Q&A with Kris Swanberg, Writer & Director of ‘Unexpected’

Kris Swanberg is reimagining the pregnancy film genre and wow’ing Sundance crowds while she’s at it.

by Becky Schultz

When indie filmmaker Kris Swanberg went through her first pregnancy five years ago, she ached for something to watch that would help her cope with the surge of new emotions she was experiencing; what she found was Father of The Bride Pt. II and Knocked Up comedies about pregnancy told from a man’s perspective. She kept this in mind when writing and directing Unexpected, a 2015 Sundance breakout co-written by Megan Mercier and starring How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders and Workaholics’s Anders Holms.

Unexpected tells the story of Samantha Abbott (Smulders), a young teacher at a shuttering public high school in a low-income Chicago neighborhood, and Jasmine (newcomer Gail Bean), one of her most promising students, whose personal lives intersect in an unconventional way after learning of each other’s unexpected pregnancies. While Samantha, with the support of her live-in-boyfriend-turned-husband John (Holms), struggles with the idea of losing her career to motherhood, Jasmine is faced with a retreating boyfriend and the unexpected hardships of continuing education as a young mother.

While Unexpected isn’t Swanberg’s first feature (she also wrote and directed It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home in 2009 and Empire Builder in 2012), its high production level and glowing reception at Sundance will certainly mark it is as a monumental step in her career. Curious about her experience not just as a mother, but as a former teacher on the west side of Chicago as well, I was able to catch Kris on the phone and hear about what she hopes a different kind of “pregnancy movie”—one that tells the story of two young women with very different experiences—will add to the dialogue.

Becky Schultz: Even though you’ve written and directed a number of works, you’ve said that Unexpected feels like your first “real” movie. Why is that?

Kris Swanberg: The production level was just so much higher. My first two movies cost like $10,000 each, which is super cheap, and I didn’t have much crew. My first movie was four people and my second movie was maybe five people. They were improvised, so they were really small, really intimate, we didn’t have a script at all, and I loved working that way. But for me, it’s very stressful when you start cutting things together and you realize that you kind of didn’t get everything that you wanted to get.

For this film, it was very personal and  a really special story that I wanted to make sure I got right. So, I wrote a script and, because of the…size of the…story, I ended up needing it to be a little bit bigger of a budget, and with that comes a lot of other things — like a bigger crew and proper sets and well-known actors. It was my first time making a movie that way, but directing performances are the same. The nuts and bolts of making a story are the same, but it was definitely a different level for me.

BS: You went to Southern Illinois University and studied documentary filmmaking in the early 2000s, but sort of took a hiatus from making movies until 2009. What led you back into writing and directing?

KS: I never really took a total hiatus from filmmaking, I sort of just did it when I could. I graduated from film school in 2003, and then I made a movie with my husband [Joe Swanberg, director of Drinking Buddies; Digging For Fire] in 2005 and then I made a couple of short films, and then I made my first feature in 2009 and my second in 2012. So, I never took a big break, but while I was making films I was never doing that exclusively. I had to, of course, have a job. I worked as a high school teacher for a while, which is sort of where this movie comes from and then I also owned an ice cream company for a while…

BS: I remember reading about that! Weren’t you retailed at Whole Foods but then something shut it down?

KS: Yeah, so it was in like 25 locations around the city but then there was this whole debacle with the Illinois dairy licensing. But yeah, so I had a number of identities, but film has always been in the background. Once I had my kid, I stayed home for a couple of years and, again, that’s some of the stuff the movie is based on.

BS: Let’s dive in to Unexpected. For me, when I think of “pregnancy movies” (if you can even call them that), I usually think of comedy-driven films like Knocked Up, where the pregnancy is told from the male’s point of view. But then there are also films like Obvious Child that tackle an unwanted pregnancy from a single woman’s point of view. What do you hope Unexpected will add to the dialogue?

