Pregnancy is often impractically imagined as either the worst possible outcome in a person’s life, or showcased in extreme situations that don’t truly relate to how people feel and act when they learn they’re becoming a parent, especially for the first time, in movies. While male filmmakers typically create these types of movies to reflect how society perceives how people, particularly men, actually feel about pregnancy, there aren’t that many genuine films about what the experience is truly like, particularly for the women who actually go the process. But writer-director Kris Swanberg captivatingly explored the realistic implications of a surprise pregnancy for people in different stages in life in the new independent comedy-drama, ‘Unexpected,’ which is set to be released in theaters and on VOD on Friday.
‘Unexpected’ follows 30-year-old Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders), who’s a dedicated and passionate science teacher at an inner-city Chicago high school. Just as she’s coming to terms with the fact that the school is set to close at the end of the year, and she will have to find another job, she receives the unexpected news that she’s pregnant. As she’s struggling with what to do with the unplanned pregnancy, she breaks the news to her supportive live-in boyfriend, John (Anders Holm), and opinionated mother, Carolyn (Elizabeth McGovern). While searching for her own potential stability in her professional and personal lives, John proposes to her, and they decide to keep the baby after they elope.
While contending with her sudden change in life plans, Samantha is further surprised when she learns that that one of her most promising students, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is also pregnant, and is due just a few weeks after her, at the end of the summer. Although Jasmine has the grades to earn a scholarship to attend a major university, she also decides to keep her baby. As the two try to navigate being pregnant for the first time at the same time, Samantha is determined to help her student make the best and most informed decisions for her baby and future. In the process, the teacher actually finds herself changing for the better, as the two form an unexpected friendship as they bonding over the pregnancies.
While Samantha urges Jasmine to still apply for college, and Jasmine inspires Samantha to pursue a promising new job at one of the city’s science museums, the student and teach soon face more unexpected events. Jasmine ends her romantic relationship with her naïve and shy boyfriend, while Samantha and John can’t agree on how soon she should start looking for another job after the baby’s born. While at times the two women have differences in opinion on how to approach the changes in their lives, they truly value their unique connection to each other. Their unlikely friendship challenges their perspectives on motherhood and life in general, and leaves a lasting impact on each other.
Swanberg generously took the time recently to sit down to talk about co-writing and directing ‘Unexpected’ during an exclusive interview at New York City’s Crosby Street Hotel. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she was interested in penning and helming a story that focuses on women’s perspectives, struggles and joys with becoming a mother, particularly for the first time, as she was able to personally relate to Samantha and Jasmine’s journeys after they discovered they were pregnant; how she immediately knew she wanted Smulders to play the comedy-drama’s lead character, as the actress not only loved the script, but she also has a daughter, and was able to relate to Samantha’s struggles of being a working mother; and how she enjoyed filming the entire movie on location in Chicago, because not only does she live there and is familiar with the city, which added an authenticity to the story, but people in the areas where they worked were also supportive of the comedy-drama’s shoot.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the new comedy-drama ‘Unexpected’ with Megan Mercier. Why were you interested in penning a movie that explores the implications of an unexpected pregnancy in a more genuine and reflective way from a woman’s point-of-view?
Kris Swanberg (KS): Well, I co-wrote the script with Megan Mercier, like you mentioned. She’s a good friend of mine from Chicago, and she had done a lot of work in theater there. The idea really came from personal experiences, as I used to be a high school teacher on the west side of Chicago. I taught film and video there for a few years. So a lot of the story takes place in a high school, and reveals around a teenager, and that idea came from personal experience.
I also have a four-and-a-half-year-old son. All of the anxieties that Cobie Smulders’ character, Samantha, goes through in the film, including being pregnant, were things I went through when I was pregnant with my son, and after he was born.
SY: Samantha feels panicked about the idea of becoming a mother after she first learns that she’s pregnant, even though she has emotional support from John. Why did you feel it was important to showcase the anxiety that overtakes Samantha, who’s in a stable place in her life?
