Interview: Director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber on putting the delicate and personal puzzle of ‘Pieces of a Woman’ together
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s latest feature, Pieces of a Woman, premiered at Venice 2020 to great reviews and a Best Actress Volpi Cup win for Vanessa Kirby. His Cannes Palme d’Or nominee, Jupiter’s Moon, was a bold sci-fi hit and his Cannes-winning White God explored race and class oppression through the lens of a seemingly simple metaphor building to a jaw-dropping ending.
As Mundruczó’s partner and co-writer, Kata Wéber began her career working in theatre after graduating from the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, eventually becoming an actress and a playwright. It was during her playwright period that she she started collaborating with Mundruczó, creating White God, Jupiter’s Moon and Pieces of a Woman together.
In Pieces of a Woman, out on Netflix January 7, Martha (Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) play a Boston couple on the verge of parenthood whose lives change irrevocably when a home birth ends in unimaginable tragedy. This begins a yearlong odyssey for Martha, who must navigate her grief while working through fractious relationships with her husband and her domineering mother (played by Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn), along with the publicly vilified midwife (Molly Parker), whom she must face in court. A deeply personal, searing, and ultimately transcendent story of a woman learning to live alongside her loss.
I talked with Kornél Mundruczó and Kata Wéber on the play origins of the film, the very personal element of the story and why it needed to be told.
Erik Anderson: Pieces of a Woman is your first English language film. What was the biggest challenge there in making that jump other than the change of language.
Kornél Mundruzcó: It’s a very complex question because there is an illusion in between cultures and how you can build bridges in between cultures and there are much more complex questions that rise up when you are adapting your script to another culture. In that sense, that was very challenging, but the core material, ‘why is this movie good?’ which means you break the taboos and break silence and an important individual answer for grief is the same, it is pretty universal. But above that, that was really challenging, to shoot in English.
EA: Kata, were there elements of actual language that changed to either Americanize it or for it to be just different from the Hungarian version?
Kata Wéber: We had to place the whole story over there so it’s not really about the language or that’s not the utmost important aspect I would say, but to make it make sense, culturally. What homebirth means within a society, it’s completely different for a family in Budapest or in Warsaw, where the theater play took place or in Boston. So these are absolutely different environments and for the screenplay I had to understand all those perspectives and all the motivations that could be behind such a decision of a woman and also about a family relations. So, of course while you’re doing it, you understand ‘what is the universal aspect of a story?’ and you kind of understand what was the aspect which was important in Eastern Europe, let’s say. So this is also something that clarifies the material, but I do say it’s a big challenge, of course.
KM: At the same time, you know, so many European director is just sinking into the Atlantic Ocean. So for us really nice just not get lost in the Atlantic Ocean. (both laugh)
KW: I think it’s also, you want to do it as like the best you can. So therefore we really took care with all the experts; medical experts, midwives, lawyers, everyone. We had a lot of helping hands to do so. I would say we were almost paranoid about the authenticity of the story.
EA: Sure. How did you land on Boston as the city for where it takes place?
KM: That was the major thing, looking for a conservative society living close to a liberal society and in Boston there is this kind of non-religious Jewish community close to the Irish Catholics and it feels like it feels okay, let’s say that. So that’s why, and also has a tradition. And then at the same time, you can imagine a little bit of a European vibe that city. So that’s why ended up there.
EA: I think there’s almost a strange, not connection, but proximity to Salem, Massachusetts and witches and just the concept of how women are stigmatized by things that are not understood by a conservative society.
KM: That’s so true.
EA: What were the main differences that you both wanted to expand on going from the theater piece going to film?
KM: From my perspective, the big challenge was how you can make a theater play cinematic enough. From the first moment we knew this is a performance piece. So the major element has to be the performances and the strengths of the performances. But as me, myself, as kind of a visual filmmaker, the visual aspect or the physical aspect of a movie is so important for me, always that to create an experience – which is so easy with the flying men in Jupiter’s Moon, or 200 dogs in White God, or just shoot an entire movie on a boat like in Delta, but here you don’t have anything in the hand. So how you can use this period of the actors to make that visual. So the dinner scene, or it’s just some walking on the street, or the atmospheres, that was the major challenge for me.
KW: From my perspective, in the theater play, I had two scenes. So I had the birth scene and I had the dinner scene, which I would say are the two peaks of the story. And somehow I had to explore the whole map and the whole environment around this. And I also have to say, I had to change perspectives because when you’re in the theater, you really looking for the explicit drama, which is really, it’s very physical, giving birth is really physical. And also the dinner scene is a big conflict and there is a clash so you know what to relate to. But with the screenplay, it was completely different and I also felt there is a huge aspect of how to depict someone’s inner life and how to give a completely different perspective, which in this case for me was the perspective of the unborn.
So someone, the unknown element, who is always there and who’s the strongest link, the strongest connection for the mother and for me as a writer, and therefore I wanted to really explore this kind of magnetic love that they that they share. So the love between a child and a mother and how to really talk about motherhood without explicitly talking about motherhood.
EA: Why was it important to tell such a semi-personal story here?
KM: I mean, it’s just recognizing that we are not talking about this topic at home. So it was a little bit the way of how we can crash or break our silence. Then we went into a lots of discovery and research and then is the the reaction to theater play was so incredible. As for the movie, so many stories came up and appreciation, not just for the movie, but also for the fact that we can talk about it from an audience perspective. And it was the same in a very simple way that now we are able to talk about it. And before that it was just like, we never really talk about it. Right?
EA: Yeah, very much so.
KW: It’s really breaking the silence about something and also to open some kind of understanding. And for me, it was really interesting to understand that me, myself, have to face this, I think, with the writing or by writing about it. And also that someone has to find her own or his own personal way how to grieve and that we cannot have expectations around it because it’s just not the way it goes. And also how someone can find her better self by going through this and really to appreciate the change. So the ones who are left behind they are, they are not there. They are moving there. There is a huge transformation and it’s a new life. Actually, when someone goes through such an experience, such a tragedy, you have to accept that you’re not the same anymore, and you cannot gain back your previous life, but there will be another one. This movie, I think, is about this really weird transformation.
EA: It’s a true catharsis. I imagine a bit for you and then obviously for Martha in the film.
KW: She finds her better self somehow. And she’s also brave enough to go against her mother. But of course it’s not, the mother is not her enemy, the mother just has another answer, another pattern, on how to deal with tragedies. This is what happens many times in families, that one kind of pattern is being passed by to another generation, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.
EA: It’s, it’s ultimately a survival story, whether it’s Martha or Elisabeth’s backstory or the marriage itself.
KM: So true. That’s so true. I was always thinking about this movie as a survivor movie, definitely. The structure, which is pretty unconventional when you have a monolith, a very physical, emotional monolith of the beginning of the movie where every character relate to, and not just Martha but everybody; the sister, the husband of the sister, the whole map is connected to that. And then at the end of that scene, you hit the deepest point of the emotion or the earth, just the darkest point you’ve ever been and then you go out. It’s not that far from a survivor movie when you do something and then you go into the jail and how you can escape. You know, it is in a way close to that, but it’s just a really unconventional for a drama. I always felt that this kind of monotonic trust by Martha about herself and what she gives emotionally to the lost one, this is kind of the truth of the story and this is somehow the same as someone wants to go out from the jail.
EA: I’d love to talk about the casting of the film because there aren’t a lot of characters so clearly you have to be really careful about the cast and you have, which just such a stunning group of people. Tell me a little bit about how Vanessa Kirby, Ellen Burstyn, Shia LaBeouf as well as Molly Parker, Benny Safdie and Sarah Snook came aboard.
KM: Yeah, I mean, it’s amazing, we were absolutely gifted and very lucky with that cast. I can’t imagine better ever. It’s a performance piece, it was obvious from the first moment. So what we had is another quality of acting. Another level of acting, which is a little bit forgotten these days, because you don’t have the care or the story or the time for it, or I don’t know why, but it’s this kind of high level quality acting is not that usual, but that is the major target for the movie like this. So you definitely need partners for it. When I met first time Vanessa, I didn’t expect as big effect on me because I love The Crown. I love her Margaret, Princess Margaret, but it’s very far from Martha and then we met and her silence and her serious personality and also her secret and suspense was so rich there. The room was full with her. I find it immediately, my character Martha, and because it’s a silent character, it’s so big. I mean she had tons of texts [dialogue] for a second and then a long, long, long silence because she doesn’t find the language for her emotions. And her emotions is such a spectrum of different emotions, from fear to love, everything inside or blocking, frozen and isolated, and this so much needed for a role like Martha.
Ellen Burstyn is a long dream, like a long, long, long dream. I appreciate her since my childhood, basically. I remember when I saw first time, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the Scorsese movie, and let’s talk later Scorsese. But that was like, okay, I really want to work with her. And she was a little bit older than the character and said, and this is almost the opposite way of doing it, but she was so brave to come with us. And she’s an absolutely, you know what, what she can give it is very rare because she can give the role obviously, and the character, but she can give also history. And we need history behind that character. And she had this, she connected to the time and she was an amazing bridge for all the cinema acting, how to do it.
