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Kata Wéber excavates personal tragedy for ‘Pieces of a Woman’

Director Kornél Mundruczó with writer and wife Kata Wéber on the set of "Pieces of a Woman."
(Netflix)

In 2017, I was commissioned by the TR Warszawa theater in Warsaw to write a new play. I needed to find a subject quickly, but nothing came. Sometimes I think of myself as a sort of treasure seeker, or one of those sculptors who have to excavate the real nature of their subjects by beginning to chisel. But in the end, none of the ideas that had presented themselves were quite right. And I am so grateful to those who opened my eyes to something that had been sitting there in plain sight but which had in fact been too close for me to see its full significance.

It is said that when we are looking for something, it’s oftentimes right in front of us. When my husband, Kornél Mundruczó, discovered a conversation in my notebook between a mother and a daughter about a very painful subject, he encouraged me to develop it. The idea had been right in front of me, but I found myself deeply conflicted.

My husband and I have known each other for 21 years now, since we were little more than children, having first met on a university assignment. For him, a film always involves the conquest of new territory and a discovery of the unknown. I knew the challenges he faced when we were making “Delta” in the Danube and had to film out on the water and when, in “White God,” we had to persuade a pack of dogs to run across the road in a busy city center, or when he stood watching in terror from a hotel window as they hoisted the hero of “Jupiter’s Moon” 12 meters into the air in a gusting wind. But when I understood that the conversation he discovered in my notebook was to be the actual subject of the film, I wondered: How will we confront this new form of the unknown when it’s something about which we never speak?

We are often asked how we can possibly work together as a team. My answer could not be simpler: We can’t. We collaborate by leaving each other in peace so we can each concentrate on what we are doing. In the case of “Pieces of a Woman,” he insisted I create space away from everyone I loved, in order to explore my feelings and what I would discover as I wrote. To get to the bottom of the story, I’d have to physically remove myself from everything that had meaning in my life.

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Director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber explored their own reactions to the loss of their child to create a messy and miraculous portrayal of the many forms of grief.

So I went to Berlin. I took very few breaks from the work, perhaps just to take a walk in Kreuzberg’s Victoria Park among the pensive drug addicts and the children picnicking with their mothers. I was so grateful to Kornél. To avoid disturbing me, he rarely lifted the phone, and even then our conversations were over in a few words (“How’s it going?” “Fine.”), though once I sent him a video of myself singing “Happy Birthday” to him. As I got deeper into Martha’s story, I was seized by the thought that this time the unknown we were discovering was part of myself, and part of us.

In writing the play, and eventually adapting it into a script, I wrote about my own experience — about the fact that I had lost a child during my second pregnancy but had never known how to deal with those feelings. My feelings had been unknown to me before and came to the surface at times unexpectedly. I’d be suddenly overwhelmed with emotion as I was writing Martha’s courtroom dialogue or when I was arranging Post-it notes on the floor to lay out scenes.

The anxiety of artistic creation often manifests in one burning question: Who will be interested in this? Except for the indispensable Vanessa Kirby [as Martha], several actors demurred from committing to the film either because they didn’t have children of their own or because they did. I wasn’t completely surprised. But I also knew that those reasons were precisely why we had to make the film. We had to speak up about these tragic events through this particular medium, because there are no words that can adequately describe them.

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Stories that go directly against our sense of the world order are hard to accept. Author J.M. Coetzee once said: “The act of writing tames our feelings of chaos and pain.” For me, writing became an act of therapy. It helped me better understand and discover my experience and who I was after the loss. It became the only way to break the silence and speak openly about this subject with the people I love.


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