Post-Apocalyptic Legacy

Susanne Bier’s Bird Box is a dystopian thriller that centres around the plight of pregnant artist Malorie (Sandra Bullock), who witnesses people compelled to suicide by a mysterious force. With the world’s population decimated, she finds a fleeting moment of love, but soon she is forced to flee with her two children. To reach the one place that may yet offer sanctuary, they must undertake a two-day journey down a treacherous river blindfolded.

In conversation with ASFF, Bier discussed the irresistible opportunity to explore an unconventional thematic depiction of motherhood within the scope of a mainstream movie, and the desire to play with our human impulse to look.

ASFF: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I began studying architecture in London at The Architectural Association. I first became interested in the set design, and I was actually thinking of becoming a production designer, but then I started reading scripts. So mine happened as a kind of organic process, although I was always looking for some kind of creative outlet, not knowing exactly what the right version of it was. Then I realised that I wanted to become a director, I applied for film school, and I haven’t looked back since. 

ASFF: Across your career, how have you come to understand the filmmaking process?
There’s no doubt that if you want to enjoy making movies, you have to embrace the chaos of it, the unknown, the uncontrollable element. I embrace and I profoundly enjoy that. Is that the reason why I make the movies? It’s not, but I thrive creatively in a bit of chaos. I want to say I don’t always, but I try to clear away many things so it doesn’t all become a huge defined mass of unresolved stuff. But I quite enjoy it though.

ASFF: What compelled you to make Bird Box, and how do you compare it to your films not only narratively and thematically, but also as an experience?
I can tell you very clearly because Bird Box is like a thriller, a scary entertaining big film. In that respect, this was the entry point, but the core of it is a very unconventional portrait of a woman and of motherhood. To be able to convey something that we don’t normally see within the big movie, I thought was a very interesting possibility, and ultimately very important. If you look at the character of Malorie who is played by Sandra Bullock, she is relentless. She goes from being a reluctant pregnant woman to somehow embracing motherhood. She’s also very brutal, harsh, and she doesn’t give the two children names, but calls them “boy” and “girl.”

With any other actress Malorie could have been unlikeable, but with Sandra playing her, she’s never unlikeable and we always understand her, but we are thrown by her. I think the potential of co-creating a character like that within something that is more mainstream was just pretty irresistible. Also, if you look at the love story within the movie, there is a discreet gender switch. He’s soft and caring, and they are very different from the traditional male and female roles, and also it’s a mixed racial couple. There are a lot of moral values there, but it’s underneath the mainstream movie, and I thought the chance to do that was pretty amazing.

ASFF: By taking the mainstream and art house cinema, and combining them, can this allow you to say something new?
I don’t know whether it guarantees originality, but I know it guarantees your point of view being seen by a substantial amount of people. I can do an art house film with a controversial take on motherhood relatively easily, and my personal concern would then be that yeah, it’s very well that I have a point of view on motherhood, but very few people are going to see this. I can also do it as I have done with Bird Box, saying that this is like a proper mainstream movie, and I am going to portray this controversial or unconventional take on love and relationships, and motherhood, and I’m going to try to do it seamlessly.

I’m not going to do it as an obvious political statement, and it was interesting because we tested the movie quite a lot. We had lots of reactions, and nobody actually mentioned that, and so it is seamless. I find it very interesting to be able to do that within the framework of a big movie, which is supposed to target a big audience. 

ASFF: In hindsight it occurs to me that the humour will be important in creating that broader audience appeal?
Absolutely, that sense of humour is very much part of making it more accessible. It’s dark movie that embraces a lot of dystopia, and the humour for sure makes it that much more edible, for lack of a better word. 

ASFF: There are certain set pieces where characters are shouting to not look, to keep their eyes closed. Immersed in the drama we feel simultaneously as though we shouldn’t be looking either, yet it is impossible to not look. In moments, the film creates a contradictory emotional experience for its audience.
You know you shouldn’t be looking, but you are, and that temptation and knowing you shouldn’t be doing that is deeply embedded in human nature. The movie plays with it a little bit and we are also using the element of we see what Mallory doesn’t see. At times we can’t see what she sees behind the blindfold, which is nothing, or which is only light and shade and nothing else. So we do play with the notion of seeing and not seeing, and try to in a physical sense understand what she’s experiencing.

ASFF: On the subject of the audience, do you perceive the screening of the film to represent a transfer of ownership as it is experienced by each individual spectator?
Well I have always been incredibly grateful to audience and that’s why even when I made movies in Denmark, I’ve tested them with and talked to an audience. I’ve always found that part of my creative process has been very much influenced by their reactions. So yes, absolutely, there is an ownership. I guess I’m not a fan of heavy symbolic gestures, so I will not name it as a big symbolic gesture, but for sure, I integrate and am grateful to audience reactions. 

Bird Box is available to stream on Netflix.

Paul Risker

1. Courtesy of Netflix