‘Unpregnant’ is hoping to ‘destigmatize’ and ‘normalize’ abortion with this buddy comedy. HL spoke EXCLUSIVELY with director Rachel Lee Goldenberg about her journey to making this incredibly important film.
Unpregnant is now streaming on HBO Max. The film follows 17-year-old Veronica, played by Haley Lu Richardson, who finds out she’s pregnant. She ends up taking a 1000-mile road trip with her ex-best friend, Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), to get an abortion without her parents’ permission. Along the way, Veronica and Bailey rekindle their friendship and face plenty of wild shenanigans.
HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with director Rachel Lee Goldenberg about her mission with this film to try and “destigmatize” abortion. As someone who is passionate about reproductive rights and has had an abortion herself, Unpregnant is very personal to Rachel. She also discussed how her tour of Planned Parenthood influenced one of the movie’s most important scenes.
Barbie Ferreira and Haley Lu Richardson in ‘Unpregnant.’
You had worked with Haley prior to this project. Was she always someone that you had in mind for the role of Veronica?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: Since I worked with Haley, I’ve been waiting for the right thing to work with her on again. This was the perfect thing, so I was so excited to bring her in. She and I did some work on the script, and I was able to tailor the role to her. The aggressive ballerina sequence was based on her being a dancer and us collaborating to figure out what that would be that she’d be doing there. She’s just such a great partner.
With Barbie, this is her first film credit. Did you discover her from Euphoria?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: Yes, I had seen her on Euphoria. I’m a fan of the show and a fan of hers. But she came in and blew me away. I think just knowing her and Euphoria, this is such a different role. She’s so funny and so expressive. I felt really lucky to have found her, and then we did chemistry reads with the two of them. I couldn’t believe their chemistry together, how much they genuinely love each other, and how they play off each other. I feel like the casting of this movie is everything, and I’m so pleased with them.
The chemistry between them is so apparent. They just mesh and click so well. What was that like for you being behind the camera witnessing this bond growing over the course of filming?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: It was really sweet actually because it was really was on and off camera. It was a hard shoot. It was cold. We were shooting action sequences, and it wasn’t always easy. They were so supportive of each other. As soon as we cut, they were like hugging half the time. It was really just a sweet dynamic that played out both behind the camera and on-screen.
I’m a huge fan of your work with Valley Girl. Why did you want to take on this project?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: I have a couple of reasons. So I’m really passionate about reproductive rights, and I want to normalize and de-stigmatize abortion. Additionally, I love movies that sort of aren’t easily defined and have a lot to dig into cinematically, so the fact that I could make a movie that took inspiration from Thelma & Louise, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Get Out, it was such a joy to get to play with all those genres and play with tone and have it all sort of live on this bed of this character dynamic I really cared about and this political issue that I really care about.
One of the most important scenes to me is when Veronica is hearing the explanation of the abortion procedure. I feel like I’ve never really seen that explained to me in TV or film. It’s always shrouded in doom and gloom. Was that scene your way of destigmatizing abortion and the secrecy surrounding it?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: So I’ve had an abortion, but I had a pill abortion, so I wasn’t that familiar with the surgical abortion process. I actually went to a Planned Parenthood, got a tour of the facility, and got walked through all the stages. As I was there, I had this revelation that actually how little I knew about this process was part of the problem. I wanted to bring that to an audience. I got this idea of we should actually see every room that I’m learning about. I would love to show the audience every room and sort of feel like you’re going on this journey with her. It’s not some mystery that we have to hide away, and when the nurse calls her we cut and never see what happens again. I really wanted it to be beyond that journey.
Why do you think abortion is often pursued in a negative way in TV and film?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: I wish that it wasn’t. I think actually this year I’m proud to be one of the few films that are tackling this issue because I think that the point is that it shouldn’t be this hard to have access to abortion. The fact that there are these movies being made to show how serious of a problem this is, I personally feel very, very anxious about the restrictive laws and how it’s becoming stigmatized. I’m happy to just present a film where Veronica knows what she wants to do, and then the hard part is how does she actually get to do this thing in a country where it’s legal to do it?
Haley Lu Richardson stars as Veronica. (HBO Max)
A few months before the movie was made Missouri, where Veronica is from, ruled that the last abortion clinic there was not going to close. Was that ruling in the back of your head as you started filming a few months later?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: I keep an eye on all the different legislation, and I’m caught up in it emotionally about just keeping access available. I’m obviously grateful that one clinic is available, but I just think it’s such a problem. It’s sort of stunning how bad of an issue it is. Even when I first read the book, I was like, “This really cannot be right. Is 1000 miles the closest place that she can go?” My writing partner and I researched each state. If you’re under 18 and don’t have your parents to take you that’s what you have to do. I was shocked by that. I’m happy to make sure other people know that it’s a problem.
One of my favorite lines in the film was when Veronica says that “the fact that you have to get your permission from your parents to have an abortion but not actually give birth.” I keep hearing that line over and over again…
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: I have to give credit where credit’s due. That’s something that Greg Berlanti said to me in my first meeting with him, and I stored it away to go in the movie.
One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is the scene when Veronica gets back and has that scene with her mom. I love that the love is still there, but they were on opposing sides of the issue. You could have easily not had that scene. Why was that scene important for you to have in the film?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: I think it’s interesting to present different opinions to present different sides. This is Veronica’s story in that she can’t tell her parents, but then at the end, she gets to a point of comfort with herself and with what she’s doing that she wants to tell her mom. As a storyteller, I’m working through it — okay, so now she’s at a place where she’s going to tell her mom, but we know her mom doesn’t agree with this. Where does that lead us? It was sort of organic coming from where the characters are and presenting how they feel. It was really one of the things that I hadn’t anticipated but what has been so interesting for me is that through making this film a ton of people have brought their stories of abortion, either their own or other people’s or their experiences with it or their opinions on it, and it’s been fascinating to hear everyone’s stories. I think this is something people want to talk about and just feel like they don’t have permission to talk about, so I’m happy to be part of that conversation.