Motherhood, and all it entails, has been mined by the entertainment industry for decades – but, as Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier points out, more often than not the stories have been created and told by men. “It’s been a very serene, glorified image,” she says. “Great mothers don’t always necessarily behave in a great way. The all-forgiving, beautiful mother is pretty boring. I think a tough woman, with a sense of humour, is much more intriguing.” And, while it sounds unlikely, Bier’s latest project – Bird Box, a post-apocalyptic thriller starring Sandra Bullock – is a testament to taking back the motherhood narrative.
Bullock plays the mum in question, Mallory, who starts the film reluctantly, heavily pregnant, legs akimbo during a scan. On her way out of the hospital, she encounters one of the film’s most disturbing scenes – a woman purposefully smashing her head against a window, blood staining the broken glass. As the narrative progresses, we realise the woman has seen a monster or entity that compels its victims to commit suicide. As a viewer, you never see the terrifying demons, leaving you at their mercy, along with Mallory and the ragtag group of survivors she eventually forms a bond with. Eventually, she gives birth and, when an accident renders another infant an orphan, Mallory finds herself mother to two young children.
Mallory’s parenting style is one that isn’t often seen in a film – at least, not in a character we’re naturally inclined to like and to empathise with. She’s tough, bordering on mean, and barks orders into the face of her children with a protective ferocity mothers are not usually allowed to express. Bier sees herself in some of Mallory’s actions: “I’ve found myself doing the most stupid things because that protective, aggressive instinct stepped in at times with my own kids. Sometimes, they would be looking at me like, ‘can you just calm down’. As a filmmaker and as a woman, that's a very compelling, interesting story to tell and a very interesting woman to portray. And because she’s played by Sandra – who has an honesty and directness – you always understand her. You don’t necessarily agree with her, but you always understand her.”
But motherhood, or at least parental instincts, aren’t a new frontier for horror and thriller films. Earlier this year, real-life couple Emily Blunt and John Krasinski played parents protecting their young family from murderous creatures in A Quiet Place, while, in 1968, when Mia Farrow’s character gives birth in Rosemary’s Baby, her motherly urges help her overcome the fact that her son’s father is the actual devil.
Great mothers don’t always necessarily behave in a great way. The all-forgiving, beautiful mother is pretty boring. I think a tough woman, with a sense of humour, is much more intriguing
“Adults want to play around and deal with what we’re scared of or worried about, but we want to do it in a safe environment,” explains Bier, of the attraction of making a thriller that incorporates the fierce, instinctive, less rosy side of being a mother. “Watching a movie is a safe environment for addressing issues but not having to go through them. It’s the same reason why kids want to hear fairy tales about witches or scary monsters – we can use them as a way to address wider issues.”
So, why has it taken so long for this darker, more instinctive side of motherhood to be shown in this particular light? “There are very few female directors,” says Bier, simply. “It's still unreasonably hard for young female directors to get through. It’s a language thing – whoever decides on financing movies are still men. So, if you have a young woman and a young man coming in, immediately the young man has access to the language the male-dominated world speaks.”
As well as tough mothers, Bier was keen to throw in other aspects of real life that are relatively common, but for some reason aren’t reflected on screen – interracial relationships, for example. “While we were editing, we tested the movie in order to see how it would work. People filled out detailed questionnaires and no one commented on it, even though we rarely see it in a big film.” She’s referring to Mallory’s relationship with Tom, played by Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes. “It makes you wonder why those things aren't seen more on film. And it makes you realise that it’s so normal in real life that no one felt compelled to react to it because it felt very natural and organic.”
After almost 20 years of directing, Bier understands what it is to be a woman in a notoriously sexist industry, and while Times Up and #MeToo have put the wheels into motion, she thinks things aren’t changing quickly enough. “I’ve never been a fan of quotas, but I am changing my mind because I think we need to take some firm measures for this to change,” she says. “For actors, what is beautiful is still male-defined and held to certain standards that are not necessarily particularly healthy. I worry about young women who feel that same scrutiny.”
But Bier isn’t one to end on a sad note, and is well-known for ending her films with a glimmer of hope. Bird Box is no different. “The idea behind the movie is that even when you think you can’t trust anyone, it is possible to trust and love. I hope that this movie has a hopeful element, which is very different from most other apocalyptic movies that start bleak and stay bleak. This one has that bleakness to it, but it doesn’t stay that way.”