'Unpregnant' Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg Hopes to "Destigmatize and Normalize" Abortion in Buddy Comedy Film

Courtesy of HBO Max

Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira star in the HBO Max comedy about a pregnant teen embarking on a road trip alongside her former best friend to an abortion clinic.

When Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg was sent the manuscript for Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendricks' novel Unpregnant, she realized she was given a chance to portray something dear to her heart.

"I just thought it was such a brilliant way into this story. I thought having this funny, character-based, really adventurous plot that by design is showing this political issue that's important to me felt like sort of irresistible opportunity," Goldenberg tells The Hollywood Reporter.

At first glance of the trailer for HBO Max's buddy comedy Unpregnant, the film abides by the same formula of a traditional road trip comedy. But beneath the surface, the film chronicles a teenager's personal journey to an unexpected location: an abortion clinic. The film centers on pregnant teen Veronica (Five Feet Apart's Haley Lu Richardson) who embarks on a road trip from Missouri to New Mexico so she can get an abortion after learning she is unable to in her home state without parental permission. Determined to keep her pregnancy and desire for an abortion a secret, Veronica enlists help from her former best friend Bailey (Euphoria's Barbie Ferreira) to drive her across the country to the abortion clinic.

Goldenberg shares how the storyline was personal for her.

"One thing that I had become aware of before I was sent the book, was that in the past 30 years abortion has become sort of more shameful to talk about and that's a deliberate effort," Goldenberg tells THR. "I had an abortion and it was something that I didn't talk about ... It was like, 'Oh, we don't really talk about that in society.' This has become a change over the decade [and] this isn't how it always was [and] that scared me. I realized that I didn't want to be quiet about my abortion. I wanted to be someone that people know that has had an abortion because one in four people who can get pregnant will have an abortion in their lifetime. It's so common, but not talked about."

After reading Unpregnant and boarding the film as director, Goldenberg aimed to"destigmatize" and "normalize" abortion for audiences because while a sensitive topic, she emphasizes "it's a medical decision and a personal decision."

"I want to move away from how politicized it is and more into the personal stories," she says.

With the film exploring reproductive rights, Goldenberg aimed to craft a film that would spark conversation while also offering laughs and teenage shenanigans. Audiences can watch Veronica and Bailey's road trip take unexpected detours, forcing them to rekindle their friendship with Kelly Clarkson car singalongs, laughs and Slurpee addictions. Balancing heavy topics with a lighthearted tone is something in Goldenberg's forte as she previously served as Funny or Die’s White House liaison in 2013-14, winning an Emmy for Between Two Ferns With Barack Obama. She explains that Unpregnant "felt like a perfect example" of incorporating political comedy with the YA genre.

"It was always about making sure that things were funny and entertaining first ... I want to be making work that I'm excited about and I genuinely like. I'm not just an activist. I'm a filmmaker. And so finding projects like I did at Funny or Die or Unpregnant, it's sort of allowing me to do this entertaining way in something important," Goldenberg explains. Unpregnant may mark Goldenberg's ninth feature — she recently helmed the Valley Girl remake — but, she explains, the journey to the film seems to have manifested a "full-circle moment" of returning to her "roots" as a director.

"It's been such a journey. I started working in B-movies and making crazy action genre films with giant VFX dragons and a super low budget musical. I think all eight movies leading up to this had sort of informed different aspects and playing with all those different genres is what made me excited about this project," she says. "As I am able to have more control over the projects that I choose, I find myself sort of leaning back into genre things or comedy things from Funny or Die or different things from my past to meld into what I'm working on now."

Apart from exploring genre and tone, the film also allowed Goldenberg to adapt a novel to screen. Authors Caplan and Hendricks serve as screenwriters alongside Goldenberg for the film adaptation. "When people talk about adapting a book into a movie, I feel like I can smell when people are feeling overly subservient to the books. They're trying to cover so much or there's something that maybe isn't perfect for the movie, but they just loved it in the book so much that they're going to find a way to show it," the director explains. "For me, the approach is really just to be inspired by this amazing story and these amazing characters, but to [also] think of the film as its own format and its own art form."

