“Unexpected” is a fitting title for Kris Swanberg’s third feature. Alluding to the unplanned pregnancy of a young teacher (Cobie Smulders) whose life is already due for a change with the closure of her school in Chicago, it also is a different kind of film for its director, who may have taken her filmmaker husband Joe’s last name and all the expectations of his loose, improvisational style that come with it for cinephiles, but has carved out a path of her own.
For those who have seen Ms. Swanberg’s first two films, “It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home” and “Empire Builder,” the first thing that leaps out about her latest is the discipline with which it’s told, unfolding in crisply composed shots by “10,000 KM” cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen matched by the economy of the script Swanberg wrote with Megan Mercier. The irony, of course, is such a sense of purpose is what Samantha, the film’s lead character, is desperately in search of, thrown into the uncertainty of providing for the child she’s about to bring into the world in spite of a supportive boyfriend (Anders Holm) and nine months to figure it out. She finds an unlikely partner to commiserate with when she learns one of her students (Gail Bean) is expecting herself, leading the two to take attention away from their personal issues to help each other out.
Swanberg’s light touch makes “Unexpected” such a delicate delight, but there’s clearly a personal history that makes it poignant, with Samantha finding herself in a situation not unlike the director’s own after a successful ice cream business fell apart due to regulation issues in Chicago and a teaching gig on the West Side dried up due to the same cost-cutting that befalls Samantha’s school in the film. That wealth of experience in addition to her ever-growing skill behind the camera have allowed Swanberg to flourish into a rich storyteller, and as she told me on the eve of “Unexpected”‘s release, it appears to finally be something she can pursue full-time, something we all can look forward to.
You’ve said that you were in a similar situation as Samantha before “Empire Builder,” but you waited until now to tell this story. Was it nice to have a little bit of perspective on it?
You’re right, a lot of this was inspired by the kind of emotions that Samantha’s going through [that] I really felt mostly after my son was born, [though] not so much with my pregnancy. I was going through that stuff almost as I was making “Empire Builder,” [which] was something that I had conceived with my good friend Kate [Johnston] years before when she had her first child and we were talking a lot about dealing with that stuff. Then the timing worked out that we could shoot it when Jude was about 10 months old, and even though I was going through all of this stuff, I wasn’t yet able to really get a good perspective on it. I was in the trenches. So that film [“Empire Builder”] is a lot more visual and from the gut. This one has more perspective [because] I was able to step back and I was truly past that point when I started writing this movie.
If you’re identifying with the Samantha character, did the Jasmine story come naturally with yours or was that something you had to work on?
I definitely had to work on it, but it also came from real life. I used to be a high school teacher on the west side of Chicago and after I stopped teaching, I did have a student, who I was close to, call me and tell me that she was pregnant. She was 19 at the time and had already graduated, so the movie’s very fictionalized — we weren’t going to prenatal yoga together and I wasn’t trying to get her into college — but I did have a close relationship with her and we did go through that together. It was a very unique experience and I’m still close with her today.
You can tell there’s an authenticity to those scenes inside the school. Did you actually draw on any of your old high school connections to get the locations or all those student extras?
No, I didn’t, but we ended up finding a school in Englewood here [in Chicago] that was really, really excited about the project. They were very helpful in allowing us to cast from the kids in the high school and getting them in the classroom. It was a really good experience, and definitely my own experience as a high school teacher, working in Chicago public schools made those scenes feel realistic because I was basing it off of things that I’ve seen. I think a lot of movies that take place in high school or in any school environment are basing the way that they perform and shoot it off of what they’ve seen in other movies, but this probably feels a little bit more true because it’s based on reality.
As an admirer of your previous films, it seems you’ve become more disciplined each time out. Is that simply because of skill or has it been something you’ve made a goal?
I think [it’s been a goal]. I like that you’re phrasing it more “disciplined.” The production of my first film was really fun and very organic — it was all improvised, but I was really figuring it out as we went along and creating the story as we went. With “Empire Builder,” it was a little bit more structured. I had a good idea of what I was trying to say and what the movie was going to be about before I was making it. But both of those movies created a lot of stress for me during production, just trying to make sure like, am I getting this right? Am I saying what I want to say? Is the message I’m trying to deliver getting across? With [“Unexpected”], it was so personal to me and such a special story, I really wanted to get it right, so it was important to me to lay it out ahead of time and write a script and get it all in place before I started.
