She may not be as prolific as her husband Joe Swanberg, but Kris Swanberg was not going to be staying in his shadows at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where her third feature film Unexpected premiered in competition.
It stars Cobie Smulders as Samantha, a high school teacher in Chicago, who discovers she’s gotten pregnant by her boyfriend John (Anders Holm) at the same time as she needs to be looking for a new job. One of Samantha’s top pupils Jasmine (Gail Bean) has also gotten pregnant, but being that she doesn’t come from the same financial means, Samantha forms a bond with the teenager as they help each other get through their unexpected.
Kris Swanberg’s films may not have gotten as much attention in recent years, but that’s likely to change with Unexpected, a wonderful film that features indelible performances from Smulders and Bean, who work so well and naturally together. (You can read our Unexpected review.)
CS: Obviously you’ve directed movies before, but it had been awhile since you’d done something. Were you busy doing other things?
Kris Swanberg: I made a film in 2009 and another in 2012, but with both of those I was doing other stuff at the time. I did used to be a high school teacher, which took up a lot of my time, and then I made a film after that. I also used to own an ice cream company in Chicago. I made a film after I did that. I wasn’t able to do much once we had Jude. I used to own this ice cream company and we were doing pretty good, then we got pregnant and as soon as Jude was born, the company went under and we went down to a single income. Because of that we couldn’t afford childcare, and we were on food stamps and Medicaid. We were in rough shape. What made the most sense–because I was nursing and Joe had a more viable career–was for him to work like hell and for me to stay home with the baby. So that’s what we did, and that’s a lot of where this movie came from. I actually didn’t have a lot of the anxieties that Samantha feels in the film. I didn’t really feel those while I was pregnant because I was pretty satisfied with where I was at, but then after I had Jude and was just home and Joe would be travelling, I sort of fell into a little bit of a depression. Nothing crazy, but I was not satisfied doing just that and I had this identity crisis. Because of our finances there wasn’t much I could do about it, and when Joe made a little bit more money we were able to hire a babysitter a couple times a week and I could do some work. That really changed everything for me, and now I’m feeling really great.
CS: I feel like Joe got around daycare just by putting Jude in his movies– that way he could just watch him while making his movies.
Swanberg: (laughs) Well I was there! Anytime Jude’s in a movie I’m right there also, watching them on the sidelines.
CS: Ahh, okay. One of the interesting things about the movie is the contrast between two women and where they come from. I’ve been on welfare myself–I know what that’s like and how humiliating it can be–especially when you’re a pretty smart, educated person.
Swanberg: Absolutely, and people are like, “What’s wrong with you?”
CS: So is this something that just built up for you as something you wanted to say with this movie?
Swanberg: Yeah, it started as a concept just about the two women, and as I got deeper into it I put a lot of myself into that pregnancy. Initially I just wanted to deal with the class difference and the relationship between those two people. Also, I think you could watch a movie like this and say it’s just a movie about middle class white lady problems, but what I tried to do was make the movie so self-aware. I actually hate that accusation anyway, just because she’s a middle class white lady doesn’t mean that her problems aren’t valid. When you do compare these problems of staying home or going to work after having a baby it is important to remember–and I think the film does this very well–that other people would love that, to stay home with their kid and just aren’t able to. I thought it was important to include that comparison.
CS: This is more scripted than the stuff that Joe does. You actually wrote a full script and had a shot list I imagine. Is that normally how you work?
Swanberg: Yeah, I did. My other two films were improvised, but I always felt an anxiety there, like I wasn’t quite getting what I wanted. People weren’t quite receiving what I was intending, so I did want to write it out and really get it right for this move, and I like that. I’ll probably continue to work like that.
CS: With improvisation it means a lot more work in post-production, a lot more editing, finding the right things.
Swanberg: Yeah, and a lot more time to go back and say, “We didn’t quite get this, let me go back in…” I really enjoyed the way I worked, it was a longer process than what Joe typically has to go through because he doesn’t have that scriptwriting… I wrote that for a year-and-a-half, but I feel so satisfied with the way it turned out.
CS: How’d you end up with Cobie to play Samantha? We know she can do dramatic stuff, but we’ve never seen her do something quite like this.
Swanberg: No, and I’d never seen her show, but when I went to Los Angeles and did the casting rounds and met with a lot of different actresses and actors for the roles. Cobie really struck me because she was so candid about her own feelings about motherhood. She’s a mom, and so we talked a lot about that. She really loved the script and was really passionate about it. After our meeting she wrote me an email and it just really stuck with me. I wanted someone who really cared about it, and she really did, and she’s so good in the movie. We were very lucky ’cause she ended up being pregnant while we were filming.
CS: I was going to ask about whether you had to do a lot of makeup for that aspect of the movie?
Swanberg: We didn’t have to do any of the makeup stuff, because anytime we see her actual belly it is her real belly.
CS: I think Jasmine had a fake baby bump.
Swanberg: She did, yeah, and sometimes we would have to… because we’d shoot in the morning and she’d be three-months pregnant then we’d shoot in the afternoon and she’d be eight-months pregnant, so sometimes we had to hide it. Depending on the scenes we were shooting. She was actually seven-months pregnant when we were shooting, so we would sometimes have to hide it a little bit or accentuate it a little bit.
