By Stephanie Ornelas
“We need more women to tell stories about women,” says actor Judy Reyes to audience members after the premiere of birth/rebirth, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival at The Ray Theatre in Park City last night.
Championing women storytellers is a running theme throughout the Q&A. The film resembles a modern-day Frankenstein, but it also shines light on the intense (and sometimes frightening) experiences so many mothers face when going through childbirth — like emergency cesarean sections — and the natural fears that come with being a parent and losing a child.
“I read Frankenstein when I was too young, and I loved it. I always sort of felt like there was this unique female voice, and I had this idea of a female Doctor Frankenstein,” says writer-director Laura Moss at the live post-premiere Q&A at the Festival. Moss drew a lot of inspiration for her script from reading Frankenstein and researching author Mary Shelley’s life, but she also wanted to put her own spin on the story.
“This movie was pretty queer from the beginning. It was important to me that there was this sort of co-parenting intimate relationship between these two women.”
In the film, a grieving mother and an antisocial mortician come together to bring her young daughter back to life. But such a task presents serious consequences, and the two find themselves doing unspeakable acts.
“I had a baby. A real-life baby. And while I was having that baby, I felt like it was an insane horror movie. You go from being a regular person walking around in the world to a body that’s doing scary things,” says actor Breeda Wool, who delivers a captivating performance as one mother forced to have an emergency C-section.
“I felt like there was this large absence of women filmmakers in the canon for the last 50–75 years who are making stories about that scary alien that’s moving around in your body, and just the scariness of making life and having that life potentially die. It’s like a horror through the whole thing. Then that same year, very magically, I got this script and I was like, ‘It’s happening, women are making movies about this weird shit.’ It’s an incredible thing.”
Reyes delivers an emotional performance as Celie, a maternity nurse whose life revolves around her bubbly 6-year-old daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister). But when tragedy strikes, she’s left desperate for answers and one last chance to hold her daughter. When she crosses paths with Rose (Marin Ireland), the hospital’s pathologist who prefers to spend more time with the corpses she works on, the two form an unexpected partnership as they try to raise this child they’ve just brought back from the dead.
“I have a child. And I related to [the script] so much as mother. I wasn’t sure it was a horror film at first until they told me. I just connected to it immediately,” Reyes explains.
Audience members were also curious what it was like to make something so dark with such a young actor at the center of the story.
“A.J. is a rockstar. She’s professional. She asked questions and she was completely in,” says Reyes. And quite literally, too. There’s one particular scene where Lila has to be placed in a body bag, and the cast and crew were worried that would be traumatizing for her.
“With children, you never really know what they’ll think is scary. The first day we had A.J. on set, she was in a body bag, and we were anticipating her being so nervous and she jumped in and said, ‘Yeah! This is great!’ She was really excited about the body bag,” Moss explains.
And Moss made sure to be as transparent as possible during the casting process.
“I wrote a letter that came with the casting call that said how we wanted to treat our child on set, and that this was explicit material, and how we were going to manage those moments to make sure this was a positive and healthy experience for the child. And Stephanie, her mother, was a total partner in this.”
Having worked so intimately with Lister throughout the film, Reyes explains, “I’ve worked with kids before and they’re not all easy because they’re kids. But I really do believe A.J. was born to do this.”