Molly Parker and Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman (Photo: Benjamin Loeb / Netflix)
While the arrival of a newborn child can strengthen a couple's relationship, the loss of a child can reinforce existing rifts. The Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó Pieces of a woman is an emotionally high-profile study of PTSD resulting from a fatally unsuccessful home birth. Based on a play by Mundruczó's partner Kata Wéber, this film adaptation moves the plot to Boston and casts the two main actors Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf.
After its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival last fall (where Kirby was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actress) Pieces of a woman The focus is on the film's virtuoso opening act, primarily a single take that shows lovers Martha and Sean desperately trying to reach their trustworthy midwife after Martha's water breaks. Since the midwife is employed by another client who is already in labor, another woman is sent to oversee Martha's delivery. While the couple's daughter is eventually born, their lives only last a few minutes, and whoever is responsible for their death (and how they are reprimanded) drives much of the story forward.
Debunked both physically and emotionally, the cast of the film – including Ellen Burstyn in a strong late-career performance that belies how effortlessly she lives in a matriarch who seeks to turn tragedy into financial compensation – is heightened for Mundruczó and Wébers Story of raw grief completely playful. For Martha and Sean, losing a child is just the beginning of the end. The couple continues to grow apart the more friends and family members try to comfort them.
I scheduled a streaming release on Netflix this Friday and spoke to Mundruczó and Wéber about the personal origins of the play, relocated the story to the US, filmed the memorable birth scene, and how they brought Oscar winners Howard Shore and Martin Scorsese on board have the project.
Filmmakers: Kornél and Kata, I know that the origins of this project stem from a place of personal grief that was eventually put into words through a series of diary entries and private letters. That led to one Stage play in Poland and finally to this movie, Pieces of a woman. Is this timeline correct?
Wéber: Yes. A few years ago I was desperately trying to find material for a Polish theater company, TR Warszawa, which had invited Kornél and me (to present a new work). I had some notes in my personal notebook that did Kornél had Read on, and he was most interested in a dialogue I wrote between a mother and daughter (some parts of that dialogue appear in the dinner scene of what was going to be Pieces of a woman). Kornél encouraged me to explore this relationship, keep writing about it. This was also around the time of Ágnes Geréb's publicly known trial in Hungary, which continued to interest me due to the specifics of the case relating to home birth (which is criminalized in Hungary).
Mundruczó: Ágnes Geréb is a real "home birth pioneer" in Hungary.
Wéber: She was this very respected midwife who was brought to justice for helping women (giving birth at home). The whole of society was shaken by their process and many aspects of what was to come Pieces of a woman came out of her story. When Kornél encouraged me to dig deeper into the material, I understood that my choice was, or our The choice would really be to examine some personal aspect of this subject and we found that we were connected to it in many ways.
The process was somewhat therapeutic for me as I was faced with certain feelings about an unborn child that I didn't want to explore beforehand. Neither of us had ever really spoken about it, and I think I was in a state of isolation when Kornél found the material in my notebook.
Mundruczó: When I discovered these fragments of dialogue in Kata's notebook, it served as a break in the silence between us, as we had previously moved away from the subject and never really talked about it. I almost celebrated the fact that Kata wrote material about it herself.
Filmmakers: And that's where Kata wrote the script and you wanted to direct?
Mundruczó: Yes, but while TR Warszawa had allowed me to direct what I wanted, I wasn't sure if this story could be a fully realized theater production. For example, how can you make a realistic birth scene on stage? However, as Kata continued to write, the material was born day after day. We spoke to various experts on the subject and to mothers who had lost babies themselves (during childbirth) and began to understand the importance and urgency of such a story. When the play finally premiered it was successful for the theater, but more importantly, many viewers came to us after the performance to share their personal experiences of childbirth at home. We also got emails from people with similar stories, and even if they hadn't seen the play, the production made people have real conversation about what was previously considered taboo. Hopefully the piece helped break that silence.
Filmmakers: And then Pieces of a woman Did you immediately have any plans to turn it into a movie – one that would be your English language debut?
Mundruczó: No not at all. We didn't have any big plans for it after the play premiered. But the wave of discussion that arose from the piece's existence led us to believe that we should continue this story in a different form. We sent the script for the play to a few potential producers, but their feedback was that it was very depressing and not important enough to turn into a movie. Even so, we kept sending it out and eventually found the right producers who could find a way to make the film at the right price. So the film version became my English-language debut.
Filmmakers: Was Vanessa Kirby the first actress on the project? Did she have any concerns about taking on the role? I think she's seen videos of people giving birth, but I imagine it's a whole different kind of ordeal to live that out.
Mundruczó: We had collected some "no" s before we met Vanessa. It's a scary role, and we understand if an actress told us, "As a mother, I just can't play that role." On the other hand, we also got responses from actresses who didn't feel they could do it because they aren't mothers themselves. Either way, it's a scary role for an actress as we ask her to go through such a wide range of emotions as the film progresses. But I wasn't as interested in the "no" as I was in the "yes".
