Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg has had a busy year with her adaptation of the 1983 film “Valley Girl,” as well as work on the television series “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.” Her latest is the HBO Max film “Unpregnant” starring Haley Lu Richardson and “Euphoria’s” Barbie Ferreira. The film follows the two girls as one of them needs to travel out of state for an abortion in order to avoid telling her parents. Despite the obvious topic made clear in the premise of the film, the story also plays with themes of lost and rekindled friendship.
We spoke to Goldenberg about destigmatizing abortion, the natural bond between Richardson and Ferreira, and the longevity of road films.
I always find it interesting when years show patterns in films where certain topics are showing up often in film. I was reminded of this with your film “Unpregnant” and Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Both films deal with female friendships and traveling to other states to find clinics that perform abortions, but the tones are completely different. Do you think there is any reason why patterns like this occur, and is there a certain value you find in having films that take similar subject matter and present them in contrasting ways?
Getting a movie made is difficult, and I think the fact that there are so many movies about abortion coming out this year actually speaks to the urgency of the situation. I would love to live in a world where this story is obsolete and wouldn’t make any sense, because it would sound crazy when you say someone would have to drive a thousand miles to have access to an abortion and try and find somewhere that it’s even legal. But that’s not the world we’re living in so I think I have a sense of understanding why many different artists would feel the need to make a statement about it.
Was there ever a concern in taking on such a comedic tone with a storyline like this?
No, and what I think was so brilliant about this concept that Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan, the writers of the book, is that the innate comedy comes from the fact that this journey is so difficult. The fact that Veronica has to travel a thousand miles and that’s when all these wild things happen to her sort of proves the point of the message, that it shouldn’t be this hard. I think the main thing there is to know where the source of the comedy comes from.
The road trip element feels like a great jumping-off point to get to all of these other themes that the movie explores. Was having all these extra ideas to tackle something that helped draw you to the project?
Yes! What drew me to this project as much as its reproductive rights messages is that I love playing with genre and tone, and the fact that I got to take on a move where I got to be equally inspired by “Thelma & Louise” and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” and “Get Out” and “Mad Max” felt like such an appealing adventure that creatively is such a treat to get into.
How was it working so closely with the book’s authors and your writing partners?
You know I think it’s really about just making sure we are serving the movie. I loved every version of this movie we came up with and making sure we focused on making it as visually appealing and as cinematic as possible, and to find those moments, because filmmaking is so personal, that finding moments that I really connect to that remind me of road trips I’ve been on or a friendship that I have and making sure I bring my own perspective and truth to the movie
Is there anything stressful about the adaptation process to you?
I think the key is to know that each thing is its own work. So I’m using these wonderful concepts and wonderful characters, and many of the plot elements that are in the book, but everything, in the end, is meant to serve the movie and not the original. I think that was how Jenni and Ted approached it as well, that it isn’t about trying to represent the book but trying to make a unique work that stands on its own. That is the most important thing about adapting for me, and I like to think it’s something we did accomplish.
Can you talk about working with Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira?
They were such a pleasure, I feel so lucky to have gotten those two brilliant actors, and that not only were their performances so amazing but that they got along so well and loved each other and made the whole process such a joy to shoot. We talked about their progress and their characters in the film and they got to choreograph their handshake that they do that really bonded the two of them together and had them do it every time they saw each other so it would become second nature. The two of them got along so well that it felt like the characters had known each other for years and have had that history, and they found it so easily. So, a lot of my job was done for me in that sense.
Was it a long casting process or was it something where you found them and immediately knew they fit those characters?
So I have worked with Haley before, she starred in a film I made years ago [“Escape from Polygamy“], and I’ve just been waiting for the right project to bring her onto again and I knew she would make a fantastic Veronica. Barbie auditioned and it was sort of clear that she was the right one and we did a chemistry read with the two of them; they did the scene where they were on a carnival ride, so they were yelling and laughing and doing the lines and it couldn’t have been more clear that they were the right ones for the roles and that they each individually were the ones and also equally as good as a team. It was magic.
When people with such strong presence come on board do they end up injecting personalities into the characters that you hadn’t originally imagined?
Yes, as a director I love bringing in smart actors who can have a unique perspective, have things to say and can help me bring more truth to a scene. I’ll be working on a scene and have everything planned out that would feel so clever to put in, and if the actor has a note about how the character might not say that or feel that way, then I feel like the collaboration is truly successful. I think that is such an important part of the process and makes a better work, and I think they are both smart actors who have their own ideas. Barbie particularly can give you a joke or a line five different ways and nail it every time, and Haley focuses on bringing an emotional truth to Veronica and this movie that it becomes something more than I could have thought of on my own.
There is such a distinct sense of style, especially with Barbie’s character. Is that something you made a point of, to have such strong and distinct styles for the girls?
Yes, absolutely. Matthew Simonelli, our extremely talented costume designer, brought a bunch of references in and he and I talked a lot, and then we brought Barbie in for a fitting and took all the things that she brought to the table and fit them in to make it hers. I love her day to day style anyways, and it helped her define what Bailey should be. Our actor was our icon and was really the one who made the character stand out in that way.
The heart of the film to me is the relationship and friendship with the two teen girls. Genuine female friendships need to be seen on screen as much as possible because of the good it can bring to women in real life. Is there anything about that idea that compels you?
What I love about this relationship is that it feels really related to me, where they have a past where as kids most people are weird together, and then someone gets cool and they grow apart in that way. I have friendships from my childhood where I’ve been both Veronica and the Bailey and the fact that they were able to come together and find that balance felt really sweet.
This is such a great happy medium between a coming-of-age tale and a road movie, which when you think about it are already pretty narratively similar. What do you think makes these genres have such a lasting influence?
I took a road trip with my best friend from college when we were 20 where we spent the whole summer on the road, and it was maybe the most freeing and exciting time of my life. To be out in the world when life usually boxes you in with school or your parents the expectations, having this wide-open time feels both critical and very specific, and trying to capture this intangible feeling is what I really trying to do with the film. That is what attracts me to movies like that.
Is it amazing to you that after taking a trip like that you then had the opportunity to make something that was so close to home for you?
Definitely, and in every project that I take on I try to look for ways in and the specific thing that I have to bring to it. There’s that moment when the girls are in the back of the truck, and I didn’t do that exact thing, but that feeling of freedom with a little bit of danger, that combination really invoked for me exactly what the feeling I was trying to capture was.
Lastly, is there a takeaway you hope audiences come away with from this film?
I’m proud to show a story where a young girl wants an abortion and is able to get what she wants. I would be proud to contribute to a destigmatization or normalizing abortion, I’ve had one and it feels right to put that feeling of comfort out into the world.
“Unpregnant” is available now on HBO Max.