Q&A: ‘Obvious Child’ filmmakers dish on newest Sundance finalist ‘Landline’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Landline' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — They turned a pregnancy plot into the indie gem “Obvious Child” (2014).

Now, they’re back with the new indie comedy-drama “Landline,” which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is now playing in theaters nationwide.

“It’s more of a drama that you’ll laugh a lot during,” director Gillian Robespierre told WTOP. “[It’s] about family, secrets, lies, communication, love. … A family on the brink of change.”

Set in 1995, Manhattan teenager Ali (Abby Quinn) discovers that her father Alan (John Turturro) is having an affair. She debates whether to tell her mother Pat (Edie Falco) and older sister Dana (Jenny Slate), who is contemplating cheating on her fiance Ben (Jay Duplass).

“We wanted to turn the divorce story on its a**,” co-writer Elisabeth Holm told WTOP.

Both Holm and Robespierre say they pulled from personal experience.

“Gillian and I are born-and-raised New Yorkers, we grew up in the ’90s, both of our parents divorced when we were teenagers, so we kind of grew up on infidelity,” Holm said. “We both had this interesting experience happen where divorce wound up being this thing that brought our families closer. We got to know our parents as humans and our siblings as friends.”

Speaking of sibling friends, Quinn says it was a joy playing Slate’s sister.

“She’s one of my favorite actresses and comedians,” Quinn told WTOP. “One of my favorite TV shows is ‘Parks and Rec,’ so I’ve been a big fan of hers for a while. We didn’t really get a lot of rehearsal time. I think we had met twice before starting to film. But Jenny is a very open person. She doesn’t really have any guards up, which is really refreshing.”

Another character hovering over the film is the ’90s setting. The affair is discovered on a floppy disk, the proof is printed on perforated paper, a CD player skips during sex, and Edie Falco imitates the pantsuits she sees first lady Hillary Clinton wearing on TV. Just years before the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it’s a visual element that ties directly into the plot and theme.

“I think the most fun was in the edit and picking [’90s] music,” Robespierre told WTOP. “It was not that long ago, so our memories of the ’90s are pretty visceral and alive. But we also wanted to make sure that if you took that element out, the story would still be strong and the relationships we were creating would still work whether we set the movie in 1995 or 2017.”

Robespierre directs with impressive detail. In the scene right after Quinn discovers her dad’s affair, Falco blocks Turturro from leaving the room and we distinctly see his wedding band.

“That was a fun scene to direct,” Robespierre said. “He was mimicking a crossing guard. It was never my intention to have his hand with the ring be a symbolic moment, but I love that you picked up that. … We had to depict a relationship on the verge of collapse, but [one that] had 20 years of potentially great moments [for] a couple that did connect at one point.”

Of course, it’s much easier to pull off when you’re directing such talented actors.

“Any director who gets to work with Edie Falco and John Turturro, it’s a dream and an honor,” Robespierre said. “They came up in New York in the same time frame, they’re longtime family friends, Edie is close friends with John’s cousin, who was on ‘The Sopranos.’ … Everyone assumes that they’ve been in many movies together, but this is the first time!”

In addition to the drama, the film is laugh-out-loud funny. Time and again, the script reverses our expectations, setting us up to think the parents are about to admonish their kids for a potty mouth, then yanking the rug out to criticize them for a more inane detail.

“We both came from households where our parents were constantly surprising us with what the admonishing was for,” Holm said. “There’s a line in the movie where John says he fell in love with Edie’s character because she had ‘great legs and the mouth of a truck driver.’ That’s definitely how my father would describe my mother. Our parents taught us how to curse.”

Robespierre says it’s all part of an overall attempt to break the mold.

“We hate movies where everyone is restricted in their roles, like the matriarch must be the curse patrol and put a nickel in the swear jar,” Robespierre said. “So many women in movies are relegated to these strict roles, so we felt it’d be nice to have a mother who is just as filthy, funny, vulnerable and gets all the juicy moments just as all the other male characters.”

This outside-the-box approach got them into Sundance for the second time in three years.

“Getting the call from Sundance is one of the best calls you could ever receive,” Robespierre said. “I started crying a little bit, tears of joy. … We’re so lucky to have done it twice.”

Listen to our full chat with Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm and Abby Quinn below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the creators of 'Landline' (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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