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How Landline’s creators built a family drama around pay phones, floppy disks, and an Apple IIGS

How Landline’s creators built a family drama around pay phones, floppy disks, and an Apple IIGS


Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm’s follow-up to Obvious Child finds its stakes in 1995

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Photo: Amazon Studios

Director Gillian Robespierre is back. Her 2014 debut, Obvious Child, surprised critics by bringing something fresh to the romantic-comedy genre and the never-ending glut of young-in-New-York-City films. And her new film, Landline, re-teams her with Obvious Child star Jenny Slate and screenwriter Elisabeth Holm. Their latest collaboration is a comedy-drama about a pair of sisters — a teenager (Abby Quinn) and a 20-something graphic designer at Paper magazine (Slate) — who discover that their flailing playwright father (John Turturro) is having an affair. The film is set in 1995, and it takes most of its drama from an era where “going off the grid” was as simple as going outside and neglecting to pay 25 cents to check your voicemail.

To take New York City back to 1995, the filmmaking team had to cut around selfie sticks, pedestrians carrying iPhones or riding Citi Bikes, and, a special challenge — Starbucks. The coffee chain is synonymous with the NYC street corner now, but in 1995, there were only 15 in all of Manhattan. Landline’s costume designer, Liz Vastola, filled in gaps in the characters’ wardrobes by watching old episodes of Seinfeld, likely a more familiar 1990s reference point for much of Robespierre’s young Brooklynite fanbase than their own memories.

It was plainly a lot of work to recreate the time period of Landline on an indie budget, so I recently sat down with Robespierre and Holm to hear why the setting, and all the retro tech that comes with it, were so important to the story.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I’d love to talk about the way technology and the lack thereof drove the drama of this story. Why is Landline set in 1995?

Elisabeth Holm: Gillian and I are both born-and-raised New Yorkers whose parents divorced when we were teenagers, and we grew up in the ‘90s, so the movie is in many ways a personal story for both of us. But it was also about wanting to tell a story about a family communicating or not communicating, and connecting or not connecting, and the landline phone was kind of the epicenter of family life — sharing it, it being pulled out of your wall, pulling the cord under your door. It was the thing that connected us to each other. So it felt like a natural place to begin for this family’s story.

We wanted to tell a story about family secrets and lies without having to rely on digital technology, like finding things out through Facebook or email or Twitter or text. We wanted to see people talk to each other and relate, human to human. Going back to that time allowed us to avoid some of the things that have now become integral to the way we communicate.

“We wanted to tell a story about family secrets and lies without having to rely on digital technology”

Gillian Robespierre: And I think emotional communication has always been difficult. With Wi-Fi or without, it’s never been easy to be open. I think we were the last generation who didn’t have to tweet or refresh or Instagram every moment of our lives. We always knew we were going to set the movie in the ‘90s, but we also wanted to make sure if you took that element out of the film, there would still be a complete story that any generation can relate to, even the current one.

In the movie, Jenny Slate works at a magazine. That’s such a trope in modern movies — women working at magazines, when that’s barely a job anymore. But in the ’90s, it would make sense.

GR: Well, Paper was the coolest magazine ever in the ’90s, and this cool girl next to me was an intern at Paper.

EH: I did work at Paper, and I loved Paper. They were kind enough to let us say that Dana works at Paper. We wanted her to be in layout. It was definitely a play on the trope of women working at magazines, but rather than her being a fashion editor or a love columnist, we wanted her to have a very left-brain, non-cool job of organizing the pages. When she calls out sick, people don’t know who she is.

When she calls on the payphone and skips work — that was so wild to me. If I did that, I would still be getting Slack messages on my iPhone. But she can just be gone.

GR: Yeah, she’s going to be invisible. And she already felt a little bit invisible. But I think it’s kind of sad that when I wake up in the morning, I roll over and just grab my phone. We were free of that, and it was freeing for us in the story, to tell a story where characters could roam and actually have private lives.

How did you go about finding things like floppy disks, pay phones, and the old 1990s Apple computer?

GR: We had them. I mean, we had to rent them from prop places, and we had to recreate the homepage with a graphic designer. But I grew up with an Apple IIGS in my house. It was sitting in the living room, and we all got on it and took turns. But television was where we gathered. Movies were how we connected. We didn’t go off into separate spaces and get on our devices.

EH: There are some VHS tapes from my childhood bedroom that made it into the movie, and it’s a mix of prop-rental houses and raiding my childhood home. I remember the day on set that we had to get the dot-matrix printer to work, there was like a crew of 75 people crowded around an ancient prop, sweating, silent, and cheering when it finally started printing. It was a big day on set.

GR: Had to get that shot, though.

EH: Yeah, that was our stunt.

How did you think about what pop culture to drop into those sets?

EH: That was the most fun part.

GR: It was sort of an Oscar and Felix situation between these roommate/sisters who are polar opposites, and you can see remnants of the older sister’s very tidy side [of the room], where she had Monet’s ballerinas and her stuffed animals, and she was a little more prissy. And then you had the teenager’s side, which was very fun to decorate, because we could put all of our own high-school dreams up on the wall, which our moms never let us do. Every cover of Rolling Stone magazine that we worshipped. Liz Phair, Winona, Check Your Head.

“Public access was YouTube in a way.”

Liz and I stayed up late watching public access. Public access was YouTube, in a way. It would be the Nation of Islam, and then Robin Byrd, and then a 16-year-old boy talking in his bedroom.

EH: It was a visual mixtape, and the clip that we picked to be on Ali’s (Abby Quinn) TV was about how to use a dental dam, which you would probably learn from YouTube now.

GR: I learn everything from YouTube. How to make food, how to do kegels properly.

You also had the Hillary Clinton speech from the United Nations in 1995, and Edie Falco’s character copies her pink suit.

EH: We wrote that moment into the script for many reasons. There were obvious parallels between her and the character of Pat (Edie Falco), kind of standing by her man and also being the backbone of her family, being badass and vulnerable, but not necessarily able to show it. Clinton was and is an icon, and a voice for many women. And it was also just the visual gag of a fucking great pink suit.

GR: It was supposed to be all laughs, and she was supposed to be our president. The election happened during our edit, and we all came in the next day really sad and unable to work. We had this scene in the movie, and it was always going to stay, but it changed the tone. It was no longer just a tongue-in-cheek, laughing punchline. It was dark.

EH: It was sad. We screened on Inauguration Day at Sundance.

GR: But I like it. I like the scene better now. I don’t like our country, but I like what it did to that moment, and it is a heavy moment. John [Turturro’s character] is holding in a secret, and Edie’s character is also reserved and not being honest, and it has a weight that makes the movie better.

'Landline' Premiere - 2017 Sundance Film Festival
Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

How hard was it to take New York City back to 1995? The city changes faster than any city in America.

GR: Yeah, you know, this isn’t the biggest of budgets. This wasn’t a Transformers movie. And New York no longer looks like the New York of 1995. Every corner used to be mom-and-pop shops, but now it’s Chase banks and Starbucks and Citi Bikes, which are really obtrusive, and very blue. So we had to be strategic and location-scout those little pockets that still exist, and work very closely with [cinematographer Chris Teague] to make sure we framed 2017 out.

But luckily, this is about a family and their internal struggles and their home life, so a lot of the movie takes place in their apartment. We worked with an amazing production designer, who was very open to all the pictures Liz and I sent her of our childhood apartments. What was cool about them, I think, was that they didn’t necessarily look like the ‘90s. Our apartments still very much had the vibes of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a lived-in feeling. We weren’t just going to do like, slap bracelets. That’s the term we used — if it looked too ‘90s, it got taken out.

“That’s what movie-making is, you always have to exchange one thing for another. “

The movies we watched and used as references weren’t ‘90s movies. They were American movies from the ‘70s, like Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, Broadcast News, though that’s early ‘80s, Hannah and Her Sisters. All of those movies are gritty.

Oh, and because this is a tech magazine, I can’t not mention the film grain that we added. We weren’t able to shoot on film; we wanted to shoot on film. But we had to shoot on the Alexa, which is a digital camera. It’s like shooting with a computer, everything is very crisp and high-def, and the movies I referenced are more moody. So we added this thing called LiveGrain to the image, to give it that cinematic look. It’s great, because it doesn’t look like it’s slapped on top, it looks like it’s embedded in the picture. There’s only one person who does that — Suny Behar.

It just looks like it’s part of the movie, and it looks like we shot it on film. I know it’s kind of a cheat, but it’s how you manage it. That’s what movie-making is, you always have to exchange one thing for another.

