Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant will educate you and you don’t even know it. Haley Lu Richardon plays Veronica, a high school student who is shocked to discover that she has to travel 1000 miles in order to get an abortion without parental permission. The film is a lot of things mashed together into a heartfelt, honest road movie. With her delicate guidance, Goldenberg manages to create a film that will make you laugh and then reach into your wallet to support your local Planned Parenthood.
A comedy about abortion seems like an impossible task. For a lot of people, it remains a touchy subject matter, but Goldenberg, along with her cast, doesn’t dance around the issue. The direction and execution of Unpregnant is as confident and headstrong as Veronica herself. Along the way, we get a car chase worthy of Nascar and the chemistry between Richardson and Barbie Ferreira can’t be topped.
In addition to Unpregnant, Goldenberg directed Valley Girl, a candy-coated, jukebox musical fantasia worthy of anyone who has been itching to put on their leg warmers. Both films feature young women who take control of their ambitions and want to guide their lives in the direction that they want. Unpregnant‘s honesty and directness avoids the finger-wagging and preachiness that other films have succumbed to.
Awards Daily: Did you ever think that, in 2020, we would still be talking about how difficult it would be for a young woman to get an abortion?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: I did not nor did I foresee that it would become more relevant with the Supreme Court changes. I was sort of coming from a more hopeful place initially and now it feels like it’s coming from a more desperate place of hoping that this can help in some small way.
AD: I kept thinking about Unpregnant as the confirmation hearings happened because it was a topic that kept coming up. How do you think this film would’ve looked if it was filmed after Amy Coney Barrett’s hearings?
RLG: What the film is saying is that isn’t it insane that in a country where abortion is legal this young woman has to drive 1000 miles to get access to a medical procedure. It feels the conversation has been pushed further to the right and that’s no longer the worst case scenario. We are looking at a worse scenario where it is not legal. What the authors of the book were targeting, and what we have, is it is a circumstance of the political reality then and now it’s only more dire. Something that I have been noticing, both online and anecdotally, is that since abortion has been in the news so much lately, people have been finding our film and have been moved by it in this time when people need to know the process of abortion and the specifics of it. They see a perspective that hasn’t been presented so I am grateful that it’s out already instead of coming out right now.
AD: I love the huge chase scene in the middle of the film. You get to balance this delightfully absurd, broad comedy with this terrifying horror style. It’s based in this real fear but you get to take it to a really fun level.
RLG: That question feels like a compliment, so thank you (laughs).
AD: You’re welcome!
RLG: The thing that attracted me to the film is the unique tone. I love films that aren’t easily defined and I love finding films that the tone is hyper specific and I have to navigate it as a filmmaker. That’s part of the process that I really love. That sequence or that scene is a great example of that. Obviously, the issue of crisis pregnancy centers or, as the movement calls them fake clinics, that is a legitimate, serious problem. But we want to keep it light and let people have fun. I love action scenes, so it was really about how cool we could make this scene. Hopefully, people who have never heard of crisis pregnancy centers will Google it and discover more information. There are a lot of people who haven’t heard of them before this film.
AD: I hadn’t heard about them, so I definitely wanted to find out more.
RLG: It’s an example of a ‘spoonful of sugar’ of just getting a little something important and essential and true but it’s on this wild ride which, I think, a lot of the film does.
AD: It’s like Lethal Weapon with a sneaky message.
RLG: Yes, exactly. With Sugar Lyn Beard and Breckin Meyer, we wanted it to be scary but they were also coming from a really well-intended place. I love that moment when Breckin crashes into their car and he says sorry. He’s not trying to kill them. He wants to give them a message that he thinks is really important. We just know that he’s going about it in a terrifying and creepy way. We had a lot of conversations about where they were coming from and how off-kilter they are. They are certainly inappropriate and slightly psychopathic but they’re not the total extreme cartoon of that.
AD: Bad people never think they are doing something bad.
RLG: Yes, and they think that once they tell these young women their message, they will believe them.
AD: The scenes where Veronica is at the clinic are handled with a lot of care. There is a moment where Veronica is being interviewed by someone who works there and she asks Veronica if she was coerced or forced to come. There’s something in the way that Haley [Lu Richardson] says, ‘It’s my decision…I want to do this’ that I think is the heart of the movie. This whole journey has been her choice.
AD: When she is told what is going to happen during the procedure, it’s very honest and matter-of-fact without being emotionally clinical. Tell me about getting that part of the film correct because you are educating people who might be against this or even may not know about it.
RLG: I’ve had an abortion but I had a pill abortion. This was new information to me which is crazy. I had this moment where I knew I wanted to do something special when I came on board. It wasn’t fully fleshed out in the script yet. I went with my writing partner on a tour of Planned Parenthood in Los Angeles and asked the nurses to walk us through it. It made me realize how much I didn’t know and that fascinated me. It struck me in that moment that we couldn’t spend that much time with this young woman and send her behind a wall. It feels like she has come to this place where she has said the word abortion and she is confident in her choice, so what do we have to be ashamed about now? As an audience, we should be on this journey with her. As I was going through all the rooms I had no idea that there were so many. I should show people that. Most importantly, it comes from a character place and this is what Veronica is going through.
RLG: Even to the extent that we had her choose anesthesia. I initially wanted her awake for the procedure because the last thing I wanted was for someone to say that we were hiding something. I wanted it to be as straight-forward as possible. Then the nurses told me that 99.99% of teenagers choose anesthesia when they go so I didn’t want to be inaccurate. It was one of those things that came over me when I was there and I wanted to include all of that. There are so many details that I was able to use.
AD: Like what?
RLG: I was asking how someone feels when they come out at the end. I was asking if they were in pain in anything and the woman told me that most girls say they are relieved. That’s so emotional. Because this process is so hidden and we’ve done such a bad job as a society educating people about this that the people who are waiting are the ones freaking out. They are the ones who don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors and it’s this mysterious procedure. I found a comedic way into that with Bailey saying, ‘They wouldn’t let me see you so I assumed you were dead.’ I thought that was a funny way to express that we haven’t done a good job of conveying that.
AD: It’s a really unique part of the movie. The honesty is unlike anything I’ve seen in a film all year.
RLG: I have to give credit to Haley who is absolutely incredible in that moment. She did research and put herself in that place as much as she could, so that’s why I think it’s so special.
AD: I loved the scene between Haley and Mary McCormack towards the end. It reinforces that this movie, while a comedy, is dealing with complicated and emotional conversations. Mary says, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to understand because that’s not the choice that I would make.’
RLG: This was a scene that had different outcomes. There was a sequence where she never told her parents and a sequence where her mom had an abortion. There were options. I really came from it from a character decision as to how it plays out. Veronica opts to drive 1000 miles instead of telling her mother, so I assume her mother is coming from a genuine place and she does not support abortion. We accept that for that character but how does she feel when her daughter has an abortion? Where I landed on that is that the majority of parents love their kids more than they hate their choices. This felt like the most realistic portrayal to me. She is struggling with it but I think this conversation isn’t over. They aren’t talking about the weather the next day. She’s firm in her beliefs so she’s not comfortable with her decision but she loves her. And Mary and Haley do something really special together. We had to excuse some crew members who couldn’t keep it together while we filmed that.
RLG: Everyone just wants to make their parents proud. I’m well into my thirties and I still want that. It’s very personal so it’s hard. I love that we have a journey where Veronica is very confident in her decision and she has no regrets but she still feels like shit to tell her mom. That felt very real to me.
AD: Just because part of the journey has come to an end doesn’t mean she is out of the woods yet. I love the chemistry between Haley and Barbie Ferreira. Did you just have to sit back and watch them play? I love the scene where they are at the carnival and they scream out their confessions.
RLG: I got really lucky because they really do love each other. The carnival scene was the chemistry read scene so they were in these chairs and it was kind of unfair because they had to pretend they were on a roller coaster and act that out. They got each other laughing in such an earnest way and, from day one, they supported one another in a way that I haven’t seen behind the camera before. They are great actors, so even if they hated each other, they could’ve done it. They had a special dynamic. We talked a lot about their friendship and their backstory and then we talked about it scene to scene to check in on their journey.
AD: I really dig Valley Girl a lot. I wish I could’ve seen that on a Saturday night with a packed theater of people.
RLG: Yeah, me too.
AD: Big musicals are really hard to pull off, but Valley Girl is also about a young woman make a decision to live the life that she wants.
RLG: It was very hard (laughs). Especially doing a big musical on not a huge budged. Since it’s a musical, everything takes twice as long, but it was really fun. The same things about Valley Girl attracted me to Unpregnant. It has these big set pieces and a unique tone so it was about balancing the comedy with the music. I do love 80s music. In high school, I would go to this underage 80s scope so that’s a little bit about me. I love how epic the locations in Los Angeles could be and how each number could have its own flavor and its own cinematography and personality. How full of life it is really inspired me to do both films.
Unpregnant is available on HBO Max and Valley Girl is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. To donate to your local Planned Parenthood, please visit their website.