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Springboard: Kris Swanberg Talks Fictionalizing Her Own Experiences and Finding a Balance In Life and Work

Springboard: Kris Swanberg Talks Fictionalizing Her Own Experiences and Finding a Balance In Life and Work

READ MORE: Whipsmart ‘Unexpected’ Is a Modern Response to ‘Baby Boom’

Indiewire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.

Kris Swanberg is by no means new to independent filmmaking, but the well-regarded multi-hyphenate is just starting to break through when it comes to her directorial career. Swanberg has filled a number of roles across the years — given her occasional acting turns, somewhat literally — and has spent the last decade writing and producing features, often alongside her husband, Joe Swanberg (recently, she wrote her husband’s “Marriage Material,” in addition to producing her own “It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home” and appearing in “Happy Christmas”).

Swanberg has previously directed a pair of features, 2009’s “It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home” and 2012’s “Empire Builder” (which both Joe and their son Jude starred in), but Swanberg’s newest directorial outing, “Unexpected,” is the one most likely to catapult her to wider acclaim. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, an instant standout amongst a crowded field, thanks to its stellar cast (including Cobie Smulders and newbie Gail Bean), its honest appraisal of the tension between personal and professional lives and its unflinching (but still very charming) look at what it means to be a modern (and ambitious) woman.

Partially inspired by Swanberg’s own experiences as a teacher, the film sees Smulders’ Samantha grappling her unexpected pregnancy just as one of her best students, Jasmine (Bean), is dealing with the same situation. As the film clips right along, both Samantha and Jasmine contend with their decisions and their repercussions, and Swanberg’s story is rich, sweet, funny and very real. 

The Film Arcade opens “Unexpected” today, July 24. Watch the film’s trailer and hear more from Swanberg herself below:

I used to be a high school teacher. 
I taught film and video, actually, at a high school on the west side of Chicago. I had really close relationships with a lot of my kids. One in particular, after I stopped teaching, called me, when she was nineteen, and told me that she was pregnant. And, at the time, I was six months pregnant. The movie is really fictionalized — we didn’t go to yoga together, I wasn’t trying to get her into college — but just that dynamic is what inspired that relationship in the film.

It’s very rare for people to have a relationship with someone of a different socioeconomic status. If you do have a relationship, it’s usually professional or something, someone who works at the same building as you. It’s rare that those relationships get close, for anyone at any level. And that was what was so unique, to me, about the friendship that I had with this girl. It’s not something I have ever had before, and not something she’d ever had before. I really wanted to write about that, especially because these two people are going through pregnancy at the same time, that’s what brings them together in the film, but their experiences are very different. A lot of it has to do with their ages, of course, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that Samantha is very privileged, and her anxiety and her identity crisis and her issues that she’s going through in the film are very middle class, upper class issues. The debate over whether to stay home or whether to work is a very real thing and it’s a very big deal and it’s something that I go through still, and something that most women I know go through, and I don’t want to undervalue that, but it’s definitely only something privileged people go through. People that are low income, or working class, often do not have the choice. They have to work. I really wanted to talk about those issues, but I also wanted the film to be self-aware.

In the film, there’s a scene with Cobie and Elizabeth McGovern, where Elizabeth McGovern says, “It sort of doesn’t matter what you choose.” Whether you stay or whether you go to work, you’re giving something up either way. It’s a sacrifice.

I’ve never been happier than when I was in production for “Unexpected.” I really felt very fulfilled, of course very creatively fulfilled, I felt very confident, I was making something that I loved. And, at the same time, Joe was being a full-time dad at that time, so I was able to come home from work and see them. We shot here in Chicago, and that was really great, I knew that he [her son, Jude] was being taken care of by his dad, which was really nice. I also felt guilty. And I was also missing things. And that was only for a short amount of time. We only shot for a month. This whole time has been really exciting, traveling around and doing different things, but it’s always hard to kind of, like, get a babysitter or not be able to go to that birthday party and not be able to go to the thing at school. It’s tough. I don’t think there is a proper work-life balance. I think it’s just the best that you can manage.

Jude was in my second feature, “Empire Builder,” when he was ten months old. It makes sense! He’s our kid, he’s around. We think he’s really funny. We’re not interested in pursuing an acting career for him, but he comes with us. He came to Sundance with us. He’s really flexible.

We’re having another baby, and I think it’s going to be tough again. It’ll be tougher on me. As much as Joe is an incredibly active father, he’s just able to go do more things. His movie “Digging For Fire” comes out in August, and we’re due August 9, so there’s going to be a week in August when he has to be gone to go promote the film, and I couldn’t do that, even if I wanted to. It is inherently different, just sort of like biologically.

When I get interviewed, it’s usually like, “Oh, your husband is a filmmaker, too, how do you guys manage?” and he usually doesn’t get that question. A lot of it, for me, is just that Joe is a lot more prolific than I am. He’s like his own filmmaker first, and I’m more thought of as his wife, who also makes films. Some of that is just circumstantial. I think there’s always a lot more interest, like how do I manage my family and my career, how do I manage with both of us being filmmakers.

I don’t feel a lot of sexism in the industry right now, because I’m making indies, I’m making my own material. I can cast who I want, and I can choose my own crew, and I do that according to who is respectful, who I get along with and who is cool. A lot of women talk about sexism in the industry, where it would be, they show up to direct an episode of a TV show and nobody on the crew is giving them respect. I haven’t had the opportunity to experience that. 

Whenever a project is finished on the indie level, it feels like a miracle. It feels like, how is it possible that nothing fell apart? Shooting “Unexpected” was such a good experience, and we had very few problems and no drama and everyone was very cool. So for me, the experience has been — of course there have been close calls, the money almost fell through and there’s always things like that that happen — but everything kind of lined up and it worked out, and it does feel like a very lucky thing.

READ MORE: Watch: Cobie Smulders Tries to ‘Have it All’ in ‘Unexpected’ Trailer

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