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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Kris Swanberg – ‘Unexpected’

Sundance Women Directors: Meet Kris Swanberg - 'Unexpected'

Kris Swanberg began her film career at Southern Illinois University, where she studied documentary film production. Her first feature, It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home, played in competition at the SXSW Film Festival in 2009, followed by her next feature, Empire Builder (2012), and short film, Baby Mary (2014). Unexpectedstarring Cobie Smulders and Anders Holm, marks Swanberg’s third feature. (Press materials)

Unexpected will premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 25. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

KS: Unexpected is about a high-school teacher who gets pregnant at the same time as one of her students and about the relationship they form. It’s about class difference, friendship, motherhood, and feminism.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

KS: It’s a personal story for me. I was a high-school teacher on the West Side of Chicago for a couple years in 2008. I taught film and video. I had a lot of very close relationships with my students and with one student in particular who inspired this story. Much of the story is about pregnancy, as the movie takes us through the entire pregnancy of these women, and I drew from my own experiences for that.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

KS: The teenager who gets pregnant in this film, Jasmine, lives in Englewood, which is one of the most gang-infested, dangerous areas of Chicago. I wanted to make her life seem accurate without feeling overly dramatic. A lot of depictions of these neighborhoods have bullets flying by and drug dealers on every corner. That stuff definitely happens, but these neighborhoods are also filled with loving families and people that care, which was much more reflected in my experience. So my challenge was to show a realistic version of her life, not melodramatic and not lovey-dovey, either.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

KS: I want them to talk about it. To have conversations. To feel good.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

KS: I haven’t worked in the studio system, but the indie world is a pretty level playing field as far as being a female filmmaker. My biggest advice is to take great care in who you hire. Hire people who want to collaborate, but who also know that it’s your call.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

KS: We raised the money independently through investors in Chicago. I’m very committed to doing as much in Chicago as possible. We hooked up with Peter Gilbert, who made Hoop Dreams. He has a fund with basketball player Chris Webber, who is really committed to supporting films about African Americans.

They came in as executive producers along with this amazing film fund in Chicago called Forager. I was very lucky because all of my EP’s really loved the script and trusted me. They were very hands off.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

KS: It’s hard to choose one. I love Jill Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight. Hannah Fidell’s film A Teacher. Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love. Anything by Nicole Holofcener. 

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