Independent Film as Social Activism
April 10, 2015 -- Critics agree director Gillian Robespierre has tackled the sensitive subject of unwanted pregnancy with maturity, honesty and wit in her first feature OBVIOUS CHILD.
The screening of the NY-based 2014 indie film at New York’s SVA cinema on March 28 in recognition of SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) Day was followed by an inspiring discussion between director Gillian Robespierre and Caren Spruch, Senior Advisor, Arts & Entertainment Engagement, Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Anchored by a breakout performance from Jenny Slate (Parks & Rec), OBVIOUS CHILD which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival packs raw, energetic comedy and moments of poignant human honesty. Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre handles the topic of twenty-something aspiring comedian Donna's unwanted pregnancy with a refreshing matter-of-factness rarely seen onscreen.
On stage, Donna Stern is unapologetically herself, joking about topics as intimate as her sex life and as crude as her day-old underwear. But when Donna winds up unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand, she is forced to face the uncomfortable realities of independent womanhood for the first time. Donna’s drunken hookup – and epic lapse in prophylactic judgment – turns out to be the beginning of a hilarious and totally unplanned journey of self-discovery and empowerment. Never failing to find the comedy and humanity in each awkward situation she encounters, Donna finds out along the way what it means to be as brave in life as she is on stage.
Robespierre told a full house she started the OBVIOUS CHILD short in 2009 with a 16 page script co-written with writing partners Anna Bean and Karen Maine.
Disenchanted with romantic comedies and film representation of unplanned pregnancies, Robespierre and her producing team decided to go out and produce their short film with actress Jenny Slate rather than wait for production companies.
“We knew Jenny Slate from a comedy club in Brooklyn, before Parks & Rec,” Robespierre said. “Jenny embodied everything we liked and she’s an incredible actress.”
When it was finished in 2014 OBVIOUS CHILD was released on Vimeo where it had 40,000 hits. Robespierre then started working on the feature with her producer Elisabeth Holm. “Our conversation-starting film started as social activism,” Robespierre reflected. Robespierre said she believes creativity and activism go hand in hand.
The OBVIOUS CHILD story strips away stereotypes - in a split second after the abortion in the recovery room, Donna steps from passivity to an active role where she makes eye contact in a peaceful moment. She steps into the next phase of her life. There's no judging. She’s among the women who made serious and important decisions and have been portrayed as normal people.
"We just wanted to tell the story this way. The word abortion had been oppressed in our culture. It's one woman's very personal story. We hope people sit in a theater and laugh and enjoy the story."
“I didn't want to shoot the abortion scene at the same podiatrist office where we shot the short film’s abortion scene,” Robespierre laughed. “We were able to form an alliance with Planned Parented in spite of the scatological humor in our story,” she explained.
Caren Spruch explained that her job at Planned Parenthood is to take away the stigma of abortion. “Working with Gillian has been one of the best experiences I've had at Planned Parenthood,” Sprunch continued. “She managed to pull off so many good jokes and always be accurate in her portrayal. I feel this film gives other artists license to go out and tell their stories.”
A variety of conservative groups including the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation criticized the movie. In spite of the controversial issue raised by the film, Robespierre and her team raised the half million dollar budget. They got an equipment grant from Rooftop Films following a warm reception of the short at this NYC summer festival.
Technical aspects of the film included 18 days of shooting in New York.
“We wanted to show an abortion in NYC where abortion is accepted,” Robespierre said. “The day at Planned Parenthood was our tightest shooting. Filming there helped our crew click.”
On the question of casting Robespierre explained, “We were looking for a real mensch who was in awe of the girl standing in front of him,” Robespierre said of selecting Jake Lacy as the object of Donna’s one-night stand in this rom-com abortion story. “With actors we didn't get many no's and I'm a 1st time director,” Robespierre said. The fine cast also includes Polly Draper as Donna’s Mom whose character admits to have had an abortion before Roe v. Wade.
The film was sold to a distributor at Sundance. Gillian Robespierre is currently developing her second feature, also with Jenny Slate.