KS: With this movie, I didn’t want a lot of exterior problems to be getting in the way of the natural struggle of becoming a mother. I didn’t want the movie to show that things were really difficult for her because she had a terrible boyfriend, and her career was going down the toilet, and didn’t have any opportunities. I wanted her pregnancy to be difficult because it is difficult, no matter what your circumstance.
Even if you do have a really supportive partner and opportunities in your career, which she did, it was still really difficult for her to settle in with the idea of becoming a mother. There were also some real-life sacrifices that she had to make.
Her situation is mirrored with Jasmine, who’s a 17-year-old high school student. She also had some struggles to work through, but none of those were super dramatic or outside of the norm, either. To me, they were all very realistic challenges.
SY: Also speaking of Jasmine, she feels more confident in becoming a mother, even though she’s still in high school, and isn’t as stable in her relationship with her baby’s father and in her socio-economic status as Samantha is in the film. Why was it important to you to show that they’re facing a similar obstacle, but have very different views on becoming a mother, especially since their personal lives are so different?
KS: I think Jasmine settled into pregnancy better than Samantha. She’s accepted it as something she had to go through, and it’s not something she can change. It did mean that she had to give up some of her dreams, including going to a traditional four-year university. But I really liked that aspect, as it’s really mature, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of things for her.
That was my experience when I was teaching. I didn’t necessary have to deal with pregnancy, but did contend with students who had family duties, including taking care of younger siblings. Sometimes that left a promising student in a situation where they couldn’t go away to college. That was very difficult, but most of the students I had really took on that responsibility in a way I don’t know if I would have been mature enough to do.
SY: Since many films about pregnancy are told from the male perspective, why was it important for you to tell the story in ‘Unexpected’ from Samantha and Jasmine’s point-of-views?
KS: That decision wasn’t a question for me, since I’m a woman. So it was very obvious the story would be told from the women’s perspectives. But it really wasn’t until I was in pre-production that I truly realized it. I was looking at other movies for reference, including on how they shot the delivery scenes, and what they did for their ultrasound.
In that process, I realized there are very few pregnancy films from the female’s perspective, as many are from the male’s perspective. I thought about how silly that is, because it’s obviously something that women primarily go through.
SY: Besides penning the script for ‘Unexpected,’ you also directed the comedy-drama. How did writing the screenplay influence the way you approached your helming duties as you were shooting the film?
KS: It was definitely very helpful for me as the director to have co-written the script. We made a lot of changes on set, especially since I collaborated a lot with the actors. We would be filming a scene, and start rewriting dialogue as we went. That was really good, because as one of the writers, I was able to keep the integrity of the scene, while also being able to change it to fit the actors’ personalities.
SY: Speaking of the actors, what was the casting process like for the main characters, including Cobie, who played Samantha, and Gail Bean, who played Jasmine?
KS: For Samantha, I went out to L.A. and did the traditional casting process, and met with a lot of actors out there. I really connected with Cobie as we met over breakfast. She has a daughter, and at the time we met, her daughter was five. So Cobie really related to the struggles of being a working mother. She also really loved the script, and it was clear how much she wanted to play the character.
I was really drawn to her not only because of her connection to the material, but also due to her background in comedy. I was looking for someone who had a background in comedy, but could also go the dramatic route, versus an actress who was trained more dramatically, and had to learn how to do more comedy.
Finding an actress to play Jasmine was much more difficult, due to her age. Hollywood wasn’t that helpful in finding a young African American actress. So we really had to search for her, and we found Gail outside of Atlanta. She sent in a tape, and really blew us out of the water.
SY: Once the actors were cast, what was the process of working with them to create the characters’ backstories and relationships, as well as the story overall? Did you have any rehearsal time with them before you began filming?
KS: We didn’t do a lot of rehearsal, but we talked a lot about the material. Some of the ideas in the script came from the actors directly, and I was really excited about that, as I really wanted to collaborate with them on the material. There was a finished script, but I was very open with them about changing things if they didn’t seem right to them for some reason. I wanted to work on those things together until they felt right. We would also rehearse on the day, of course, but didn’t have extensive rehearsal beforehand.
SY: Did you allow the cast to improv at all while you were shooting the comedy-drama?
