Cody Liebenau, a recent Stillwater High School graduate, woke up before the sun on a Friday morning in summer 2018.
Dressed in clothes that were intentionally chosen to not look trendy – 80s or 90s-style, he remembers – he arrived at the Stillwater Community Center to spend his day with a group of people he had never met before. He was following directions from an email titled “May 4th – REDEEMED Details.”
“Redeemed” was the working-title for “Unplanned,” a feature-length movie filmed in Stillwater starring Ashley Bratcher and Brooks Ryan. It is based on Abby Johnson’s book with the same name, which details her rise from volunteer to director of a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic and the moment she quit her job after viewing an abortion for the first time.
Johnson said it was the same people who later made “God’s Not Dead 2” and “God’s Not Dead 3” who first approached her about turning her life story into a film five years ago.
“That was never something I’d really considered,” Johnson said.
Though she was involved in almost every part of the production process – she had final approval of the script and was frequently on set – she still finds it odd to see her life on a screen.
“It’s one thing to write about your experiences, it’s something different to see them played out on the screen,” Johnson said. “But it’s … You know, sometimes it’s worth being vulnerable just to expose the truth and help bring others to healing.”
The Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an R rating for disturbing and bloody images, a move which Johnson said surprised her.
“I don’t think the irony is lost on anyone that a 14-year-old girl can’t see this film without parental consent but that she can walk into an abortion clinic and have an abortion without her parents’ knowledge,” Johnsons said. “In the end, I feel like the MPAA sort of stumbled backwards into the truth by admitting that abortion is violent, that it is disturbing.”
But for Liebenau, the film marks more than just another chapter in the on-going abortion debate. For him, now a freshman in animation and graphic design at Oklahoma State, it marks his first time on a film set.
Liebenau was one of many Stillwater residents cast as extras in the controversial film, which was filmed in Stillwater in the summer of 2018. Liebenau had just finished acting in a musical when he heard about the opportunity.
“I got an email and, while I was in the musical my senior year during the spring, the director and co-director told me about it,” Liebenau said.
For him, the experience of being an extra on a film set was a blend of good and bad. At first, good, in spite of having to be at the Stillwater Community Center by 6 a.m. The extras were split into two groups and given their choice of props. Liebenau said they mostly did a lot of screaming. The worst part was the six-hour wait between the first scene they filmed and the second.
“They sent us back to where they had us for the break, but they said they’ll come back to us once they’re ready,” Liebenau said. “It was about six hours later, they were ready to use the extras.”
Even with that, Liebenau, who is interested in going into filmmaking, said he would be interested in doing it again in the future. And even though he didn’t know what the film was about at the time, he’s interested in seeing it if he gets the chance.
He hasn’t stayed in touch with the other extras he met on set, but now and then he bumps into them around Stillwater, and they stand and chat for a while before moving on again.
Liebenau encourages people to see the film, if only for the hard work he watched the cast and crew put into it. But Liebenau isn’t really the film’s primary target audience, said Johnson.
“It’s for women,” Johnson said. “… To not only educate them about abortion, but to also bring healing to women who have had abortions.”
Johnson said the film isn’t only for people who are pro-life.
“You could be pro-choice and walk into the film and still leave pro-choice, but at least you have a better understanding of what abortion is and how abortion is being marketed to your friends and peers and people around you,” Johnson said.
As for Liebenau, he has only one piece of advice for people going to see the movie.
“Look for a guy wearing a blue shirt holding a Bible yelling ‘You’re going to hell,’” Liebenau said.
“Unplanned” premiered Thursday.