INTERVIEW: Kris Swanberg, director/cowriter of Unexpected

Originally posted on The Film Stage

A hit at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival now getting a limited release from The Film Arcade, Unexpected proves a welcome breath of fresh air for stories dealing with pregnancy against the usual romantic comedy fare usurping the plot point for cheap laughs. Director/cowriter Kris Swanberg utilized her own experiences as a mom and from teaching within the Chicago Public School system as a basis for her look at a teacher and student bonding over their shared nine-month journeys to motherhood.

Steeped in reality and performed with authenticity by a recognizable cast, you can’t help but relate to one or more of the characters onscreen. This naturalism was a goal Swanberg set out to achieve from the beginning and the result makes good on that promise with the help of lead actors Cobie Smulders and newcomer Gail Bean‘s memorable turns.


The Film Stage: I thought it was very refreshing how your film ignores Hollywood stereotype. We’ve been conditioned to believe Sam’s (Smulders) boyfriend will turn out to be a cheat or that Jasmine (Bean) won’t have college aspirations.

Kris Swanberg: For sure.

Was that a conscious decision or a byproduct of your telling a story outside the system that still believes we need stereotype to relate?

I think a little bit of both. A lot of the film was based on personal experience and it’s kind of my inclination to steer towards a more natural story than a high-concept one.

I did get some notes—I have to say—when I was sending the script out to different agents and sort of enlisting people’s opinions. I got some notes to make it more dramatic and make the conflict a little—someone wanted me to have a miscarriage scare or a car crash or something like that. But I was very hesitant to do those things because I felt that [with pregnancy] itself there is so much conflict and drama that’s so grounded in reality. I really felt strongly that it would be able to hold its own just with that.

There’s so much interior conflict with both leads. Could you talk about the role of fear and uncertainty in their decision-making processes? It’s as though they are so afraid their dreams will fall apart that they’re neglecting to ask whether those are still their dreams.

Right. I think that’s definitely the case. Our whole lives are set up to think about our own lives and aspirations—career or otherwise. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s normal. Everybody sort of does that.

Then, all of a sudden, if you find yourself having a child, you have to kind of think about that. And that’s difficult to do. Also, it’s hard to know what the best thing to do is. We don’t have a road map necessarily and we really don’t have the data or best practices to know what’s best for a child in terms of staying home or working. There are studies that say both are best. So it’s all about finding that balance. Not just logistically—like, “How am I going to work and who is going to take care of the baby?” But finding that balance emotionally, which is, “I’m going to be missing some things.”

If I decide to stay home with the baby then I’m going to be missing [those] other things. That’s just the case no matter what. Even if you’re a person with a great amount of privilege, you still have to deal with it. And Jasmine in the film who is [about to be] a low-income single mom—she doesn’t have the option to not work. She has an internal conflict with how to reconcile that.

How was it collaborating with Megan Mercier? Were the two of you on the same page throughout or did you provide differing angles?

We were definitely on the same page and working with her was amazing. We wrote everything in the same room together. She’s since moved to LA so it’s made it a little difficult to work together [now], but at the time she was living in Chicago. We would go over to each other’s houses and have our laptops and we would write everything.

Every once in a while we would have a disagreement on verbiage—whether this would work or this would work in terms of dialogue. And sometimes she was right and sometimes I was right. [laughter]

But we were always on the same page about the integrity of the story. That is what made it so great to work together.

With that integrity—how important was it to showcase these issues from the perspective of soon-to-be moms who are strong and intelligent rather than aligning with most TV and movies placing a stigma on unplanned pregnancies as a byproduct of promiscuity or bad decisions? Unexpected becomes a cathartic experience to show women like Sam and Jasmine that they aren’t alone.

Yeah. For sure, I think that’s definitely true. There’s no judgment in this film. There’s almost an innate kind of acceptance I think in terms of the script: this is the situation and now lets move forward from it and try and figure it out. Instead of, “How did this happen?” or “What is this a symptom of?” etc.

