We chat to director and co-writer Laura Moss about their new film, Birth/Rebirth, which is a chilling look at motherhood and the Frankenstein myth.
Birth/Rebirth follows two women, Celie and Rose, who find themselves in a unique situation. Celie’s daughter has just died and ended up on mortician Rose’s table, but Rose, obsessed with “curing” death, is able to reanimate her.
Once Celie finds out that Rose holds her revived daughter in her apartment, the two women begin to work together to keep her alive – but it comes at a terrifying cost.
With the Birth/Rebirth out now in the UK, we caught up with Laura Moss, its director and co-writer, to talk about women’s bodily autonomy, Frankenstein and abortion.
My understanding is that you wrote it and the idea came quite a while ago, and I’m interested to know, did it change at all?
I was thinking about this character for a really long time. And before it was a film, I was writing these strange letters from the perspective of this female Dr Frankenstein, letters from prison to the mother of the child she illegally reanimated, kind of justifying her worldview. And that is how I started to really conceive of this character. For those who’ve seen the film, nothing like that happens in the film, but I think it was just a good way in, to try to understand her.
The main beats have not largely changed in the film, and I think each pass [at the script] was really a grounding pass. There was a little bit more of a melodrama originally. There’s still elements of melodrama, but we wanted to make sure that this story felt frighteningly real. And so I think every iteration of the script has been with an eye towards grounding, both the characters and the medicine, in the story.
You shot this very shortly after the overturning of Roe vs Wade and it’s impossible to not draw a parallel between the film’s themes and that. How much was that on your mind then during production?
Sadly, the assault on female bodily autonomy is ongoing. Of course, we didn’t know that that was going to happen and we certainly were working on this film long before the overturning of Roe vs Wade. I think the way that it influenced our film, it galvanised a lot of women, both in front of and behind the camera that worked on this film.
A lot of people were hurting in the wake of that decision and wanted to find an artistic outlet to explore that hurt. And so when this film came across their desks, it was just sort of, unfortunately, the right moment to explore these things.
The scene that really got to me was when we see a woman give birth, and she’s like, please, like, let me try before this doctor just goes and starts cutting into her without her consent.
That’s based on a real experience of a friend of mine. I’ve not given birth, so it was very important for me to listen to people who have. Throughout the process of writing the film, I was interviewing, both formally and informally, all my friends who have given birth and all of their varied experiences. It’ll come to no surprise to women that the experiences that came up over and over were not being believed and not being listened to, so it just felt like an important thing to include in our story.
And you open the film with an incredibly harrowing scene which really stayed with me. Could you tell me a little bit about how that came to be and your approach to it?
Our film opens with an emergency C-section, and our cinematographer experienced an emergency C section. I always knew that, for very practical, story reasons, this section had to be filmed from the point of view [of the mother]. But it really was in collaborating with Chananun (Chotrungroj), our DP, that we really designed the shots based on what it felt like for her to be in that experience.
So I had the eyes of someone very visual describing this experience to me. We just really tried to honour that and make sure it was as medically accurate as possible. As we were filming, we had a great medical adviser, Emily Ryan, who’s a pathologist at Stanford University. She’s the one that actually delivers the child, she’s also an extra in that scene. She’s low-key directing the background, and having her there to anchor the experience really helped.
I knew quite young that I never wanted to have children because of that bodily trauma that you go through. It’s such a violent act, giving birth and creating life.
It’s a transformative act. I think this film, for me, is processing a lot of my own fears around birth, which I have yet to experience and may not. My mother has four children. And she would always talk about how she would get pregnant again, and then be close to giving birth and remember what the previous births were. Somehow her memory of that was wiped out, that experience, allowing her to get pregnant again.
But she has always described it as transformative. Yes, violent and yes, extreme, but there is also a joy and uniqueness to that experience that women who have given birth tell me can’t can’t be matched by anything else. That is something we wanted to explore, not just the horrors of pregnancy and birth, but the realities of motherhood and that bond.
