SXSW 2015 Interview: Kris Swanberg on ‘Unexpected’

One of the impressive surprises of Sundance 2015 was Unexpected. The film stars Cobie Smulders as a high school teacher who gets pregnant unexpectedly. She and her boyfriend (Anders Holm) decide to keep the baby, and she also helps one of her students, Jasmine (Gail Bean) find a way to go to college when she is also pregnant. Writer/director Kris Swanberg is also the wife of prolific indie film director Joe Swanberg, and we got to speak with her after Sundance about her film. You’ll get a chance to see Unexpected again at SXSW.


Check Out: Sundance 2015 Review: ‘Unexpected’ is Unexpectedly Mature


CraveOnline: Had you taught in inner city areas yourself?

Kris Swanberg: I did. A lot of the movie is autobiographical, semi-autobiographical. I taught for a few years on the west side of Chicago, film and video at a high school. 

That’s a pretty artistic program for them to have.

It was really cool. It was actually part of a job training program and it was meant to give them the skills they would need to work at a television station or something like that. I was able to create my own curriculum so I tried to make it as artistic as possible. 

Given how much they cut the arts, it’s great they even had a program like that.

Yeah, it was wonderful.

You found humor in supportive relationships, as opposed to yelling and bickering. Was that important to you?

You know, I didn’t even notice that was the case. I think a couple things were important to me. One was that everything be grounded in realism. Especially because this story takes place in a low income neighborhood in Chicago, I really wanted to give those places respect and I didn’t want to use the typical Hollywood tropes when it comes to dealing with “bad neighborhoods.” 

Also, in this movie, I really wanted everybody to be in a way right and also have the best intentions. So even though people are making mistakes and making bad decisions, especially Samantha, she has a lot of assumptions about Jasmine and what her situation and what would be best for her I think based on her own middle/upper class upbringing. In the end, I think she realizes she was wrong about some of those things, but I didn’t want it to be because she was malintentioned. It was just because she didn’t quite understand. 

The same with John’s character, Anders [Holm]. I think he also has the best intentions and didn’t really understand. So I wanted the conflicts to come within those things, which in my own reality is much more the case of misunderstandings and arguments, rather than people being bad people or mean people. It’s more about misunderstanding each other. 

You said at the Sundance Q&A that most movies about pregnancy are from the man’s perspective. That’s true and it’s crazy. Like you have Nine Months and Hugh Grant going, “Oh my God, my crazy pregnant girlfriend!”

Right, I know. It’s really kind of weird. There’s a few movies, but even Baby Mama which I think is a great movie and really funny, it’s a comedy. It’s about a really nontraditional pregnancy. 

Was it also important to have a non-gratuitous birth scene?

Well, I really wanted it to be from her point of view. Even though we’re not seeing it necessarily through her point of view camera, but I wanted it to feel chaotic and all over the place. I wanted to focus on her, not necessarily her vagina. I also wanted it to feel true to my own birth story and true to Cobie’s own birth story, so we took a lot of details out of our own births and put it in that scene.

What I mean by gratuitous is another one of the tropes is the screaming pregnant woman that lasts for 10 or 15 minutes. It was refreshing not to see that.

Yeah, that was another thing that when I was looking at birthing scenes in movies, all of the wives are yelling at the husbands. It’s so strange. Besides a movie, I’ve never even heard of that happening before. Definitely I was in a lot of pain when I was giving birth but I wasn’t mad at my husband. So there’s that. There’s the doofus husband and crazy wife giving birth. I didn’t want to do it like that. I wanted it to be more true to my own experience. 

What is the filmmaker household you live in like with Joe?

I guess regular. We trade off parental duties every once in a while. When one of us is busy, the other one will take the helm. We have a pretty normal life. We live in a house. We have a backyard. We live in a neighborhood. We both talk about our jobs with each other but it’s certainly not our main focus in our family. Besides the traveling, I think our son has been living a normal existence. 

Was this the first time you each made a film within the same year?

It’s possible we have before but it’s certainly the first time we’ve made films at this level at the same time. 

Are you as improvisational as Joe is, or more tightly scripted?

The film is very scripted. 

Is this actually Cobie’s first leading role? I guess it is because she’s been in so many ensembles.

I was really excited about giving her this showcase. I think she’s a really great actress and has a lot of range obviously. Even in this film had a lot of range, was able to be really silly and fun and also be very dramatic. I think she deserves to be in a lot more films as the lead and I think she will.

Gail is a real discovery. In how many cities did you do casting for her part?

We did Chicago for quite a while and then we branched out and just had people send tapes. We tried to focus in on Atlanta just because they do have a large African-American talent base and that’s where we ended up finding her. She currently lives in L.A. actually. 

Did Jasmine’s struggle with the housing department of the college come from experience you’d had to, where those “helpful” programs aren’t actually practical?

It didn’t come from any direct experience, but it’s just something I know about any programs like that. There’s such a need for them that there’s usually a very high demand. 

Do you have ideas for your next film yet?

I don’t. I have little small baby ideas but nothing that I can really share. I spent so much time working on this and we just wrapped in October, that my head’s just been in this game the whole time, but looking forward to having time to sit down and right. 

What are your favorite films or films that inspire you?

My favorite film is probably Little Fugitive. It’s from the ‘50s. It’s about a little boy who’s playing around with his brother and thinks that he killed him. It sounds a lot more dramatic than it is. The brother pretends that he’s dead. Anyway, the little boy is so upset by this that he runs away and he runs away to Coney Island and spends the whole day in Coney Island. It’s a beautiful film. 


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.


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