Goldenberg praises Caplan and Hendricks for writing the book with a "buddy comedy element" of youth and freedom but also found the more comical aspect of the film to be the circumstances of Veronica's journey in the first place. "The source of the comedy is how hard Veronica's journey is, how far she has to drive, and how many things go wrong. I feel great about making fun of why is this so hard? It sort of lends itself to the way that it's crafted and opens itself up to making it hopefully very funny." Goldenberg teases that audiences can expect a film that has some "Thelma & Louise moments," "Fast and Furious moments" with some surprise "Get Out moments."

In order to tackle the right combination of "deep, real keen emotions" without being "super heavy," Goldenberg credits Richardson and Ferreira for handling the emotional depth of the story while also portraying normal teenagers embarking on a spontaneous adventure where they meet interesting characters along the way (prepare to see Giancarlo Esposito add to a trifecta friendship). Goldenberg explains she worked with the actresses to find that balanced dynamic — along with a signature handshake Veronica and Bailey formulate that could give The Parent Trap's infamous shake a run for its money.

"The two of them together just instantly bonded and loved each other and it works so well for the characters. They're [Richardson and Ferreira] also extremely different people like Veronica and Bailey, and they love each other so much. That dynamic was actually incredibly hopeful for the film and then also just made the shooting so much better that they had this sort of bond that was really, really special to see."

Goldenberg says Richardson was "at the top" of her list to play Veronica ("She just brings so much emotional truth and such care and depth to her characters"). Meanwhile, to tackle loner Bailey who, throughout the film, delivers signature punchlines while also learning to embrace her sexuality and confront her strained relationship with her father, Goldenberg says Ferreira, who makes her first film appearance in Unpregnant, "impressed" her.

"I was shocked at how her character in Euphoria is just such a small part of what she can do. Her ability to do a line five different funny ways and make these amazing facial expressions. She's really just sort of a dream to work with and to edit specifically, cause she just did so much."

Amid the lighthearted moments in the film are emotional ones as well. In one moment, audiences can follow along as Veronica is confident in her decision after being explained each step in the abortion procedure. In another scene, Veronica must confront her mother (played by Marcy McCormack) who cannot agree with the choice her daughter made. Goldenberg explains that though she is "very set" about how she feels about reproductive rights, she is aware of the controversy and opposing viewpoints that can come with the topic.

"Through the process of this film, I was exposed to so many people's stories about their abortions, about their discomfort with abortion, about people working on the film and having to have sit-downs with their parents to let them know they were working on the film because their parents felt differently than they did," she says. "I don't want to be in a position of forcing someone to watch something they're not comfortable with. I think what I can do is present something and then hope that people respond to it. I'm proud to be presenting this story where Veronica, from the beginning, is very sure about what she wants to do, which is my experience with my abortion. I was confident in my decision to have it."

As the film makes its debut on the small screen, projecting a strong viewpoint onscreen was something Goldenberg feels "lucky" to have done. "As a younger female director, and I know it's even harder for women of color, it's hard to get opportunities to make great projects," she says.

Unpregnant now joins the lineup of previous YA adaptations with both humor and heart, such as Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in Our Stars, and Chemical Hearts. While Goldenberg emphasizes "it's really difficult to get movies made that don't fall into a specific genre," she's noticed, in the film world, YA can serve as a both a "magical category" that allows filmmakers to "make all kinds of interesting varied work" but also one that's considered a "backdoor."

"Some fancy directors sort of think they're too good for it. It [YA] opens up all these cool opportunities for people to make interesting work that wouldn't necessarily be given a chance in other spaces," she adds.

Unpregnant marks one of the first features being made by HBO Max. Goldenberg is excited to join forces with the premium outlet for the project and hopeful that she can not only entertain audiences but also do her part in normalizing abortion.

"They've just been so supportive and such a sort of strong advocate for what could be considered a tough topic. I'm really appreciative that they're boldly and proudly getting the movie out there. I'm hoping people will enjoy it."

Unpregnant is out Sept. 10.