Labor stress made for a painful ‘Birth’
New Line Cinema doesn’t mind taking risks, and the studio has prospered through its wagers on everything from “The Lord of the Rings” to “About Schmidt.” But rarely does New Line take the kind of flier its new film “Birth” represents.
The reincarnation drama, about a woman, played by Nicole Kidman, who comes to believe that her late husband has been reincarnated as a 10-year-old boy, was hardly expensive, but its artistic ambitions were unusually difficult to fulfill. Neither a genre thriller nor a glossy melodrama, “Birth” instead occupies an untested middle ground that defies quick categorization and nearly proved elusive for director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”), who spent nearly a year editing the film, an eternity for a movie without fancy special effects.
In laboring to pinpoint the film’s tone, Glazer grew estranged from New Line, which complained it was left in the dark about the film’s progress. The director and the studio also quarreled over Glazer’s oblique style, which emphasizes silent close-ups over expository dialogue. In an unusual move, Kidman even petitioned New Line on Glazer’s behalf for more money to film additional scenes.
The filmmakers and New Line say that the finished film is the same movie they all originally set out to make. The tension rests in the thorny path it took to finally get there.
“You are trying to make a film without precedent, and everybody in Hollywood only wants to make a movie with precedent. It was very hard work,” Glazer says over breakfast in a London hotel.
“The studio, comparatively speaking, is a commercial studio, and inevitably there is going to be a clash of sensibilities,” he says. “Sometimes that is healthy and pushes you to find a solution that is better than what you [originally] did. But I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
The film, opening Friday, stars Kidman as Anna, a widow on the verge of remarrying a decade after her first husband, Sean, died jogging. Days before Anna is to wed Joseph (Danny Huston), a mysterious young boy walks into her moneyed Manhattan life claiming, “It’s me, Sean,” and urging Anna to call off the nuptials.
The boy, whose name is in fact Sean, appears to know everything about Anna and her first husband’s life together, and pines after this much older woman. Before long, Anna is coming unhinged, unsure whether to favor her still-grieving heart or trust her cautious intellect. Is the boy really her dead husband brought back to life? Or a mean youngster playing a cruel trick?
A dozen filmmakers might have made the movie a dozen different ways. British director Glazer, a fan of Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick, intended “Birth” to be a sometimes meditative look into love’s obsessive and potentially destructive power, not a horror flick. In place of sprinkling the story with scary screams, Glazer filled its background with joggers, to subconsciously remind the audience of Anna’s tragic loss.
“We kept hearing, ‘This is not going to work,’ ” says screenwriter Milo Addica, who shares the “Birth” writing credits with Glazer and Jean-Claude Carriere. “I was constantly being told what we were trying to do was inconceivable.”
What could be inconceivable to some studio executives was precisely what motivated Glazer in the first place. “It’s a very difficult piece to pull off,” the director says. “It’s a knife edge.... But the studio was afraid I was making haiku.”
In searching for the proper tone, Glazer passed 45 weeks huddled in the “Birth” editing room. The movie started filming in February 2003, before Kidman made “The Stepford Wives.” Huston has acted in four movies since he made “Birth.”
Yet even with so much time in post-production, Glazer was adding to “Birth” mere days before its September debut at the Venice Film Festival.
An evolving idea
A kid falls in love with a woman. He tells her he’s her dead husband. And over the course of the movie, she believes him and goes mad with love.
That’s how “Birth” began -- as a provocative one-paragraph idea scratched out years ago by Glazer. He gave his idea to Carriere, the French co-writer of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and soon Glazer considered casting Robin Wright Penn as Anna.
Carriere’s initial screenplay interpretations of Glazer’s idea focused more on the boy’s story. Addica and Glazer then reshaped the plot to emphasize Anna’s predicament. Kidman was cast soon after a meeting with the director.
The script required no shortage of fine-tuning; Addica says he worked on more than 21 drafts, often writing in the midst of principal photography. “If I showed [the first draft] to you, you would say, ‘What is this?’ ” Addica says of how much the screenplay evolved.
