The directors, stars and Abby Johnson herself share how they brought the story of her dramatic exit from Planned Parenthood to the big screen. The Stream goes on-set of upcoming biopic Unplanned.
This week, producers of the upcoming film Unplanned announced principal photography on the long-rumored Abby Johnson biopic has been completed.
With a cast including Ashley Bratcher (War Room), Robia Scott (CSI) and Emma Elle Roberts (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), Unplanned has been slated for release on March 22, 2019. Adapted from her best-selling memoir first released in 2010, the film is not a “documentary” as some initially reported. Rather it’s a full-length dramatic feature.
Midway through shooting in May, filmmakers invited select media including The Stream on-location to Stillwater, Oklahoma for interviews with the actors and their real-life counterparts.
Pro-Choice Clinic Director Has Change of Heart
Unplanned recounts Abby Johnson’s dramatic exit from Planned Parenthood after eight years working at their clinic in Bryan, Texas. Recruited as a college student desiring to advance women’s health, Johnson moved up the ranks to community outreach director and media spokeswoman.
“This is a deeply visceral, emotional journey,” says Chuck Konzelman, co-director of Unplanned. “With most stories, you see a lead character growing in wisdom. This is sort of the reverse — Abby is falling deeper and deeper into evil. She doesn’t realize she is being prepared for her change.”
Before her sudden departure, she served as director of the local Planned Parenthood clinic. Today, Johnson leads a nonprofit that helps clinic workers leave the abortion industry. In benefit speeches for pregnancy centers nationwide, she often mentions her two previous abortions.
“No one is too far gone for redemption,” says Johnson in an interview. “Healing and God’s mercy are available for everyone. That’s really the message that I hope this movie will convey to the public.”
Five-Year Journey from Script to Screen
Production partners Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman have worked to bring Unplanned to the big screen since 2014. Their past films include God’s Not Dead, a surprising $60 million indie blockbuster released by Pure Flix.
For Unplanned, the writer-directors have teamed up with I Can Only Imagine producers Daryl Lefever and Joe Knopp. Released in March, the Imagine biopic has now grossed $83 million.
“We have wanted to work with Daryl and his team for 10 years,” says Solomon. “When we joined forces, together we have a stellar résumé. No one in Hollywood has the track record that we have.”
While grateful that experienced filmmakers wanted to share her story, Johnson had some misgivings. “Right after the first conversation I had with Chuck and Cary, I had a realization,” she says. “This is going to expose my life and my family in a way that we have not been before. Honestly, it was a very vulnerable, scary feeling.”
She recalls anxiety and sleepless nights, wondering what media smears may be ahead. Yet Johnson points to her Christian faith as offering assurance.
“Here’s the beauty of being honest with your conversion,” she says. “Everything that is ugly about my past has already been revealed! People know who I once was. I’m the first to say, That was totally me. Now look at the new creation I am in Christ.”
Staying True to Real-Life Events
Walking on to the movie set, readers of Unplanned would instantly recognize the scene.
A spacious university Student Union building is hosting a volunteer fair. With dialogue nearly verbatim from the book, the fateful day of Abby Johnson speaking to a Planned Parenthood college recruiter comes to life.
“Everything in the script is totally true,” says Cary Solomon. “To get it into two hours, our story tightens it up. Because it happened over eight years, we had to manipulate time a little bit.”
His co-director concurs. “If the gospel writers were allowed to condense time, I think we’re allowed the same thing,” quips Konzelman.
Following a research trip to central Texas and poring over the book, their first draft was complete. They sent it to Johnson and nervously awaited her call. Then the phone rang.
Co-writer Solomon recalls the conversation. “Of course, you never want to dishonor anyone,” he says. “She said, I read the script. And in the first 15 pages, I hated me. Then I got to the end of the script, and I loved it. It was me!”
Johnson later confirms her reaction to the bleak first act. “I saw the reality of who I was in that script, and I knew everyone else was about to see it,” she says. “It felt like my diary had been opened.”
Regardless of how well her heartrending story is told, filmmakers expect mainstream media to disparage the movie with hostile coverage.
The Cynics Are Coming
Producers of Unplanned set a strict embargo for anyone who learned of the project. No social media posts whatsoever. No press mentions until after filming completed. They feared societal tensions around abortion issues could lead to protests of the film. Gallup reports that Americans are evenly divided on self-identifying as pro-choice or pro-life.
“While we’re here on-set, we call the movie Redeemed,” says co-director Solomon. “The reason we do that is we don’t want anyone to know we are making Unplanned as a movie. Because it would be very difficult to film if people were trying to burn down the warehouse while we’re in it. Or if protestors show up to scream and throw stones.”
Knowing the controversies around abortion, the directors sat down with each cast member before they signed on. They warned the actors that they may face backlash and be passed over for future roles. Despite these fears, Ashley Bratcher who portrays Johnson sees Unplanned as an opportunity for dialogue.
“Being in the film industry, I am friends with all kinds of people,” says the young star. “There are all different opinions. This is a chance to open up the conversation to my pro-choice friends. Here is one woman’s real-life story. Let’s talk about it.”
Solomon has braced the cast and crew for a wave of cynical criticism, though he recognizes it could also benefit the film. “Certain subjects are so volatile and freak people out so radically,” he says. “Audiences become enthralled, saying: I need to see what this is about. [Planned Parenthood] has so much money at stake, they will have to defend themselves.”
“Once the word gets out, we expect everything is going to blow up.”
Personal Diary, National Impact
Addressing media gathered in small-town Stillwater, Okla., Abby Johnson took ample time to praise a dozen members of her nonprofit staff.
Founded in 2012, And Then There Were None provides practical assistance to clinic workers who desire to leave the abortion industry. The mostly female team was all smiles on-set, energized by the break from their day-to-day counseling and outreach work.
“I hope this film shows that healing is available to everyone,” says Johnson. “There is no shame in admitting that you need healing. I hope it will really open up the door for people of all different backgrounds — both men and women, people who’ve worked in the clinics and those who haven’t.”
Seeing her own mother in the audience, Johnson solicits applause for the matriarch. The Christian woman’s firm, compassionate voice plays a major part in the story.
“Some have been fighting this for many, many years,” says Johnson. “I hope that this will empower them.”