by Kit Bowen 10 January, 2021
The highly emotional Pieces of a Woman examines motherhood and grief in such moving and profound ways.
Vanessa Kirby turns in a tour-de-force performance as Martha, a young mother whose home birth ends in unfathomable tragedy when she loses her child. As she grapples with her grief, it affects everyone around her -- including her partner (Shia LaBeouf), who takes a more self-destructive path after the tragedy, and domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn), who wants to prosecute the midwife (played by Molly Parker) for negligence. The year-long process takes a toll, but Martha and her loved ones finally find a way to move on and live with the loss.
At a recent press conference, ScreenPicks sat in on a very deep and thoughtful conversation with stars Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn about making this personal film.
On getting the role:
Kirby said she lobbied hard for the role. She had loved movies like Woman Under the Influence and Gene Rowlands performance in that and felt she was ready for a similar type of role. The actress was given the script to read and was so moved, she became determined to meet with director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber, who made Pieces of a Woman based on the real-life loss of their child. She wanted to honor their story.
On the research:
Because she has given birth as yet, Kirby admitted she got scared. “I remember a quote from director John Boorman, who said, “God, you actors want the job and fight hard for it and when you get it, you suddenly get scared and don’t want to do it at all.’” Laughing, she added, “I think that’s true every time!”
The actress said it was daunting at first to figure out how to portray Martha, especially the experience of losing a child, “what that is like day by day, hour by hour.” Kirby spent lots of time with women who had been through it and listening to their stories.
Kirby had never seen a birth scene quite like the one in this film and was amazed by it. There have been plenty of death scenes but nothing on birth. “We’ve all been born so it felt really important to show that, as well as dealing with the subject of baby loss. It’s hard to talk about and society finds it really uncomfortable. I felt it was an important representation of a female experience that is so rarely represented.”
She said she watched documentaries but they didn’t really give her much to go on because they didn’t really show ALL of it. Kirby then spent time on labor wards and with midwives to get the real deal and lucky enough to be able to watch a live birth after the woman graciously allowed Kirby in the room.
On doing the incredible opening birth sequence, which was done in a single shot:
Kirby said she was actually relieved when she heard they were doing it in one continuous take because the idea of having to break up those moments and come back to such heightened emotions was terrifying to her. “It felt freeing weirdly and risky, which is when you are most frightened, you sort of step up.” Kirby equated the experience with doing theater, “pushing through your fear and working together as a company. No one more important than the other,” from the actors, to the little baby waiting to play her daughter, to the prosthetic team with the baby’s head. “We were all like a family.”
She added that she hopes to have a baby at some point but if not, she feels fortunate to have had a “dress rehearsal,” so to speak.
On the role and subject matter:
Burstyn said she had a close friend who had lost a child and went through it with her, so she understood the profundity of that experience. The Oscar winner also talked about how in older movies, it was taboo to show a child in jeopardy because it was too upsetting and almost too much to bear. “But this film really breaks through a barrier,” Burstyn explained, “I feel what can be talked about in a film can be talked about in the population, so I hope this is helpful for people who have experienced that.”
On her very emotional monologue about her character’s own birth and past:
The veteran actress said the monologue was continually transforming. Since it was such an important moment in the film, “it got rewritten, it got talked about… and when we finally got to it, there was sort of a magical thing that sometimes happens. Not always, but sometimes where you start to do something – a monologue, a scene, whatever – and you stop doing it and it starts doing you.” She explained a “rush of energy” came up through her and it was like she was “riding it.” Burstyn added that it was hard to talk about because it’s unpredictable and she didn’t know it would happen. She said she felt gratitude that the moment was able to “invite inspiration.”
Finally, the two actresses spoke about navigating grief and how they hope this film will possibly help:
Burstyn: “From my point of view, playing Elizabeth, she’s not understanding that her daughter has to deal with grief in her way, not in my way… that if she just talked about it and cry, she would feel better, as opposed to respecting that she is grieving in her own way. I hope that message is clear.”
Kirby: “For me, I feel so aware. I mean, I think we finished a week or so before the pandemic. The biggest thing I learned [about grief] is that it’s the loneliest feeling. When I see someone in front of me or a piece of art in any medium, like film, and there’s something in that that represents my experience, even if I feel completely alone, a film that sees me or understands me, you can say, ‘I know this experience and I understand.’ It’s like holding someone’s hand and I hope that makes the experience a little less lonely.”
Pieces of a Woman is now streaming on Netflix.