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Exclusive Interview: Laura Moss and Brendan J. O’Brien on the “BIRTH/REBIRTH” of their Frankensteinian feature

Thursday, August 17, 2023 | Interviews


The various beings created or reanimated by scientists in movies throughout genre history have sometimes been referred to as their “children,” but in BIRTH/REBIRTH, the description literally applies. RUE MORGUE sat down with writer/director Laura Moss and co-scripter Brendan J. O’Brien during the movie’s festival tour earlier this year to find out how they brought it to life.

Opening tomorrow, August 18 exclusively in theaters from IFC Films and Shudder, BIRTH/REBIRTH stars Marin Ireland (from THE DARK AND THE WICKED, THE EMPTY MAN and THE BOOGEYMAN) as Rose, a morgue worker with the ambition to conquer death. She finds just the right subject in Lila (A.J. Lister), the little daughter of hospital midwife Celie (Judy Reyes, perhaps best-known for the more lighthearted medical series SCRUBS). After the girl dies from meningitis, Rose spirits the body back to her home lab and successfully resuscitates her–but not perfectly, and when Celie discovers what Rose has done and begins to help care for Lila, the consequences are both dramatic and at times profoundly frightening. Touching on issues of both parental and scientific responsibility and ethics, while telling a compelling personal story, BIRTH/REBIRTH is an impressive feature debut for Moss, who has won numerous awards for their short films, particularly 2017’s FRY DAY.

Tell us about the genesis of the story, and how your background played into that.

LAURA MOSS: I had been thinking about the character of Rose, this Frankensteinian protagonist, ever since I read Mary Shelley’s novel as a young person, and learned about Shelley and her history of miscarriage and grief. I always pictured Dr. Frankenstein as a woman, and this project has been gestating in many ways for a few decades. When we started writing it, we were in our mid-30s, and I and everyone around me were all talking about the same things, which were children and legacy. Some people were deciding not to have children, some people were finding out they couldn’t, some people were having children, some people were going into IVF; it felt like it was in the ether, and that became a big part of the undercurrent of the story.

And you had experience as an EMT?

MOSS: I was an EMT briefly in my early 20s, and that background has certainly influenced me having an unflinching style when it comes to viscera on screen [laughs]. And it helped me a lot as a director; I feel like the skills you need as an EMT–triage, the ability to work under pressure–are all directing skills. It also made me realize how important it was for BIRTH/REBIRTH to be medically grounded, to feel as realistic as possible within the fantastical science-fiction elements of re-animating the dead.

It must have also helped in terms of all the medical details in the film.

MOSS: Well, I knew enough to know that I didn’t know enough [laughs]. One thing I insisted on pretty early was that we bring in a medical advisor, to be present for as much of preproduction and filming as possible. We had a woman who’s a pathologist, Emily Ryan–there were a lot of Emilys on this movie, so we called her Emily Medical on set!–who took time off from her very real career to advise us. She was instrumental in making the actors feel comfortable with what they were doing, and also working with our production designers. And she had worked with us for years prior to that, on the script.

In addition to FRANKENSTEIN, BIRTH/REBIRTH feels informed by “The Monkey’s Paw” and RE-ANIMATOR. Were either of those influences you drew from?

BRENDAN J. O’BRIEN: Yeah–not direct influences, we weren’t studying those, but they’re just so built in as seminal works for a story like this. I think “The Monkey’s Paw” is the first story you hear as a kid, some version where it’s about, be careful what you wish for.

MOSS: The myth of King Solomon and dividing the baby was actually a big thing we talked about early on. But we’re horror fans from the jump, so those influences just made their way in. DEAD RINGERS was also a very strong influence on BIRTH/REBIRTH; that was maybe a little more intentional.

And coincidentally, the new version of DEAD RINGERS featuring two women just came out this year.

MOSS: Which is fabulous! We love it, we were very excited about it.

How did you land your two leads? Marin Ireland has done a lot of great genre work lately; did that impact on her casting?

MOSS: Honestly, I knew Marin from theater. By the time I was already excited about casting her, I had not yet seen THE DARK AND THE WICKED. But knowing she had starred in this excellent horror movie, we made it a point to watch that. It was exciting to me on so many levels, and also because I knew she wasn’t afraid of genre. She came on board eagerly; she really connected personally with the material, and was a big part of attracting the rest of the cast, because she’s such an actor’s actor. People clamor to work with her.

And Judy Reyes is amazing. I had her in mind when we were writing this script; she’s really always been my Celie. I was incredibly nervous when we made the offer, and the next day she got on a Zoom with me, and I was just like, “Don’t blow it, don’t blow it!” But she was so generous and excited about the role; she’s known maybe a little bit more as a comedic actor…

A comedic hospital actor.

MOSS: Yes! That’s something funny she said at Sundance: Someone asked her what she thought when she first read the script, and she said, “Not another nurse!” But it’s a very different kind of nurse, and I believe this film gives her a chance to showcase her abilities in a way that I’m really excited for the rest of the world to see.

And what about A.J. Lister, who gives a remarkable performance for someone her age?

MOSS: A.J. is phenomenal; she was a real find. We did a nationwide search for a young actor, and from her first audition, we knew it was her. We did a few more, just to make sure she could handle the material, and that her mother was as fabulous as she was. Casting a child is a scary proposition for so many reasons, but A.J., who’s going to appear in Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS soon, is going to be huge. We just feel lucky that we caught her at the beginning of her career.

