'Unexpected' Writer-Director Kris Swanberg on Creating a Realistic Pregnancy Movie and Characters' Futures

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

"I think it's really rare that people experience these things in a highly dramatic way, and I wanted to tell a story about things that actually happen all the time," she says about the issues encountered by Cobie Smulders' Samantha and Gail Bean's Jasmine.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Unexpected.]

In Unexpected, both Cobie Smulders' high-school science teacher, Samantha, and her teenage student Jasmine (Gail Bean) find themselves unexpectedly pregnant at the same time.

There's little discussion of adoption or abortion, with writer-director Kris Swanberg saying that having both women commit strongly to keeping their babies was necessary in order for her to tell this specific story.

"I wanted to tell a story about them going through a pregnancy and what it means to keep a baby and going through that," Swanberg tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There was never a time where I thought one of them might make another choice because I wanted a movie about these women going through their pregnancy together, and I wouldn't have been able to do that if one of them [decided to end the pregnancy]."

But as Samantha and Jasmine prepare for motherhood, they encounter some practically presented problems. Samantha applies for her dream job, only to be told that the start date is right around her due date, with her interviewer noting that a new job and a new baby might be a lot to take on at once. Jasmine, meanwhile, has her dream of going to a four-year college dashed when she realizes she won't be able to bring the baby with her.

Throughout making the movie — which Swanberg scripted with Megan Mercier, writing "every word of it in the same room" — Swanberg said she tried to make the issues Samantha and Jasmine dealt with feel real. 

"With every decision I made in the whole film, the biggest thing in the back of my mind was to make things feel grounded and realistic. I got some encouragement from people to make [the movie] a little more Hollywood and to make those conflicts a little bit more external, but I felt like there was enough drama in what really happens," Swanberg says. "I think it's really rare that people experience these things in a highly dramatic way, and I wanted to tell a story about things that actually happen all the time. I didn't want [Samantha] walking into that interview and for the guy to go, 'Oh, you're pregnant. I don't think you can take this job.' That's not really the reality. Most of the time the person would be like, 'Yeah we really want you to do it, and I don't know if you can.' And you do have to be the one to say, 'I'm in a position here where the timing [doesn't work].'"

Former teacher Swanberg drew on her own experiences in conceiving and co-writing the film.

"I used to be a high school teacher on the west side of Chicago. I taught film and video for a few years here. So I had this kind of unique experience with these kids and had a lot of close relationships with them," she says. "One [student] in particular, after I stopped teaching and she had graduated, called me and told me she was pregnant. She was 19 at the time and I happened to be six months pregnant when she told me that. So we did kind of go through those things together. I was pretty close with her. The movie's very fictionalized. We weren't going to yoga together, and I wasn't trying to get her into college or anything like that. But that dynamic is really what that is based on and of course the things that Samantha is going through in the film and sort of her identity crisis and just her anxiety are definitely things that I took from my own experience of pregnancy."

Jasmine, meanwhile, is tempted by the possibility of realizing her own dream of going to a four-year college before she learns that that's unlikely to be a realistic possibility.

"She's kind of settled with this idea that she's not going to be able to go to school and then Samantha's like 'Wait, wait, wait. No, there's a chance. And I'll help you, and I know more than you because I'm older and I went there and I'm your teacher.' And I think she's sort of like, 'Maybe it will work out.' The promise of that family housing is kind of attractive and I think she lets herself get kind of carried away by it. But in the back of her mind she's always a little suspicious that something's going to happen and that's why I think she gets so upset at the university — she's also mad at herself for going along with this dream."

Unexpected ends before Jasmine has her baby, but Swanberg says both viewers and Samantha know she'll be all right.

"I had toyed with the idea of Jasmine having her baby [before the movie ends] and there was something about that that seemed a little too buttoned up or something about it that seemed too parallel. I was constantly kind of trying to balance in this film these two characters and their two stories. They're going through the same thing, and I didn't want it to be like scene by scene we were watching two movies side by side. So I wanted it to feel kind of organic. And [the movie's] certainly more from Samantha's perspective. And really how I wanted it to end was not they both have their babies and the babies are fine but more like I wanted Samantha to kind of come to a place of realization, not just with her own pregnancy, but also with her previous assumptions about Jasmine's life. So when she attends that baby shower she learns — we don't have to see that the baby's going to be OK because we know that from that scene. We know that it's going to be OK. We see that she has support and that she has community and that she has family and Samantha sees that too."

Swanberg says that she imagines that Samantha ultimately does go back to work and Jasmine gets a college education but adds, "I don't think that things are going to be perfect."

"Jasmine goes to a city college, which is not necessarily the kind of experience that going to a four-year university is going to be. And really that might be better for her," she says. "And then with Samantha, she does kind of say to John (Anders Holm and I think that is what happens — that she's going to take time off for the baby but when she's ready, she's going to go back [to work]. I assume with her like me it's always going to be a struggle and with me as a working mom it's definitely always an issue even just day to day balancing being a mom and working and having my own thing."

Unexpected in currently in theaters and on VOD and iTunes.