Last fall I had the great pleasure of hosting Kris Swanberg at Oakton Community College’s Pop-Up Film Fest where her second feature film, Empire Builder, was the inaugural screening. I posted a transcript of our post-screening Q&A on this site not long afterwards. At the time, Kris was busy editing her third feature, Unexpected, which would win raves upon its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. This pregnancy drama, based on Kris’s own experiences, is beautifully written, directed and acted and integrates issues of gender, class and race so naturally that one is likely to not even notice until reflecting on it afterwards. Unexpected is being distributed by the Film Arcade and opens locally at the Music Box this Friday. I recently chatted with Kris about her new film by phone, which makes her White City Cinema’s first two-time interviewee. (Please note that a heavily edited version of this interview has also been posted at Time Out Chicago.)
MGS: So are you in the midst of a whirlwind media tour right now?
KS: I’m not, luckily. We did a lot of our press already in New York at the BAM screening. And they’re – because I can’t travel anymore because I’m pregnant…
MGS: Yes, congratulations!
KS: Thank you! I think they did a lot of those interviews and are holding them until closer to the release. And then everything I’ve just been sort of doing by phone and it’s not that bad.
MGS: The publicist for your film told me you were several months pregnant…
KS: I’m very… I’m due in three weeks.
MGS: Wow, so soon. That’s incredible. I feel the need to ask right off the bat, was this “expected?”
KS: (laughing) Actually, yeah, it was. I mean, you never really know but, yeah, it was not unexpected, I’ll put it that way.
MGS: So now you can make a sequel?
KS: That’s right.
MGS: I saw your film back-to-back with Results and I thought that was a great way to see both of those films — because Cobie Smulders is terrific in both and her performances couldn’t have been more different. Did you feel it was fortuitous that both films premiered at the same time at Sundance?
KS: Yeah, it was cool. I really like Results and I have known Andrew Bujalski for a really long time. So I was kind of excited that we had the same actress. And Cobie hasn’t done any sort of indie stuff and then, all of a sudden, she’s in two movies in Sundance. So, yeah, she’s such a great actress and it was exciting for me to see her do something different at the same time.
MGS: In your own film?
KS: No, in Andrew’s. I didn’t have much experience with her as a fan. I didn’t really watch the show (How I Met Your Mother). I’d seen a few episodes just for her performance. But, you know, her performance in my own film is of course what I know the best, what she can do. And then it was really neat to see Results at Sundance and see her play a very different character. She’s amazing.
MGS: It’s rare to see films that take pregnancy as a subject. And that’s really surprising in a way because it’s obviously such a common occurrence . . .
KS: I know, I know, I know. Just think of all the movies we have about, I don’t know, relationships or people robbing… (laughs) It’s kind of crazy — because everyone has been born — that we don’t have more movies about pregnancy. And what’s even crazier is that we have few to no movies about a woman’s experience during pregnancy.
MGS: Do you think that’s because there are so few films made by women?
KS: Absolutely, no contest. That is the reason. And the reason why I know that’s the reason is because I made this movie about pregnancy not realizing that it was from my point-of-view. Just like a man, you know, wouldn’t realize that he’s writing it from his point-of-view. You know what I mean? It’s just like, of course, the most natural way to go about it, to write from your point-of-view. Most films about pregnancy are from the point-of-view of a man looking at his wife and thinking, “Oh, she’s going crazy. What do I do?” All of that stuff, it’s usually pretty funny. You know, the delivery scene tends more towards comedy. Not that I have a super-dramatic, heavy film but I definitely took some of that stuff more seriously. I think I was careful with those emotions in a way that, you know, a stupid comedy isn’t.
MGS: It’s funny in the way that life is funny. You’re not writing jokes.
MGS: There’s been a lot of discussion in the media about the lack of female voices in cinema. When you created this film did you think of yourself as having a responsibility…
KS: No. I didn’t think about it at all. I didn’t think about the fact that I was a woman making it. I didn’t think about the fact that it was a woman in a lead role and another woman in a secondary role. I didn’t think about it at all. It just never crossed my mind. When men are writing movies and directing movies I don’t think they’re consciously leaving women out of these movies. I think they’re just writing from their own experience. And that was what I was doing, writing from what I know, which is being a woman. I never once took any kind of political stance and thought, “Oh, I’m making a movie from the woman’s point-of-view finally.” It just sort of naturally happened. And then I didn’t realize that it was unique until I started pre-production. I was watching other films as references, and sort of looking at other films dealing with pregnancy to see, you know, “How do they shoot a delivery scene? How do they shoot an ultrasound scene?” And then not only did we not really use any of that, but I also realized, “Oh, this is a different kind of movie that doesn’t exist.”
MGS: I appreciated your depiction of Chicago as a multi-racial society, which is also rare. It’s common to see films with predominantly white casts or predominantly black casts but you made a film about interracial friendship that feels very true.
KS: The movie is based a lot on personal experience and my own experience as a high-school teacher on the West Side here. So those relationships, even while I was having them, when I was a teacher and then after I was done teaching when I was still in touch with my students, I realized at the time how unique they were. Not so much for the racial component because I think, at least in our urban liberal world of Chicago, it’s fairly common for people to have friends of another race. And I certainly have friends of other races and it’s not worth making a movie about. (laughs) The reason why is because they’re of the same economic… the same social class as me. So our lives are very culturally similar. Of course, there’s differences with race and how we’re brought up and how we experience the world, etc. But it’s not nearly the difference between… the class difference that exists between Samantha and Jasmine (Gail Bean). That was what was really unique to me. People have relationships with other people of different classes but they’re usually, you know, “This person works in the same building as me.” Or “This is the cashier behind the counter that I get my coffee at every morning.” They’re usually on a professional level. They rarely get intimate. I think that’s what the real difference was with that relationship (in the film).
MGS: Right. I think you made a lot of subtle points in the movie about class divisions and I was wondering if you were ever afraid that Sam was going to come across as a stereotypical “white savior” character.
KS: Yeah, I was really conscious of that. But I felt the solution was, and it was something my co-writer (Megan Mercier) and I talked about a lot, was to make the movie very self-aware – and it is. And so (Sam) has assumptions about Jasmine’s world and that’s brought up very subtly in the film. At one point she asks her, “What did your boyfriend say when you told him you were pregnant? Was he mad?” And Jasmine’s like, “Why would he be mad?” And there’s a few moments like that where you realize the film is aware of that sort of movie trope. And we have this weird history in our modern cinema of these white ladies going into these schools and making everyone fall in love with Shakespeare or whatever. So I didn’t want to do that but because it was coming from my own personal experience as a teacher, I felt confident that I could portray it realistically and not (have it) be a stereotype.
MGS: Because if you kept it true to your experience you would naturally sidestep that pitfall?
MGS: I think another great example of that is early on when Sam asks Jasmine if she’s going to keep her baby and Jasmine says she doesn’t know. And then later, Jasmine asks Sam the same question and Sam looks surprised, almost like she can’t believe Jasmine would even ask her that question. I felt like you were being critical of Sam’s assumption.
KS: Definitely. I was critical throughout the whole film! Not in a bad way but I was very conscious of that stuff. When she’s making those assumptions she’s not being racist, she’s not being a bad person. She’s very well intentioned in being her best but when you’re unfamiliar with a culture or community, those are the kinds of assumptions that you have so I wanted to point that out.
MGS: Thanks for talking to me, good luck with the new baby and I greatly look forward to seeing your future work.
KS: Thanks a lot.
You can check out the trailer for Unexpected via YouTube below: