Interview: Ricki Lake And Abby Epstein Take On ‘The Business Of Birth Control’

(Image by The Business of Birth Control)

You might hear Ricki Lake‘s name and get an instant ping of nostalgia for her successful 90s talk show. Back then, she was in the business of pushing the envelope within the polarizing format that talk shows were known for back then. Aside from more salacious episodes, Lake’s show found a way to address domestic violence, parenting, and teen pregnancy issues. These days, Ricki Lake is still in the business of pushing the envelope but as a producer.

In 2008, along with filmmaker Abby Epstein, the former talk show host, pivoted her career with her first documentary, The Business of Being Born. The documentary boldly took on the medical world and shed light on birthing as a business while educating women about midwifery and their alternative choices.

In their latest film, The Business of Birth Control, Abby and Ricki take on reproductive issues by educating viewers about the science behind 3rd generation hormonal contraceptives and the rapidly growing femme tech world. The Business of Being Born connected the dots on how the birthing business served the medical industry. In contrast, The Business of Birth Control aims its arrow for the pharmaceutical industry, and what they have to gain.

Considering women’s rights are currently under attack in numerous states, taking on hormonal birth control is a subject one must carefully thread with a needle as to not accidentally wind up feeding a narrative used by right-wing conservative groups. That said, both Ricki and Abby are in the business of educating.

“I don’t have an agenda,” said Lake. ” I’m not trying to get women to have home births like me, and I’m not trying to scare women from going off of the pill. I just want women to be educated, and I want to live in a society where we can have those conversations as complex and nuanced as it is. Otherwise, we’re in the dark.”

Awards Radar spoke with executive producer Ricki Lake and filmmaker Abby Epstein about their “Business Of” bookend.

Niki Cruz: When we spoke about your documentary Weed The People; you had mentioned you were working on this documentary and told me about pheromones changing when women would come off the pill, and as a result were losing attraction to their partner — that was so shocking to me. I think you two were at the very early stages of putting this together.

Ricki Lake: I told you about that!? That’s so funny! That still stands to me as the most mind-blowing thing I learned while making this film. There are so many things, the history is fascinating, the racism piece is horrifying, but on a base level — the idea that you go off the pill to start family planning with your partner — and you’re not into your partner, that’s a common thing. It’s the things that you don’t really consider. As a patient, we go in and give our power up to the medical profession. When you know these crumbs of information that make your head explode, it’s more to consider than just grabbing the pack of pills while you’re out the door from your doctors. 

NC: You’ve done a slew of documentaries together. How did you develop your creative partnership?

RL: We met through the Vagina Monologues. Abby was directing the off-broadway production. There were three actresses that would rotate every three weeks.

Abby Epstein: Ricki was the only actress I stuck with, and we became friends. Then it was a couple of years later — Ricki had moved to Los Angeles, and I was visiting her in her new life, and she said, “I think I want to do something around this child birth thing” because she had just given birth at home, and I had just made my first documentary which was kind of about the vagina monologues and violence against women. Then Ricki showed me the video of her giving birth in her bathtub, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is a movie. This is insane.” So that was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

NC: So the Business of Being Born was an on-ramp to getting here.

RL: Oh yeah, it was a springboard, and they bookend each other very well. They’re both about informed choice for women when it comes to their bodies, babies, and reproductive health. We want women to have full access to this information because there’s so much to learn about birth and birth control options. We want more options. We know there’s a whole issue in Texas with access, and we want access to all reproductive health choices, but we want better birth control options. I think women walk away learning a lot about their bodies and their options.

AE: It’s really about flipping the script. Doing the business of being born, at least to me, giving birth wasn’t something I was looking forward to on any level. It sounded horrible and scary. What we did with that movie is that we flipped it on its head to say, actually this can be the opposite of that. You can make your experience like Ricki did. With this movie, it’s not about a political agenda. It’s about flipping the script of, “oh my God, thank you for the pill. This is the holy grail.” When you look at who is pulling the strings and who these drugs benefit, and what these drugs did to women of color historically to test these drugs, it leaves a lot to be desired. We need to be transparent and reconcile the history of it and the fact that it’s not good enough anymore. The options that we have are not good enough anymore.

NC: I imagine you do all of this research in hopes that you’ll wind up with an interesting and educational film and, as you said, be able to flip the script on its head, but when did you know wow, we’re on to uncovering something here?

AE: We always know we’re on to something when we get in trouble.

RL: I was on the board of this prominent group called National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy for a couple of decades because of my old show. We were aligned with this great group, and I loved working with them. I was given an award from them by Jane Fonda, and they had been given a one paragraph blurb of my documentary, and they dumped me from the board in 5 seconds. They wouldn’t even have a conversation; they just couldn’t be in bed with anyone who was challenging these options. That’s usually how we figure out, okay, we’re poking the tiger here.

NC: One of the successful ways this film informs is the ability to break the science down in a digestible way.

RL: Props to Abby!

AE: Well, you’re willing to take it on. It’s tough to be in the public eye like Ricki is and take on these difficult topics like out of hospital birth and criticizing hormonal birth control — they’re tough topics, and we don’t approach it in a Michael Moore style. We’re doing it anecdotally and show the opposite of the status quo, but it has more thought and feeling to it. We’re making the movie we wish that we had seen. I wish I had seen this movie before I was 19, before they put me on birth control in college.

NC: Like you said, this movie was made with a lot of care, and I have to imagine if put into the wrong hands, it could’ve been used as propaganda. 

RL: Yeah, there are conservative groups that are thinking along the same lines as us, but we’re about all access, all options, whereas they want to shut down all contraception. We’re not totally aligned, but it can easily be highjacked by certain groups.

NC: And that’s why I think tone is so important in crafting this documentary. How did you tackle that? 

AE: Tone is really important, and at one point in the film, we do come out and say, “Look here is where the left is, here is where the right is, and as long as we allow this kind of politicizing of women’s health happen, then you’re throwing a veil over everything that can be talked about in the space and you’re hurting women.” For us, if we’re not going to speak out against the downsides of contraception, because we don’t want to feed into a right wing agenda, then we are letting the right control the narrative, and we’re being silenced. Women aren’t fully understanding the potential side effects of the drugs they’ve been taking for decades because we’re so scared. I think part of that is this bold scarcity thinking — I think it’s old feminism. I think this new feminism says that women are smart enough. Give women the information, and they will make the decision. Even if some anti-choice group wants to try and highjack the movie, there’s no way you can watch this kind of movie and take away that this is against choice and freedom. 

NC: The film isn’t fear-mongering, and if anything, especially with the third act, it gives hope about choices that are out there for women.

RL: I’m so glad to hear that, and I agree with you. I think it’s hopeful — it’s a new day.

AE: I think it’s hopeful, too. Also, we didn’t say half of what we could’ve said. We didn’t play the cancer card, we didn’t go into fertility, there’s a lot connecting, and we didn’t slather that all on because then it becomes fear-mongering. These are the options we have, and for women of a certain age, this is going to be a very desirable choice. There’s a choice, and you’re gonna want to use the tools that are out there, but you also have the right to understand what they’re doing to your body so you can connect the dots if you’re suddenly besieged with anxiety. [The fact that] no one has ever told you anxiety could happen while on the pill, it’s cruel to keep that from people. 

NC: You feature organizations within the pro-choice movement, but I was interested to hear if you’ve received any feedback from them?

AE: We had a really good screening with NOW, and they’re doing a grassroots screening campaign among their chapters. The thing I liked about the screening with NOW is that there were really robust conversations in the chat.

RL: We also showed the movie to Gloria Steinem, and she loved the film, and said she learned so much from it. That was really cool to hear. 

NC: You’ve tackled so much within the repro space; what could possibly be next?

RL: Menopause! [Laughs] I don’t know; we’re both starting that process. We’re not in production on anything, but we always have something up our sleeve. In my 30+ career, the work that I’m most proud of is the work I do with Abby Epstein. I think this work is moving the needle, making the difference, and helping women. 

The Business of Birth Control is currently screening.


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Written by Niki Cruz

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