We already mentioned the abortion or miscarriage scene. It’s funny how abortions and miscarriages are represented in mainstream media, because it’s almost like… they’re not romanticised, necessarily, but it’s almost like these women, they’re very heroic going through that trauma, whereas your approach is completely different to that.
I’ve had two abortions, they were not traumatic for me and I represent one of many experiences that people who have had that procedure would describe. Rose is not connected to her body, she uses it like a vending machine to deliver materials for her research, so this experience would not be an emotionally impactful experience for her. And I wanted to honour that in the filmmaking by not sensationalising the auto-abortion, making sure that in both that sequence and also Celie’s subsequent discovery of the foetus, we weren’t circling, highlighting, drawing a line under it, like it was some kind of monstrous act. That experience is varied and I would love to see more varied experiences of abortion on screen.
And I think that’s so important that we have the full spectrum of those experiences so that we can finally kind of come to terms with it, because I feel like it’s still a bit of a taboo to talk about abortion, especially now.
It is and in my mind, it shouldn’t be. I’m always happy to talk about it and I didn’t want it to feel like a political act. I know that it’s sort of necessarily a political act to put it on screen. But the politics of abortion are not central to the plot or even the psyche of our characters. And so it just really felt to me like this experience needed to be rooted in what was needed for the story and what Rose needed for her experiments.
And a lot of the film relies on this brilliantly contradicting dynamic between your actors, Judy Reyes and Marin Ireland. They’re such different characters and the way they bounce off each other is quite interesting to watch. How did you work with them on that?
They’re both powerhouse actors. They’re both so experienced and come with their own deep processes. We did not have a lot of rehearsal time, we had a few days where they could meet each other. So I had extensive conversations with each of them, but they had not really met or bonded with each other, which ultimately, I think was a positive thing. The characters form a bond over the course of the film and while we didn’t shoot strictly in order, we did try to shoot in as rough an order as possible. And the apartment scenes were last and those are the scenes where they really bond, so it was helpful that they were kind of getting to know each other at the beginning of this process, but were quite bonded by the end.
As a filmmaker, you’re always scared. Are they going to have the chemistry you hope they have? But it was really in that first scene we filmed with the two of them – that’s the scene where Celie comes down and meets Rose for the first time in the pathology lab, that I could feel the electricity of their chemistry. And so could the crew. We all were kind of silent at the end of that first take and thought, Okay, we have a movie.
You already mentioned that it’s kind of a take on the Frankenstein narrative. And it seems to keep popping up. Poor Things, which is currently in cinemas, not a similar narrative, but also a take on that particular story. Why do you think it keeps coming back? Why are filmmakers drawn to it, but also audiences?
A lot has been written about the deeper thematic resonances of famous monsters, like the class dynamics of Dracula, the Cold War and atomic politics of The Incredible Shrinking Woman… The deeper themes of Frankenstein are so juicy, it’s really about ethics, parental responsibility and what we owe to each other. It’s really timeless, and can be reinterpreted in so many different contexts.
You describe Poor Things, but we also toured the festival circuit this year with a film called The Angry Black Girl And Her Monster, which is really about racial politics in the US through the Frankenstein lens. There’s something so primal about the Frankenstein story that it can be used to explore many different urgent things. And so as a filmmaker, it’s really a gift. This is not an adaptation of Frankenstein, this is really just inspired by some of the core aspects of the doctor and monster. I did not feel the pressure to do a faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as much as I love it,
And just lastly, what are you working on next?
Brendon, my writing partner, and I wrote a film before this, which is larger in scope. We did come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t going to be our first feature, but it’s a horror comedy called Gordon, about a misdiagnosed sociopath who’s trying to date and be good in a world that itself is sociopathic. And it really is a film about expectation, labels and diagnosis, which is something that really interests me. I’m hoping that we get to make that in the next year.
Birth/Rebirth is available digitally now.