Hungarian stage and screen director Kornel Mundruczo and partner/screenwriter Kata Weber collaborated closely on “Pieces of a Woman,” in which Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf play a Boston couple devastated by the loss of their newborn baby during a home birth. The film had its world premiere on Saturday in the main competition section of the Venice Film Festival.
They spoke to Variety about various aspects of the meticulous work that went into delivering this powerful picture, which marks the first English-language feature by Mundruczo, who broke out internationally with his 2014 social parable “White Dog.” Excerpts from the conversation.
As I understand it, the film expands a multimedia theater piece you did together. How did that originate?
I wanted to talk about a taboo, which I think really exists. Women who lose their babies are so relegated to isolation. People (around them) just don’t know how to deal with these losses and tragedies, both within society and family. That was the origin.
Then, I also wanted to put the story in an environment that I know, and am close to. So I chose this family of Holocaust survivors. Our main character (Martha, played by Kirby) is a third generation Holocaust survivor. So the question is how they deal with tragedies and what are the imprints that we give to our children.
But the theater piece was just two scenes, while the movie is 60.
Kornel, why did you chose this subject matter for your first English-language film?
For me it was really important to come into the English-language market with a very personal story. And a very simple, little story, to not be eaten up by the studios.
I am very grateful to Bron Studios, especially Kevin Turen and Aaron Ryder. When they read the first version of the script they said to me: ‘We want to do this movie.’ It was very brave on their part. The subject matter is very tough. But they trusted us all the way along, and they gave me 100% artistic freedom.
What were some of the challenges?
I had to learn how to shoot something that is not in my mother tongue. I’ve done theater all over Europe, so I have some experience. But the actors helped me through. Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, they were so helpful in evoking this story and understanding how we could make a great piece of cinema together.
Well the casting is amazing. How were you able to pull it off?
I’m glad to hear it. They were not the obvious choices for this movie. I said: ‘I want to keep things very fresh.’
For quite a while I had been trying to find something to do together with Shia. And when I gave him the script I told him: ‘Hey Shia, this is not the lead. But I love this story so deeply. It’s so personal, so I would really appreciate it if you can read it and play Sean.’ He was the first to come on board, and I was beyond happy. He is a real heavyweight actor and I needed that to really discover the relationship between Martha and Sean.
Vanessa Kirby met Kevin Turen and Sam Levinson in Los Angeles and they told her: ‘We have a very interesting script from a Hungarian director. Can you read it?’ After 24 hours she was in Budapest. She sat down with me. I was like: ‘I love Margaret from “The Crown,” but it’s just so far from this role…But that meeting was so impressive. She has this very classic 60s aura…this Catherine Deneuve-ish, Hanna Schygulla quality that conjures up memories of those European stars. And I love that so much. I so connected to that. So I really pushed to be able to work with her and for her to be approved by the producers and the financiers…I think it’s really fresh to have a love story between them (Kirby and LaBeouf).
Ellen Burstyn was Kata’s idea, from the very beginning.
Yes, I don’t know why I have this connection to her. You can’t even express how good an actress she is. I have all these memories of her previous films. And she reminds me of my relatives somehow. She is tough, but at the same time so warm, and smart and beautiful and epic.
The film is also a great technical feat with several virtuoso single-take shots. Can you talk to me about that aspect?
We have sort of four peaks in the movie. One is the birth; one is the family dinner scene; one is the courtroom, especially the love speech by Marta; and the apple tree at the end.
I felt the film needed a certain language, which is quite repetitive, in which you expand reality. And you feel like you’ve spent a complete afternoon with this family, even if it’s just 20 minutes, or whatever.
Thematically, the contradiction was: How can you give 100% freedom to the actors when cinema is a construction? So we ended up using the gimbal that is more technical and more cinematic than handheld camera, which would have been kind of an obvious language for a movie like this. But at the same time it’s not cold, like the steadicam, or a track.
During the tests we made we found out that’s what we need (the gimbal) because it’s so spiritual. Someone is always there, it’s like a curious eye. It’s a very personal camera movement.
Luckily our d.p. Benjamin Loeb operated the gimbal. So while we worked together, we were really close to each other, but at the same time it gave us free space for the actors to play out the scene without it having to be too constructed, which often kills performances.