Rachel Lee Goldberg & Bill Parker Become “Unpregnant”
Unpregnant is a curious genre blend movie about a girl Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) traveling to New Mexico with her ex-best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) to terminate her pregnancy due to legal restrictions in her home state of Missouri. Seem like a loaded film charged with potent opinions on both sides? Not quite. This is a buddy movie about friendship.
We spoke with screenwriters Rachel Lee Goldberg (Valley Girl, The Mindy Project) and Bill Parker (A Deadly Adoption who he cowrote with Goldberg) on adapting the novel by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendriks into the HBO Max film. Goldberg also directed the film.
Goldberg was initially sent the manuscript of the book (with the same name) with the aim of adapting it into a film for her to direct. Apart from being an ardent supporter of reproductive rights, she fell in love with how the book played with genre and tone as well as have heart.
Rachel Lee Goldberg naturally recruited long-time writing partner Bill Parker to take on co-writing duties. One of their key considerations in Unpregnant was to, “Entertain the audience and ask if they could see themselves in any of the characters. Is there something deeper there? Are we pushing the conversation on abortion further?” asked Parker.
One of the unique features of Unpregnant is its eclectic use of genre. Unpregnant can’t simply be billed as a buddy comedy. “We are attracted to genres that aren’t easily defined,” said Goldberg. “We’re pulling references from Thelma and Louise, Get Out, Fast And The Furious, and Planes, Trains And Automobiles,” she added with delight.
Despite focusing on the entertainment value of its subject matter, Goldberg still sees Unpregnant as an underlying “cause film.” She’s happy to be associated with films that discuss issues important to her. She wanted to address the shame and stigma surrounding abortion and the difficulty many women have in states with restrictive anti-abortion laws.
Parker offers a slightly different view of the term “cause film.” “Cause implies we’re trying to push the needle one way or the other in terms of public opinion,” he said. “That’s not necessarily how it worked.” The writing duo was more interested in exploring the characters in the film, what they believe in, and why they might be interesting enough for audiences to follow them for two hours.
“It’s difficult to guess how an individual is going to respond to the theme of this movie,” continued Goldberg. “The source of the comedy lies in the difficulty of Veronica and Bailey’s journey.” They wanted to present a story about the steps required to get an abortion that stood on its own without the surrounding politics and moral arguments that can sometimes surround the issue. There also aren’t too many films depicting this theme. “One in four women in America have had an abortion, yet it is rarely seen on screen. We had to address the imbalance,” declared Parker. There was no motivation to create a pro and con debate.
The screenwriters were mindful of not restricting Unpregnant to a female point of view. It mines Kevin’s (Alex MacNicoll) (Veronica’s boyfriend) perspective of wanting to get married as well as a smattering of righteous medical misinformation surrounding the procedure.
Abortion affects both men and women. “I’d like to think that people can think outside of themselves on certain causes and put each other in other people’s shoes,” said Goldberg. “An issue doesn’t start or end if it personally affects you,” added Parker. “The world works a little differently for everybody.”
The adaptation process from novel to screenplay was made simple for Goldberg and Parker because the book authors conveniently wrote the first draft for them. “Our role was to make it our own piece of art, more hyper-cinematic, and boost the genre elements. The best thing you can do with adaptations is not to be beholden to any elements of the book,” continued Goldberg.
Bill Parker held a similar view of the adaptation process. “You start with somebody else’s idea and ask what feels personal to me?” It was his idea to infuse Unpregnant with Get Out film elements. “I wanted to play with horror tropes and bring them into the theme of the movie.”
Screenwriters are generally told to write in one prevailing genre and perhaps one descriptor genre, such as horror-comedy. Goldberg and Parker walked a precarious tightrope while juggling multiple genres in Unpregnant.
“It all comes down to approaching every scene through the eyes of the protagonist and only living one genre element at a time,” said Parker. “What is Veronica feeling in a particular scene? What is she feeling before the scene and where do we need to get her to feel in the next scene. You service each scene through subtle genre twists.”
Goldberg added that it was never their intention to spice up the story with genre cutaway vignettes. These are misguided distractions because you only need to return the characters to their exit points. “Every scene must affect the characters’ journey in some way.”
Unpregnant is a buddy movie about healing the broken friendship between Veronica and Bailey. Superficially, this Veronica’s movie. However, Bailey is initially portrayed as bold, brash, and not caring about anything. “Throughout the film, we dropped breadcrumbs to reveal more about Bailey’s complex character,” said Goldberg. “The movie is tracking their journey from getting them from being ex-best friends to becoming friends through the vehicle of getting an abortion. Bailey is the only person Veronica can rely on.”
Any writing duo can be fraught with its own set of challenges. Team Goldberg and Parker front-loaded their story before any writing began. “We built a solid roadmap before we started writing,” said Parker. The character arcs well well-established before the writing process began. Their discussions focused mainly on the logistics of the road trip.
Since they had a first draft to work from, they wrote additional story notes on index cards to flesh out the scenes. “The cards were color-coded for characters, themes, plot points, and locations because there were so many themes to keep track of,” said Parker.
We asked the writing pair what was the most challenging aspect of writing this screenplay. “Getting ourselves on the road,” answered Bill. “You have a lot of story to set up before Veronica and Bailey get on their trip. We needed to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible.“
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