We sent the script to Vanessa and within 24 hours of reading it, she flew to Budapest to meet me. I knew her from working on the Netflix series The crownAs Princess Margaret, and although I really liked her performance, I felt that the role of Martha (in Pieces of a woman) was previously removed from Princess Margaret. But when we met in Budapest to discuss the script, I realized that Vanessa doesn't talk too much. It's a little mysterious and exciting in itself, and has the feel of a European icon from the 1970s or 1980s that I really connected with. After discussing the role with her for thirty minutes, I felt that she was the right person to play Martha.
Eventually our production budget was cut a bit, but we were still able to shoot the film with an amazing cast. It has long been a dream of mine to work with Ellen Burstyn (when I grew up watching a lot of her films) and we have been fortunate to have her and other real artists in the film, like Shia LaBeouf, Benny Safdie, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook and Iliza Shlesinger. It's not just a real performance piece, it's also a real ensemble piece. The most difficult test for me was figuring out how to turn such a performance piece into a visual film. That was the real test.
Filmmakers: How did you come to the decision to bring Benjamin Loeb on board as DP? Did you see his work on Panos Cosmatos? Mandy at this time? Some of the commercials he did? He hasn't made too many feature films, although Kogonada's next film is imminent …
Mundruczó: Its arrival came very late in preproduction. As soon as Vanessa was on board to be in the film, everything happened very quickly. I was aware MandyOf course and really appreciated this film, but that was very far from the work I enjoy doing.
Filmmakers: Yeah, it's pretty wild.
Mundruczó: I looked at some footage of Benjamin's other work that was available on his personal website, and his agent sent me some short films and music videos that he made. What I immediately felt was that it had some kind of Scandi simplicity. That could make his work very cold and dry, but his paintings always had a poetic or spiritual aspect. That's right in MandyThis applies to the music videos that he has shot and the music videos that he has recorded Pieces of a woman. His work is very poetic, which for me is more important than the "factual cinema" that presents something that is simply based on facts and serves them. You need to create a layer in the pictures where things are almost unreal and slightly above our actual reality. How to achieve the cinematic truth. It was really nice to work with him as we talked a lot about painting and architecture and the use of light and culture. We didn't really discuss other films that we wanted to emulate from the past, present, or future. (laughs)
Filmmakers: When I think back to my memories of the movie, I remember different temperatures. The interiors feel very warm in the first half of the film, and although we continue to descend into winter as the film progresses, the film still implements warm colors. The time jump after the birth sequence shows Martha in a bright red coat and soon she is putting on bright red lipstick in a department store and collecting red apples from the local supermarket. This is in contrast to the courtroom scenes later in the film, in which Martha is dressed in blue and the interiors feel colder.
Mundruczó: Well Benjamin and I always talked about two painters (on set), one was Lucian Freud and the other was Henri Matisse. Both of these color palettes really influenced the look of our movie. The palettes are very delicate and shy and at the same time very classic in a way that is more than just the provocatively avant-garde interpretation of their use. There are very emotional stories hidden beneath the surface of these pallets, and the pallets are light yellow or light green, a pale background with a color, maybe a pale orange or a red. That combined with the colors of Martha's outfits shows us that the character is isolated . It is visible to us, but its visibility means, “I am different. I am isolated.” In a way, its isolation from the environment makes up the psychology of the character.
Filmmakers: And much of Vanessa Kirby's intense physical performance is shown in close-up: her face, her hands, her neck as she tries to remember the sounds of her child's last breaths.
Mundruczó: Yes, absolutely, and a close-up for me is everything, especially the human face. Cinema allows the viewer to get closer to a person than anyone could ever get, and you can truly discover a whole world in a person's face. I make films to have physical experiences, and I believe that a film can evoke an emotional or physical response within the viewer that is non-intellectual and cannot be articulated (but that reaches more truths than an intellectual reading of a film ever could). I appreciate that both as a filmmaker and as a viewer. In Vanessa we found an actress who believes deeply in the physical aspect of the character and can concentrate on the smaller things like walking or breathing and try different every time. That was very important in making a movie like this.
Filmmakers: While the film is set in the United States (Boston, Massachusetts), you probably shot the film in Montréal. Was there anything you had to hide in the frame to portray Boston?
Wéber: Yes of course. When we decided to shoot the film in the US, we had to figure out how to keep the specifics of the piece. We chose Boston for a number of reasons, including because we were able to postpone the trial there (act three of the film) and because it was believable that this Jewish family (who are not very religious) with a European background would live there . In addition to prominent liberalism, Boston has a large conservative community. Hence it became a suitable city to shoot the film. We shot in Montréal, partly because of the architectural styles that were shared between the two cities. The weather made things very challenging, of course.
Mundruczó: It's a three-season film, almost four actually. But we had to shoot everything in a very short time in winter. It was quite challenging to cheat every season. If you catch an actor smoking in a t-shirt outdoors, you just know it was actually -10 degrees Celsius. (laughs)
Filmmakers: And was it because you were filming in Canada that you enlisted the services of Toronto composer Howard Shore to write the score?
