Kris Swanberg made the trip to Sundance for her low-key dramedy Unexpected. The film borrows from some of her experiences as recently laid off Chicago Public School teacher and going through pregnancy at the same time as a student. Kris spoke about how personal the film’s concept really is, shares her thoughts on the educational issues the film addresses, and our mutual affection for an underrated John Hughes flick.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): What initially inspired the story of Sam and Jasmine?
Kris Swanberg: It was really based on some personal events in my own life. I used to be a high school teacher, on the west side of Chicago for a couple years. And I had a lot close relationships with a number of my kids. But after I got laid off, one of my kids called me after she graduated to tell me she was 19 and pregnant. And at the time, I was 6 months pregnant. And so, we did start to go through that experience together. And it was an amazing experience for me to see what she was going through. She showed me a different side of being pregnant. So although the movie was fictionalized, we didn’t do prenatal yoga and I wasn’t trying to get her into college, the basics of that unique relationship were real and I thought it would make a good film.
TMS: Did it change the way you approached your own pregnancy, to see someone like her going through pregnancy with a completely different set of priorities and concerns?
Swanberg: It did. I was worried about things like nursing and whether to use cloth diapers or disposable. And should I make my own baby food? And of course, I was worried about balancing work and family. And when I looked at what she was going through, all those issues seemed a little trite. They definitely seemed like upper class problems. So a lot of what Samantha is going through in the film, I went through, and seeing someone else go through that same journey who is in a completely different place can be really eye opening.
TMS: Part of what throws Sam off when she realizes she’s pregnant is that she still really wants her career and seems to be losing this dream job because she’s already decided to stay home. When you were pregnant, had you planned out already how you would balance work and motherhood?
Swanberg: When I was pregnant with my son, I had my own business, an ice cream company (Nice Cream). And it was doing really well and my husband was very supportive of it, so the plan was I would take a few weeks off and start going back to work slowly. And because I had my own business, I had a lot of flexibility. And I wasn’t really worried about it when I was pregnant. But when my son was 6 months old, my business closed and all of a sudden our family was down to one income and we’d just bought a house the month before with a mortgage we had to worry about. So my husband had to work a lot more and financially, the reasonable thing to do was stay home with the baby. Because I couldn’t bring in enough money to justify paying for childcare. It just made the most sense for me to stay home. But it wasn’t what I’d planned, it just kind of happened. And I felt completely out of sorts and depressed and unsatisfied. And it took me a long time to recognize those feelings, because the other thing I felt a lot of was guilt. Because I wanted to be doing something else, but I really loved my baby. So I thought, what is wrong with me that I feel like I want more than this. So I went through all the emotions Sam goes in the movie, only when my son was an infant.
TMS: It is worth mentioning that your son has kind of grown up on movie sets, because he’s been in your husband’s last two movies.
Swanberg: Yeah, and I put him in my movie, my second feature, when he was about 10 months old. And it’s great for us, because he’s not in school yet. He’s only four, so we are able to just kind of take him with us. And it makes a lot of sense to have him play the kid in the movie we’re making, especially because a lot of the stuff Joe and I make happens to be very personal. He was in Happy Christmas and that actually filmed at our house, so it’s only natural for him to be a part of what we do.
TMS: Why did you bring your co-writer Megan Murphy onboard for such a personal film?
Swanberg: She is a good friend of mine and I know her from the theater scene her in Chicago. She had written her own play, so I knew she was a good writer and really funny. And we have similar sensibilities. So I came up with the basic idea for the film, and then went to her with it and asked her to help me write it. So she was involved from the very beginning. And we actually wrote every word together in the same room.
TMS: Which from what I hear about screenwriting is pretty rare, because usually cowriters take a crack at a scene and then come together to edit and revise.
Swanberg: I’m a procrastinator and easily distracted, so working by myself, nothing gets done. There are just too many opportunities to put things off and lose focus. But there are also a lot of questions which come up when writing, so having someone to bounce ideas off of in the moment is great and the way I prefer to work. But even though the basic story was based on some of my own experiences, Megan brought so much to the movie.
TMS: Because Sam is somewhat based off yourself, I assume you were able to pull a lot of detail from your own life. Did you speak with people or do any research to make sure you were being as honest about Jasmine’s life?
Swanberg: I did, and we were concerned about that. But when she goes into the food stamp office that was actually based on my own personal experiences. My husband and I were on food stamps when my son was born. We were on Medicaid and food stamps, and had to go into those offices. We aren’t the demographic you might expect, but we were very poor at the time that our son was born. We both come from middle class families but were struggling at the time. So some of what you see in the movie comes from my own experiences as well. But the stuff I didn’t have first-hand experience with I did research.
TMS: One of the really interesting subjects you address in the film is the value society places on college and why people consider it a necessity. When you were teaching, did you see that amount of pressure being put on kids in your own school?
Swanberg: It was a huge part of the culture when I was teaching, and I know it still is. When I was teaching, each senior was required in order to graduate, apply to at least five universities. And it was enforced by the counselors. So kids were just applying to wherever and there seem to be no guidance regarding if it was the right place for them or what do they want to study or is that some place they can even afford? They just had to do it. So there were kids applying to Princeton and Yale, which because of their level of education, they were never going to get into. And even if they did get into a college, there was very little support to help them once they were there. We as a society are just starting to understand that kids from these environments really do need a lot of support and guidance once they are in school, especially a four year university. If they are the first person in their family to go away to school, they have very little support. And my feelings about this, and why I felt I needed to put it in the film, is I don’t think it is necessarily the best option for every kid. And more than likely, it isn’t even the best option for the majority of students. But we put college on the category of complete wish fulfillment, as though if a student from this demographic went to college, all their problems will be solved.
And the reality is, we have all these middle class kids going to four year universities and coming out with huge tuition bills and debt, who have to move in with their parents because there aren’t the jobs. And that can be a difficult thing for kids from the upper or middle class families, but if that happened to a low income kid, that can be catastrophic because they don’t have the support. So for Jasmine, even though going to a four year university would have been amazing, once she is in her situation, she quickly realizes she won’t be able to do that. But Samantha still has this idea that if only you got into college, everything will be fine. Which is a mentality a lot of people have. And at the end of the film, we realize Jasmine is probably going to be better off at a city college and staying at home. And these are issues I think about a lot because, we keep putting college out there as a solution, and I don’t think it necessarily is.
TMS: And at times, Jasmine’s pragmatic response seems much more mature than Sam’s response. How did you come to cast Colbie and Gale as Sam and Jasmine?
Swanberg: Cobie I met the traditional way. I sent the script to a couple of different talent agencies, the big three, and they gave their take on who they thought would be good for those roles. And they had a lot of ideas for the 30 year old white woman, and very few or no ideas for the young African American woman. So for the role of Samantha, I met with a lot of different actresses. I would meet them for lunch and talk things over, just to get a sense about them. And Colbie and I just had such a great meeting and that is the reason I cast her. I had seen a couple of episodes of How I Met Your Mother, but the tone is so different, I wasn’t sure what she could do. But when we met, she was just so open and honest with me about her life and her own experiences as a working mother and having her daughter. So that was what we really connected over, and I was so taken with her because she was able to be such an open, real person with me. And knew I really wanted authentic, honest performances, so knowing she wasn’t going to be performative when she met me was important. And I had a similar experience when I found Anders. I’d seen Workaholics, but that show is also completely different from what I was going for. It’s so silly.
But when we met for breakfast, I liked him right away and he’s so grounded and has a very Midwest background, being raised in a suburb of Chicago. And he also has a one year old son, so he connected to the film as well. Gail was much more difficult to find, and I had to open casting up to allow people to send in tape auditions. And we found Gale outside of Atlanta. She sent us an audition and she just blew us away. And we skyped and ended up flying her out to Chicago to meet before finally casting her. But she was perfect.
TMS: Gale and Cobie have a great chemistry on screen and feel very comfortable and casual around each other. Did they spend any time together before filming?
