Recently I attended a member event of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, as part of their “See Jane Salon” series, which enables GDIGM CEO Madeline Di Nonno to share the organization’s latest findings on representation on screens both big and small. The Chicago event was sponsored by Full Spectrum Features and the Julian Grace Foundation, . These findings and statistics are found through the Geena Davis Institute research as well as their groundbreaking technology with GD-IQ, their work with Google and their new digital tool, “Spellcheck for Bias,” which will be used through their partnership with Disney. Following the presentation, Di Nonno led a panel discussion with some key people in Chicago who are making a difference for diversity and inclusion in film. One of the panel members was Kris Rey, filmmaker and director of various short films, which includes “Baby Mary” (2014), and her first feature, “Unexpected” (2015). Her next feature, “I Used to Go Here,” premieres in 2020, featuring Gillian Jacobs, Jermaine Clement, and Kate Micucci.
During the panel discussion, Kris Rey shared powerful memories about her experience of directing “Unexpected”, and what she couldn’t find onscreen in preparation for the film. With the permission from the Geena Davis Institute and Kris Rey, I’d like to share some of her words below:
KRIS REY: “Baby Mary” is a short film from 2014. I used to teach in Chicago Public Schools. I taught at one of the high schools for a few years, and I made a short film about a little girl in that community who sees a baby on her way home from school that’s not properly taken care of. She decides that she could do a better job, and so this eight-year-old little girl takes this baby from her front yard, and brings her home to take care of for the day. Her mother comes home from work and then she’s like, ‘What the hell is this baby doing here?’ That was a film I made in 2014, and it was very dear to my heart.
My feature film “Unexpected,” which came out in 2015, was a film that had a lot of autobiographical elements. A high school teacher gets pregnant evidently at the same time as one of her high school students. They form a relationship and become friends. While I was making the film, or when I was ready to go into production, we had a lot of scenes, obviously, that dealt with pregnancy. She finds out that she is pregnant in the first ten minutes of the movie, and by the end, she delivers the baby. The film goes through a full nine months of pregnancy, and I wanted to watch how people shot delivery scenes, because we have a scene where the baby is born, and when she goes into labor. I wanted to watch movies that were about pregnancy for inspiration.
What I found was that there were no movies about pregnancy from a female perspective. There was one at the time that I watched–well there’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Juno”–but there was one in “Knocked up” from Seth Rogen’s perspective, one in “Nine Months” from Hugh Grant’s perspective, and one in “Father of the Bride: Part II” from Steve Martin’s perspective. There were all of these movies about pregnancy which often men are apart of, but mainly women are apart of, that are somehow not from their perspective. It really blew my mind. So mine was definitely from the female perspective, and still one of the only films out there in which that is the case.
MADELINE DI NONNONO: Can you talk about how audiences responded to your work and what has been the impact? You said reaching an audience was very important to you.
REY: It’s the only thing that matters to me. It’s nice to make a living, and I really hope that I can continue doing that, but when you’re an artist, making work, the focus is for people to see it.
The audience response to “Unexpected” has always been great. That movie had a lot to do with race and class, and also had a lot to do with gender and gender dynamics in a marriage. It’s about a woman who is dealing with this pregnancy and sort of making this choice as to whether or not she wants to stay home with this baby, or she wants to go back to work, and the guilt that you feel on either side of that. It can certainly be described as a first world problem, but it’s also a very real decision women have to make. I had a feeling that would resonate with women who were around my age, and who had babies, who had to face that kind of decision. But what surprised me was how many people, from teenage girls who were already thinking about such things to women who were in their elder years, would come up to me after the screening and say, ‘Thank you so much for making a movie about this, I’ve never seen anything about this.” That was so meaningful to me.
And I will say, while I was making this movie about pregnancy and about being a mother, I had to leave my young son at the time in the care of his father while I was in production for the film. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and we brought our son Jude with us. We had a babysitter come to the premiere, so I could go up and present the film without holding my four-year-old’s hand. The movie is for adults, so while I presented the movie and we went into the green room, he was four-and-a-half at the time, and he said, “Can I watch the movie?” I responded, “Well, it’s really for grown-ups, but we can watch the beginning.” So he came with me into the theatre on my lap, and it was this huge theatre–the Eccles theatre in Park City. If you’ve ever been in the theatre, it’s huge. It was such an exciting moment for me, for my first film at Sundance to screen in there. When you are directing a film, the only thing you can be doing is directing the film. And I felt so guilty to be away from my son. I would come home after a twelve-hour day and he would be asleep, and I’d wake up early and leave before he was awake. We were sitting in the theatre and when the credits came up, he said “That’s your name, mama.” It just made it feel worth it.