Leena Pendharkar: Winding a Nonlinear Path through Difficult Terrain

Anna Margaret Hollyman as Maya in 20 WEEKS - Photo Credit Meritage Pictures & Spicy Productions

Filmmaker Leena Pendharkar’s new feature film 20 Weeks screens at Heartland Film Festival October 14 and 15, followed by a series of other film festival appearances (see schedule below). #DirectedbyWomen Catalyst Barbara Ann O’Leary had the opportunity to talk with Pendharkar about the making of the film, which deals with a highly charged situation. Faced with news of pregnancy complications, a couple struggle to decide their course of action.

DBW: Leena, thank you so much for sharing your films. I went back and watched Raspberry Magic, which I hadn’t seen before. What a pleasure! I’ve seen some of your shorts before, but I watched a handful more of them.

LP: Oh, Thank you.

DBW: Let’s dive in and talk about your latest feature film 20 Weeks, which deals with one of the most challenging experiences an expecting couple could face —the possibility that there might be something wrong with the baby developing in the womb. I was wondering what inspired you to tell this story?

LP: It is based partially on my personal experience. My daughter, who is now almost three, was diagnosed at 20 weeks in utero with a pretty serious health issue. It was very difficult. We had to go in for sonograms every two weeks. It just brought up a lot of questions for me. Her condition, called Pierre Robin sequence, which they diagnosed after she was born, was treatable. She underwent four surgeries in her first year of life. She’s doing OK now, but it was really really tough for a while. As I was googling and reading about this, I read about so many stories that are just so difficult that I thought this is a difficult topic—something difficult to talk about, something difficult to make a movie about—but I thought it would be a good story to tell.

DBW: So your own personal experience involved the 20 weeks, but does that have significance for other couples also—that particular time in a pregnancy—or does it vary?

LP: No, I think all couples, you know, when you go in around 18 or 20 weeks, everyone has this mid-pregnancy check to see that everything is OK. Most of the time it is for most people, but then, if something goes wrong, you are faced with this whole other set of questions and dilemmas and issues you have to deal with. It’s a tough situation.

Anna Margaret Hollyman as Maya and Amir Arison as Ronan in 20 WEEKS - Photo Credit Meritage Pictures & Spicy Productions (2)
Anna Margaret Hollyman as Maya and Amir Arison as Ronan in 20 WEEKS – Photo Credit Meritage Pictures & Spicy Productions (2)

DBW: I was really intrigued by the fact that your film unfolds asynchronously. When I was watching it, I had a sensation of the story being woven together from pivotal moments in Maya and Ronan’s relationship. I’d really love to hear about your process of shaping the film’s movement through time and how you decided to do it that way.

LP: I had always imagined it being a little bit like this—playing with the two timelines seeing their past and how much in love they were and how much they cared about each other, and then getting to this very difficult moment where this information is revealed and how they handle it. I just sort of imagined it as a nonlinear story and it just shaped itself as I wrote it. It just seemed to work that way. I had always thought there would be this present, immanent story line unfolding as we see their past. I don’t know that I ever thought about it in any other way to be honest. It was to me the way to tell that story, so you could learn about Maya and Ronan in a way that kind of unfolded and at the same time see their dilemma that they’re facing.

I just felt that was the best way to tell the story to experience the tension as they go through it, but also to have this concept that this could happen to anyone. You feel like you’re so in love and everything is great and perfect, and then you face this one situation where you are not sure you’re on the same page. It felt like that nonlinear story structure was the best way to dive into that.

DBW: Right, and no matter how many times we hear that people have challenges with their pregnancies couples aren’t thinking along those lines. They’re just so thrilled and excited to have this baby arrive in their lives and then it throws you off so much. And I was really interested in, you know, the film really depends so heavily on the performances of your two leads Anna Margaret Hollyman and Amir Arison. Without their anchoring the story, we’d be totally adrift. I was wondering if you could share insights about how you worked together to help the actors navigate these emotional nuances of the story?

LP: Yeah. That’s a really good question. Some of it is just in the writing. I have been married to my husband for a long time, but I was kind of shocked by some of conversations we were having when this all happened. So part of that is in the writing. As we cast actors we were thinking about who could play these roles. Anna Margaret Hollyman has been in a lot of indie films and I sort of knew what her performance style was, which was very subtle and understated and nuancy.

