Motherhood Meets Frankenstein as ‘Birth/Rebirth’ Kicks Off Midnight Movies at Sundance
The Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight sidebar launched with a stomach-churning (literally, on-screen for real) meditation on extreme motherhood with the premiere of Birth/Rebirth.
“This is where things get nasty,” said one of the Midnight programmers, Charlie Sextro. No, he was not referring to the man who brought in a rack of BBQ ribs from the grocery store into the screening, although that image does give you insight into the kind of atmosphere one can expect at midnight.
This was the first year the festival kicked off the midnight section at the Rey Theatre, after years of screenings at the Library Theatre. And while some years Midnight movies can be raucous and sweat-inducing affairs, depending on the offering, this opening was shaded with tragic grotesqueness of grounded mad science.
Directed by Laura Moss, who also co-wrote the script with Brendan J. O’Brien, the movie centers on a mother and OBGYN nurse who loses her daughter, and a pathologist making her own side experiments, who team up to bring the mother’s child back to life. A poignant but disturbing decent into what it takes to bring life into this world follows. The movie runs the spectrum of the invasive processes women are put through, with up close looks at blood collecting, tissue harvesting, miscarriage, and one too many amniocentesis procedures.
That the women are budding Frankensteins is not an accident as the novel by Mary Shelley was a definite influence.
“I read Frankenstein when I was too young and I loved it,” said Moss at the movie’s post-Q&A. “I loved that it was a uniquely female voice and the idea of a female Dr. Frankenstein was the impetus for it.”
Motherhood is the topic that attracted many of the actresses to the project, including Judy Reyes, best known for playing Nurse Carla Espinosa on the long-running comedy Scrubs. “I was like, ‘Fuck, another nurse?,” she said about her first being approached, “And then I read it.”
“While I was having that real life baby, I felt like it was an insane horror movie,” said Breeda Wool, who plays a pregnant mother who unfortunately has plasma that is needed by the disturbed doctors. “You go from being a regular person walking around in the world to a body that is doing scary things. I felt like there was an abscnece of women filmmakers in the canon for the last 50, 75 years that are making stories about that scary alien moving in your body and the scariness of making that life and then having that life potentially die. And that same year, very magically I got this script, and I was like, ‘Oh it’s happening. Women are making about this shit!’”
Queerness was also an theme in front of and behind of the cameras. Reyes said that “queer energy” ran through the production and that that “Seventy-five, 80 percent” of the cast and crew was made up women, queer, and diverse talent.
“This movie was pretty queer from the beginning,” said Moss, who added she intentionally focused on creating a co-parenting dynamic between her two lead characters.
A.J. Lister plays that re-animated daughter and while the young actress was on hand to say hi before the unspooling of the movie as the clock struck 12, she was long gone two hours later. Moss said great care was taken in handling the child on a set that dealt with explicit material and nudity, among other things, and she wrote a letter/manifesto on how to treat her on set, including making Lister’s mother an active partner.
But even she and producer Mali Elfman, also on stage with producer David Grove Churchill Viste, may have underestimated Lister’s willingness to jump into scenes. Her first day involved lying dead in a body bag and the filmmakers wanted to be cautious. But the youngster dove right in, literally.
“She jumped into that thing,” recalled Elfman. “’Are you ok?’ we said. ‘Yeah, this is great!’… We were ready to be so cautious and she was really excited.”
Birth/Rebirth will debut on horror streaming service Shudder later this year.