How Natalie Morales made teen quest movie Plan B in the middle of a pandemic
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"My brand of anxiety is always, whenever I get something really exciting, like: 'Something's going to happen and you're not going to get to do it,'" says Natalie Morales. But even with all the possible varieties of doom she dreamt up ahead of directing her solo debut feature, "my anxiety was not creative enough to come up with 'worldwide pandemic,'" she admits with a laugh. "But it happened, and we got through it!"
The film is Hulu's Plan B (spring 2021), a comedy that Morales describes as "a typical teen quest movie" in the tradition of Superbad or American Pie — but with a totally new perspective. "It stars two girls who live in South Dakota, and they're not rich and they're not white, and one of them loses their virginity and they have to get their asses across the state to the one Planned Parenthood that is open to get the Plan B pill," the filmmaker says. "It's just as crazy and as raunchy and as funny and as insane as all the other teen quest movies, except it's about two brown girls [whose] quest is to get contraception."
Making the film was a quest in and of itself. Having previously directed music videos, comedy sketches, and TV episodes, the Dead to Me actress signed on to make Plan B her first feature after reading Prathi Srinivasan and Joshua Levy's script and convincing the producers at Counterbalance Entertainment (Cobra Kai) — "honestly, probably, through pure bravado and excitement" — that she could "make this movie special and different, and the kind of thing that I really wanted to see, and the kind of thing that would be impactful and also very, very funny." The team joined forces with Hulu and the Syracuse, N.Y.-based production company American High (Big Time Adolescence) and were in business. (The film was produced by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg along with Josh Heald and Dina Hillier also of Counterbalance Entertainment. Also produced by Ryan Bennett, Jeremy Garelick, and Will Phelps of American High, and Matt Lottman.)
Plan A for Plan B had production beginning in mid-March of 2020, timed almost exactly to the initial stay-at-home orders. The film was forced to shut down right before it even began, and Morales had no idea whether she'd ever get a chance to make it, much less when. In the meantime, American High "switched their whole operation," the filmmaker explains. "They went into high gear making [hospital-grade] 3D masks for all the hospitals in the Syracuse area." By the time a new production plan was in place to begin shooting in the area in October, "I guess Syracuse hospitals were thankful and the medical community was thankful," Morales says. "So we had a lot of people that wanted to work with us on this."
She remembers the set as having more thorough safety protocols even than the ones she's since worked on in L.A. — and because they were all on location in Syracuse, everyone knew nobody else was going home to a household of roommates and relatives. "No one ever contracted anything — not even a flu, not even a cold," Morales says proudly of the six-week shoot.
The postponement brought more changes than just social distancing and regular tests, however. Morales had to recast a few roles when some actors backed out, and the script got a rewrite — in part to cut down on the shoot's budget demands since a good chunk of the budget had to be reallocated to COVID safety protocols (the pandemic did not, however, factor into the script as part of the setting or plot). Now, Morales is grateful for all of the changes: "It's a much, much better film for having had six, seven months off," she says with certainty. "It would have been a really good movie in March; I think it's a really fantastic movie now."
At the heart of it is its two young heroines, played by Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles. "You know when you watch Fleabag and the hot priest?" she asks. "And you're like, 'Oh, that's chemistry, I've just never seen chemistry before'? I was looking for something close to that. I mean, without the romance or the sexual energy. I needed people that jump off the screen when they're together." She found it, miraculously enough, in Verma and Moroles, despite the fact that they were forced (by — what else? — the pandemic) to conduct their chemistry test via Zoom; "as an actor, I don't wish that on anybody," Morales says.
Even beyond its stars and director, "there were a lot of women involved in the making of this movie, in positions that are typically male — and there were a lot of really great men also involved in making this movie who championed the women, which is something I'm not really that used to, either," says Morales, who remembers feeling deeply empowered by the experience.
It is, after all, an essentially female story — about "a fact of life," as the filmmaker rightly points out — but no less wild or raunchy than any movie about dorky dudes frantic to lose their virginity. "I don't think I've seen a movie like this before, and it's so needed, and I can't understand why it hasn't happened sooner, and I'm very thankful that I have anything to do with it," Morales says. "It's been a really amazing experience — and when I say 'amazing,' I don't mean that in the overused way of that word. I mean it like, I'm amazed. By every step."
Plan B hits Hulu this spring.
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