CS: How’d you find Gail Bean? She’s really amazing, I don’t know if this is the first thing she’s done?
Swanberg: It’s the first thing she’s ever done at this level. She’s done a few student films and regional stuff.
CS: Is she based in Chicago?
Swanberg: No, she’s not. We found her from Atlanta, but she’s since moved to Los Angeles. We did a lot in Chicago trying to find someone there and then ended up having to reach out. We looked at a lot of non-actors, but it was such a beefy role I really needed somebody who could really do it, and she really could. It was great.
CS: How much of your own experience as a teacher did you bring to it?
Swanberg: A lot. I broke up a lot of fights when I was a teacher. They weren’t exactly like that, but I just wrote something realistic to what I would have seen and dealt with. I also really wanted to stay away from the clichés, we have a weird history of white ladies coming into schools and fixing everyone’s problems. (laughs) So I didn’t want it to be that, but it’s hard making a movie when there’s this model not to fall into the stereotypes, with the inner city storyline and also the pregnancy storyline. I feel like with pregnancy movies it’s always, “Women are crazy! Their hormones make them nuts!” There’s always the scene at delivery where the woman is like, “F*ck you! I can’t believe you made me pregnant!” That is not what happens! (laughs) No one I know has ever screamed at their husband while they’re giving birth. It’s horribly painful, but I never was angry at my husband. There’s so many movie that use that trope, so I wanted to be careful with all those things and make it real to my experience and real to other people’s experiences.
CS: The movie is very natural, not too heavy, not too comedic. Can you talk about what tone you wanted to go for?
Swanberg: That’s definitely what I was going for, and I got a litte… not pushback, but being an independent film I definitely had control over every aspect of it, and definitely the final say over everything. I did send out the script and different agencies read it, friends and advisors, and I did get some advice to raise the stakes, double up on the conflict. I just didn’t want to make it an after school special, and I didn’t want to make it melodramatic, but I wanted there to be some lightness to it, but I didn’t want it to be a comedy. I wanted to take what I was saying seriously.
CS: Cobie has done that kind of comedy before.
Swanberg: Absolutely, and Anders Holm is on the show “Workaholics” on Comedy Central, which is all silly all the time. It’s really funny but very different from this. I wanted to be funny how real life is funny.
CS: I’ve talked to Joe a bunch of times over the years and I’m always curious about the way he depicts marriage, so what is your reaction to it? Are you usually aware of what he’s working on while he’s writing?
Swanberg: We live together and we’re married so we talk all the time. I always know exactly what’s going on with everything. Just like any partnership you’re always checking in. So I’m always aware of what’s going on but typically until I see a rough cut I don’t know the full extent of how much of our lives he’s put in the film. (laughs) We’ve been doing this for a long time, so at this point I’m definitely not surprised. Everything he does is sort of personal, and a lot of it is my own experiences in there. I didn’t realize until seeing Drinking Buddies that he created Anna Kendrick’s character as a high school teacher who taught at literally the same school I taught at and also owned an ice cream company. (laughs) I didn’t realize that until afterwards, like, “C’mon!”
CS: I imagine you must have a serious conversation one night and then watch a movie and go “Hey, that’s the conversation we had!”
Swanberg: Yeah, but the same would probably be true of my film. There are conversations and things we’ve had that are inspired in the movie. That’s just a way to make it feel naturalistic and feel real is to bring it from what you know. We’re very comfortable with that, Joe and I.
CS: Now that you have a movie in competition at Sundance do you feel like you want to keep the momentum going and start working on something else soon?
Swanberg: Yeah, this all happened really fast, this just wrapped in October, so we haven’t had much time to do something else. I’ve only been working on this movie up until now. I was doing my sound mix last week. I’m looking forward to going back after the festival and writing, but also really focusing on this project and doing the publicity and seeing it through to make it have a nice life.
CS: I know you used Chris Swanson as the music supervisor, who’s done stuff with Joe. Were there any members of Joe’s crew that you really wanted to work with, that you approached?
Swanberg: I did. It’s important to have an independent professional life than Joe, but one of the producers of Drinking Buddies, Andrea Roa, she did this film. The sound department came directly from his movies, but I have a different DP and different everybody else.
CS: There’s a lot of women in the crew, I noticed.
Swanberg: A lot of women. My DP is a woman, I co-wrote it with another woman, Megan Mercier, yeah. A lot of women on the crew, but that was sort of just happenstance
CS: It’s always funny when I hear about these movies wrapping in October, because all these other movies take two or three years to make and the movies at Sundance are great, because you don’t spend as much time overthinking them. Did you want to go back and do more work on it between now and when it comes out?
Swanberg: I was pretty nervous when we submitted, because I knew if we got in it was gonna be tight. I didn’t know if the movie was gonna get to a place I was happy with. I was a little nervous back in October when we sent them a cut, but we got it great. I feel really satisfied. Even if I had a few more months to work on it maybe I’d make some minor tweaks, but I’m really really satisfied with the way it came out.
Unexpected hasn’t been picked up for distribution yet, but expect that to change soon as sales have been brisk at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.