Joss Whedon’s “crushing depression” began in November, when election results swung the United States to the right. But in mid-March, the writer-director behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers, and Avengers: Age of Ultron was resisting despair as he worked through the last day of a three-day shoot for Unlocked, his short film promoting Planned Parenthood.
That afternoon, Whedon’s crew was setting up a scene in which a woman with breast cancer collapses in pain in her kitchen, dropping her groceries on the floor. The fictional character’s illness had gone undiagnosed because she had no access to preventive screenings — her local Planned Parenthood health center had been shuttered.
“Women’s health care is so much just about women’s humanity,” Whedon told BuzzFeed News from the Los Angeles set. “It is about whether they have control over their bodies and whether they have control over their minds and their education and their decisions. It’s all wrapped up.”
Planned Parenthood first approached Whedon to propose a film project about a year ago, he said. He and the organization’s president, Cecile Richards, discussed doing something celebratory for its centennial in October of 2016.
But that conversation happened in a different world: Though Republicans have tried to defund Planned Parenthood before, they didn’t always control the White House and Congress. When Whedon started shooting this spring, a male lawmaker had recently wondered aloud why prenatal care should be required from health insurers; days after the shoot ended, a male senator would flippantly say — and quickly regret saying — “I wouldn’t want to lose my mammograms.” The Congressional Budget Office reported that the first version of the American Health Care Act would cut federal funding according to four criteria that were met only by Planned Parenthood and its affiliates. “The people most likely to experience reduced access to care would probably reside in areas without other health care clinics or medical practitioners who serve low-income populations,” the CBO concluded.
The newest version of the AHCA — which aims to replace the Affordable Care Act — also eliminates Medicaid reimbursements for Planned Parenthood, effectively blocking low-income Americans who receive Medicaid benefits from accessing care at the nonprofit. This version passed the House on May 4 and is currently being debated in the Senate.
Whedon launched the promotional short film in anticipation of Senate deliberations over the fate of the bill — and Planned Parenthood. A significant portion of the 2.5 million people who seek its services each year have very limited options, he said, and in Unlocked he tried to reflect the health care provider’s broad array of services, including breast cancer screenings, sex education, and access to birth control.
Though he wrote and directed Unlocked, everything in it “has been generated from the women of Planned Parenthood and the stories they told me. … It’s not my voice that should be the last one heard, and I would be very happy if it were not even necessary to be a part of it. But we haven’t gotten there yet.” Whedon urged men to actively support women’s causes; he’s trying to contribute by directing and financing the video. (He also previously partnered with Planned Parenthood for a fundraising initiative in 2015.) “I think the role of men is — like any ally — to help, to observe, and act in the world in a way that’s helpful. To speak up when it’s time to speak up and to shut up when it’s time to shut up, which is the one we’ve never mastered.” (It’s a lesson he also had to learn for himself.)
Since Donald Trump has become president, many progressive issues have returned to the fore. After the election, “it wasn’t as easy for me to go, ‘Let us take up arms!’” — Whedon had spent months during the presidential campaign making a series of ads indirectly promoting the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. “I was just tired.”
But he hopes his short film can help bring some focus back to women’s reproductive health care and Planned Parenthood specifically. He does not consider himself an activist, though: “Because I will speak out, and because I have for a long time, I think I get mistaken for a real activist. But then you meet them,” he said, referring to people like the Planned Parenthood volunteers he’d encountered while researching the short. “You meet people who are truly informed and truly articulate and truly have dedicated themselves and given things up for the cause, and you’re like, ‘Okay, I made a video, so I’m cool too.’ … I really am just kind of a worker bee in this particular instance, trying to help the people who are doing the actual work.”