goat?
SLATE: No, you can’t train a goat. Those goats were really just from a goat farm. They weren’t movie goats that knew how to do anything. Basically, what happened was that our set of the trailer, which wasn’t a set, it was just a tiny trailer that we shot in, was really, really small. A lot of times, we couldn’t fit a cameraman, the sound guy and the director, so the director had to wait outside. It was really, really small, and the goat truly shit all over everything, every time it was in there. It was very intense. It was really real.
What was it like to spend time on location somewhere like Arctic Norway that has 24 hours of sunshine?
SLATE: Because it is such a unique place, it strips away the daily rhythms that you might have on a set, somewhere in the United States. It strips away your expectations of what you think is normal, including just facing the elements. It doesn’t look as cold as it was, but it was often very, very cold. It takes a totally different type of stamina to live in 24-hour daylight. I don’t know if you can really tell, but there’s a scene after the funeral, where Frances and Yasha (Alex Sharp) share a drink, and they drink out of a bottle, and we shot that on the top of a mountain. And in order to get to the top of the mountain, we had to hike it. So, we never stopped being in the place that we were in. That was the feeling overall, which I was really grateful for.
There were no boundaries between the space that we were in and the set that we were on. It was a big relief, in that way, to be so pared down. At once, you have these great expanses, and then you’re limited to how you can circulate in them. I found that to be really gratifying. It’s a place that I visited a few times, before we actually made the movie, and I think it will be special to me, forever. I’m sure to go back and visit it. We really did, with a local artist, paint that barn yellow, and it still stands there. I wonder if people passing by wonder what it is because it truly is art within art. As long as it stands, it will be there as a little monument to ourselves.
What was it that led to the decision to blend your Netflix comedy special with your family?
SLATE: Well, my comedy is really tied to my real life. I don’t often do the same set twice. A lot of the material I did in my special was done for the first time, that night. I think the reason why I do comedy is to explain who I am and to ask for a space in the social realm and in our culture, so it seemed, to me, that the right thing to do was to show as much of where I come from and, in that explanation of self, to show as much as I could. And so, that’s why I wanted my family to be in it. I think it’s also just a really human reminder that this is real to me. I wanna talk about what is real to me and show the people who I love the most. That’s what I wanna do on my own time, and put my name on it.
You and Gillian Robespierre have collaborated on things a few times now. Do you have any collaborations coming up together, that you guys are hoping to do together soon?
SLATE: Well, we don’t have anything scheduled right now, but I really hope that I can make many more films with Gillian. I certainly set that goal for myself, the first time we worked together. I was like, “Oh, I wanna work with her for the rest of my life.” And so, I’m sure we will work together again, one day. I just don’t know when. And that’s a delight, as well, because whenever it does happen, I will be very grateful for it.
When something like that happens, where you find somebody that you know you want to keep working with, what is it that about them or about their approach that gives you that feeling?
SLATE: It’s just a general ability to build trust with someone. That varies, interpersonally, from relationship to relationship, and friend to friend, or whatever. There was something about Gillian. I understood where she was coming from. I understood her belief system. I admired her, as a director and an artist, and she is a really good listener. She is really open-minded and really curious. I think what happened was that we were able to trust each other and really have a mutual understanding, speaking the same language silently, between ourselves. That’s what it felt like, on the set of Obvious Child, and I think that connection is really rare, so it’s important to be really grateful for it and hold onto it.
You recently made the decision to stop voicing your Big Mouth character, Missy Foreman-Greenwald, so that the character could be voiced by a Black actor. Will you voice a new character on the show, or are you exiting the show altogether?
SLATE: I do play other characters on the show, here in there, so I’ll still play those characters. I’m really close to the creators of the show, and lots of my friends work on it, so I’m sure I’ll still be around.
I love that you wrote a Looney Tunes movie. You said then that you didn’t think it would ever get made, even though it was fun to write. What made you decide to write something like that? Was that a world and characters that you had been a fan of or had a connection to?
SLATE: No. I’ve always loved Looney Tunes, but I didn’t, on my own, decide to write a Looney Tunes. I was approached by Warner Bros., and I agreed to it because I needed a job, but I thought that I could do it, so that’s why I did it. It felt like it was in my zone. I am kind of a kooky person and I do connect with animation. I have a deep love for animation and I grew up watching Looney Tunes, and the very old Looney Tunes, so I did jump at the chance. It was also really my first professional writing job, and I did really enjoy it. I wish I could remember what it’s even about.
Do you have it in a drawer, or is it gone?
SLATE: I have no idea where it is. It’s not in a drawer anywhere, that’s for sure. It might just be lost, but that’s okay.
The Sunlit Night is now available on VOD.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.