So it was such a luck and with Shia, he’s a true artist. So in that sense he’s really like a creator for his character. And he’s really, I mean, how he dedicated himself to a character it’s unbelievable and you see that is an artist and the others as well. How you can do, like only two days of shooting like Molly Parker and be one of the most significant, create one of the most significant roles, or also Benny. I love his movies, but also I love him as an actor. I mean, what he did in Good Time was really shocking. I was very happy, but also what was interesting for me is Benny’s character, but also Shia’s character, is very different than what I know from the movies by them. So there are is lots of discovery of different colors and quality of acting by those actors.
EA: It’s an impeccable group.
KM: Amazing group. I mean, we haven’t even talked about Sarah Snook and Jimmie and Iliza!
EA: You mentioned a Martin Scorsese, which is great, as I wanted to ask about how he came aboard the project.
KM: I was talking with Howard Shore who told me Marty was interested and should I send him the movie and I was like, ‘Sure!’ I mean, no question. I mean, he’s an icon, but not just that it’s really, he doesn’t know, but he’s kind of affects my life, especially by his early melodramas, like Taxi Driver and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, it was such a big impact, he’s really articulate. Those movies articulate me myself as a filmmaker, but above that, it’s a life changing experience and you don’t have many of these, but do those movies, or as much as the Fassbinder movies in the same time. So it really affects me.
He saw the movie and after like six weeks and in the editing period. It’s kind of a long time because you feel like, ‘what’s going on?’ And I was like, ‘give up, he probably doesn’t like, or even has a budget,’ I don’t know. But once his assistant called me that Marty loves the movie and want to talk with me and am I available and I was like, ‘of course I’m available,’ it’s such a question (laughing). And then he became our team member, basically an executive producer on the movie. It’s a miracle for me. It’s really huge for the movie to have this icon of cinema and the trust by him.
EA: Let’s talk about the birthing scene because it’s the cornerstone of the film. One of the things that I found really fascinating about it is that the cinematography of the scene is very intimate without feeling invasive, which I think is really tricky. Tell me how the rehearsals went and how the actors and [director of photography] Benjamin Loeb were able to get through this scene.
KM: It’s a very tricky part of the film because it’s almost like a blasphemy to shoot a birth because you feel like this is not for film or not for stage. It is something above that, like it’s a big question, or almost like a cinematic philosophical question that we are able to shoot a scene like that or not. So that was really like a big concentration and thinking long time ‘how can I express my emotion?’ What I mean, I’m a father of three, so I was there and afforded a position is not that far from a filmmaker position (laughs). So you are more an observer than a real partner.
What I felt always that it is very physical moment, and it’s a very blessed moment. It’s a very spiritual time, but in the same time, it’s very brutal in a way that it’s unstoppable and it’s above you as a human being. Which scares you, but in the same time, you feel you are not alone in a way, and not from a religious way; it’s just like the nature of the universe. The birth is just like that but how can you express that to a movie? So basically decided let’s do a section which is expanding film time and compressing real time into that express film time. And that was kind of the way for creating the spiritual and the physical aspect and the intimacy as you thought for it.
For the actors, I can compare more like, in rehearsals it was like how you can compose an action scene. Because we rehearse, we talk a lot. We really lock positions. We do the blocking, we talk through what is this little one minute here, two minutes here, the real meaning of these and how they go through the whole process, but we never really rehearse like, on fire, because we all are afraid that then the spirit is gone. So we decided to shoot that scene on the first day. So we did it and then the fourth take is in the movie.
KM: But you definitely need partners who is able to enjoy that amazing time and freedom and allows them to create. With Benjamin Loeb, he’s a very sensitive person. I exactly choosing him because of that scene, because I always feel from his images the simplicity and the reality is connected to a spiritual or poetic aspect, but never overloaded and never too created. And never use beauty in a beautiful way, but creating inner beauty and also it was a gift that he handled the camera and it was a technique of a gimbal, which we shoot the entire movie from that gimbal. And we shoot the entire movie from one lens. It’s a zoom lens from 25 to, I think 60 or 65. His concentration and his heart, he’s close to the actors really creating the scene.
EA: That’s fascinating. Kata, what message or messages do you want the audience to take away from this film most?
KW: I would be really happy if people could talk about things that they didn’t before. So I think that would be really important for me. And breaking this taboo and also accepting that things doesn’t always happen the way we wanted and also for the women to understand they are, they can be, and they should be the mothers of their lost babies. So there is no way to feel shame about any of these stories, would those be miscarriages or those who lose babies at a very young age. There is a huge amount of guilt and shame which can occur. And I think self acceptance is also an important factor, I would say.
EA: I agree. I think that’s beautiful. Thank you both so much for talking with me today.
KW: Nice talking to you, Erik. Thank you.
KM: Thank you, Erik!
Pieces of a Woman premieres globally on Netflix January 7, 2021.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and was conducted prior to the allegations and lawsuit against Shia LaBeouf.