KS: Obvious Child is great. Obvious Child is a really good movie. It is very new, it’s very recent. And it’s unfortunately one of the very few movies from a female perspective dealing with pregnancy. Of course, in that movie she decides to not keep the baby and so mostly deals with what a woman goes through when she decides to not keep the baby. Which is awesome. I think that movie’s great. But it’s very rare to see a movie about pregnancy from the female perspective. This is not something that I set out to tackle, by the way. I didn’t realize it until I was in pre-production and watching other movies as references — my DP [director of photography] and I were just like “Oh, let’s watch these other pregnancy movies and kind of see what they do” — and then I was sort of noticing like wow, there’s no movie from the female point of view. I think maybe Juno was the only one that was like, maybe, but most of them were written by a man. And Juno is not a traditional sort of story, because it’s about a teenager and it’s about adoption. Most of them are a man going through it and saying “Oh my God, my wife is crazy, what do I do?” And I don’t think those films purposefully avoided dealing with female emotion, it’s just that they’re made by men, and it’s the same reason why my movie is from the female point of view. It’s not something I decided, it was just natural for me because I’m a woman, and I’m basing it on my own experience. I don’t fault anyone for that, it’s just that the system, as is, is very male-dominated and so we get a lot of films from their perspective.

But I will say that when I was going through my own pregnancy, I was dealing with a lot of stuff and I was hungry for something to watch that would get me through it. And there was nothing. You can watch like, Father of the Bride Pt. II and Knocked Up. I felt very alone with my emotions, and so I was happy to bring something to the table that women could relate to.

BS: In addition to motherhood, another part of the personal experience for you was working at a high school in Chicago. How was that factored into the movie as well?

KS: That was a big factor in the movie. It was a big deal for me and not something I had experience with [teaching in a low-income neighborhood] prior. Like Samantha in the movie, I had a lot of assumptions about the kids in that demographic, in that world, when I first started teaching, and I had seen these movies of white ladies going in to these inner city schools and changing their lives and making them fall in love with Shakespeare and things like that. That is just not the reality. For me, when I was filming the movie, I was very conscious of making it realistic according to my own experiences of that community and that culture and in my own time there. So it feels really real because I used to be a high school teacher working in that world and it was very important to me to represent it accordingly.

BS: Samantha and Jasmine’s experiences—from their backgrounds to their pregnancies—are entirely different, but we get to dive pretty deep into both of their lives outside of the classroom. How did you think about balancing these narratives?

KS: I really wanted it to be about these two women. I wanted it to be from Samantha’s point of view just because I was kind of basing it on my own story, [and] my own struggle through pregnancy, but I didn’t want it to be so neat and mirrored. I didn’t want it to show Samantha’s ultrasound and then cut to Jasmine’s ultrasound and go back and forth like that, but it was a struggle to kind of figure out how much Jasmine I was going to put into the movie, how much Samantha, and how to balance those two things and I think it just came down to the narrative, telling the story in a way that served the story well.

BS: To me it seemed like Samantha and Jasmine’s contrasting experiences stemmed more from socio-economic differences than from race. Was that intentional?

KS: Definitely. It’s not so rare for people to be friends with someone of a different race anymore. I have a friend who is African American who had a baby last year, and I’m pregnant now with my second, and we talk all the time about stuff that we’re going through and how we have some cultural differences, but our lives are very similar. What we’re going through as middle class women in Chicago is really not that different. But it is very rare for someone to have a close relationship with someone of a different socio-economic class. Very rare. It almost never happens. Most relationships that you might have with someone of a different income level are professional — they work in the same building as you or something like that. They rarely get close. I did want that to be kind of the factor because that really is a big difference in real life.

BS: While Cobie Smulders is known for How I Met Your Mother and The Avengers, her role as Samantha Abbott is a new direction for her. Similarly, this is a big screen debut for Gail Bean. When you were in the casting process, how did you know these two would compliment each other?

KS: They were both really similar people. I knew that both of them would be really good at their individual roles, and I knew them both as people, too. That’s really why I cast Cobie, because we had such a good meeting and she felt so close to the material and related to it so strongly. I was really taken by that. And Gail, too. She sent in an audition tape and was amazing so I knew that she would be able to perform at such a level. She’s so likeable, so applicable, and Cobie, too. They’re both so great and they got along really, really well and I knew they would have good chemistry in the film.

BS: And wasn’t Cobie actually pregnant when you were filming?

KS: Yeah! I asked her if she was sure, if she wanted to do it and she said, “Yeah,” so it really didn’t pose any problems and it was really fun and really cool that she shared that with us. Her ultrasound in the movie is her real ultrasound and that’s a very special thing.

BS: One last question. As you continue to grow as a filmmaker, do you think you’ll stay in Chicago? Is that important to you?

KS: Definitely. It’s definitely something I’m going to do. My husband and I are committed to staying here and making work here. You won’t see us moving any time soon.

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Becky Schultz lives in Chicago, where she spends her most of her days working at a distillery and many of her nights live-tweeting “The Bachelor.”