There are frightening intensity and sense of helplessness in Bird Box, the apocalyptic new sci-fi/horror film premiering this Friday 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 as their darkest fear, driving everyone who sees it 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 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, Susanne Bier directs bird Box, 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.
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 has sort of real substance, I thought that was very interesting.
First, I thought it was enjoyable 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 at 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.
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.
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.
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.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek.