Laura Moss on Fleshing Out “Birth/Rebirth”

Rosalind Franklin has largely been written out of his history, just 37 when she passed away of ovarian cancer and not always remembered fondly by colleagues for whom her fierce intellect might’ve been overwhelming, but the British chemist was said to want to spend more time at the lab than at parties, quietly cracking the code of DNA structure though only Francis Crick and James Watson were credited with the discovery. It was who Laura Moss and co-writer Brendan O’Brien thought to name the heroine of their debut feature, “Birth/Rebirth” after when Rose (Marin Ireland) isn’t one to suffer fools, thinking of heading to the bar not to wind down after a long day of work, but to collect a sperm sample she’ll only have to pay for with patience and surprisingly, she’s less picky about the potential donor than the Cobb salad she orders, which isn’t to come with bacon, chicken or egg. In fact, she’s taking care of her body when she’s putting it to use in a unique way, conducting experiments on herself that could perhaps serve as the basis for an ultimate goal of bringing the dead back to life, a shared area of interest for her co-worker at the hospital, Celie (Judy Reyes), who might be able to benefit from her trials after the death of her eight-year-old daughter Leela (A.J. Lister) and wonders why Rose seems to be taking her work home with her in body bags.

If Franklin was conveniently forgotten over the years for the major contributions she made to science, Moss makes something where that would be simply impossible, unnerving and arresting with a healthy does of gallows humor as Rose turns her apartment into a makeshift medical facility that might not be up to code, what with the pig she’s revived walking about, but may be the site of a breakthrough. Still, whether or not Leela gets a new lease on life, “Birth/Rebirth” observes the animating effect the experiments have on the women who are so deeply invested in them, as graphic in depicting the pain they’ve felt they had to hold in as the grisly measures they’ve gone to try to heal and energized by the creativity required to do what they’ve been told would be impossible. As they nervously await the results, the film leaves no doubt about the prodigious talents of Moss, for whom this feature debut arrives after making some of the best shorts of the past decade. Each film has been impressive in its own right, whether it’s the sense of dread underlying a celebration of the execution of Ted Bundy in “Fry Day,” the anxiety-inducing standup set “Allen Anders: Live at the Comedy Castle – Circa 1987” and the knowingly cheeky “Porn Without Sex,” but the willingness to tackle different formal conceits and still show a complete command of each film’s potentially dizzying internal logic has been jaw dropping, making the only thing not shocking about “Birth/Rebirth” be how confident it is.

After premiering at Sundance earlier this year, the film is making its way to theaters and Moss, who frankly is one of the most considerate and passionate people we’ve come across in the history of the site, graciously found the time to talk during a busy week, discussing the film’s connections to “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” holding up to real medical scrutiny and how the filmmaker’s voice comes across in the film, not only in its blazing originality but cleverly embedded into the soundtrack.

From what I understand, this story has been kicking around since you were a teen. Had it changed in your mind over the years?

The seed of this came when I read “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in school and I really couldn’t let go of it. The thought kept plaguing me, what would happen if Victor Frankenstein was a woman and she needed to just state her own materials for her experiments? That was it, and then the idea went away and went in a drawer. And it wasn’t until years later when Brendan and I were asked to develop a contained horror story, something that we could shoot with just a few locations and just a few characters that we revived this idea. And by that point, I was in my mid-thirties and everyone around me was thinking about motherhood in some way, shape or form, or having children, going through IVF, or choosing not to, so the scripts became infused with those themes and topics.

Is it true you actually had medical experts look over the script?

Yeah, I feel like I can easily get trapped in a prison of research, especially with a project this delicate. So I decided we would only read a few books and a couple of articles and then take our first swing at this, knowing that there would be a lot of medical inaccuracies. Then we were lucky enough to meet Emily Ryan, a pathologist at Stanford who eventually was our on-set medical advisor, but years before that, [she] read an early draft of our script — and basically shredded everything we got wrong but also [gave us] positive, really smart suggestions for how to solve those problems and she’s generously given us so much of her time [since then].

The apartment is such an amazing setting for the film. Was that a real location or a set you could construct?

My background is in production design and I always wanted the apartment to be a build. I had a very specific idea of the layout I wanted, but it just wasn’t feasible at our budget level, so I enlisted the help of Courtney and Hillary Andujar, our production designers early, knowing that choosing the right location was going to be key to achieving the look we wanted. And we found this co-op apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, [together] and they were able to really make it special. It’s a credit to them that the movie doesn’t feel like we’re constantly in one location, even though that is in fact true.

There’s a Frankenstein quality to the place, with the mix of old and new decor and it feels very lived in.

Yeah, I didn’t want to explicitly go into Rose’s backstory very much, but I really wanted her mother’s presence to be felt in the movie. That was really the North Star for us when the Andujars and I were thinking about design, just these old layers that were touches from her mother who is a lot warmer and a lot more emotionally intelligent than her daughter. I wanted to see Rose living in those remnants of the past.

You couldn’t get anyone better to play her than Marin Ireland. What was she like to work with?

It’s a dream. Marin is absolutely fearless, and when I wrote this, I couldn’t actually imagine who could play this role. I had a very specific type of person in mind and I just had never seen it before. I knew Marin could do anything, but it was really in the process of discussing this character and sharing references and talking about Rose that Marin uniquely brought her to life. And as far as I was concerned as a director, when you’re working with an actor of that caliber, you share all your resources with them and then you get out of their way because she knows how to prepare better than anyone.

It seems like you could only go to the crazy places this film does by creating an environment supportive enough to take those risks. What was it like to set the vibe for this?

We had to work at a pretty lightning pace because it’s an independent film and we only had 24 days to shoot. But that being said, It was an incredible vibe on set. Our department heads and our crew were there because they were passionate about the material and you could really feel that. It was a really collaborative environment. Everyone was incredibly respectful of Marin and Judy’s process. They are tough actors — not difficult at all, but they were having to go through a lot of emotions in the course of one day, and I was really proud and impressed by the crew’s ability to stay quiet and allow the actors the space to keep their focus.

And when you’ve got the child actor on set too, I imagine it’s like creating an entirely different experience for them, given that they might be too young to understand the themes of the film…

Yeah, A.J. [Lister] was incredible and she was really a natural. Her mother was [also] such a pleasure to work with, and I know they say never work with animals and children, but we did both and I have to say working with AJ was a wonderful experience. But it also speaks to Marin and Judy’s empathy and compassion because we were all really concerned with making A.J. comfortable and not traumatizing her while making a pretty traumatizing movie, so it was really about constantly checking in. Marin was very playful with A.J., making sure she was engaged between takes and felt safe to communicate anything that she didn’t like or was making her uncomfortable, so it was a really positive environment and A.J. kept things light and reminded us that the shot is not the most important thing.

Thinking of animals, is it true you were once thinking turkeys instead of a pig?

I don’t think it was ever supposed to be turkeys, but we did have it as a rat early on, which is a lot less fun to watch on camera. We ended up changing it to a pig because as we were researching regenerative medical experiments, we came across some scientists at MIT who had reanimated dead brain cells in pigs and once we got the image of a reanimated pig into our minds, it was really hard to let go. So that became a producer problem. [laughs]

Well, I’m sorry for them, but it was wonderful on screen. And something I suspect will be under appreciated is how much work you end up doing in the background – there’s always this strange TV show running as this film plays out. Was that a fun part of the process to add a little creepiness?

It was a crazy part of the process. We originally wanted to have this eerie, repetitive TV show called “The Wonder Pets” that if you had a young child between 2003 and 2010, you would have heard of. It’s a very specific style children’s television show and we tried to get that license and the good people at “Wonder Pets” never called us back, so we realized we were going to have to create a show from scratch. And it was remarkable trying to write, produce, edit, and animate a children’s television show in post while finishing the movie in time for our Sundance debut. It was kind of madness, but our sound mixer Joe Origlieri actually did the animation, [which is] something he does in addition to his sound work, so he pulled that together, and my brother wrote the music. It was a real family and friends affair.

Of course, you also reunite with Ariel Marx to compose the score and from what I’ve heard, you actually built up a sound library over years to create the music for this. How did that work?

The guiding principle behind the score was very much synthesizing the biological and the mechanical, so we knew we wanted a sense palette and that we wanted to breathe some life into it and have it feel organic as well. So Ariel would send me synth sounds and I would say how I felt about them, and she was developing a [musical] language with me that way, but eventually we realized that nothing was quite nailing the tone that we wanted. She suggested that we record actually my mother reading some words, myself and a three-year-old child and to experiment and see if we could create like a synth palette out of those voices. I think Ariel ended up only using mine, but it was a real adventure.

It just goes to how rich this movie is. What’s it like getting to this place with something you’ve been thinking about for so long?

It’s beyond words. Sundance was exhilarating, but terrifying,knowing you were going to premiere your movie and not knowing how it was going to be received. But we’ve had such a warm reception on the festival circuit and now that we’re opening tomorrow in New York City at the IFC Center where I watched some of the movies that shaped my brain. It feels like a dream come true.

“Birth/Rebirth” opens on August 18th in New York at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7.

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