Interview: Rachel Lee Goldenberg opens up about her abortion road comedy ‘Unpregnant’ and being “the keeper of so many people’s stories”
For director Rachel Lee Goldenberg, Unpregnant represents another step towards a larger audience. Beginning her career in straight-to-video B-movies, Goldenberg always is working, directing over 40 television episodes, small-budget films, and short films in the last 15 years. Starring Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira, her film hit HBO Max in 2020, leading to solid reviews and the biggest audience of Goldenberg’s career. Adapted from a book with a slew of writers receiving screenwriting credits, the film follows two high schoolers as they travel through the Midwest to get to an abortion clinic.
Goldenberg chatted with AwardsWatch about directing narratives with a strong message, becoming the keeper of people’s secrets, and finding the best carnival ride in the country.
Michael Frank: How was the adaptation process, working with several others who also have screenwriting credits on the film? How did you create a cohesive script?
Rachel Lee Goldenberg: Jenny [Hendriks] and Ted [Caplan], who wrote the book, wrote the first version. And they did a really fantastic and very faithful adaptation of the book. I came on board and was in conversation with them, and ended up bringing on just a comedy writer who I love, Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, to do a pass. I just love her work with character and with comedic characters. I have never not done my own pass on things, just because it has nothing to do with anyone else’s writing or my thoughts about that, it is really just I need to understand. I need each scene to feel like I can really direct it with every intention and be able to answer any question that any crew or cast member could throw at me. I just find it helpful to create my own tone, and specifically craft each moment. On top of that, there were certain considerations of the film that the book didn’t have to think about, like budget constraints, and also making certain things more cinematic. Like in the book, there’s this scene that’s really great and really sweet, where the girls are on a carnival ride. That’s like a sort of a kid’s carnival ride. And the joke is that it’s ridiculous that they’re on it. And it’s sort of an ironic thing that they’re doing, and it reads so sweet in the book, but then for a movie, I was like, “Oh, that doesn’t feel cinematic.” Once you’re taking that to the screen. How big can I make this? How can I get them screaming their heads off as they’re having this emotional conversation?
MF: How long ago was that?
RLG: The movie happened really quickly. Because I met on it and was hired and was on a different project at the time. And when I finished that project, I met with the producers for what was supposed to be an, “Okay, let’s start thinking about this movie and how we’re gonna get it made.” And then they surprised me with actually, “HBO Max bought it and we’re making it right now. And here we go, let’s get the script in shape.” Which is sort of the best and most sudden meeting that you can have. And so it was not a long process. We were doing passes right until filming started. It was one of those rare magic things that actually happened in a timely manner.
MF: And do you like working in that way, where things are expedited?
RLG: I just would rather always be working. And I like the little bit of stress I get, I like a small amount of chaos. I feel like when there’s too much time for things that actually is not the way I like to work. I started in my early 20s making super low budget movies that we would shoot in like 12 to 15 days. And that chaos was not ideal for making the best product maybe, but it’s an exciting, breakneck pace that makes everyone have to be on their toes and come together. And that energy is something that I’ve sort of carried with me and enjoyed having a certain level of momentum to whatever I’m making.
MF: Like you said, you started your career making those low-budget movies, and now, more and more folks are seeing your films. It must feel different.
RLG: Well, I didn’t have anything to compare it to then. And I still don’t really, because everything that I’ve gotten to make has been increasingly received by a wider audience. For me, it’s funny, because so much of my work and process, I mean, my entire working process is the making of the thing. And so when it’s over, it’s fun to watch it with people, but in many ways I’ve almost moved on by the time a thing comes out. It’s great to see positive reinforcement and of course, I want people to like it. But I’m the most invested and sucked up on it in every single moment of the process of making it. And then all my work is done. And so that’s what the main experience is for me, that maybe I’m already thinking about the next thing and I hope the next thing is better than the thing I just made.
MF: How does that feel with an increasing audience? Does it feel like the stakes are higher?
RLG: It’s less that the more people seeing it feels different. What really feels different about this is just that it’s the first time I’ve gotten to make something that has as bold of a message as I want. And so that’s really what felt different about this film. I also thought that it was important to be out in the world too. And when it goes out in the world, I’m sort of keeping an eye on it and hoping that it has an impact in a different way than I have with past projects.
MF: And how have people responded to it? What kinds of conversations have you had?
RLG: Yeah, it’s been a joy to see the mostly very positive responses, and then some extremely angry negative responses that I expected as well. But the overwhelming experience that I had, both in making the film and then with the release, is just how many people have shared their stories with me and people who maybe wanted to share their stories but didn’t know if it was okay to. Or by me talking about my own abortion and talking about abortion in the movie, having created a space for people to talk about it. That’s something that I didn’t anticipate when I started out, that I’d be all of a sudden this keeper of so many people’s stories of their own abortions.
