‘Landline’ creators talk family dynamics, fidelity and all things ’90s

Landline, the sophomore feature from filmmakers Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm, created buzz at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and continues to make quite a stir in theatrical release.  Starring Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, John Turturro, and Edie Falco, Robespierre also directed the film, set in New York City in the 1990s.  

The film looks at a family’s communication, interaction, and growth as Ali (Quinn) suspects her father of having an affair. Dana (Slate) has her own issues with fidelity with fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) and the sisters bond as they struggle to adjust.  It’s a poignant yet humorous film as it reveals the vulnerability of mothers and tugs on the inherent sibling bond and heartstrings of familial relationships.  

Robespierre, Holm, Slate and Quinn were recently in Chicago and sat down with me to talk about the making of this film, technology and sexuality in the 90s versus today, and women in the entertainment industry. Their answers give an even deeper meaning to the film, the process, and their take on relationships.

Pamela Powell (PP): I’m sure you get this question all the time, but what was the inspiration for making this film?

Gillian Robespierre (GR):  It started being on the road with Obvious Child, in hotels where we would drink wine and stay up late and talk about life and love and our newish relationships.  I was in a long-term relationship when Obvious Child came out. Liz was just starting a relationship and we both have parents who divorced when we were teenagers.  It was around the same formative years that we experienced our families falling apart and then reshaping.   For the first time, we became closer to our older brothers…Our moms became these women who weren’t just telling us to pick up shit off the floor and do our college apps, but these very strong women became a little more vulnerable and our relationship with them became no longer mother-daughter but a friendship and had a little more equality.  And my dad and I grew closer.  We started going to movies together every weekend so my film school started with my father…

We [Liz and I] shared a similar experience and we grew up in New York City in the 90s.  We never knew each other in the ’90s because I would have been Liz’s babysitter (laughs) or her cool gym teacher (everyone’s laughing)…We met as women in our 20s and 30s.  We were drawn to each other in a room. It was very magnetic.  Almost like the sister relationship on screen where we wrote two sisters who didn’t necessarily get along in the beginning and then bond over the shared experience.  

It was like magnetic attraction and they were so sparkly and wonderful together on screen that the movie turned into more of a love story between two sisters…We really reshaped it for Abby and Jenny.   

PP: Landline has an amazing balance of both drama and humor.  Was that a difficult balance to achieve?

Elisabeth Holm (EH):  Thanks for saying that.  It’s something that we care very deeply about.  I think it starts first and foremost with just wanting to write things that feel true.  And the truth is sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking and hopefully both of those things at the same time.  I grew up a child of divorce, of infidelity.  I’ve cheated. I’ve been cheated on. This behavior is [extremely] human.  I think we wanted to show the humanity that we feel.  

GR:  I will admit that the script was probably a little bit funnier than the end product.  When we were in the edit, watching these amazing actors inhabit these people, and the weight they brought and the heaviness, it felt really important to start “cutting our darlings” … in order to service the story…stay closer to the truth and honesty in the scene.  Sometimes that is breaking it with humor, masking your pain with humor…It’s a whole movie about people for once being honest with each other then maybe it’s not a scene where it ends with a zinger and they can sit in their pain a bit longer.   

PP:  Abby, you bring a remarkable sense of authenticity to the role of Ali.  Where does this genuineness come from?

Abby Quinn (AQ):  My parents got divorced when I was in the 4th grade and the way that the divorce ended up and my experience with it is very different than the way that it’s portrayed in the film…In terms of the relationship between us (re: Jenny’s character), I have three siblings so I felt like I was able to draw from each one of us and there’s definitely a bit of myself in Ali…a lot of her anger and harshness comes from this need to be independent which I consider myself pretty independent.  I don’t want to say loner, but I definitely need time alone to regenerate so I understood that…and I thought it was really interesting that it was set in the 90s and it was a new opportunity for me.   

PP:  What was that like to go back in time to an era without social media, particularly since you were born in ’96?  Did it give you a different perspective on your life now?