Swanberg: It was really just their personalities. We didn’t have the money to bring people out early to rehearse, so they would come out and just start shooting the next day. But we were just lucky that they are so cool and personable, and so incredibly easy to get along with. They just happened to get along with each other right away.
TMS: I’m also from around Chicago, so it’s always cool to see movies set and made there. Why was it important for you to set the film and make the movie in Chicago?
Swanberg: For me, it’s a lot about what I know. I taught in the school systems here, so I felt that I could write about it and filming the schools, and make them seem real. I was nervous about having to make a movie in another city I wasn’t as familiar with and getting it wrong. Because it was important to me to get the school right, because if you’ve ever been a teacher and watch a movie set in a school, you say “that doesn’t happen.” So I felt really confident about representing that world. And it also felt like a very Chicago story. There is that difference in social classes here. Neighborhoods are segregated, and schools are even more segregated. So I was interested in exploring that. And living in Chicago, it is important for me to make work here. Movies are made now based on the best tax credits, but I really want to support the local economy and filmmaking in Chicago. And, my family is here, so I was able to shoot all day and then come home and see by husband and child. Which is really cool.
TMS: Every time I see Elizabeth McGovern I think about her role in She’s Having a Baby, which is one of those iconic Chicago films. Did you consider that film and her role in it that when casting her as Colbie’s mother?
Swanberg: I love She’s Having a Baby, and we did cast her because of that movie! And we cast her really late. The office was already set up and I think we were three weeks out from the shoot. And I was watching a lot of movies with my director of photography just for inspiration, and one of the movies we watched was, She’s Having a Baby. And I’d never seen it, but I was curious just to see how they shot that movie technically. And I loved it. It was blowing my mind when I watched it! I just kept saying “this is so good.” And it’s a pretty crazy movie, because there are dream sequences and musical numbers, which is completely different from my movie. But there are so many really good moments that feel personal and very detailed. Moments about pregnancy and marriage. And Elizabeth is the lead in that movie and she’s so good in it, but I didn’t know who she was. I just kept saying “who is this woman, she’s so great.” I had to look her up on IMDB and thought, what ever happened to her, and then I realized she was on Downton Abbey, which I also happen to be a big fan of. I just didn’t realize it was the same person. So it was my DP’s idea to cast her, because we’d been doing casting out of Chicago and hadn’t found the right person to play Sam’s mom. So I sent the script to her agent and had a skype call. She also felt connected to the script, because she has two grown daughters. I also didn’t even realize when we offered her the role that she and Cobie look so similar. I didn’t even notice until they were literally on set together.
TMS: The films both you and your husband make are very personal and borrow from your own life. Have you ever thought you’d shared too much?
Swanberg: Not on my own work, because I have complete control. But sometimes, with his work I’ll think “that is very revealing.” And at that point I just kind of go with it. We’ve kind of agreed that our experiences are shared, so even if he writes a movie and it has a lot of me in it, that is also his experience. So those moments just seem sort of up for grabs. And we basically have that as an agreement. And both of us are pretty open people in general and not that protective about our thoughts and feelings. So even though it can sometimes be a little shocking, in the end, I think it’s always worth it.
TMS: When you started working on the film with the cast and crew, did you talk about what overall themes were or what the heart of the movie was?
Swanberg: There were a couple of things we talked about. One was the it was important to be honest when we showed the difference in the social and class dynamics. It was something I talked a lot about with my DP, regarding how we were going to light and shoot the low income neighborhood. Because so often, those neighborhoods are shot with handheld cameras, with shaky cameras and very darkly lit. And in my experiences visiting my students’ homes, that is not the case. I have been to baby showers and pre-prom parties, and it never feels that way. Their homes always feel warm. Certainly driving by, there is trash on the ground and things are often unkempt, but that is part of the negligence on the part of the city, not because people doing care about their homes or neighborhoods. These families love each other and have very supportive communities. So it was very important regarding how we would shoot the film, but also regarding the art direction. That was the biggest concern I had regarding how things would translate visually.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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