Obvious Child is a New York movie, and now with Landline, you’re dipping even deeper into New York movies. There are already so many, including dozens of all-time classics. Did that ever feel like a challenge?

GR: No, it’s like farting for us.

EH: We’re both cut from this cloth, and it’s in many ways all we know. I think the bigger challenge for us will be if and when we decide to start telling stories outside of New York.

GR: We’ll start with Duchess County.

EH: Yeah, I think it grew from our experiences here. This movie has a lot of downtown, a lot of the rave scene which Gillian remembers, and Tompkins Square Park, the tenements of Alphabet City, the Midtown office buildings. We just saw it as an opportunity to see the city through the eyes of these different women. So often, movies in general, and movies in New York, are male experiences in the city.

Was it easier to get this movie made after Obvious Child? Were there different business hurdles the second time?

EH: I think it’s hard to get anything made. Sheila Nevins has this saying, at least I hope it’s hers, because I’ve been quoting her —

GR: It’s actually Hitler.

EH: Oh, okay. Well, either way. A useful idea is that every movie is your first movie, because it’s the first time you’re making it. And I think that’s incredibly true. Every process from beginning to end is its own batshit experience of figuring things out. And for sure, Obvious Child changed our lives and afforded us the opportunity to have people trust us enough to give us their support and funds and advice in making a second movie. But you know, I think no matter how much money you have, or support you have, there are always new and interesting challenges. I don’t know if it was easier. I think in many ways, it was harder. With your first film, you’re kind of flying blind, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need in order to get through it.

GR: Just personally, it was a different movie. I was no longer in my early-30s, mid-30s. I had a daughter, I was nursing and pumping. During our notes call, I was having contractions. We were personally in different spaces. As artists and filmmakers, we go into each project not pretending we know everything. We’re still learning and open to learning, and I think that’s a nice way to create, where you don’t know exactly how it’s going to end.

Is working with Amazon different than working with another distributor?

EH: We’re in the thick of it now. Amazon acquired the film at Sundance, after we were done making the film, and they partnered with Magnolia to release it. They’ve all been really great partners, but ask us again in a year. So far, so good.

Will the movie be on streaming services the same day?

EH: Eventually, but no, we’re not doing the same day. Amazon is really committed to a theatrical release for films, so we’ll come out in New York and L.A. on July 21st, and then roll out nationwide August 4th. They’re giving us an opportunity to have a real theatrical window.

That may be why they got less backlash at Cannes than Netflix did.

EH: Right, Netflix only lets you do a week to qualify for awards in New York and L.A.; they really don’t care about seeing a movie in a theater.

Would you not want to work with Netflix in the future?

EH: I think it depends on the project. There’s pluses and minuses and so many different ways to do this, and it really depends on the film, and how the movie gets put together, and who the audience is. There are so many options for how this works now, and it can be overwhelming at times, but it’s also a good thing.

GR: It’s overwhelming as a consumer and as a producer. I’m not married to one way of watching things. I don’t only watch things on Netflix. I’ll hunt for the things I want to watch, and I’ll watch them wherever. I’m pretty slutty that way. But I still love watching movies in a theater, no cell phone on. You know, just in a room with strangers. I think there is a beauty to it, it’s just getting harder and harder to get there.

“there are more stories about women in film than there are women in film”

This feels like a big summer for women filmmakers, with Wonder Woman, and The Beguiled, which just won at Cannes, and Rough Night

GR: And Band Aid.

Yeah! Does it feel to you like anything is changing, or is it just a good, fluke summer?

GR: I don’t think it’s a fluke, but I do think, I’ve said this before, there are more stories about women in film than there are women in film. Before Obvious Child, I worked at the Director’s Guild for seven years, and it was a very pencil-pushing job, but in meetings, they often brought up the statistics. They broke it down: women in film, in television — with women and with people of color. The numbers just kept getting lower and lower. Yet, you would read all these articles that were like “Now is the time for women in film! Look at the success of Girls.” But they were only giving one option, one show or movie per year.

Now it’s a little better. This summer feels a whole lot better, and it really is exciting to be part of that, but still. I think it’s the beginning, and hopefully not the end of the door opening.

Landline opens in New York City and Los Angeles on July 21st, and nation-wide on August 4th.