There is a frightening intensity and sense of helplessness in Bird Box, the apocalyptic new sci-fi/horror film available to watch on Netflix, which sets it apart from a lot of other efforts in its genre. Based on the book by Josh Malerman, the film is set in a world where civilization quickly falls apart due to the onset of a bizarre new threat: an unseen supernatural force that appears to each individual as their darkest fear, driving everyone who sees it to homicidal or suicidal rage.
The only answer is to move about the outside world with one’s eyes covered, a solution discovered by Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and the small band of survivors she finds barricaded in a house. Malorie, an artist, is pregnant and far from sure she is ready from motherhood. But as we discover during the course of the film’s two timelines, Malorie must eventually guide herself and not one, but two children on a dangerous, blindfolded journey down a river toward the one hope for survival.
Also starring John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Jackie Weaver and Sarah Paulson, Bird Box is directed by Susanne Bier, the Danish filmmaker perhaps best known to American audiences for her gripping AMC adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager. But Bier’s films before that, including Brothers, After the Wedding and In a Better World (which won the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Film), are known for their complex family relationships, emotional power and moral conflicts, along with performances that are often shaped through improvisation.
Bird Box is Bier’s first full foray into the genres of horror and sci-fi, and Den of Geek had the chance to speak to the director about that, working in the cable and streaming worlds (her next project is a six-part drama for HBO called The Undoing) and more during a recent press day for the film in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: This is the first time you’ve made a film in the horror or sci-fi realm. What spoke to you about the material?
Susanne Bier: I thought it was a really exciting, kind of thrilling story, but I also thought it had some content which was substantial. I thought the combination of a thriller, a scary movie and something which actually has sort of real content, I thought that was very interesting.
How did working in this genre challenge you, if it did at all?
It did. In a good way, it challenged me. In a kind of a fun way. First, I thought it was really fun doing all the stunts. I thought it was way more exciting than I had anticipated. And then I thought, this sort of description of dystopia, there was a kind of beauty to it which fascinated me. And then I thought, having this character of Malorie in the middle of this world — this reluctant, pregnant woman who actually doesn’t want to deal with life in a way in the beginning of the movie. Then she actually becomes way better at handling anything and she finds things in herself, a survival ability, which she didn’t really anticipate. I just think that’s pretty, pretty cool.
She also has to evolve toward the idea of motherhood, which is not usually how women are portrayed.
Most mainstream movies are done by men. And most descriptions of motherhood are done by men. And it’s a very sanitized description, and it’s also rather boring, I think. This one for me is just much more interesting and more fun and more kind of watchable. She’s really forceful, but everything she does, she does in order to protect those kids. Yes, she’s brutal, she’s harsh and she berates them. Sandy would at times on set tell the children, this is not Sandy talking. This is Malorie talking. There’s no doubt that she does it all because she feels that the only way for them to survive is to be this tough. I mean, I wish in that situation, that I would be her.
That is what’s interesting about films that deal with the collapse of society or an unforeseen disaster. As a viewer, you put yourself in that place of the main character and hope you would respond in the way that that Sandra Bullock or Trevante Rhodes’ characters respond.
I think that that’s why we make those movies. That’s why we see those movies. Because I think we need an outlet for our fantasies about the potential catastrophe. About the potential disaster. That’s why it’s important and that’s why it’s so exhilarating watching those movies because you touch upon this fear and you allow yourself to imagine what you would be and what you would do in that situation. But it’s within this sort of comfortable confinement of a two-hour stretch.
I think that’s the reason why I wanted to make a movie which still left space for the audience to be imaginative. You want to excavate that part of your brain.
Were you able to find enough time and space to work with the actors the way you customarily do, all while dealing with things like special effects and action sequences?
Yes, I did. You know, the interesting thing about actors is that they want to do a movie which has a director’s point of view. And for me to kind of get into the arc of the actors when I need to, for them to be in that place where whatever they do, it feels really real and it feels honest and vulnerable in a way, you have to have space to work with them. I didn’t really meet any resistance. That was very clear from the beginning that it was part of the whole thing. This movie was meant to be something which would deliver on scares, but also deliver on the emotions. The actors were completely in agreement and supportive of that.
Did you let the actors improv a lot?
We did that a lot. A lot. I think in a way why it works and why it feels real is that we did treat every movement as real. Nothing is sacred when you work like that. It’s all about getting that moment right. If a scene is written to be in a bathroom, it’s going to possibly end up in the garage or whatever if it’s better and if it’s more real. And it doesn’t matter whose idea it is. We had an amazing collaboration because I think everybody involved felt that.
What was the collaboration like with Sandra Bullock?
It was very warm, very trusting. She’s a very, very honest person…she’s an extremely thorough, extremely sincere, extremely dedicated person. And I think when she kind of vanishes into something she does it 100%. I thought that that was wonderful and completely collaborative. I enjoyed it.
Did you look at the book?
After I read the script. After I was involved with it. That was just the order of things. I think what happens to you is that you automatically are drawn to the things that are in the script, and you don’t really deal so much with what is not in the script. So for me, it was never about the differences. For me, it was always, what are the similarities? What in the script is from the heart of the book and needs to be maintained in the movie?
Did you play around with the idea of how to depict the actual threat, which we can’t see but the characters can? Did you go through a lot of trial and error?
On my very first meeting, I was like, we are never going to see this threat. And they all agreed. And then of course you kind of suddenly get anxious — “what if it doesn’t work? What are we doing to do?” I have to admit that, personally, I’m always way more scared before the monster comes out. Way more scared. And way more tense. I wanted to keep that suspense. So there were moments of doubt, but there wasn’t really, during the entire process, a serious consideration of actually seeing it.
You’ve been doing a lot of work on TV and for streaming outlets, and there seems to be a lot of freedom right now for filmmakers to work in these spaces, and the lines are blurring between movies and TV. Would you agree with that?
I would completely agree with that. I completely agree with that. And I do agree with the lines blurring, and I do think that it’s something to be embraced. Firstly, there’s no way of fighting it. And secondly, I also think that you know, if you want to make a bold movie, there isn’t really any other way to do it right now. There’s no other way of financing it. I also think potentially hitting a huge big audience, if you feel what you’re doing is meaningful, is important. I actually happen to feel that about what I’m doing. Even when I’m doing something mainstream, I do feel that there are important elements to it — in this case, an unconventional take on motherhood and a love relationship. I’m enjoying the fact that you can do that within a mainstream movie, and you can do it seamlessly and hopefully have an impact.
Do you have sort of like a bucket list of different types of films you would like to make? Would you be interested if you were offered a James Bond movie or a superhero movie?
Yeah, I would be interested depending on what it was and where I was. I would be interested in a lot of different things. I don’t really have a bucket list. I think maybe at some point it would be fun to do a proper period piece, which I’ve never done, because I work very psychologically with costumes for example. I hate when they’re generic. So how do you translate that into a period piece? Those would be things which I would be fascinated by. But as of now, I’ve done the movies I was really interested in. I’ve always gone for a movie or a project that I was fascinated by. It hasn’t been like a career choice. A bucket list slightly suggests a career choice, and that’s not really how I work.
Bird Box is available to watch now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye