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Rachel Lee Goldenberg On Directing A Road Trip Comedy About Abortion


Nine hundred and ninety-six miles. In the new HBO Max movie "Unpregnant," that's how far 17-year-old Veronica Clarke has to travel from her home in Missouri to Albuquerque, N.M., to get an abortion without her parents knowing.


HALEY LU RICHARDSON: (As Veronica Clarke) Why in the hell do you need to get parental consent to have an abortion but not to actually birth a human child?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Veronica enlists the help of her estranged best friend Bailey for the road trip of a lifetime. Co-writer and director Rachel Lee Goldenberg joins us now. Welcome.

RACHEL LEE GOLDENBERG: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a pleasure to have you. This is based off a novel. It's a buddy road flick, essentially. It's a comedy.

GOLDENBERG: Yeah, we hit some serious notes, and we hit some comedic notes. I love films that aren't easily defined and sort of play with genre and play with tone. And this felt like a real opportunity to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that is striking about this is that while it is not an easy decision for Veronica to make, to have an abortion, she is very sure of her decision. There is no last-minute change of mind, as you often see in other sort of treatments of this topic.

GOLDENBERG: Yeah. I mean, I think that there are a range of experiences, but this was an easy one for me to draw from because, like Veronica, I had an abortion. And I was sure in what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to have an abortion, and then I had it. And then I was grateful for it. And the difference between Veronica and my experience is that I lived in a zip code where that was not difficult to obtain. And unfortunately for Veronica, we live in a country where your zip code can determine the health access that you receive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I mean, you know, the trip does come with a lot of roadblocks, but some come straight out of sort of "Thelma & Louise" or "Mad Max." They're very funny. How are these a statement on the actual obstacles that women face to abortion access? Because you drop in information that's critical throughout this film. It's sort of seeded as you go along.

GOLDENBERG: Well, you know, I think that the important thing to note is not that people seeking an abortion are going to end up meeting a guy with a limo and a giant knife - but more just a comedic way in to show how difficult this journey can be. And, you know, even Veronica is still more fortunate than many people where her circumstances allow her to have a friend with a car and be able to obtain this. But these obstacles are just a comedic way to show that it should not be this hard to get an abortion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to ask you about the portrayal in the film of those who oppose a woman's right to choose. This film has been very controversial on the right. And in the film, there are quite a few people who pressure Veronica to have the baby. Talk to me about how you wanted to include the other side of this issue.

GOLDENBERG: You know, for me, I'm coming from a character standpoint with Veronica first and foremost. So for example, the role of her mother - that's important to this central character that she has a mother who opposes abortion. She can't talk to her mom when she wants to get this. And so she has to obviously jump through many, many hoops because she can't talk to her mom about this. And through her character journey, she gains confidence and loses sort of shame involved with this process. And so then she feels like, you know, she loves her mother, and she wants to tell her this information. And then again, with her mom, it was from a character standpoint, not really a larger message but more OK, so this mom who we know would not have had an abortion herself. And I think most people love their kids more than they hate their choices. And so that felt like a real way in to me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people who don't support a woman's right to choose may hear this and think, should we be portraying something as serious as an abortion in a manner that maybe makes it seem light-hearted or easier than perhaps it is?

GOLDENBERG: There's a couple things I would say to that. First, I didn't have to look very far to come up with this perspective. This is my perspective. You know, I'm the filmmaker, and Veronica's experience and how she feels afterwards - that comes directly from me in my life. But beyond that, I feel really confident in where the comedy is coming from in this film because the comedy is coming from the friendship of the girls, the sort of classic filmic odd couple dynamic and then the difficulty of the journey. So some of the criticism that we're making fun of abortion or laughing at abortion is sort of bad faith because that's not actually where any humor is coming from. The comedy that is coming from this journey is pointing out the difficulty, which I'm completely comfortable criticizing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you hope both teenagers and, I guess, the parents of teenagers take away from this film?

GOLDENBERG: I really want people to talk more about abortion and be more comfortable talking about abortion. After I had my abortion, I talked to only a couple of people, my mom and a couple friends. I didn't question my decision not to tell people. It just felt like sort of a natural thing to do that you don't in polite society talk about abortion. And then I went through this transformation where I learned that as recently as the '80s, abortion was actually more frequently talked about and more socially acceptable to talk about. There were actresses on magazine covers saying they'd had an abortion. There were letters signed by celebrities talking about their abortions. And that in the intervening years, there's been a successful campaign to make it seem more shameful. And that's made room for more restrictive laws.

And so once I realized that, I had this realization that my not talking about my abortion was its own political decision and not in the way that I wanted it to be. So I started talking about it. And then this film came along. And it felt like a really good opportunity to do that. So I'm hoping to open up discussion so that we're able to destigmatize and normalize what is a medical procedure and a right that we have in this country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. Her new film, "Unpregnant," is out now on HBO Max. Thank you very much.

GOLDENBERG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 12, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier headline misspelled Rachel Lee Goldenberg's last name as Goldenburg.
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