Unpregnant is one of the most unique teen comedies I’ve seen in a long time. How exactly does one succeed in making a comedy about getting an abortion? You fill it with big swings and big laughs.
Haley Lu Richardon plays Veronica, a studious high schooler to finds herself pregnant and she has to travel over a thousand miles to get an abortion. Barbie Ferreira plays Bailey, Veronica’s childhood friend who supplies the transportation even though they had a falling out as they entered high school. Roger Neill scored Unpregnant’s road trip, and he is given a surprisingly broad amount of themes to play with. The score is playful, young, and sweet.
Neill wrote the music for Unpregnant during the pandemic, but his collaboration with director Rachel Lee Goldberg helped guide him. If you listen to the music separated from the film, you really understand how Neill took care in guiding the story through music. If the score becomes too present, it becomes too preachy. If it it’s too loose, you lose the seriousness of the journey. Neill has created a score as complicated and empowering as the subject matter itself.
Awards Daily: This is the second time you’ve worked with Rachel Lee Goldenberg–the first being Valley Girl. Tell me about your relationship.
Roger Neill: It’s great when a director and a composer find a simpatico and an artistic vision. You develop a language and that’s actually quite tricky to establish. I’m asking her about the story and its nuances and she’s trying to tell me what she wants the music to sound like without knowing what it will sound like. It’s quite a dance. You never perfect the communication, which is good. You always have this ambiguous way of pantomiming to communicate. I love working with her. We have this secret language that twins kind of have (laughs).
AD: I think a lot of the music is very youthful and optimistic. There’s an electric feeling to a lot of it. Was the goal to have this young energy?
RN: Well, thank you. That is what I was going for. We are at such a unique time in music history where we can draw upon music from a long span of time and still have it be youthful and understandable and not off-putting. I don’t have to write a certain way to connect with an audience member who might be eighteen. There is a broader language that I could draw from. I wanted to also draw on the angst and the anguish of being that age and being on your own and your friends are your most important thing. It is very electronic and that was a result, partially, from my collaboration with Rachel on Valley Girl.
AD: Oh really?
RN: I know there’s a certain sonic world that she responds to, so I started with there. The hard thing and the fun thing about this is the finding the right emotional voice for this particular journey. Veronica is on her way to get an abortion and we wanted her to feel empowered. We aren’t anguishing about her decision. That’s another movie. We wanted to find the right music companionship for her journey.
AD: I find the destination to be so unique with this movie. These young women aren’t ashamed of their choices. I don’t think I’ve seen that before.
RN: I think this is closer to the universal experience of most young women. She didn’t have a choice and that’s what she needed to do for herself.
AD: I wanted to talk about some moments. The underscoring called ‘Albuquerque in Missouri’ jumped out at me because it is the starting point to her journey. She’s very smart and plans everything out and she thinks doing her due diligence will go off without a hitch. Would you call that a theme for her?
RN: I laugh because that was the hardest cue to write and that was the one I wrote the most. I think there’s ten versions of it. I kept trying to zero in on the story and the moment and what that means. That’s where Veronica learns that the only place she can get an abortion is a thousand miles away, so at that moment the mission becomes codified. We are off to the races. Everything that happens in that sequence is about completing that mission. There are other version that are too joyful or too teen-oriented or too dark. It’s empowering but serious and there are many different tones. It just wasn’t the right cue for the movie, and that was the last piece that I got approval on. It’s a tricky moment to find the right accompaniment. That’s a good example of having a good communication with the director.
AD: There is much more happening in that moment than people realize.
RN: And they’re not supposed to. It’s a mission on a mission on a mission. She tells her mom some white lies and then goes to her friend’s house and the music has to stop in a way that tells us that she can’t rely on those friends. That’s part of the story we’re telling.
AD: There are a few moments like that where the music will stop in a dramatic way to switch up the tone of the scene.
RN: Yes. You think it’s going to go one way and it goes another. You want the music to not resolve. You want it to keep pushing forward.
AD: I love how you get this huge set piece in the middle of the film with the pro-lifers chasing the girls around. That took me by surprise, and it’s different than anything else in the movie. It’s big and dramatic, so what was it like to do something so different in this intimate story?
RN: Yeah, it becomes very surreal in that moment. It is set apart tonally. Story wise, more and more barriers and obstacles pop up. On the one hand we were kind of trying to do an homage to the teen horror movie with a nod to Get Out, but the stakes are really kind of low. In the big picture, they are running from people who are trying to convince them to not have an abortion.
AD: I do think I was yelling at the screen for them to run, so I get the horror movie vibe you mentioned. On the flipside of that, you composed this gentle, honest underscoring when Veronica is told exactly what happens when she gets her procedure. I imagine that would be one of the trickiest moments to score?
RN: It’s my favorite cue of the movie, and I believe it was the first piece I wrote. It’s a beautifully edited moment. We are walking through the procedure and we have flashbacks and flashforwards. It needs to be comforting and brave but cool. There are moments where the music starts and stops subtlety. I think it’s a lovely sequence and I am really proud of Rachel and our editor, Julia Wong. I have a daughter who is now in her twenties, but in my mind there are high school girls out there who might only get information from this film. How it happens and what the experience is really right. I might be wrong, but I think it is going to be powerful and useful to have.
Unpregnant is available to stream on HBO Max.