io9 first caught director and co-writer Laura Moss’ debut birth/rebirth at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2023—read our review here—and its grisly yet deeply emotional exploration of motherhood has stuck with us for months. With the film about to hit theaters, we were excited to speak to Moss all about it.
birth/rebirth introduces a pair of women—a nurse and a pathologist—whose lives become intertwined when one of them loses her beloved daughter, and the other reveals that she might just have the key to bringing the child back from the dead. It’s chilling tale that draws from Frankenstein and David Cronenberg, but also crafts its own take on weird science that brings unexpected joy after an awful tragedy—along with unimaginable horror.
Cheryl Eddy, io9: The things that happen in birth/rebirth push the boundaries of what’s possible in real life, but the movie still feels very real despite those elements. How did you go about grounding the story in order to make it so believable?
Laura Moss: I knew that in order to bring the audience along on this ride, we needed the science and the medicine in the film to feel as grounded as possible. From the beginning, my co-writer [Brendan O’Brian] and I brought on a medical advisor, Emily Ryan, who is a pathologist at Stanford; she came in at the script stage, basically ripping apart our our story and helping us sew it back together with actually medically accurate details. She was also gracious enough to get involved in our prep process and our on-set process—so she was there for all of prep and most of filming, advising our production designers, our special effects prosthetic team, and our actors just in terms of how to approach each scene with as much realism as possible. In fact, in the delivery scene at the beginning of the movie, it’s Emily that’s delivering that baby. She’s also one of the background actors helping to direct that scene.
io9: A.J. Lister, the young actor who plays Lila, goes through an incredible range, from being very natural to what she becomes after her transformation. How did you work with her to draw out that performance?
Moss: A.J. gave an incredibly charming natural performance in her audition, but I knew that there was work to do on the monster aspect. A key element in that was A.J.’s mother, Stephanie. Because it was an indie film, we didn’t have the luxury of that much rehearsal time in person, so a lot of the prep process was me locating reference video of dementia patients, of toddlers learning to walk—trying to find this kind of movement vocabulary for the monster—[and sending them to Stephanie]. She would conduct these exercises with her daughter and send back those videos for notes. So we had a shorthand kind of developed by the time we got on to set, but it was still pretty terrifying to show up with minimal rehearsal and hope for the best. I think A.J. did a phenomenal job.
io9: The main characters, Rose and Celie, are these very different women who unexpectedly unite over a common goal. Despite the partnership that develops there, would you say that the stakes remain quite different for each of them?
Moss: In a lot of ways, I think they represent different paths that are laid out for women at a certain point in their lives. Celie represents motherhood, although of course she has a full-time job as a nurse. And Rose represents someone who chooses not to have children and to explore the concept of her own legacy in a different way. I wanted to explore the differences in those two paths, but also the overlap, and ultimately create an arc for these characters where the only people that could really understand them were each other. In a lot of ways, they’ve sculpted their identity around one element of their lives: for Rose, it’s her scientific legacy; for Celia, it’s her daughter. [They both have] a lot of difficulty separating their sense of self from that one element. So I do think they have that in common.
io9: Celie is a recognizable figure as a mother who will do anything to protect her child. Rose is a little bit more unique as a person. Did you base those characters on anyone in particular? And how much input did actors Judy Reyes (Celie) and Marin Ireland (Rose) have in shaping how they came to the screen?
Moss: Rose is a Dr. Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein prototype in many ways. But also, very early on in the process, my co-writer and I both kind of took ownership of of a particular character: Rose was me, and Celie was Brendan. I think that really spoke to the priorities that were at the forefront of each of our lives. For Rose, it was this almost myopic, almost maniacal desire to create a life; for me as a filmmaker, it just felt very familiar to be singularly obsessed with a single project. And I think for Brendan, who comes from a fairly traditional background, very family-oriented, that sense of success or failure being based on your place in a family, or your role within a family, felt very familiar to him. That’s definitely something that we took on as we were writing.
Our actors absolutely brought deep personal experiences to each of these roles. Judy is herself a mother, and I think when she had to experience those scenes of loss, they felt quite personal to her. I know that for Marin, there were people in her life that reminded her of Rose. I don’t want to speak to to her experience—but we spoke at length about her associations, and I encouraged her to go as deeply as she wanted to into those relationships.
io9: Aside from the kind of unwitting sperm donor that we meet, there’s only one really significant male character, which is Rose’s coworker, Scott, played by Grant Harrison. His prominent characteristic is that he is a dad. Why did decide to include that character?
Moss: Scott, in many ways, helps chart Rose’s growth over the course of the film. At first she’s unsympathetic to his plight as a working father, and at some point develops more empathy for that as she’s going through her own form of parenthood. I think in terms of the the dearth of male characters in the script, that was something that started to occur naturally—and as we became more conscious of it, we embraced it. For me, it was important to explore these issues of bodily autonomy and the creation of life from the perspective of someone who had a uterus. And I wasn’t so interested in other perspectives around this issue ... We like to call this the “reverse Bechdel movie” because there are very few significant male characters and they don’t talk to each other.
io9: What do you hope that audiences will take away from watching birth/rebirth in terms of its messages about motherhood?
Moss: I am hesitant to hope anything other than that people have a meaningful experience with the film. But I think what I was trying to explore in the movie was how many different ways there are to be a mother, and to interrogate the notion of what makes a good mother.
io9: You mentioned Frankenstein being a big influence, and there’s definitely some Re-Animator in there as well. Where do you see your film as falling in the realm of body horror movies, and to use a phrase from the movie, “mad scientist” movies?
Moss: It’s definitely a psychological thriller with body horror elements. Re-Animator was an influence. Frankenstein was an influence. And David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers is a strong influence in the film. What interested me most was the developing relationship between the two characters—but them encountering the reality of their bodies. The limitation of their bodies was an important theme to me, as someone in their late 30s making a film that features childbirth. So I hope that the body horror feels necessarily entwined with the psychology of the characters.
io9: birth/rebirth pokes into the differences between “science” and “medicine,” as illustrated by the two main characters and their approach to Lila. What do you see as the biggest differences between those two?
Moss: I guess within the parameters of this movie, science is really the conceptual, and medicine functions as the personal. I don’t think that’s quite the legal definition of medicine versus science. But for our purposes, we have this character who’s really obsessed with bettering the world or bettering humanity—but stumbles when she tries to treat the human beings in front of them. I think that’s a fundamental question, even when it comes to keeping our version of the Frankenstein’s monster alive in this film: is is the quality of someone’s life more important than prolonging their life at all costs?
birth/rebirth is in theaters tomorrow, August 18.
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