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Leena Pendharkar's nuanced look at abortion choice in '20 Weeks'

Leena Pendharkar's nuanced look at abortion choice in '20 Weeks'

The 20-week abortion ban has been one of the most passionately discussed topics in the news. As the debate surrounding abortion rages on (and restrictive laws increase), the complications and nuances of this subject can sometimes be lost in heated conversation. Leena Pendharkar knows this well, which is the reason her new film 20 Weeks seeks to show the many gray areas people consideration abortion can face. The film focuses on Maya and Ronan (Anna Margaret Hollyman and Amir Arison), a couple planning for the birth of their first child when they are told their child’s facing a serious health issue and have to decide how to proceed with their pregnancy before it is considered a late-term.

Lesley Coffin: When writing the screenplay, why did you feel it was best to write it in a non-linear format with flash-backs and flash-forwards?

Leena Pendharkar: The time structure was something I came up with because I knew I wanted to cover a lot of ground, and if you write in a linear format it can be hard to do that without making a film seem rushed. Doing it this way allowed me to explore their relationship in a fuller, more meaningful way. And show how a couple’s past can directly impact their future. You see how they go from being this very happy, youthful couple to a more mature couple in just a couple of years. It allowed us to present their relationship in a more compelling way?

Lesley Coffin: What kind of research did you have to do to present this medical condition and experience Maya and Ronan would face accurately?

Leena Pendharkar: Well, at 20 weeks my daughter was diagnosed with a serious health issue. And it was really important to me that we depict the medical experience very accurately, and really show how a couple is given that news and the next steps they go through. It is a very complex process, and one of the things I vividly recall is, when doctors determine there is a problem they have all these benchmarks. They do that test at 20 weeks, then they do an amino, then they do the micro-array. And if you pass that, they measure the baby every 2 weeks. So there’s all this tension and anxiety a parent goes through while waiting for the next test. And while we do know so much more now and can learn so much about a child in utero, there is still so much we just don’t know. It’s really interesting to see how doctors collect data and try to provide the best information possible to parents.

Lesley Coffin: The doctor in the film presents options and lays the best and worst case scenarios out for them. Having gone through this whole process yourself, what was it like to depict it back on film in a narrative?
Leena Pendharkar: It’s still hard to talk about, which is part of the reason I didn’t make the scenario in the film the exact same experience I went through. But I think there is a universal experience that every family faces when given this kind of news. Doctors are just supposed to give you data. They’ll say “our findings are showing that this isn’t measuring correctly” and very clearly explain that your options are to move forward or to terminate. If you are under 24 weeks, in the state of California, you can terminate in the normal procedure. Outside that period is considered a late term abortion and that’s a very different procedure. Usually people who seek late term abortions are facing very, very serious problems.

Anna Margaret Hollyman in '20 Weeks'

Lesley Coffin: When you screened the film, did audiences address the larger issue of abortion rights and debate about pro-choice and pro-life, or were most audiences focused on the specific story being presented in this film?
Leena Pendharkar: The conversation always mushrooms into a bigger conversation about the current times we’re living in, where women’s rights are being restricted and taken back, mostly by male politicians. And I’m happy to engage in that conversation because the film is part of that larger conversation. It’s about the rights of parents, women’s health, the funding of things like Planned Parenthood. I wanted to explore those ideas anyway when I started working on this film, but I had no idea I’d be making it in this political climate.

Lesley Coffin: You show Maya at a Planned Parenthood office, and even have her sitting outside the building with a big sign in the background. Even when we have films that talk about characters getting abortions, we rarely see characters taking those steps on screen. Why was it important to show that side of it?

Leena Pendharkar: I didn’t want this film to feel like it had white gloves on. I wanted it to feel like she’s really considering it, that she’s really facing the choice. And yes, she’s anxious, but I didn’t want it to feel like going to Planned Parenthood was some miserable experience for women.

Lesley Coffin: I think it’s also very refreshing that she is the one really struggling to decide if she wants kids or not. That is usually an internal debate we see with fathers in films, more so than women. And this is very matter-of-fact about women being unsure about that decision.

Leena Pendharkar: I wanted the film to feel very honest and a lot of my female friends have had that conversation, struggling with what having kids will mean in their lives and careers, how it will change them. I was a little nervous, because in some of the early screenings some people didn’t like that and thought she was too honest and unlikable. They felt it was a terrible thing to even show a woman having doubts about being a mother or that a woman wouldn’t want kids, they feel it’s culturally inappropriate. I wanted her to feel really honest and wanted him to almost idealize fatherhood. I know a lot of guys who seem to enter fatherhood with that mind set and struggle when they see the reality.

Lesley Coffin: I imagine the three of you worked pretty closely on this film. Did you allow for improv or discuss how they felt their characters reactions and feelings?

Leena Pendharkar: They both really embraced the film as soon as they read the script, so there wasn’t a lot of that. When Amir was offered the role, he asked to have a conversation with me because he wanted a deeper understanding of the character. We did about 20 hours of Skype calls to flesh out his character a little more. I allow for improv, but I always get a couple of takes as written but then I allow a couple takes with improv. And sometimes they make it into film, but not a lot, probably because the subject is so serious. But Anna and Amir really did their homework before we started filming.

Lesley Coffin: It’s so interesting that you would have that conversation with Amir about fleshing out the male character, because we’re so used to hearing about that conversation happening between male writers and female actors. Did you agree with his concerns?

Leena Pendharkar: I felt good about the character, but I also knew that I had written a character with a bit of a dark heart. He’s so in love but will still leave. So it’s a balancing act to make that personality change seem realistic and authentic to the man we’re introduced to. So I was glad to have an actor like Amir who was so willing to work with me and was invested in making this man feel completely real.

© Lesley Coffin (4/6/18) FF2 Media