Writer/director Leena Pendharkar tells the emotional story of two soon-to-be-parents, who discover at the 20-week mark, their unborn child may have serious developmental problems. Pendharkar addresses the tough questions parents face when confronted with the unknown. The film is 20 Weeks, and is Pendharkar’s second feature film.
Film Threat editor Alan Ng spoke with Leena Pendharkar and 20 Weeks producer Jane Kosek at the San Diego International Film Festival. They discussed the challenges of writing dramatic independent films, getting them produced, and their approach to casting and diversity.
“I think it is important to build a network of people around you.”
What can you tell us about 20 Weeks?
Leena Pendharkar: 20 Weeks is a drama about a couple that finds out that their baby has a serious health condition during a routine 20-week scan. They have to make the difficult decision of figuring out how to handle it and what to do next.
What I found interesting is that the film has little to do with the baby and its condition. But it’s really about the parents. You’re coming in at the pre-parent point in a relationship.
Leena: The story’s based on something I went through personally. And, you know, I think it’s a topic that’s not talked about a lot or explored often. I was just really surprised at some of the conversations that my husband and I were forced to have. I’ve known my husband for a long time, and there were topics and things that came up that I never imagined. And it was a really difficult time. We didn’t really feel like we could share that information or knowledge with anybody. Just sitting through it, I wanted to make a movie that explores what happens to a couple in a relationship when they are forced to deal with a difficult circumstance.
There’s a lot of weight in those discussions. There are serious consequences based on the outcomes of those discussions.
Leena: Yeah, you read about it all the time. When a child is born with a health issue or a family is faced with a health crisis, it rips people apart because it’s so very stressful. Financially also, just in terms of taking care of someone who’s ill. And so I wanted to have those conversations before the baby even arrived, and explore what happens psychologically to parents-to-be.
“I tried to keep [dialogue] in the realm of human beings and the kind of conversations I have in real life.”
One thing that really struck me as the film started, and going early into it, is the characters of Maya and Ronan. I appreciate films that take a twist or a different look at the mother character or the father character. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed the two characters?
Leena: I think we always see on film that women are just so enthusiastic and over the moon about having a baby. And in my personal life experience, that’s not true. I know a lot of women who want to have children, but they’re really pragmatic about it. In a way that’s like they think about, well how’s it going to impact my career, and my body, and my relationship with my spouse? Whereas some men really fantasize about playing that father role. And they don’t quite know what it entails. I think on the screen sometimes when we get the one-note depiction of family life; it bothers me. I mean, women are human too. We think about these things. Like, is it going to be scary to have this baby? I wanted to explore that. It’s a little bit hard because people aren’t used to seeing that on the screen. And sometimes I get weird questions about that.
As a father, I can relate with Ronan’s perfect view of becoming a father and just how fixated he got on that.
Leena: I’ve had a lot of men come up to me and say, wow, like that really struck me. Recently, three journalists, who interviewed me, said “I’m almost embarrassed to say that I had this really idealized notion of what fatherhood would be. And I also recognized myself being kind of an asshole.” Like, my own dreams and hopes and desires superseded what my partner felt or wanted or needed.
The dialogue in 20 Weeks feels very natural. Conversations start with real conversations start. How do you approach dialogue in writing?
Leena: I was really conscious and aware of not having too much exposition and explanation. And really trying to stick with the characters, and what they were feeling and wanting and needing in those moments. I tried to keep it in the realm of human beings and the kind of conversations I have in real life.
The other thing is playing with the actors. It was important to me that they were able to deliver it in a naturalistic way. It needs to feel authentic and real. And to their credit, they were able to do that. They formed a great connection with each other and were able to deliver that.
What was the casting process like? How do you know that this is the person that’s going to deliver your film?
Leena: It’s tough. You take a huge risk when you cast actors because you don’t quite know… You can do one thing in the casting room and then show up and have something totally different on set. Which I’ve experienced. But Anna Margaret Hollyman as Maya is a pretty prolific independent film actress. And I knew her style. I knew her subtlety and her nuance, and how understated she is. When casting her, we watched her in some other movies, and we thought she would be a really good fit. Regarding Amir as Ronan, we had seen his work. We thought he would be a nice match for her. Someone who’s subtle, kind of pragmatic and understated. He’s the more emotional character, with the highs and lows.
“…you know which movies you can finance, pretty much from reading the script. So it just comes with time and experience.”
Let’s move to production. Jane, at what point are you saying, okay, I’ve got a project here that we’re going to seek out financing?
Jane Kosek: Yes. Well, in this particular case, I had worked with Leena previously on some shorts. And so I already knew her style. I knew that we meshed well creatively. I knew any idea that she brought to me; I would want to explore it and try and make it happen. And if I felt like it really wasn’t financeable or castable, we would have that conversation and come to a meeting of the minds.
Did that ever happen?
Jane: It did happen. She came to me and pitched me the idea. And right away at the initial pitch meeting, I knew it was something that we could make at the budget level that we were talking about. And one of the main reasons is that it is a personal story of Leena’s. And I always find, as a producer, if it comes from a genuine, real place, that will resonate on the screen. And right there, my interest was piqued. And then as soon as she gave me the script and I read it, I knew it was castable. It’s very important to make sure on these small movies that you can attract the right cast for the project. So for me, those factors really weighed in. And I knew right away that we could do it.
If a writer has an idea and a script that’s pretty much done, what advice would you give them? Where do they take it next? Where do they go?
