During a seminar at EnergaCamerimage Film Festival dedicated to their drama “Pieces of a Woman,” acquired by Netflix following its premiere in Venice, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb and Kornél Mundruczó praised their cast, led by Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf playing a couple dealing with the tragic loss of their newborn child. Kirby, who left Italy with the Volpi Cup for best actress, has been the subject of Oscar buzz ever since.
“Vanessa read the script in July and she was in Budapest within 24 hours. She was really touched by it,” said Mundruczó.
“I knew her from ‘The Crown’ and I was a fan, but Princess Margaret was not that close to [the protagonist] Martha – my Martha. When we met, I noticed there is something very classic about her. She is like all the best European icons, like Cardinale or Schygulla, and that’s what this movie needed. Martha has a connection to someone she lost, we have to feel that, and Vanessa could carry the unseen part of the story. Inside, she is rich as hell.”
Mentioning the rest of the cast, which also includes Ellen Burstyn as Kirby’s mother and Molly Parker as a midwife accused of criminal negligence, he expressed his gratitude to LaBeouf. The first one who dedicated himself to the movie, written by Mundruczó’s partner Kata Wéber, based on the experience they shared, similar to that in the movie.
“There is a crazy amount of power in this story. You feel its weight, like a stone,” said Mundruczó, who also directed it as a theater play. To make the story cinematic enough and mark his first move into English-language filmmaking after “White God” and “Jupiter’s Moon,” he enlisted the help of DP Benjamin Loeb.
“The backbone of this script tells something that is fundamentally difficult to communicate and I always liked that challenge. I also have this weird desire to work with directors who come from outside of the industry and I liked that Kornél came from theater and opera,” said Loeb. “The first time we talked, we had a very strange conversation about parenthood. We didn’t talk that much about the movie, but we wanted it to feel real and not too ‘pretty’.”
Using paintings as reference, including those of Lucian Freud, they decided to shoot the defining scene of the movie, showing Kirby’s Martha giving birth, in a single take. Admitting that handheld felt “too human,” they ended up using gimbal – a first time for Loeb.
“You need a little bit of muscle in the right places to do that physically and I learnt after the first day that the entire crew made bets that I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he laughed. “But when you have someone like Vanessa and Shia, and Molly Parker, and you feel their adrenaline, you just feed off it.”
“Single takes are usually connected to real time and for us, it was the exact opposite,” added Mundruczó. “Real time is compressed, like when you compress the oxygen in a tank. We wanted to expand it.”
While many scenes were carefully choreographed before, ultimately they decided to embrace the imperfections.
“In each take, there was never a problem with lines, but Shia had to have this phone with him. And he seemed to always misplace it at the very last moment of the scene!,” noted Loeb. “It was funny to us, but it does work in the film. It makes it feel real,” he said, adding they decided to treat the film like “cinéma vérité with a spiritual touch.”
“In the dinner scene [with the rest of the family], you are waiting for Martha to collapse. You are waiting for the big fight,” said Mundruczó. “What we shot is full of suspense, but we would never end up there if it weren’t for this gentleman right here, always forcing me to talk about a scene and about what we really need to express.”
“It was never about finding a perfect version, it was about finding a perfectly flawed version of what works,” added Loeb. “Shia and Vanessa would vape the whole time for example, me too, and often we would see this big charger in the room. I asked Kornél: ‘Should we remove this?’ He said: ‘Nah’.”