16 and Pregnant Creator Morgan J. Freeman On His Journey From Laguna Beach to Teenage Crisis
If you're not familiar with writer-producer-director Morgan J. Freeman, here is a primer: The multi-hyphenate's debut feature, Hurricane Streets, starring Edie Falco and Brendan Sexton III (Welcome to the Dollhouse), was the first narrative project to win three awards at Sundance in 1997. Freeman went on to direct other films including Desert Blue and American Psycho 2 while launching a successful career producing reality television shows for MTV. His first series, Laguna Beach, spawned two spin-offs and two years ago, Freeman created 16 and Pregnant, which has already spun off another successful social commentary series for MTV, Teen Mom.
Movieline caught up with Freeman recently to discuss how 16 and Pregnant has been a "dream come true" for his inner storyteller, why the series hits home with so many audience members and how all of his projects -- scripted or not -- are related.
What is the casting process like for each season of 16 and Pregnant?
It's a very lengthy process to really find the stories. It's really about finding families and finding teens who first and foremost want to share their truths with us and with us, I mean, the world. It really starts with people who want to take a very challenging situation and turn it into a tool for communication, a tool to teach. A tool to open their peers' eyes about exactly what it means to get pregnant at this age. So the goal is to find these girls that want to share. And then, it's a matter of throwing a really wide net out there, because teen pregnancy -- as a condition, as a crisis, as an epidemic -- does not discriminate. So we want our show to also offer stories on different backgrounds. To show that this issue exists everywhere.
Did MTV have any idea that it would be such a hit? Did you?
This show in particular, as far as all the things I have worked on... there was just a sense from the very beginning that it was going to connect. It felt relevant, it felt timely, it felt powerful and emotional and it felt like a window into a world that nobody had really shined a light onto. You never know whats going to happen but we had a good sense that the show was going to connect to the audience.
When you are in the editing room looking through footage, how aware are you of the message you are trying to send your teenage audience? Are you ever consciously putting in some of the girls' worst moments to make teenage pregnancy seem as negative as possible?
I would say we are very aware of wanting to make sure we are as accurate as we can when dealing with the girls. Any time prevention came up, any time sex education came up, any time any of the pratfalls that kids might encounter came up... all of those moments make the show. It's particularly important to make sure that we get one from each of the girls -- sometimes it's called the "blind spot" -- how did this happen? Whether the girl had unprotected sex once or a couple just did not think that they needed to use contraception or they did not think that they could get pregnant the first time they had sex. We really
want to make sure when we tell their stories, the girls share how this experience started for them. We want to show how challenging it is, what sacrifices they've had to make, if school has fallen off or they become scared of falling behind in their career -- the larger fears. We only have this hour-long show to try and capture five to seven months of a very emotional journey. A lot of thought is put into it.
It's amazing that after just 60 minutes, viewers can feel so emotionally connected to each girl.
We were just talking about that last night. Each of these shows takes so long to make and at the end, you have to consolidate their entire journey into under an hour. Maybe that is why audiences feel so connected -- because they go through nearly the entire pregnancy with these girls. So I think the format also makes it pack this emotional punch.
Most episodes track the last three months of the pregnancies. How much of that is a production decision, just because you have to find and cast girls who are pregnant, and how much of that decision was made because you thought that was the most interesting trimester?
We want to start as early as possible, but the casting process is long, and a lot of times we don't even meet the girls until they are four, five, six or seven months along. I think we had a couple we met early last season -- we met Farrah at maybe three or three and a half months -- and viewers were able to really watch the physical transformation along with the emotional. But that's just casting. We don't decide to wait and just start filming at six months.
In most episodes, abortion is usually mentioned once and most of the girls say that they never considered it as an option. I'm sure there are a lot of politics involved with the network, but would you ever feature a teenager that is actually looking into abortion?
Well, I mean, we know that it's a choice and a choice that a lot of girls that become pregnant consider and take. But the format, the casting and the production schedules of our show make it impossible to tell that story -- to meet somebody before they make that decision. It's something that is a very tricky and complex process. I will say that we are developing a special that would go a little wider into some issues including abortion.
Are there any network standards regarding how many times abortion can be mentioned in the hour?
Not to my knowledge, no.
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