There’s one scene in particular that’s so perfectly realized when Samantha finds out she’s pregnant and you follow her down a hallway towards a basketball game, with the cacophony playing out the chaos in her head. It would seem on a limited budget, most filmmakers might opt for something smaller, so was that a difficult scene to pull off since you actually show a live game going on in the gym?
It was certainly something we wrote in the script and something I had envisioned as an important moment, almost the only moment in the film that’s kind of surreal, so I worked really closely with my [cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen] and talked a lot about how to make it feel like it was part of the same movie. I did want it to feel a little bit different from everything else, but not too much and she was really a huge factor in making that feel so good. Then we just opened it up to as many kids in the high school that wanted to come and be a part of it. A lot of it too was sound design. We mixed the movie at Skywalker Sound and they were really helpful with adding things and making it seem a little bit bigger than we were able to pull off [on the day of shooting].
You were filming with someone who was actually pregnant in Cobie Smulders. Did that make it easier or harder to convince her to be in the movie?
She didn’t need any convincing. I was more hesitant than she was. [laughs] I was worried that it would be too much for her, so I talked to her about it beforehand and wanted to make sure she really wanted to do it and she was totally game. I think she thought the timing was really great and I did too, so it worked out. She was just was cool as she could have possibly been.
Since you’ve actually acted before while pregnant, was there anything that you were particularly sensitive to or even thought you could actually exploit as a filmmaker, knowing her condition?
I was very sensitive to what she would be comfortable with and what she wouldn’t be, but I really left it up to her to make those decisions. One of those things was the ultrasound scene. That’s her real ultrasound [that’s in the film]. Logistically, it just made the most sense for us because we had an ultrasound machine and a wand and we had Cobie, who was actually pregnant. But I asked her about it and she said she would do it, but she didn’t want to do a lot of takes because ultrasounds in real life are emotional for her, so we just did two takes where we did a real ultrasound, then the rest we shot around it, so she wouldn’t have to experience it too many times over and over again. That was really generous of her to share that with us.
The casting of Elizabeth McGovern as Samantha’s mother was interesting too because from what I’ve heard, she’s pretty ensconced in England these days. Was it difficult to get her across the pond?
We were looking for locals actually here in Chicago and just didn’t find anyone who was quite right. Then I was watching the movie “She’s Having a Baby” during pre-production, with my cinematographer and I didn’t quite connect that Elizabeth McGovern to [being] the same Elizabeth McGovern from “Downton Abbey.” I just found myself wondering whatever happened to that young actress in “She’s Having a Baby” – she’s so good – and then it was my [cinematographer’s] idea actually to try and reach out and see if she would do the movie. It felt like a long shot and I wasn’t sure if she lived in London full time, but she called me from there and she really liked the script and I really liked her, so she decided to come out and do it. That was really exciting for me because I’m a big fan of hers.
This isn’t specific to the film, but you’ve always seem to be engaged with something else besides filmmaking in between the features you’ve made, whether it was teaching or your ice cream business. Can you still do that or is filmmaking now more of a full-time gig?
Yeah, I’ve sort of settled down with it. I have so many interests. It’s funny, because of course my husband is also a filmmaker and it was his dream since he was 14 years old and he’s been very driven towards this end goal his whole life. I went to film school to study documentary film and I thought that’s what I was going to do.
But I’m also very passionate about education. My mother was a teacher and I’m very politically active when it comes to public education. It’s very important to me. So when I got randomly hired to be a high school teacher, I really felt that I was very skilled at it and loved it, so I went back to get my masters in education. Then of course, I did my ice cream business for awhile and got very excited about running a business and got pretty good at that, so I have a lot of interests and a lot of passion, but at this point, I feel that I have found other outlets for those. I’m very active in the public school systems here in Chicago and in our neighborhood school, even though my son is too young to attend yet. And I do regulated cooking and ice cream-making and left it more as a hobby.
Film is something that really does require a lot more of the dedication. Now that I’m making bigger projects, it’s not just something that I can do on the side. It’s something I really need to focus on. So besides the fact that I’m a mom and dealing with raising kids, my full-time focus right now is definitely making films.