Jane: Well, I think it is important to build a network of people around you. Where you have people that you trust, who can read your work, give you the proper feedback. Build relationships with producers that mesh with the style of writing that you have. And you can do that by going to festivals and meeting people. Reach out to them directly. See if you can create a conversation with a producer. That’s how we met. You know, I wrote a blog for a while called “All About Indie Filmmaking,” and Leena had read it and reached out to me. she showed me some of her work that she’d been doing. Right away I knew her voice meshes with my voice as a producer. And that’s sort of how we clicked and started our partnership.
And then let’s talk about dramas. Is it harder to find financing for dramas? Or do you feel like it’s kind of the same playing field for all genres in the independent world?
Jane: It is very hard to find money for dramas, absolutely. I feel like dramas these days are all done independently. Today, the big studios make dramas based on a book, or they come with a filmmaker who has a deep track record, or a big talent attached to it. And the other genres aren’t necessarily easier either. I think independent film is struggling. But as an independent filmmaker, the more that you do it…I mean, I’m going on 15 years in now. The more you know how to get it done. And you know which movies you can finance, pretty much from reading the script. So it just comes with time and experience.
“…I’m just thinking about the emotions of the story.”
Let’s go back to 20 Weeks. I also found interesting, your use of, I’m going to call them jump cuts, but I don’t really want to use the words flashbacks or flash forwards.
Leena: Nonlinear structure.
Exactly. Is that something you thought of while writing it? How far into the process did you decide, okay let’s jumble things around?
Leena: I always imagined it as a nonlinear story. I didn’t want to be so linear that we have to see this relationship in one moment. I felt like I could build the emotions a little bit stronger if it was a nonlinear time structure. And the ending that I really wanted, I wanted it to have this kind of ambiguous feel, in a way that no one is really right or wrong. Even though some people see it one way, some people see it another way. And I knew from the start that I wanted to get to that ending. So that’s how I built that structure.
When you’re writing, you’re saying, well here’s the emotion of this scene. We’re going to jump to that. Is there a trick to what you’re going to do, from a story standpoint?
Leena: Honestly, sometimes I feel really more comfortable writing things in a nonlinear structure. I think it’s because I’m just thinking about the emotions of the story, sometimes. It’s like I’m less of a plot-oriented person and I’m always thinking about this emotion. So this had a very natural structure for me because Maya and Ronan are in a relationship and you see the conventional relationship things happen. They date, they move in together, they have a pregnancy scare. So the structure of the relationship really worked. And then as they went through and they got pregnant, the structure of the pregnancy sort of played out a little bit. And then in real time, we’re seeing this whole tension of the news about the baby.
“I hope that we can have an industry where other voices are heard…”
Let’s talk about film festivals. We’re at the San Diego International Film Festival. How important are film festivals, and what kind of advice would you give to indie filmmakers about how to navigate the film festival?
Leena: I think film festivals are important. They are a really great venue for promoting your work. We premiered at LA in the summer, in June at the LA Film Festival. And now we’re doing eight or nine other film festivals in the next few months. And it’s just a great way to get a conversation going about the movie. You get to go out and meet people, have people watch it, talk about it, discuss it. I think it’s pretty crucial for a movie. The one thing I would say is film festival can get expensive. The cost to apply, and attend, and then go. You have to weigh out what works for you, in terms of festivals that maybe are affordable versus going into more debt for festivals. Whereas nowadays you do have YouTube and Vimeo, which I thought … Jane and I did a short together that did a nice festival run. But it’s awesome because it’s on Vimeo and it got a Vimeo Staff Pick. So it’s like 60,000 people have watched that short film. Which is the most gratifying thing ever.
And that probably was more than the people that actually saw it in the actual festivals.
Leena: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the internet just has such power to reach so many people. I mean, that’s amazing to me.
“…what happens to a couple in a relationship when they are forced to deal with a difficult circumstance.”
Last question. Let’s talk about diversity. It dawned on me after watching 20 Weeks that you have a very diverse cast. Sometimes films approach diversity for diversity’s sake. Is this something that was intentional, or something you just happened to luck into in the cast room?
Leena: It was intentional. I think as a woman of color — I’m South Asian, I’m Indian — my world has always been very diverse. I have friends who are Asian and black and white and Hispanic. That’s just my world. That’s the world that I live in. And I’ve done a lot of things with South Asian or Asian actors. This time I wanted to expand my reach a little bit and break out of that, and try to seek out other actors that I hadn’t worked with at all. And I wanted to couple to be diverse, so that was something we worked on, and we tried to find that.
Michelle Krusiec was someone that Jane had worked with in the past, and we love. Sujata Day is an actress that I know from a lot of different things. We brought her in. And then Olga Aguilar came to us through a casting director that helped us out. So, yeah, I think that’s just the world that we know and live in.
I hope that we can have an industry where other voices are heard. I think Hollywood is going to make itself really outdated if it doesn’t. Platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, there are a lot of diverse voices on those platforms. And stories that are being told, like Master of None, which have done so well. In my opinion, it’s a great time to be a storyteller. I think diverse voices are needed. And I think Hollywood has to pay attention to that. Otherwise, it’s just going to crumble.
The big studios have to realize that there’s more talent to draw from. They’re just not seeing it at the moment. They’ve just got to kind of open their eyes and see it.
Leena: Yeah. I teach film production at Loyola Marymount. And I get a lot of kids who don’t even watch television anymore. Their primary mode of reference is YouTube. And they look at all these YouTube stars that have done really well. That’s who they love, and that’s the world that they want to be in. So, I think Hollywood has to kind of diversify a little bit.
That’s a whole other discussion.
Leena: Yeah, I know, right? Seriously.