Amir Arison is on a big show called The Blacklist on NBC and I’d seen his work in a bunch of different things and thought he was very interesting. The great thing about Amir was that we both knew that male part…we didn’t want the male character just to be this one note bad guy in the movie. We didn’t want him to just feel like he was just this awful man. We wanted him to feel nuanced. He always wanted to be a dad, but didn’t realize some of the things that come up with it. So I was able to give both of them a lot of back story, a lot of information what happens. Amir and I actually did about 20-25 hours of Skype calls before he every got to the shoot. We went through every line of dialogue. We talked at length about every scene. He had the arc really mapped out. We got to know each other really well, so that by the time we got to the set and worked on the role, he was really clear with where it was going. Anna Margaret I think with her we did some conversation. She’s just a much more instinctive actress I think. She really connected with the material. She was able to give it this subtlety. She and Amir had this incredible chemistry. They really got along how and understood how different these two characters were, but what brought them together at the same time.

DBW: They’re very different from each other, but that’s so often what brings people together is they’re attracted to these very different dynamics. I think that really shows itself very well in the film.

LP: Oh, thank you.

DBW: You’ve worked with your cinematographer Daud Sani on previous projects. Dandekar Makes a Sandwich is one of them, right?

LP: Yes.

DBW: I love that film, by the way.

LP: Oh, thank you.

DBW: It’s such a pleasure. Did that help you? Because one of the things I noticed in this film is that moving through time can really be hard visually if you don’t have a sense of how you’re going to bring people forward and backward, so we stay put, because it’s not like you’re covering years. You are covering just a few months from the early part of their relationship—around a year if I remember properly. Could you talk a little bit about how you and your DP helped create the style of the film?

LP: One thing is we define the characters a little bit differently through time. Anna Margaret’s character is pretty much the same, but that’s who she is. She’s very grounded, very practical, she’s very real. Amir has different facial hair in each time period. He’s got different styles. He has different hair and that’s just who he is. He’s a bit of a shapeshifter. He changes. So we scheduled the shoot around that. His beard being long in one. In the present day when they get the bad news he’s got stubble, and in the future he’s very clean cut. And then the costuming and wardrobe. In the past Anna Margaret is much more pink and warm colors in her clothing and in the present she’s wearing cooler colors. Both of them are wearing cooler colors to give you these subtle hints.

I’ve worked with Daud a bunch and he’s really terrific. I really embrace the style of keeping a moving camera, which means that as we move through the scenes the camera is pretty much always moving. It’s almost shot like a documentary in a way. where there’s a kind of roving technique. The actors are acting, but we’ll move the camera around as much as is necessary. I mean sometimes I’ll cover people traditionally, but I’ll often walk around and get shots that are moving. I knew that the future would the only scene that’s on sticks, that’s on tripod, that’s static. The rest of the movie is pretty much moving and we’re stitched together with these scenic shots and these ideas of what’s happening.

I think what’s really great about Daud is that since we’ve worked together a bunch, we kind of have this language and we know how to work with that moving camera. He was on something called an Easyrig the whole time, so it’s tough. It’s a lot of very naturalistic, very minimalist lighting, so we don’t use big lighting kits and things that take hours and hours of setup. There’s still set up required for it to look pretty, but it is a much more sparse kind of lighting set up with naturalism and things that kind of make it feel more in the world of the real.

Anna Margaret Hollyman as Maya and Amir Arison as Ronan in 20 WEEKS - Photo Credit Meritage Pictures & Spicy Productions

DBW: That gives the actors more time to move through the sequences without breaking up every little moment.

LP: Yes, definitely.

DBW: …which is a real gift, when you’re working with this kind of emotional terrain.

LP: Yes, and I definitely wanted to take that pressure off the actors, because the material is so intense and there were some days where before we were shooting the scenes each actor had to sit in a room by themselves, because they needed quiet to be able to deliver the kind of performances that they’re delivering, so having the kind of moving camera and the lighting setup that was a little more naturalistic gave me some freedom to really work with the performers.

DBW: So when you’ve been bringing this film to audiences, what kind of responses have you been getting? Have people shared their stories or thought about their lives in different ways? I’m really curious.