It happens and teenagers have sex. That’s definitely just the truth. Everybody knows it. I think the film is very accepting of it—not placating it, but also not looking down on it either.

And how crucial are the performances to really making that happen?

Very crucial. If I didn’t have this cast I don’t know that I could have quite pulled it off—especially with the character of Jasmine. If that wasn’t spot-on I think the film would have really suffered. There really was some great acting and I was lucky to get it.

Was there rehearsal time to get Cobie and Gail comfortable with each other?

No. Sadly because of our independent film status we didn’t have the funds to fly them out to Chicago early and do a lot of rehearsal. So we just rehearsed on the day and on set. We would kind of just read through it and we would change things after takes if it wasn’t feeling quite right.

But we did do a lot of collaborating, especially Cobie and I. We collaborated very early on the script itself. I would send her a draft and she would—I was very open to her ideas. We made some changes based on what felt real to her and her own experience. She related so closely with the script that it came from a very personal place for her. A lot of the dialogue—we would on set scratch out and rewrite so it felt even more like it was coming from her.

Gail was a great find. Was her discovery made her through the audition process?

It was, yeah. We opened it up nationally and we found her outside Atlanta. She just sent in a tape and really blew it out of the water with her audition. We met with her and she was just so perfect. I don’t know that I could have found somebody else quite like her to do it. She gave a really outstanding performance and I’m really excited for her career.

Could you talk about the empathy that really comes across from the both of them? I’m thinking of even right at the beginning—looking at Gail when she sees Sam throwing up in the classroom and Cobie discovering through rumor that Jasmine might be pregnant too. You can see understanding in their faces.

Definitely. And I think that in a way is really true for all pregnant women. [laughter]

I remember when I was pregnant with my son, sort of looking at a woman in a restaurant and thinking, “Is she pregnant? Is she not pregnant?” I wanted to reach out and talk to people about it. And like Cobie in the movie, I was thirty. I was certainly an appropriate age to have children yet none of my friends were having kids yet. So I was the only person I knew at the time going through it.

The only person she really has to talk to about it is this seventeen-year old girl. And vice versa. There really is a bond there with the two of them.

You also showcase a real honesty to the male characters too where their actions aren’t a result of their gender like with Hollywood. John’s [played by Anders Holm] not pushing Sam to be a stay-at-home mom to pass off responsibility and Travis [played by Aaron J. Nelson] isn’t ditching Jasmine because he doesn’t love her—he’s just an immature teenager.

Exactly.

Can you talk about toeing that line?

I really didn’t want there to be any external hurdles. I didn’t want anyone to be the bad guy. I wanted it to just be that these people didn’t understand each other.

Especially for a young African American man—there’s a huge stereotype that they don’t care, they don’t make good fathers, they don’t follow through, etc. So I didn’t want it to be stereotypical like he was a “bad guy”. Like he was in a gang and sold drugs. That also would have spoke badly about Jasmine’s character. Why would she have ever been with someone like that?

But I also didn’t want to portray him as a doting father. I wanted him to be like an eighteen-year old. I think that would have been the case for any eighteen-year old kid regardless of social class—being a teenager and not being ready to do it. And we do see him at the end; that he’s kind of around. But yeah, for sure, I’m glad you pointed that out because I didn’t want him to be the bad guy.

I thought that was great too—seeing him at the baby shower. He is still involved and he’s come back.

Yeah.

Do you have any new projects in the works?

I’m working on a new outline about a married couple that I’m excited about, but I’m in the very early stages of that. I’m just focusing a lot right now on promoting [Unexpected] and getting it out for people to see.

And I have to ask—have you ever tried the pickle juice/Flammin’ Hot concoction?

I have to admit that I haven’t cause I find it so disgusting that I just can’t stomach it. But a lot of people did on set.

It definitely came from the real life experience of one of my students combining those two disgusting snacks together in my classroom when I was a teacher and me insisting that they leave because it smelled so bad. [laughter] It’s definitely a real thing.

Unexpected hits limited release and On Demand Friday, July 24th.

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