A project that has been brewing for director Laura Moss since they were a teenager, Birth/Rebirth is a shocking body horror that examines the full spectrum of the human experience, from birth until death. Starring Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes, the film follows Celie Morales (Reyes), a caring maternity nurse whose life is shattered when her young daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) dies suddenly. This tragic loss brings her to Rose Casper (Ireland), a pathologist who has discovered a scientific formula behind reanimation.
In a post-Roe vs Wade world, where we are seeing women and birthing people lose more rights than ever, Birth/Rebirth offers a sobering look at the horrors of parenthood and the medical system, and questions our identity in the face of death. To explore these themes, FILMHOUNDS sat down with Moss to talk about everything from the film's inception, how they ensured the medical scenes were so realistic, and the rise of Queer and female stories in horror.
What inspired the story behind Birth/Rebirth and how did you develop the project?
The idea has been sitting with me since I was 14 when I read Frankenstein for the first time. It was the first novel by a woman that I read in school that wasn't about marriage, manners or petticoats, and I was obsessed with that. As I reread the novel, I was always reading Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's voice. So the idea of a female doctor and what she might go through to harvest materials and the challenges she might meet, I've been thinking about for a long time.
I've been developing this as a film for the last about for the last six years. In January 2020, I met with Emily Gotto of Shudder who understood the vision for the piece and greenlit it for the summer of 2020, which for various reasons, did not happen. And then we spent two years preparing and trying to wait until the COVID expenses went down in the budget so we could put as much of our hearts on screen as possible. Then I ended up shooting it in the in the summer of 2022. But all of this time kind of stewing and cooking the project, I think helped. I felt prepared and excited to dive in after also informally collaborating with my composer, producers and DP for years before this point.
How did you make some of the scenes within the hospital so authentic to the maternity care and birth experience?
I'm not a mother, so it was really important to me to collaborate with mothers and people who've given birth in the making of the film. Our DP went through an emergency C-section, so when we were developing that sequence we were drawing from her lived experience. I knew that this film would only work if the medicine felt grounded because we do take the audience on such a wild ride. I consulted with medical experts, such as a doula, a midwife, and a stem cell researcher, who all read my script with a red pen and helped me with accuracy. Emily Ryan, who was our medical adviser on set, is a pathologist at Stanford University and she took a few months off to consult on our film. Her attention to detail and the time she spent both with the actors and our production designers to ground what was happening shines through. It's not at the forefront of the film, but subliminally I think it helps the audience go on this journey with us.
The film balances some truly heart-warming moments with utter devastation. How did you strike a balance between these themes to ensure they both got equal attention in the narrative?
We wanted to explore this notion of this question of after Lila wakes up, whose child is she? She is the physical child of Celie, but she's been reanimated by Rose using materials from Rose's body. I have my own answers, but we wanted to keep it deliberately ambiguous as to how much of the old Lila is left in there. Maybe due to her medical trauma, this child also wakes up with some of the natural sensitivities that Rose has. So in many ways, she starts to resemble Rose as well. In the end, they feel like a family that is bonded together by this experience.
I can't talk about the film without mentioning the incredible Judy Reyes and Marin Ireland as Celia and Rose. How did they get involved with the project?
I've been a big fan of Marin's for a long time. She's done brilliant television and film work, but I knew her primarily as a stage actress. She's done a lot of work on Broadway, and I'm in New Yorker, so I had her in mind very early on for this role. You have to have the production company financing the film agree with you on your favourite choice of cast, and I was really lucky because she had starred in a film that Shudder produced called The Dark and The Wicked, so she was a no-brainer for Rose. I wrote the role of Celie with Judy Reyes in mind. I know she's primarily known for Scrubs and some of her more comedic work, but I had seen her in a 2013 film at Sundance called Gun Hill Road, an indie drama. I knew she was capable of this, and I was excited to have her but I didn't dare go out to her, because she was my first and only choice. Until we were about to film, that is, and she jumped at it. She's a mother and she brought a lot of her own experience to the role.
They are both consummate professionals. As a director, my job is to support them, and also stay out of their way and aid them in their own process. Marin is, is very visual and intellectual, she was interested in the images I had gathered to inspire the film. She wanted to know everything, so I sent her all my research. Judy, however, was emotionally driven. We talked a lot about our personal lives and delved into this story, and she just always wanted to make sure she thoroughly understood the emotional logic of each scene.
In a post-Roe vs Wade world, it's interesting how the film addresses the idea of bodily autonomy. How did you deal with the intense themes on set and was there anything you did to unwind between takes?
I felt very lucky, we were really punching above our weight in terms of the quality of our department heads and crew. We were not the most well-paying job in New York City at the time, but people were happy to work on our film because they gravitated toward the material. So it was a really lovely, supportive set. It was really important to me that there was gender diversity on set, with men, women, trans, and non-binary folks, and I think that added to the comfort level of our actors. We also had a six-year-old child who was a delight, but my main concern beyond the quality of the film was not traumatising a child. So, in some ways, that takes you out of your head. You feel like making a movie is life or death, but the truth is, it's all just an experience that we're having together. And I think having a child on set keeps you in the moment in that experience.
With the themes that it tackles and having two female leads, Birth/Rebirth fits perfectly in the boom of female-centred body horror we seem to be enjoying. What is it do you think that attracts us to these stories?
I think it's a two-part question, because why are the films emerging? Why are the audiences responding? I would say, the films are emerging because some of us who had not previously gotten a break are now getting that break. We're not that far removed from a famous horror producer saying that there are no female filmmakers to be found in the horror genre, and since that time, we have been given the chance, I'm really grateful to Shudder for being given the chance to make this unconventional horror movie. But as a fan, and as a queer lover of horror, I rarely saw myself in the genre. I stuck with it anyway, because I love horror. It tells the truth about things that people don't want to talk about. It brings up sticky, difficult situations in life that polite society would rather avoid. It's an open secret that our audiences have been more queer and more femme than the mainstream would believe, and it's just a relief to see yourself reflected a little bit more in the genre that you love.
Birth/Rebirth is available to rent and buy digitally from January 22.