In Pieces of a Woman, Netflix's new film starring Vanessa Kirby as a mother whose home birth goes wrong, the centrepiece of the film is a 24-minute single-shot scene of childbirth. We watch as Martha's water breaks while standing in the kitchen and then remain with her as a voyeur, as she moans through the increasing contractions.
The scene doesn't let you look away, with the camera meandering from living room to bathroom to bedroom, time speeding up and slowing down simultaneously as the rooms behind the characters start to spin. Earlier this month, Esquire spoke to Benjamin Loeb, the cinematographer on the film, about the logistics of the scene, the ways in which the camera signals the panic setting in, and how childbirth distorts the passage of time in interesting ways.
Did you always know that the birth would be a one-shot scene?
Kornél [Mundruczó, the director] did a play called Pieces of a Woman two years ago in Poland, which this film is based on, and that theatre piece has two scenes: a birth scene and a dinner scene. So when Kornél and Kata [Wéber, the screenwriter] put together this film it became the birth, the dinner and the courtroom. The birth was 36 pages or so and we had three days to shoot it. The first time we brought it up Shia [LaBeouf] and Vanessa were so excited about the opportunity to do this as an ongoing, one-way performance piece. So it started from the theatre piece but it got sparked by the actors excitement about the idea.
What were some of the conversations you had about the tone of the scene?
Kornél and I talked at great length about our experience of being present at births and how you want to be useful but technically you’re just there. Your perception of time changes through that day. My wife’s birth was 17 hours and it felt like two or three days but also like five minutes. We wanted this scene to feel like the audience was drawn along and forced to feel everything and watch everything. It feels like you’re not able to take a breath and you forget about time and lean into the feelings you have.
I think editing in scenes is the easiest way out for an audience; as soon as you cut something, the feeling you have in one shot is removed as you go into the next. We wanted to create something where you didn’t allow the audience to step out of the scene.
How did you go about capturing that on camera?
When Martha has contractions the camera is much more personal and with her and when she doesn’t it’s a little bit more objective and kind of more observing and curious. Kornél had always intended this to be a melodrama in the vein of [filmmakers] Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Max Ophüls or Robert Bresson, and make something that felt real. He asked me to do 360 degree sets so that we could point at anything. The idea was to create something that had the feeling of reality but was slightly removed.
We tested out a handheld camera but it felt almost too real and too much, so we used a gimbal [camera stabiliser]. Kornél had always talked about the film being from the perspective of a lost one or the spirit, and the idea you can remove the human element behind the camera and feel like there is something slightly less organic, but still not mechanical, there.
In terms of blocking, how did you move around that space so fluidly?
I remember Kornél wasn’t into the idea of rehearsals because he didn’t want to waste the energy. We had done one blocking walk through on an iPad, which really was just moving through the script and seeing which positions might work. We got one take which lasted 38 minutes on my phone and thought, ‘Sure, this is good, we can do this ten minutes faster tomorrow’, and that’s how we went into it, a little bit naïve but in the same way knowing that everybody wanted to do it.
Being in the room it was about building trust because there was never a conversation about, 'I’m going to step here and you go there', it was, ‘you do your thing I’ll do my thing’. I wanted to be invisible in that scene as much as possible and make sure the actors felt that when I was in a space I was there for a reason.
How did you manage things like lighting when the audience is seeing so much of the room?
We had to start the first three days during daytime but the whole thing needed to be shot at night so we had to tent the whole apartment. It’s not that it feels stagey, but the general concept of the films feels like it could have been a stage play in some ways. We couldn’t have anything inside so it was really all wiring practicals to a dimmer boards that my gaffer had inside the room. I found maybe four different corners where I could hide units and even some those of those had to be painted out.
How did you balance the hope of what that moment should be with the dread of what is coming?
The main thing is obviously the characters in the film have no idea what is going to happen, so there is an inherent happiness and romance between them which is slightly naïve, but in a beautiful way. When you look at both of their faces there’s such a beautiful naivety to it and it sort of becomes impossible for me to not be in that same mode. I feel like the camera works in a different way: in the beginning of the scene it’s kind of lighter and moving in a much more nonchalant, mundane way. As the scene progresses, and as the contractions get stronger and closer together, I feel like the camera moves faster and it’s much more brutal and a bit more consequent in the choices it makes.
It's such an emotionally powerful scene, was it a bonding experience to create?
Production had talked about doing the birth first for the actors and to make sure we had the scene which the entirety of the movie relied on. If the scene had failed it would have been a terrible way to start but because it worked everybody left the first two days on a massive high. In many ways that sequence was the easiest because it was so clear what it needed to be.
'Pieces of a Woman' is on Netflix now
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