Martin Scorsese in conversation with ‘Pieces of a Woman’ stars Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn

Netflix’s “Pieces of a Woman” is an emotional rollercoaster. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf) are a young Boston couple who have decided to have a home birth for their first child. Because their midwife is dealing with another birth, so she sends another woman (Molly Parker) to assist in the birth. At first everything goes right, but then there is a blood and the baby’s heart rate starts to plummet during labor. The midwife becomes flustered.  Tragedy strikes. The midwife is faced with criminal charges. And Martha and Sean’s relationship flounders as they attempt to deal with the catastrophe. Adding to their issues is Martha’s overbearing mother (Ellen Burstyn), a Holocaust survivor who can’t understand why her daughter won’t seek help or even cry about her loss.

The film, directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczo and written by his partner/collaboration Kata Weber, is based on their 2018 play of the same name. “Pieces of a Woman” premiered this past September at the Venice International Film Festival with Kirby winning the Volpi Cup for Best Actress. Recently, the filmmakers, Kirby and Burstyn joined the picture’s executive producer Martin Scorsese (he directed Burstyn to her Best Actress Oscar in 1974’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) for a lengthy and often passionate Zoom discussion. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

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“It wasn’t a movie anymore”
Martin Scorsese: I was so taken by this voyage, so to speak. I have three daughters. Two from another marriage and my youngest daughter just turned 21. So, over the years, the relationship of mothers and daughters has become very, very important to me and fascinating, fascinating-a mystery. Something that I deal with constantly. It seems like the first 45 minutes of the scene is the birthing scene. I felt as if we went through it. That I actually experienced it. The nature of the camera work, the writing is such that I just felt immersed in the movie. It wasn’t a movie anymore. I was immersed with these people.

Kornel Mandruczo: You touched one of the major cores of the movie. What we would like to create is just a movie that you feel and just create emotion. And to be honest, creating emotional movies is really unsexy today. We are not talking about emotion, we talk about cliches. But to create something very emotional was very important. It is a very personal story for us. With Kata and I experiencing something like that. Of course, not what is in the movie, but we have this this feeling.

Kata Weber: While writing the story, somehow, I felt that is a way I can talk about [our experience]. That it was my way of talking about it and getting closer also with Kornel. Our experience is very different from what’s in the film, but at the same time [it is the same] feeling of isolation not being to talk about something. I think it’s the same with women experiencing miscarriages, stillbirth, sudden infant death. It’s a whole big realm of things that connect us somehow.

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Vanessa’s preparation
Vanessa Kirby: It was so daunting approaching it. In a way Martha’s silence really felt representative of how difficult it is to talk about [the loss of a child] and how society finds it difficult. So, her kind of journey is to find her voice and, in a way, find a connection with her baby. There are so many women I spoke to who said the three minutes they held their baby [before they died] was the most love they’ve ever felt and that never leaves you. I’m quite an outwardly expressive person, so I had to really try and work out how to trust that if I put everything inside that it would be communicated to an audience.

MS: We’re locked into her really. All that you’re mentioning about expression, the inner self and the inner emotion-that’s all there. You’ve got it in the slightest bat of an eyelash. It’s amazing how you command that action, that expression of what’s going on inside of you. We can’t put it into words, but it’s there.

KM: The rhythm of [Vanessa’s]  body is also very important, because that also keeps you excited for the character. She’s kind of a transcendent character. We need that kind of power in the character. She really amazingly delivered during the shooting.

“Love, love the work. It’s dead on.”
MS: Ellen, so you’re the mother and it seems to me that she is such a great character. What’s fascinating to me is that I understand her, I think.  [She comes from ] another generation….Another point of view of how to live life and what the values of life are. Ellen, it’s such a remarkable, such an amazing [performance]. Love, love the world. It’s dead on. Every look, every gesture…. How did you guys work together? You and Vanessa?

Ellen Burstyn: Before [Kornel and Kata] left for Montreal [to shoot the movie], they came to my apartment for four days -Kata, Kornel, Vanessa and Shia and myself. We worked on the script, read it, argued about it and did what you do. Vanessa and I made a concerted effort to get to know each other and connect. She spent the night. We had a pajama party and talk and connected. It was very easy for me to feel maternal toward Vanessa and to love her, actually, because she’s such a beautiful specimen of a human being, but also of an artist. So, it pleased me to love her. I think we made a real connection and cared for each other in a deep way.

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