She was involved in both bloody moments and a scene in which Ireland appears nude, so how did you handle filming those with her?

MOSS: I knew that any responsible parent reading this script would have questions about how we were going to handle this material. So me and my DP, Chananun Chotrungroj, storyboarded all the sensitive sequences–all the effects sequences and the scenes involving nudity. That way we were able to communicate to our department heads and, more importantly, to our actors exactly what we were going to be seeing on camera. There’s a moment where, in a wide shot, you see the little girl with the fully nude Rose, and at no point did we have them in the room together. That was a simple composite shot.

Getting back to the medical side, how much research did you do into methods that might plausibly bring someone back from the dead?

MOSS: I do have notes where the header is “stem cell research.” None of it’s real, obviously, but it’s based on real regenerative medicine, and real breakthroughs in regenerative science.

O’BRIEN: We got as much as we could into the script, talking to people who work in genetics and in maternity, and bleeding-edge science kind of stuff, but that was very much a “For Dummies” thing so we could get something on the page. It was really Emily Ryan and our production designers, Courtney and Hillary Andujar, who took all that we had and ran with it. Even things like the contraptions that are set up, the ECMO machine that’s part of what is keeping Leela alive, are all very much based on as much scientific fact as we could find.

MOSS: We wrote, “There’s an apparatus on the windowsill…” and Emily figured out what each beaker was for. She worked with the Andujars to create equipment that had a logic and a function to it. It was important to us that that stuff felt real, so the audience could get lost in the characters and the story.

O’BRIEN: And so the actors could, too. I know it was very important to Marin and Judy that they had some understanding of what they were doing; it wasn’t just, “Make baby alive! Lightning strikes!”

How difficult was it to find a real hospital where you could shoot a film like this?

MOSS: The building we shot in was originally a physical therapy center, and it was retrofitted as a COVID overflow hospital, and then it wasn’t used. So it was pretty much an empty hospital, which was helpful, because working hospitals were a real challenge to shoot in during the pandemic. There were many precautions you had to take, so we didn’t have to do that, because it wasn’t a working facility. But…are we allowed to talk about where we got the medical props?

O’BRIEN: I will say, a medical television show that had shot in New York for many years suddenly found out they weren’t getting a full season order, so at the last minute, a lot of medical props became available that our production-design team was able to get ahold of.

MOSS: Yeah, we got a good deal on that. Filling that hospital was the big challenge, but our production designers were pretty resourceful at making one room look like five different rooms.

Lisa Forst’s makeup effects are excellent, and in some cases pretty cringe-inducing.

MOSS: Lisa is an incredible prosthetic artist, so I knew her work would be flawless. She also worked very closely with Emily, and that was a really fun collaboration to witness. I kind of sent them off together, and they were able to throw references back and forth. Lisa consulted with Emily at every step, from sculpting through painting, and we couldn’t be happier with her work. I’d like to give a shout-out to my brother, Doug Moss, who did our sound design, and Brian Parker, our sound supervisor. Very often with these visceral scenes, the audio does a lot of the heavy lifting.

Was there ever a question of how extreme to go with the film’s gruesome elements?

MOSS: One of my visual references was a Stan Brakhage documentary called THE ACT OF SEEING WITH ONE’S OWN EYES, where he filmed an autopsy. It’s an eerie film; it’s got no sound, and I remember it gave me this certain feeling that I knew I wanted to give the audience with BIRTH/REBIRTH. Not looking away from certain moments of pain and discomfort is part of the film’s style, so I knew from the beginning that we needed to go big with that, and do it early as well, to make sure the audience knew what they were in for.

Obviously, a lot of meanings can be read into the film regarding right to life and so forth. How much of that was important to you, and how much did you want the story to just speak for itself?

MOSS: I hope the story speaks for itself. Certainly, each viewer will come to this subject with their own point of view, but I was really most interested in the characters’ point of view, and how they move through the story. There’s a lot in there about bodily autonomy and maybe the limits of the control we actually have over our own bodies, so those themes are present, but we certainly weren’t trying to make a political statement.

Have there been any interesting reactions from audiences on the festival circuit?

O’BRIEN: Yeah, we’ve had six people pass out [laughs]. Three were all in one screening at Sundance…

MOSS: Which was cancelled!

O’BRIEN: Yeah, the fire department cancelled it out of “an abundance of caution,” in the middle of the movie!

MOSS: We were at a bar across the street with our editor, hanging out waiting for the Q&A, and five fire trucks showed up, and it was like, “I guess we’re not doing it!”

O’BRIEN: I do want to say, though, that Sundance and the theater said that anyone who had a ticket was able to come back the next week after the festival and see it at no charge, so hats off to them. And then we’ve had a couple of others…

MOSS: A couple of fainters, yeah. It’s funny, because I’m so desensitized to this, having made it, that it surprised me a lot that people had that reaction. But when I think about it, folks are squeamish about different things, especially medical things, so in the end, I guess it makes sense.

Do you have any projects in the works right now?

O’BRIEN: We do have a script, GORDON, that we wrote prior to BIRTH/REBIRTH, that we’re hoping will be our next film. It’s a horror/comedy about a misdiagnosed sociopath trying to date women without killing them.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).