Director Leena Pendharkar on Her Latest Film '20 Weeks'

She talked about bringing the authentic relationship between the two main characters to life, the filmmaking aesthetics, and the backstory behind the screenplay as well.
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Abortion is a topic that feels as if it is rarely discussed on film. We’ve seen films about failing marriages and pregnancies before. But it is rare to get a film that depicts certain complications of pregnancy that some couples face. However, 20 Weeks dares to touch on the hot-button topic of abortion and it does so in a nonjudgmental manner. Anna Margaret Hollyman and Amir Arisan play Maya and Ronan, a couple that is faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to abort their unborn child when they discover that he has a severe birth defect. The film depicts Maya and Ronan facing what happens during the pregnancy and what might take place in the long run as well.

I got to discuss this amazing film with its director Leena Pendharkar who talked about bringing the authentic relationship between the two main characters to life, the filmmaking aesthetics, and the backstory behind the screenplay as well.

I just want to say congratulations on the film. I thought it was quite amazing.

Oh, thank you. I appreciate that.

Now, because the central topic in the film is abortion, a topic that isn’t often depicted in dramatic cinema, is that a reason you decided to make that the main topic for 20 Weeks?

I wanted to make a movie about the grey area of abortion and how challenging the decisions are for someone who is faced with questions when a pregnancy goes wrong. So from that, that’s how the movie was born.

I remember the last film depicting abortion that I can think of was Obvious Child and that was a comedy.

Yeah, it was a comedy. It was good, though. I enjoyed that.

Were there any other films about a crumbling marriage that you were influenced by when making the film?

I mean, I love Blue Valentine. You know, I love the way they do that and how they depict this sort of like crumbling marriage that seems okay. I like that film a lot.

I still haven’t seen that.

It’s good.

When it comes to films that are horrible date movies or great films about crumbling marriages, that seems to be everybody’s go-to pick.

(laughs) Yeah, for sure.

Now, another thing I thought was amazing was the cinematography. During the scenes where Maya is having her ultrasound or present scenes where she and Ronan are at home, there’s a blue tint which is a contrast to the flashback scenes where everything is much brighter.

Yeah, that was something we did very intentionally to give you the feeling that you’re in one time period and you’re in another time period but it’s very subtle.

Right. I think that also made things very clear with the different time jumps which was interesting.

Yeah, we were worried that sometimes, people wouldn’t be able to know where we were in time. But from the beginning, I wanted the past to seem very warm. The wardrobe colors are very pink and designed to be this warmer palette. Then in the present, we’re in a much cooler tone with the production design and wardrobe design in all these blues and greens as opposed to the past which is very pinkish.

The performances between Amir Arisan and Anna Margaret Hollyman were quite authentic. What was the casting process for the two leads like?

We were looking at different things that had played in festivals and the producer and I had made lists of actors that we thought were interesting and actors that we thought might bring something to this role. I mean, Anna Margaret Hollyman has been in some South By [Southwest] films and she just has a very honest, naturalistic acting style. I wanted someone who was going to give me this very open performance that could feel real and so, we talked to her and she was definitely right for the role.

Then, Amir was someone who had been in some films but he’s on NBC’s The Blacklist, currently, and there’s just something interesting about him. I thought his performing style was going to be bigger than Anna Margaret’s and I thought someone who’s really subtle juxtaposed against someone with a little bit of a bigger acting style could really work. They came together and had really good chemistry and are really thoughtful people. They really listened to what the film was about on a deeper level and took the notes and the direction really, really well and formed a bond that played very well on screen.

I would agree.

Yeah. It was really a pleasure. I think Anna Margaret is much more instinctual. We talked about the script and the ideas of it and then, she did her thing. But, Amir and I did about 20 hours of Skype calls prior to the shoot to get into the role and talk about it at length and get really deep with it. So, it was really helpful.

Also, one question I have is about the disease that the unborn child has.

Well, he has a hand issue. His hand hasn’t formed correctly in utero and the story is partially based on something that happened to me. My daughter was diagnosed in utero with a serious health issue that wasn’t a hand issue. But what we learned is that often when a baby is diagnosed with one issue in utero, it’s often indicative of many other issues and there’s often a spiral that goes there where doctors start doing one test and another test and another test and they have to rule out things as you go along. It’s kind of a harrowing process, honestly.

Is there a feature film you’re working on next?

I’m actually adapting an Ursula K. Le Guin novel called The Telling. I worked with Ursula for the last couple years on the adaptation and I’m still working on it a little bit.

Oh, nice.

Yeah, and then I’m always writing other things, too. I’m working on other independent films and other scripts.

Awesome. Well, good luck to you and thank you so much your time.

Okay. Thank you so much.

20 Weeks opens in theaters across America on April 13, 2018

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