A blindfolded woman, accompanied by two young children, with their eyes similarly bound, guides a rowing boat down a fast-flowing murky river with trees crowding in on either side.
It was this image that hooked the attention of Susanne Bier, director of Emmy winner “The Night Manager” and Oscar winner “In a Better World,” leading her to take the helm of “Bird Box,” the horror film starring Sandra Bullock, which had a short theatrical run in several territories earlier this month and is now available for streaming worldwide on Netflix.
However, when Bier first read the script seven years ago she passed, as did Bullock. What changed in that time, she told Variety in London, en route to her native Denmark, was the political and social “atmosphere,” and the heightened sense of threat that pervades the world. “It feels more relevant now; it feels like a more dystopian point in time,” she explains.
[SPOILER ALERT: Do not read on if you haven’t seen the film yet; this article contains spoilers.]
“Bird Box” portrays a society terrorized by a malign entity – which we never get to see ourselves – that makes people feel suicidal if they look at it, hence Bullock’s need to wear a blindfold and the reason for her perilous journey along the river in search of a sanctuary from the demonic force.
The character Bullock portrays, Malorie, does not conform to the traditional image of motherhood – nurturing and gentle. This is a warrior mom, fiercely defending her young from both the evil force and the marauding gangs of deranged individuals who are immune to the suicidal impulses that afflict ordinary folk. So reluctant is she to embrace the norms of motherhood she hasn’t even given her children names – instead she calls them “boy” and “girl.”
“When I read the script I felt there was the potential to portray a different picture of motherhood than that which is usually portrayed. I guess I’ve always felt that motherhood is mainly defined by men and for many hundreds of years is automatically thought of as being soft, caring, naturally nurturing, calm,” she says. “There are a lot of things that are part of our idealized vision of motherhood, but I always thought it was much more complex, much more ferocious … I think that’s what Sandra gives it.”
Toward the end of the film there is a pivotal scene when Malorie is forced to change the way she treats her children if they are to survive. “I think [the shift] is about understanding what [motherhood] implies. She starts out being a reluctant pregnant woman – she has a hard time dealing with her pregnancy but generally has a hard time dealing with the world. And then she goes through insane and at times pretty horrific things, and by the end she gets to embrace motherhood and in a way gets to embrace life.”
Bier adds: “She realizes that by being as adamantly tough with [the children] she is ignoring something that they need, which is [the permission] to dream – she has closed up any dreams, and she has done this to herself as well. That was a mistake and she is kind of saying sorry for that.”
Bier concedes that Malorie is “really harsh” with the kids, but this is a natural response to the threats that face them. Bier herself admits to occasional displays of aggression and defensiveness when she feels her own children are at risk. “I think there is that sort of aggressive forcefulness [in motherhood] that hasn’t been shown [in movies] a lot,” she says. What is the reason for this omission? “Well, partly because men had the platform to show what [motherhood] was, and supposedly that was not how they wanted to see it. Maybe it is a slightly scary image. Being forceful might not be as cute,” she says.
Filming “Bird Box” presented many challenges, such as having two child actors in many of the key scenes, and shooting the river sequences on Smith River in California, in particular when the boat descends the rapids. Needless to say stunt body doubles were deployed but even so the crafting of these scenes required a crew of around 300 and meticulous planning to ensure the safety of those involved, and to make sure the scenes were as thrilling as the script demanded.
Another challenge was the use of the blindfolds in many scenes and the restrictions that places on the actors’ ability to express themselves. This was particularly a challenge for Bullock “because she goes through such an emotional rollercoaster,” Bier says. “It is a little bit like telling a painter that we are going to take away your brushes away now – create us a great painting, because the eyes are the brushes for an actor and it is a big deal losing that.”
Another challenge was the need to maintain the tension and to do this Bier made the decision not to show the monster, which has been criticized in some quarters – not least by Variety’s own reviewer Peter Debruge. “The biggest artistic challenge was how you maintain the tension and not reveal anything,” she says. “I always felt the moment before you see the monster was super scary and suspenseful, and I wanted the whole movie to have that sense of suspense.”
Bier found Netflix to be a supportive and engaged backer of the movie. “You are not dealing with a scared owner of the project; you are dealing with a bold owner, and that makes a huge difference to a filmmaker,” she says. “You are dealing with [a company] that is more interested in you doing something that is significant than something that automatically falls into a certain pattern. The bolder the better. That is exciting.”
Bier applauds the support streaming platforms like Netflix have given to cinema. “No one other than the streaming services are going to finance innovative cinema and so we need to figure out a way of using that synergy.”
She is happy that her film had a theatrical release, but disagrees with Cannes’ decision to exclude Netflix movies from its competition section this year. “I think the current rules [at Cannes] are out of touch with reality and [the festival] hasn’t embraced the way the whole media is moving,” she says.
Bier is one of the world’s leading female directors, and a keen advocate for increasing female representation behind the camera. “I’ve never been in favor of quotas [for women directors] but I’m getting to the point where I am for it,” she says. “It needs to be a conscious decision – if you have two qualified candidates you need to pick the woman. And for the female filmmakers they need to trust themselves. They should not to be thrown by male arrogance and male dismissiveness, and men need to open up a bit.”
She doesn’t believe that women have a different approach to filmmaking to men. “I think it is very individual. I really don’t think there is a male or female way of doing anything. There is a very personal way of doing things,” she says. Instead she says each individual is different and that by restricting access to the director’s chair to only one half the world’s population you are excluding the full range of experiences and perspectives of all those individual artists.
Next up for Bier is HBO’s six-part series “The Undoing,” created by David E. Kelley and starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland. What attracted her to the project was “a really good script,” she says. For Bier this has always been the primary factor. “The script needs to be seductive.” Beyond that she is happy to keep an open mind. Having directed “The Night Manager,” she’d be keen to direct more “spy stuff,” and presumably that would include James Bond should she ever be offered the opportunity. Apart from that she says she would be “curious” to direct a period drama as she has never done so, and would like to do more comedies, following past laffers like “Love Is All You Need.” But she prefers not to know what will happen next in her career… life for Bier is an adventure.