Mundruczó: There was actually another reason for that. In the American system of filmmaking, you make a list of those you want to work with and hope you catch someone from there. The producers asked for my list of desired composers and the top name for me was Howard Shore. The reason is that it was the first time I paid attention to the credits of a movie that was on David Cronenberg's crash. I was linked to the score in that film and wrote down the composer's name: Howard Shore. Since crashI've followed his work one way or another to keep up with what he's working on. Anyway, I asked Howard Shore for this film and we sent him the script that he read and he asked to get some footage of the film. We sent him the birth scene and he saw it and replied, "Oh, it's a fantastic scene. I really want to do the movie, but … I'm not sure that this scene needs music. We can get from this one Start point at? ”So we did and it was an amazing experience for me personally to work with him.
Filmmakers: Has it always been your intention to shoot Birth in the first two days of production? I think you had a day of rehearsal and then immediately shot this challenging sequence.
Mundruczó: We specifically started production with this sequence because I didn't think an actress could actually play Martha without first having the experience that came from that scene. I got the feeling that an actress would have to draw from this sequence while filming the following scenes. So why not start in advance? It's such a monolith. The structure of the film comes from this sequence and each of the characters is connected to it in some way, just like our crew.
An expectation was also set for the remainder of the shoot. What does it mean when we work in 360? We gave our cast freedom, but it wasn't endlessly free improvisation. The birth sequence was almost like a stunt scene in an action movie. There was a lot of planning and the actual shooting had to be taken incredibly seriously. That's why I decided in preparation that we would start with the birth of Martha and from there find the form of the film.
Filmmakers: "Form" means ..
Mundruczó: For example, the sequence is filmed as a long shot, but most films use long shots for another reason, to reflect the very real course and duration of time. But what if one long shot creates something else? What if it can compress real-time while extending movie duration? That was our idea and we used it as a kind of manifest on how to shoot time and a birth scene for a movie.
Filmmakers: Have you been shooting in a real home for this long time? On a sound stage?
Mundruczó: It was an apartment we rented out, but it was filmed day after night so we had to build a tent (around it). We used a gimbal for this sequence and really for much of the movie. The gimbal was important because we didn't want to include the sequence handheld as it would feel almost too human that way. I was also against any kind of frozen, stationary camera work, and so we ended up using a gimbal that isn't normally used for narrative films but is more commonly used in sports broadcasts and music videos or other short forms. But we found some kind of visual fluidity in it and were able to focus on the poetic spirituality we were striving for. We shot most of the film with a gimbal and a zoom lens (25mm to 65mm), and I was surprised at how much a "gimbal film" turned out to be. Of course, the scenes in the courtroom were shot differently, but about ninety percent of the film was shot by Benjamin operating the gimbal.
Wéber: We always wanted to keep Martha and Sean's baby, their lost child, prominent in the movie's perspective. One of the reasons the birth scene had to be such a monolith is because we wanted the viewer to capture those feelings throughout the rest of the film. It's a very existential drug that you get in this sequence, and it's an almost physical experience for the viewer. We wanted you to feel that throughout the duration of the movie, and the gimbal helped establish that.
Filmmakers: I think you took four takes of the birth sequence on the first day of shooting, and it was the fourth take that ended up in the finished film. Is that correct?
Mundruczó: Yes. We took four pictures on the first day and two the next day. Six in total.
Filmmakers: What exactly was about that fourth take that “got it right”? I imagine the actors were exhausted by this point …
Mundruczó: Well, the first two takes had a few mistakes, and the third and fourth were clearly the best of the day. But then we felt like we could do even better, so we shot it twice more the next day and it went perfectly. However, when we got to the editing room, we found that this was exactly the problem. Everything appeared also Perfect. We ended up going for the fourth setting from day one as it was the perfect mix of mistakes and insecurities, the spirituality and tiredness we were feeling.
The fifth and sixth takes were perfectly composed, no mistakes, the text ran exactly as it was written … and the result was that it wasn't that good. It was perfect, but not that good. It was colder, and that's the problem with long shots: so often it's calculated and technically nice, but the core is cold. It is very difficult to give in to circumstances and be alive for them. That was Take Four for us, a long take with some flaws but an inner beauty, and that's why we used it.
Filmmakers: I noticed that Martin Scorsese is an executive producer on the film. When and how did he get on board the project?
Mundruczó: The was such a gift to us, but also very unexpected. Howard Shore sent the film to Scorsese (the two men have worked on several films, including After business hours, The aviator and Hugo) and he saw it and really loved it. He came back to us and asked how he could help. The edit we sent him was after our first edit and took two hours and forty minutes. He told us to do what we wanted and that it could be longer or shorter, but that he didn't want to create it himself. He gave us his trust and told us to trust ourselves, trust the movie we were making. He believes in auteur cinema and really encouraged me to make my version of the film I wanted to make. This is my debut in English, this is my "song" and this is where I sing it. Scorsese encouraged me to sing this song, and I hope cinema lovers will understand clearly.