AQ:   Facebook started when I got to middle school…and AIM, too. It was the beginning of having an online presence and it was really consuming, for me at least. And I know my friends felt the same way, that you always had to update your status and design your own bio. It was important to everyone. I think I was lucky enough to have my childhood not be tainted with that and I built friendships and had play dates without it. 

EH:  Part of why I fell in love with Abby is because she’s such an old soul. She was also a true teenager when we were filming and is now the ripe old age of 21. I mean you gave me a book of poetry as a wrap present! You’re so thoughtful and sort of not what you hear or imagine to be the typical “young millennial.” She played us a song from her new album. That song could have been in our movie. I think it speaks to her transcending being an internet kid.

GR:  So, you’re giving us hope.

PP:  Do you think Landline could be set in 2017 and still give us the same message?

GR:  I think 1995 or 2017 communication on the deeper level has always been difficult, especially within a family dynamic where you get so stuck in a groove.  You’re the baby of the family so you have to act this way or you’re the matriarch or the patriarch and must act this way.  You’re in your designated roles and it gets hard to grow. Sometimes you need some catastrophe to get you out of those roles. Hopefully it’s not devastating to the point where you’re unable to reconnect.  I think that is a timeless familial problem. Hopefully you can take the ’90s out as we didn’t make a caricature of it and the story is still relatable and it’s strong on its own.  

EH:  I do think that marriage and monogamy and these questions about relationships were crystallized in the 90s because when we grew up all our friends‘ parents were getting divorced, our parents were some of the last people to get divorced among our group of friends.  A lot of us still choose monogamy and choose marriage, but I think now in 2017 I’m very aware that it is a choice of many different choices. Most of my friends aren’t getting married, and some of them are polyamorous.  There’s just way more fluidity in gender and sexuality.  I think this was the maybe the last moment before a lot of those questions…became completely mainstream…I think it was the beginning of the end of an era in terms of love and sex.  

PP:  Jenny, your career as a comedian and actress has really taken off.  They say that being a female comedian is tough.  Do you see that and how does it compare to being female in the film industry?

Jenny Slate (JS):  You know, I’ve never really known what to do with that statement, that it’s hard for women in comedy, because I do feel that while I talk about my gender in my comedy, my comedy comes from my nature and not my gender. So, I don’t really feel like I pay very much attention to what other people think about it (laughs) because it really doesn’t make any sense to me…You can’t separate out the fact that the entertainment industry is historically and currently run by men even though progress is being made, and there are clearer voices coming out of Hollywood than maybe ever before. There have already been so many strong women in this industry, [but] there’s still a lot to overcome.  So to me, I find that issue to be much more prevalent in the movie making or television business than it is in comedy.

I’ve never experienced being kept down or limited in any way, but I also come from a group of alternative comedians, who are all in one way or another are feminists meaning they are comfortable with equality… The entertainment industry has not really caught onto that in the same way.  There’s a lot of stuff that I find to be really discouraging, but there are also so many wonderful voices like Gillian and Liz or Jill Soloway, or Miranda July or Barry Jenkins, or Mike Mills, Dean Fleischer-Camp.  A lot of those people are making work for humans while being very specific about experiences.

PP:  You had a predominantly female crew on Obvious Child, did you make a concerted effort to do this with Landline as well?  

GR: We didn’t make a point of it. It just happened. And the same with Landline.  A lot of the department heads were female. I think talent comes first before gender…but being around women feels like home. It’s lovely to be around people who feel like family and then opening up the family and growing and expanding and collaborating with people who are going to push you or call you out on certain things [which] elevates your work.  

Landline opens Friday, July 21 in NY and LA and expands to Chicago and other cities on July 28, 2017.

© Pamela Powell (7/21/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Jenny Slate in Landline

Featured Photo/Middle Photo: Gillian Robespierre on set of Landline

Bottom Photo (from left to right): Elisabeth Holm, Gillian Robespierre, Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn at the Landline press junket in Chicago

Middle Photo: Abby Quinn, Edie Falco and Jenny Slate in Landline

Photo Credits: Amazon Studios, Magnolia Pictures, Jojo Whilden and Brigid Presecky

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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