Vital Thrills participated in Netflix‘s virtual roundtable interviews with the Pieces of a Woman cast and crew. Joining Pieces of a Woman cast members Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn were director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber.
Thus begins a yearlong odyssey for Martha, who must navigate her grief while working through fractious relationships with Sean and her domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn), along with the publicly vilified midwife (Molly Parker), whom she must face in court.
Kirby spoke to the press about getting the role and why it was important. “It was kind of one of those strangely serendipitous things, the beginning of it,” she said. It came about through a series of meetings in which she spoke about wanting a really challenging roles. “I read it in an hour,” she said of the script.
“I was realizing that I’d never seen a birthing like this on screen before,” she explained. The opening scene is a 24 minute unbroke shot of the birth of her daughter and the aftermath of the tragedy.
“I’ve seen so many deaths throughout cinema history,” she continued. “And why is that? Probably because we haven’t had as many female writers, and yet so many men have witnessed births. We’ve all been born, so it just felt like, really important, as well as dealing with the subject of baby loss, which is very silent and hard to talk about, and society finds it really uncomfortable. So it just felt like an important representation of a female experience.”
She spoke about researching what the experience of losing a child was like for a family. “So I spent many days with lots of women who’d been through it, shared their experiences… because, I thought, I have to try and understand how it feels and do justice to them, because I’ve never experienced grief at that level.”
“In terms of the birth,” she continued, “I watched a ton of documentaries, none of which gave me any idea how to act it, because everything is edited into little clips. It’s all kind of sanitized a little bit. So I wrote to an obstetrician who allowed me to spend time in a labor ward.” She said she spent days with midwives, as well as being allowed to witness a woman giving birth.
Burstyn spoke about a close friend whose child had died. “I went through that with her, so I have some idea of the profundity of that death. It’s just kind of more than you can even talk about. I think it’s very private because I think it’s hard for people to express the depth of what they’re feeling.” She spoke about the fact that there was a previous taboo in Hollywood about showing a child in jeopardy, which she speculated was possibly a cause of the taboo we feel in real life.
Kirby gave us a glimpse into the preparation for the long birth scene. “I honestly felt relief when I heard that we were going to do it as an unbroken take, because what scared me more was the idea of having to break up the moment and come back after lunch and have to go instantly back to the bath scene… it felt risky but often when you’re most frightened, you step up. Everyone felt like that.”
She said that this reminded her of doing theater, laughing about how she gets scared at every dress rehearsal, but ultimately, you can’t leave the stage. “When action was called, we had no choice but to do it,” she said.
Burstyn has a powerful monologue, which Mundruczó described as the second high point of the film, after the birth. Burstyn said of the scene, “The monologue kept undergoing transformations as it got rewritten and worked on. We all knew it was an important moment in the film, and wanted it to be as good as it could be…”
She continued, “When we finally came to it – there’s this magical thing that sort of happens sometimes… where you start to do something… and something happens, I can only describe it as, ‘you stop doing it, and it starts doing you,’ and it happened in that scene… this rush of energy came up in me and I was sort of riding it… those moments are hard to talk about because they’re unpredictable.”
Wéber wrote this story first as a play, basing this on her experience with Mundruczó. (They lost a child through miscarriage.) “I never intended to really write a whole play or script about it, but then I kind of dug deeper into it, and then I started to actually feel the urge to write about it. It felt almost like therapy for me, which was really surprising.”
She said that felt like a healing as well, saying that she wasn’t just writing about the tragedy, but the “grace and the belonging, and about how someone can become a stronger person [through the experience].” She said that she still had to do a lot of research, saying “I had to understand that every fourth pregnancy ends up in miscarriage or stillbirth… I wanted to celebrate this eternal love and grace I felt [talking to women who had been through this].”
Mundruczó said the idea to turn the play into the movie came about later. “I really felt the power… I felt that it was so universal. I felt it was good to make my English debut.” He said it was important to tell this story.
In terms of the long and unbroken birth scene and whether the decision to film it that was came from the play, he said, “To be honest, it’s connected, these two facts. First of all, I think that theater and film [are] pretty far from each other as an art form, but definitely connected – that fact that for births, on stage it’s even more radical than a movie.”
Mundruczó explained that he filmed the stage birth, which is longer than the film birth. “To find a way how you can create this kind of crazy variety of emotion that you can feel during a birth, and how you can give it back, where you don’t have real references in movies or whatever, just real life experience – and as a father of three I have to say, to be a father is not that far [from being] a filmmaker because you are an observer and… very emotionally connected to what’s happening.”
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó (White God) from a script by Kata Wéber, Pieces of a Woman stars Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Molly Parker, Sarah Snook, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, and Jimmie Fails.
Pieces of a Woman, executive produced by Martin Scorsese, is a deeply personal, searing, and ultimately transcendent story of a woman learning to live alongside her loss.
Produced by Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, and Aaron Ryder, the movie was also executive produced by Sam Levinson, Stuart Manashil, Viktoria Petranyi, Jason Cloth, Richard McConnell, Suraj Maraboyina for Creative Wealth Media, Aaron Gilbert for BRON Studios, and Steven Thibault.
The film premiered in competition at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Vanessa Kirby was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the event.
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