KS: We did a bit of improv, but not much. I think we did one scene that was entirely improvised, but we ended up cutting it from the movie. But it was very collaborative on the set. The actors and I did most of the character development together on paper before we began filming. One of my favorite things about making films is allowing the actors to collaborate on the script.
SY: Besides writing and directing films, you’re also an actress, and have starred in such movies as ‘Happy Christmas’ and ‘The Sacrament,’ and on such television shows as ‘Young American Bodies.’ How does your acting experience influence the way you write and direct films, particularly in the way you collaborate with the cast?
KS: I don’t really see myself as an actress. (laughs) I have appeared in a few projects, but they were mostly for friends. I think I know enough to get by, but my experiences are so limited, I wouldn’t dream of knowing what it’s like to be an actress like Cobie.
SY: What was the process of filming ‘Unexpected’ on location in Chicago? How did shooting the movie in the city where you live influence the places you chose to film in?
KS: We shoot the entire film in Chicago. All of the high school scenes were shot on the south side, in a school in Englewood. It was very important to me to shoot the entire movie in Chicago, because it’s set there and I live there. So the actors came to me, and we filmed the entire movie there. I want to continue filming there as much as I can on my future projects.
SY: What was the process of creating the production design on the locations you filmed the movie in throughout Chicago? Were many of the settings real locations?
KS: Yes, they were almost all real places. A lot of them are places I frequent myself, and wanted to plug-in. Some of them were also places that were super accommodating to us. Chicago is a great town to shoot in, and everyone was very excited and friendly about us shooting there.
SY: What was the process of shooting ‘Unexpected’ independently, particularly in the way it influenced the creativity on the set?
KS: Filming the movie independently was great, because our investors and executive producers were so hands-off. They were very supportive and helpful when we needed them, but they were also very willing to give me the freedom that I needed to make the film good. They trusted me, so I had a lovely experience. I was able to do exactly what I wanted.
SY: What was the experience like of having the movie play at such festivals as the Sundance Film Festival and SXSW? How have audiences who saw the comedy-drama at the festivals reacted to the film?
KS: Well, Sundance was where we premiered the film, and that was the first time I had seen it with an audience. The reaction was amazing when we played it there-there was so much laughter. I sat in the back of the theater and watched everybody. (laughs) It was great, and so many people approached me after the screening.
When I make a film, my dream is to allow viewers to loose themselves in it. That’s the experience I’m looking for when I see a film. As a filmmaker, I always have my critical devices on high. So when I can watch a movie and loose those, that’s when I really enjoy it. That’s what I was hoping to deliver with this film.
SY: ‘Unexpected’ is set to be released in theaters and On Demand on Friday. Are you personally a fan of watching films on VOD, and do you think the platform is beneficial to independent movies like this one?
KS: I don’t know if the platform’s more beneficial for independent films overall. But for this film, I do think it will be very helpful. I am excited that the film’s going to be on VOD and iTunes at the same time as its theatrical release. It’s a great option for parents, as it’s not always an option to go to a theater. Even people who I’m close with and have kids have been saying they’ll download the film on iTunes the day it’s released, because it’s difficult for they to get out.
SY: With many filmmakers now venturing into television, are you interested in writing and directing episodes of a series?
KS: Yes, certainly. I don’t have anything planned right now, but I’d love to direct some TV shows. It’s a very exciting time for that platform.
SY: Your co-writer on ‘Unexpected,’ Megan, worked in theater, like you mentioned earlier; she was the Artistic Director and an Ensemble Member at the renowned theater company, The Neo-Futurists, in Chicago. Is theater something you’re also interested in working on?
KS: I actually haven’t ever delved into theater. It’s a very different process, and I’m still learning how to be versed in theater as a viewer. There is a great theater scene in Chicago, so I’m trying to get more involved in just going to plays.
SY: Besides ‘Unexpected,’ do you have any other upcoming projects, whether writing and/or directing lined up that you can discuss?
KS: Yes, I do. I’m in the initial stages of writing a script about a married couple who’s paranoid that they might get a divorce. (laughs) So they start working on staying together.
Written by: Karen Benardello