MF: Does that feel like a weight on you?
RLG: It feels like it’s working, like the movie’s working because what I want to do with the film is to normalize and destigmatize abortion. So for people to take that step of telling someone, that’s the most that I could possibly ask for.
MF: You said you became the keeper of all these stories through this film. Do you hope to continue making these issue-oriented projects?
RLG: I think it sort of reset everything for me in a way because I do go so deeply into any project that I’m doing. And it’s all I care about and all I talk about, and all my mind is worrying around. And so having it feel like it was also doing something positive, something that I would want to do in the world, really did make a huge difference to me, and sort of drew a new line going forward. Not every project will be an abortion project, but wanting to make things that can actually do some good in the world.
MF: Why did you decide to stay so light on tone?
RLG: For me, I love movies that play with the comedy-drama line, and even with other forms of genre, as you can see in the movie when we veer into action or even horror. So I like the back and forth of a tricky tone and navigating that tone. And the day-to-day of that balance is one of my favorite parts of the job. But also, the comedy in the film is really all coming from the difficulty of the journey. And so what I’m criticizing is that this person shouldn’t have to drive 1000 miles to get an abortion. And so the comedy all comes from that journey. Because at the end of the day, why it’s funny and wild is because it’s bullshit that the journey is so long.
MF: Her line in the movie about that, when she’s screaming on the railroad, why did you decide to keep that in? It could be taken as on-the-nose.
RLG: Well, it says it in the book the same way it says in the script, which is the “Fuck you Missouri State Legislature!” Working towards that felt like something that I really felt was cathartic. And just a thing that I wanted to get out there when I read the book and then I was excited to have that in the script. But then it was also an opportunity. I did think a lot about how we portrayed abortion in the film. And when we talk about it and how we talk about it. And for example, there was a line in that monologue that’s my favorite part of it, besides the “fucking Missouri State Legislature” part of it. “Why do you need parental consent to to get an abortion but not to have a human child?” This is a tricky subject to talk about. And people sort of get backed into corners and feel uncomfortable. And so there are certain things that I did want the movie to do and I just hadn’t heard it phrased in that way before and it felt really resonant to me I wanted to put that in. Or there’s a point where I have Bailey mention how many people get abortions, how common it is, because there’s so much propaganda from the anti-abortion side. It obscures all these facts and obscures the procedure itself and how safe it is and how not terrifying it is.
MF: In terms of budget, the music must have been a big part of the process, especially with so many popular songs. It felt like a huge aspect of the film. Why was the soundtrack so important?
RLG: Music is so important to me, generally. And then on a road trip film, it seems even more important, because driving in my car on a road trip is maybe the most connected I feel to music. I had my own road trip back and forth to Albuquerque to shoot the movie and I was just rocking out to songs and I’d wonder if this could be in the movie. But we had an amazing music team on this, they just tried song after song, and we’re certainly working on a tight budget, but we really pushed to make sure that every song was great. We must have listened to 200 songs or more to make sure that you find exactly the right thing that has the right amount of lift, but it doesn’t feel too frivolous. And it’s a little empowering, and the message, when you hear a line, it doesn’t throw you off, because it’s about like a big romance or something. It was a journey for each song. So I’m glad you appreciate it, because it really was done with great, great care.
MF: Are there any stories on set that stick into your mind? Something that encapsulates the feeling of making this film?
I mean, the carnival ride is the most memorable to me for a number of reasons. First of all, it was just a journey that is hard to describe how difficult it was to get that ride. I knew that I wanted them to be on a carnival ride that would be terrifying and genuinely scream-inducing. But that wasn’t so scary that they wouldn’t be able to talk. And so finding the balance of that ride was actually really tricky. And I randomly went to a carnival, a state fair and that ride was there. And I was like, “Oh, this is the ride and it’s perfect. It’s two people sitting next to each other. It’s not a group of four or something and they’re not facing anyone else. This is the ride.” And then there’s only four of those rides in the country. And then neither Haley [Lu Richardson] nor Barbie [Ferreira] love roller coasters. And Haley actually has a thing where she had her teeth chatter like an adrenaline thing. And so she had a case where her teeth would chatter and the two of them just agreed to do it and really double down and get on that ride. And the first take, they just screamed the entire time. And every now and then Barbie would try to get a line out and then they would just start screaming again. And then we sort of took a minute. By the second or third time they rode it, which we’re giving them little breaks in between, they started to find it. And it just felt like the movie to me in a way because it’s just them having this sort of emotional, genuine, cathartic experience in a totally crazy wild package of this carnival ride.
Unpregnant is currently available to stream on HBO Max. Rachel Lee Goldenberg is Emmy eligible for Directing for a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Photo: HBO Max