Over the 20 years that the director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber have been working together, a hallmark of their productions has been taking extraordinary circumstances and finding the humanity within it, first on stage and then in films such as “White God,” in which a girl’s search for her lost dog whipped up a flurry of canines in the streets of Hungary, and “Jupiter’s Moon,” where a refugee is taken far further than he ever could believe his feet could take him. So when Wéber had started a notebook with the title “Pieces of a Woman” written on top, inspired by a trial regarding a midwife alleged to have mishandled an at-home birth, the partners, both professionally and personally, had found themselves having a very different conversation than they usually have, concerned not with how the fantastical could be rooted in some emotional truth, but how they could the tools at their disposal to somehow do justice to the overwhelming feelings they experienced when they themselves lost a child during pregnancy.
Armed with a fearless performance from Vanessa Kirby at its center, “Pieces of a Woman” exudes Mundruczó and Wéber’s own courageousness personally and aesthetically in pulling audiences in to experience a situation both exhilarating and painful at first where the elation of bringing a new life into the world is replaced nearly instantaneously with an unfathomable sense of loss. Once a play consisting of two scenes, the film adaptation draws on the intimacy and claustrophobia that it could conjure within the confines of live theater yet evolves into transcendent cinema as long, fluid takes convey the feeling of grief trails Martha (Kirby) and her husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf) wherever they go as the two attempt to put the tragedy behind them, unable to in any practical manner when a trial against the midwife (Molly Parker) commences and Martha’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) presses for a civil suit.
While Martha remains largely quiet throughout, desperate not to engage and unsure of what words to use even if she did, “Pieces of a Woman” employs camera language that lets the world around her to speak volumes, with her feelings of being exposed to shame by the glass buildings she often finds herself in around Boston and its graceful movements accompanying her stray thoughts of what her life of being a mother might have been or the rare breaks from thinking about family matters at all. After a series of already remarkable collaborations, this would seem to be Mundruczó and Wéber’s finest to date and recently the pair graciously took the time to talk about how the process of making the drama allowed them the opportunity to open up to each other about their own experience and their hope that it will inspire the same discussions among others.
Because this has been a great collaboration for a few films now, how early you start talking with each other about a script?
Kata Wéber: We are always dealing with many ideas and we regularly sit down and talk through what’s on our table, so it’s a habit now. We both have to agree on the topic and on the perspective, and then later on, I do the writing and we discuss. With this one, it was a little bit different because it’s a very personal subject for us. I was on invitation for a theater piece [originally] and I had a couple of notes in my notebook — a dialogue between a mother and the daughter, which Kornel read and he encouraged me to dig deeper. And because we share an experience of a miscarriage, which we actually never talked about, I was very fearful to expand this and to write more about my thoughts. But then I tried, and by trying, it felt like a reference point for us so that we could talk to each other and break our silence. It worked almost like therapy, although it was not just about writing out the feelings around loss and tragedy, but also to express the love and the grace within such stories, so it was very much of a healing process.
Kornél Mundruczó: When we premiered the play, we [felt] we broke our silence and used this piece as a therapy, but the audience reaction was incredible, because everybody coming to us and started to tell their own stories, which means that we didn’t break just our silence, we break a silence about the taboo. Then we dug deeper into it and we decided to just make a movie out of it and we sent the script to a few American producer friends. They reacted very warmly and encouraged us to create an American movie, and it was really good for me as a debut because I felt that it’s very personal and I [could] sing my song, because that was a big question, was what can I do with this market?
Kata Wéber: When this material met the audience or the actors, we realized they all came forward with their stories, with their connections, so from the very first moment, we understood that this might resonate with a universal audience. We also felt it’s so tiny and personal that maybe this is the right choice to do an English language debut, because it’s so grounded we can stand behind it a thousand percent.
You make use of architecture so well in the film — and in the play, I know the mother’s house played such a big role. Did you actually have an idea of the locations you wanted to use in Montreal, which stands in for Boston in the film?
Kornél Mundruczó: The play includes only two scenes; the birth and the mother’s dinner scene, and of course, that was important to express the history in the mother’s house. But when you are spreading it out for crazy amount of locations and you are really dealing with a very abstract subject, which is isolation, as the city is expressing her feelings, that was really a process to find the right locations. But what we felt in Montreal, it’s a bit alike to Europe and in Boston [where there were exterior shoots], we felt that. So we really chose locations very carefully that had a little bit of history or a ghost-like feeling. Montreal gave lots of great opportunity, especially in winter, which is strong there.
You also accommodate such an eclectic cast. Did you do anything to make it specific to them once they came on?
Kata Wéber: I love to work together with the actors as real artists who have the authority to make suggestions, especially when it’s not my first language. So we did read the [script] out loud and talked about references and the dialogue. It’s also interesting with English because it’s so different what a joke means on the West Coast or East Coast or in London, so you’re constantly working on the perfect text for a scene.
I’ve heard that the birth scene that opens the film was shot first, which must’ve been foundational for so many of the performances in the film, but was that actually important as far as giving you confidence or a sense memory you could draw on for the rest of the shoot?
Kornél Mundruczó: It was really important to me to use that scene as a monolith. First of all, Vanessa cannot continue working without this experience, but at the same time, it was our A-B-C for the crew to feel what is the quality we would like to target [for the rest of the film]. What was really obvious is I would like to start with it, but I think the whole team has really appreciated that we really concentrate on that scene, which is closer to an action scene than a dramatic scene. You are planning and planning and planning, and then blocking, but it’s not really rehearsal, and you have that shooting day, the blessed day, and then you make it. What is cut into the movie, that’s the take from the first day.
It’s just extraordinary, and the fluidity of that take extends into the rest of the film’s visual language.
Kornél Mundruczó: What we are looking for is a presence of a lost soul, and how we could describe that with our camera work. We ended up with a gimbal and it’s a fluid, spiritual or, if I may say, poetic camera work, which we used all the way during the process, and we really discovered that with the birth. First, we tried handheld, and it doesn’t work and then we tried this distant still camera, it doesn’t work. It’s cold and not working. And then we ended up with this and then we felt, “Wow! We would like to shoot the entire movie to creating the presence of the lost soul,” so the whole foundation was from the birth scene and the evolution of the camera work starting from there.
Kata, are you involved much in ideas about the blocking or the design of the camerawork when it takes on that perspective?
Kata Wéber: I was there [on set] for Ben and for Kornel to discuss, and it was a 20-page birth scene on the page, so we discussed how detailed it has to be and I think those talks helped them to really articulate what kind of camera they would choose. As Kornel said, the spirit of the baby has to take us through the whole inner journey of these female stories and the seeds of this thought of perspective was there in the script and we keep on talking about everything. But I would never go to the technical details because it’s not my territory.
When it’s a story you’re close to like this, what are the emotions of seeing it take on a life of its own once you dramatize it?
Kata Wéber: It’s very important to see that sharing your story means a lot to many other people, so it feels just right. After you were fearful and not sure to go there, now it feels like a reassuring moment to understand that this story might help others to break their silence.