LP: We’ve only premiered it once at the LA Film Festival this summer. We’re now getting ready to play at eight or nine film festivals, so I think it’ll be really interesting. As I was making the movie, as I was meeting actors, I’ve had a number of people share stories with me about a difficult pregnancy or a difficult time or a pregnancy they’ve had to terminate. I’ve had so many interesting people come forward and tell me their stories. After LA Film Festival there were so many couples that wanted to have conversations and what was interesting about LA Film Festival I had a lot of men come up to me or a couple of journalists call and say, “Wow! I’m not a jerk like him, but I see myself reflected in the way that he’s acting and it made me feel really bad about myself.” I’ve had some really interesting conversations after playing the movie about relationships and dynamics. Very interesting. It’s such a taboo subject. I really do hope it gives people a platform to talk.

DBW: Yeah, I do, too. In the film—and I won’t spoil anything for people—each of them in the couple go through changes in their ideas about what is right for them. I think that’s so realistic. You have no idea how you’re going to feel about something like this until it happens, and one of the things that really interests me about your story is the lack of certainty. The doctors have this wonderful technology and they can observe things that are happening with a pregnancy, which was completely unavailable to people in past and yet, what does that really mean? It’s not a cut-and-dried situation. You don’t know what is right, you know?

LP: Yeah. That’s something that was really important to me too in terms of the way the ending was structured. I really wanted it to be kind of open ended in the sense that you don’t know. One person came up to me and said, “I would never terminate a pregnancy just because the baby has something wrong with a finger. I mean, that’s no big deal.” But you don’t know that until you get in that situation, because it could be just a finger or it could be symptomatic of a whole other host of issues and that’s the grey area for me of this whole debate, this discussion. It’s a very very very personal situation. That’s where I wanted to kind of explore. To me that’s where the story is and it’s sad that today that the House passed a ban on abortion past 20 weeks. I mean I don’t know if it’s going to pass the Senate, but it’s just very disturbing.

DBW: And in this film at the 20 week moment early on in the film the doctor says they basically have 4 weeks to contemplate what their options are, and in this situation they would have zero weeks, if the laws changed.

LP: Yeah. And you know I mean in this situation they would have to go to a place that is underground where a doctor would perform this procedure, because people are going to continue to perform the procedure whether it is legal or illegal, because it is inhumane if you have a baby with a serious health issue and you are not allowed to terminate it. Is a woman supposed to carry a baby that’s not surviving to term? It is kind of an inhumane thing. There would have to be people who would have to go underground.

The doctor in this movie said 24 weeks is the cut off in the state of California, so there are states where you can go further. I think New Mexico is a big one, if you have to go past. It’s not a procedure that people do because they just don’t want the baby. They do it, because usually there’s a serious issue.

DBW: Thanks for bringing this film forward. I am really looking forward to the Heartland Film Festival audience having a chance to experience the film. I think you’re producer Jane Kelly Kosek is coming to Heartland, so that will be good.

LP: We know Indiana has some of the toughest abortion laws in the country, so we hope people will come out and watch the film and explore the topic with us.

20 Weeks Poster

DBW: Do you have any other projects you’re working on? Anything for the future?

LP: I do. I’m working on a number of things, but I’m currently adapting a book by Ursula Le Guin, so I’m working on that pretty heavily.

DBW: I love her work. That’s awesome. Good luck with it. This is really good. The #DirectedbyWomen initiative tries to inspire appreciation for films by women directors. So many people aren’t really aware of all of the wonderful filmmakers that are out there.

LP: That’s awesome.

DBW: I wonder if you have any women directors whose work you’d really love film lovers to know about and appreciate.

LP: There are so many. I love Andrea Arnold’s work.

DBW: Yeah. Me too.

LP: She’s amazing. I love all her films. They’re so brilliant. I love Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta—both of them are great. I also love Sofia Coppola’s work. I think it’s very interesting and visual and takes you to this other kind of world.

DBW: Yeah. That’s good. Thanks so much for taking time to talk about your work. Keep me posted. I really love your work and always love to share.

Leena Pendharkar and Jane Kelly Kosek on set
Leena Pendharkar and Jane Kelly Kosek on set

Visit Leena Pendharkar’s website to learn more about her work.