This week we bring back our Sundance interview with Laura Moss in anticipation of their film’s theater release on Friday, August 18. Learn more at birthrebirthmovie.com
Laura Moss. This filmmaker means so much to me as an artist and a supporter of Cinema Femme. Laura Moss was the very first filmmaker I interviewed for the magazine back in 2018. At that time, we discussed their ideas for a new project which eventually became “birth/rebirth”, and it’s so exciting to see it come to fruition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I was first introduced to Laura by a critic in Chicago who screened their 2017 short film, “Fry Day”, at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. The film was about a girl who was taking and selling Polaroids outside of the prison where Ted Bundy would be executed. Meanwhile, she falls for one of her subjects, who is not exactly what he appears to be on the surface. This short was original and terrifying. I felt a personal connection to the film because I’d never seen a horror film that was so in-tune with a fear so common for women, but not represented enough onscreen.
“birth/rebirth” dove even deeper for me. As a newly forty-something, the film hit very close to home. Over the past year, I’ve been thinking about the idea of having a baby. I do want that, but at my age, I may not have the choice to have one naturally. If I do decide to have a baby, I may need to bring life into the world in not the conventional way. In this film we find two women that share that desire to bring life into the world in an unconventional way. Of course, the film takes us into a heightened reality of this concept with a single mother and a morgue technician working together to bring a child to life. During my conversation with Laura, we talked about the inspiration for the film coming from their life-long passion for Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein. They started writing this film in their mid-thirties. We talked about how your uterus is often on one’s mind when approaching forty and being around that age, and having a film like this one is very cathartic.
We also talked about their dream team onscreen with stars Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes, and behind the camera with cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj (“Palm Trees and Power Lines”); medical consultant Emily Ryan, a pathologist from Stanford who helped bring a degree of realism to the film; an Emmy-winning film editor, Taylor Joy Mason (“A Black Lady Sketch Show” and “Dahmer”); and the composer Ariel Marx (“Shiva Baby”), who used Laura’s voice and medical devices as part of the the sound of the film. Every drip of this film is bled out through Laura’s direction, and it shows. Watching a horror film with women who are going through what I’m going through in my life, and around my age is immensely rewarding. This film gets me excited about filmmaking and where Laura Moss is going to take us next.
“birth/rebirth” premiered at the Sundance 2023 film festival for their Midnight competition. There are two more in-person screenings left, and you can get your tickets here.
Can you talk about the inspiration for this film?
I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when I was 12 or 13, and I was obsessed with it. At that point, I had been exposed to Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Books about marriage and manners were not really my bag. Frankenstein felt so epic to me because it was so much a story about grief and creation and desire, and not romantic desire. I was shocked to know a woman wrote this book, and shocked that a woman wrote it in the Victorian era.
There was just so much about it that sparked excitement in me. It seemed natural to me that the idea of the film would be that the doctor was a woman. What would that mean if the person creating life with their mind had a uterus and the ability to gestate life with their body? At that time, I didn’t know what this idea was going to be yet. Before I was a filmmaker, I was writing these strange journal entries from the perspective of this character from prison who was justifying what she had done to the mother of the reanimated child who was now in her care. It was a complicated story and then over the years, it just evolved into a cinematic idea.
The deadline for the Sundance labs was coming up one year and I thought, ‘heck, let’s try to make this into a movie.’ I’m grateful to them for so many reasons. Even if I was not accepted into the labs, I would credit them for the actual creation of this story. The lab inspired me to make this idea into a film.
Can you talk more about your adaptation of Frankenstein and how these characters came to be?
I don’t really consider this film an adaptation of Frankenstein at all, although it was inspired by the story. I think the elements that mirror elements in both the novel and in the subsequent famous films snuck their way back in. The only thing I was taking from the book was that there was a character who wanted to create life and who is reanimating things that come across their table. I think both consciously and subconsciously as we were developing the project, we thought there should be an ‘it’s alive’ moment in the film, but what does that look like in the context of this film? It’s been fun to hear people point out similarities to the novel that we didn’t even really intend. I’ve obviously consumed all things Frankenstein, so it’s living up there in my subconscious. But in the making of the film, we allowed ourselves to be very free with the material.
Can you talk about how you cast your main characters? It really seems like a dream team to me.
I’m obsessed with Marin Ireland, she’s an actress of stage and screen. I knew it probably would make sense to approach casting Rose’s character first. It’s such an odd character. I think this film is very execution-dependent and financiers are going to want to know literally what Rose is going to look like. Marin was an obvious choice. I was delighted that she was excited about the material. Sometimes you have to fight for an actress you believe in, but I was lucky that we partnered with Shudder. They had worked with Marin in “The Dark and the Wicked,” and they were obsessed with her as well. When her name came up, it was an emphatic “yes” from the Shudder financing team. When we got her on board, it really enabled us to attract a whole new level of actors in the other roles because Marin is a real actor’s actor and commands a lot of respect.
As for Judy Reyes, I’d been thinking about her for Celie from the beginning. She’s most famously known for her comedic work in “Scrubs,” but I was attracted to her because of “Gun Hill Road” (2011). It’s a beautiful family drama. Judy plays the matriarch of a Bronx family dealing with the father coming home from prison and discovering that his child is transgender. There is a fall-out in the family from that, and Judy was amazing in this role. When I offered her the part, I expected her to resist it because it was another nurse role, but she responded to the material. We got on a zoom and the rest is history.
I felt for Judy’s character the most because of her conflict with loving her job and staying close to her child.
I’d love to talk about how you found A.J. Lister as Lila, the “monster,” and how was it working with her on set?
We did a nationwide search with our casting director, Allison Twardziak. A.J.’s audition tape was unbelievable. Kids are often scary to cast. But not only was A.J. wonderful, her mother was really a partner with us. She wasn’t trying to enforce line-readings into her daughter, she was able to help us to maintain a sense of play and exploration. And in the process leading up to filming, Stephanie Lister and I would exchange videos with references to certain ways to walk or the behavior of a Dementia patient. We were developing this physical language, and A.J. would play around. We’d be like, “more of this, less of this.” So we were able to develop the physical vocabulary of the monster before she came to set. This was really important because you only get six hours of filming a day. You have to be efficient, and fast.
Can you talk about your collaboration with the cinematographer, Chananun Chotrungroj. She shot one of my favorite films from last year, “Palm Trees and Power Lines.”
Chananun is a woman of few words. She thinks in images and communicates in images. We had an initial interview about the film and she said “I liked it,” and I said, “thanks.” Then she sent me a 198-page visual document that outlined her approach to the film, with no words in it. I like that way of working because I’m from a production design background and my way of communicating with the director is to flood them with images in order to get back from them what they are responding to visually, and even more importantly, what they are not responding to visually. So at some point, we just have a shorthand and we don’t even have to talk about details anymore.
We had a shot list in a Google doc where we could slot in imagery. Of course, not shot-for-shot but many times in our shot list we would have these visual references, either for lighting or framing. We really knew what we were going for. We had 24 days to shoot and we were not always able to achieve the pinnacle of what we wanted to do, but Chananun did a phenomenal job, especially by making the locations feel really new. We spent so much time in this one apartment in the film, and I personally don’t think it feels the way it normally does when you watch the film. She really does light to the mood of the moment.
I love the little touches in the film, like the kids’ video with the birds. Where did that come from?
Yes, the “Rescue Birds” [laughs]. Let me tell you exactly where that came from. Originally in the script, it was “Wonder Pets!”, which is a real children’s television show about these school room pets that save real animals when the class is not in session. Shockingly, the good people at “Wonder Pets!” never got back to us when we asked to license the footage. So we wrote and produced our own children’s television show. My co-writer, Brendan J. O’Brien, wrote it. Our sound-mixer, Joe Origlieri, who animates on the side, animated the show. My brother, Greg Moss, wrote the “Rescue Birds” theme song. So it was a real family affair. It took up a lot more time in post-production then we had or expected it to.
Can you talk more about this idea of “medical realism”, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that term before.
