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Kris Swanberg Talks ‘Unexpected’: Female Collabs and Complicated Female Protagonists

Kris Swanberg Talks 'Unexpected': Female Collabs and Complicated Female Protagonists

Rarely do we see stories about pregnancy represented onscreen. Rarer still are depictions where mothers-to-be have seriously conflicted feelings about the imminent arrival of their bundles of responsibility. Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected” tackles two unplanned pregnancies: teacher Samantha’s (Cobie Smulders) and one of her brightest students, Jasmine’s (Gail Bean). While being pregnant might be the common thread between the two, the film truly illuminates issues related to class, race and age that each of them deals with. 

Women and Hollywood had the chance to ask Swanberg about collaborating with a co-writer, working with a female DP and why she thinks things are slowly getting better for women directors

“Unexpected” opens in theaters today. 

W&H: Talk about the inspiration for “Unexpected.”

KS: A lot of the film comes from my own personal experiences, both as a former high school teacher and also from my experiences with my first pregnancy.

W&H: You worked with Megan Mercier on the script. Talk about that collaboration.

KS: Megan is amazing. I knew her first as a friend and then as a collaborator. She had done a lot of work here in Chicago in theater and I knew her to be incredibly smart and quick-witted. We had a great collaboration and wrote every word in the same room. Megan has since moved to Los Angeles, but it’s my secret hope that she moves back to Chicago so we can write more together.

W&H: You had a female DP which is so rare. Share with us what Dagmar Weaver-Madsen brought to the shoot.

KS: It’s true that there aren’t many female DP’s out there, but that’s not why I hired Dagmar. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a female DP and interviewed lots of men for the position, but Dagmar and I just hit it off right away. She really got the script and felt passionately about it. That was the big thing I was looking for in all of the cast and crew that I hired — I was looking for talent and skill, of course, but I was also looking for people that felt close to the project. Dagmar was an amazing collaborator and we worked together a lot on creating the right tone for the film. I couldn’t be happier with what she brought to the film.

W&H: You’ve said that there are very few films that depict pregnancy onscreen. Why do you think that is?

KS: There are a handful of films that depict pregnancy, but it’s very rare to have a film that depicts pregnancy from a female perspective. That’s a symptom of not having very many films being made by women. Two of the films that I can think of that deal with a female protagonist going through a pregnancy are “Juno” and “Obvious Child” and both of those films were written by women. I didn’t set out to make a film that was female-centric or had a female lead character — that’s just what came naturally to me.

W&H: You mentioned that “Baby Boom” was a film you watched when you were writing. Talk about what you learned from that film?

KS: “Baby Boom” is a really fun film. When I was in college McDonalds had a promotion where they were giving away DVD’s of the film and I got into it from that, watching it over and over again. When Megan and I started writing I wanted to go back and watch it again. It came out in 1987 and follows a high-powered woman (Diane Keaton) in the corporate world who unexpectedly inherits a baby from a deceased relative. There are some really progressive ideals in this film and, like “Mr. Mom” did that same decade, it looks at the barriers women face in the workplace while trying to raise children.

But the protagonist in “Baby Boom” is portrayed as a cold woman who has no maternal instincts and decidedly does not want a child. She awkwardly holds the baby when she arrives and comically fails at feeding the baby and changing her diaper. It’s a broad comedy, of course, but I didn’t like that women were put in to only two categories — those who were warm and loving and wanted children and those who were cold and career-orientated and didn’t want children. In “Unexpected,” Samantha is someone that does want a baby and isn’t awkward around children, but she is still passionate about her career: I don’t think those two desires are separate. There are also plenty of women who love children and are wonderful with children, but have decided not to have any of their own. 

W&H: You’ve directed several films now. What have you done learned from your previous films that you brought into this one?

KS: My first two films were much smaller and completely improvised so “Unexpected” was a different experience for me because of that. At the crux of it, though, you are still trying to get good performances from actors and that’s what I focus on as a director. 

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

KS: I think the biggest challenge was finding and creating the right tone for the film. It was something I really wanted to get right. Megan and I worked hard to do that with the script, making the material feel natural and deal with dramatic storyline, but making sure it never got too heavy and that there was enough comedy in there to make it feel like real life. Dagmar and I worked on that with the cinematography and Zach Clark and I worked on it again with the editing. In the end I feel like we got it exactly right. 

W&H: The numbers for women directors are still so incredibly low. Can you share any thoughts you have on how we can get that to change?

KS: I think it’s a catch-22 that’s slowly changing for the better. By having more female directors out there making work we are creating a model for women in film school right now. They can see a path for themselves out there as directors and I think that is what will make a big difference. 

W&H: What’s next for you?

KS: I’m working on a new script about marriage and relationships. 

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