It is understandable how New Line developed its haiku worries. In one rewrite, Huston was handed a new screenplay page that had no revisions except for an additional comma.
“I would say, ‘Is this right? Is this for real?’ ” Huston says. “But they were looking for these moments, these pauses, where characters were not expressing what they felt. It’s kind of this minimal approach. Every breath a character took would become very meaningful.”
The real hurdle, though, was Glazer’s trying not to turn “Birth” into some sort of Stephen King fright tale.
“At every turn, you are faced with the notion of absurdity and risibility. It’s very dangerous,” says Glazer, who also is an accomplished commercial and music-video director. “What I was going for was, ‘If I believe what the boy is saying in this scene, then Anna will believe it.’ You want the audience to hope with her for something impossible.”
Rather than hand his characters long expository scenes to spell out their feelings, Glazer relied instead on extended close-ups. One shot mostly of Kidman’s face lasts nearly three minutes, and you don’t even know if Anna is attending the theater, the opera or the symphony at the time -- that’s not what Glazer cares about. In place of heavy-handed music that telegraphs emotions and chills, composer Alexandre Desplat’s score features ethereal fairy tale arrangements.
“Jonathan was swinging for the fences,” says Mark Ordesky, New Line’s executive vice president of production. “The genre version of this movie would have been very easy to make. The real high-end, arty version wouldn’t have been easy, but it would have been easier” than what Glazer settled on, Ordesky says.
Given his aspirations to create a film that can’t easily be categorized, it’s not shocking that Glazer struggled to find his film.
“I was forever cutting, trying to make it work,” Glazer says, adding that he trimmed about 25 minutes from an early version of the film. “In my mind, [the finished film] is a long way, actually, from what I shot.”
There is at least one scene in “Birth” that is troubling to watch, and it already has earned the film some notoriety. Late in the story, Anna has started to believe the child she sees is the man she once loved. She thus decides to share a bath with the young boy, and the two climb naked into a tub.
Kidman says that in order to perform that and other difficult scenes with the younger Sean, she acted opposite the now 11-year-old Cameron Bright as if he were a grown man, even though they shared video games during their breaks. If Anna considers this boy her dead husband, Kidman’s thinking went, I must also believe it as an actress.
“People say the movie makes them feel hypnotized, and I think Anna is in a way hypnotized by the boy,” the actress says. “I never saw Sean as a 10-year-old boy. When we stepped on the set, I was very, very distant with him and never treated him as a child.
“In ‘The Hours,’ I got to hide behind Virginia Woolf. In this film, the story says so much about how a woman loves ... that you have nothing to hide behind. It’s a very vulnerable place to be in.”
At one point, Kidman called the studio to ask for more money so that Glazer could film some additional scenes. The movie had finished under its original $25-million budget, and Glazer wanted the balance to go into the film. “I will defend and fight for and protect my directors like a crazy woman,” Kidman says. “Jonathan needs protection.”
New Line was miffed that Glazer had Kidman ask for the money rather than request it himself, but it approved the money for the additional scenes. The studio also agreed to Glazer’s last-minute request to insert an opening scene of a child’s underwater birth, even after that reel of the film had been “locked,” or completed.
In a public vote of confidence, the studio showed “Birth” at last week’s Hamptons International Film Festival, which is essentially the hometown festival for New Line co-chairman Michael Lynne. In front of its target audience of upscale, college-educated adult moviegoers, “Birth” played very strongly, the studio says. The film may face a tougher test with national moviegoers, who are not used to being challenged like this.
“The process of excavating his vision from the material was very difficult,” Ordesky says of working with Glazer. “The studio’s challenge was to provide Jonathan with the time and the freedom to find the film. But I would make another film with him, as would the studio.”
The film’s Danny Huston says that he once told his father, the celebrated director John Huston, that he thought his father’s “The Man Who Would be King” was a great adventure film. “What’s an adventure film?” John Huston said to his son, meaning that there were simply good films and bad films.
“We love to pigeonhole and define things,” Danny Huston says. “The more interesting films are the ones for which there are no definitions.”