I don’t even know if it’s a real term, but this idea is wild. I think it was very important for us that the medical elements in this film felt as grounded as possible so the audience could really settle in and believe this heightened scenario. Even though we haven’t yet discovered the secret to life, it was important to me that Rose’s science was based in research and that the birthing sequences and the medical sequences in the film were realistically portrayed. Emily Ryan was our medical advisor. She is a Stanford pathologist and a brilliant human who took weeks off from her job to advise us on the film. Emily was present on almost every day of filming. Not only did she help our production designers, but she helped our whole team feel confident in what they were doing. She also helped our actors. Whenever there was a detail on what they should be writing or what it was they were working on, we had an expert there to really advise all of us on how to proceed.
I love how you elevated forty-something women and how they deal with the choices to have children or not have children. Can you talk about what you were trying to bring to the screen that you feel wasn’t represented?
I’ve been thinking about this idea for ages, but I really started writing it in my mid-thirties. I turned forty on the set of this film. For me, it was just in the atmosphere. Everyone I knew was having kids or choosing not to have kids. Some people I knew were learning that they couldn’t have kids naturally, and trying to form families in a different way. It’s just that at this particular stage of life, it is what is on people’s minds. You are making a decision or the decision is being made for you during this period. That was really what it was about for me.
At different iterations of the film, financiers, not at Shudder, pressured me to make Rose younger and younger. It was important to me that these women were in their late-thirties at the youngest. It was important because I feel at this particular age, these are the times where we have to reckon the most with our bodies and what is best to do with our uteruses.
I think it’s fascinating that a lot of the films I’ve been seeing at Sundance deal with these subjects. Maybe I’m just more of aware of it now because I’m in it.
I think there might be an element of the pandemic to all of this. Certainly these films and my film were developed long before the pandemic, but the pandemic was a time when many people chose to have children or try to find what a domestic life looks like. And I think there is a lot of anxiety around that and the reframing of that. But I’m very heartened that there are many films coming out that explore these issues.
I would love to talk about your editor, Taylor Joy Mason. How did you find her and how was your experience working together?
She was originally referred to me by my producers. But when I interviewed her, I immediately felt a connection and sensed that she understood the material. She won an Emmy recently for “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and she edited several episodes of “Dahmer.” I jokingly mentioned to her, “That’s our movie, it’s like ‘Dahmer’ meets ‘A Black Lady Sketch Show.’” [laughs]
She has such a feel for tension and for comedy. It was really important to us that the levity in this script was appropriately woven in. She had an instinct for it that was evident in the first assembly. We had a very accelerated post process. We wouldn’t be at Sundance if it wasn’t for Taylor’s insight and her eye.
Can you talk about working with your composer Ariel Marx? The music in this film was amazing.
Ariel composed the music for my short film, “Fry Day”, and that’s around the time we first met. She has since blown up in her career, and has done so many great films like “Shiva Baby” as well as a worldwide array of work. Because we are friends, I had the benefit of really getting to speak to her about this movie over the course of years. She sent me palette tests, little ideas of what she thought this world would sound like. I was able to play these tests for the actors and have them handy on set. Taylor cut with very little temp score. It was temp in the sense that they were pre-written cues from Ariel that she then changed, but it was Ariel’s music that we cut to. We were looking for synth sounds because we wanted this meshing of biological and electronic feelings in the story. We couldn’t find the synth library that we liked, so she had me record different sounds. Most of the score is made up of my voice, along with sonogram sounds, fetal monitor sounds, and medical devices. Bryan Parker was our sound supervisor, and Doug Moss, my brother, was our sound designer. I’m so proud about how the sound design seamlessly melds with the score.
What do you hope people see in your film?
So much about making this film was a process of self-discovery for me, and grappling with these larger themes of grief, how to process grief and what actually makes a mother. I find negotiating those questions in the context of horror very cathartic. I know that this film will not be for everyone. For some, it might be triggering and I hope those people manage to avoid us. But I’m hoping this film finds its people, and particularly people struggling with these issues who can find catharsis in the horror genre.