Director Susanne Bier faced an uphill battle as she entered production on her new post-apocalyptic thriller, Bird Box.
The Netflix film centres on a cataclysmic event which results in a mysterious presence roaming the earth, causing anyone who stares directly at it to commit suicide.
The survivors of the initial outbreak – a stellar cast including Sandra Bullock, Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes and John Malkovich – realise this early on, and take to wearing blindfolds whenever they are outside their makeshift safe house.
How difficult was it to direct actors wearing blindfolds? Did you have any particular techniques to help them hit their marks?
Well, we didn’t have any marks. They were wearing blindfolds, and Sandra Bullock was hitting trees, hitting the cameras and, at one point, getting a proper wound.
But she had trained with somebody who teaches blind people how to navigate – how to, through sound, figure out distances – so she had training in how to move around without looking. Still, with the speed and everything, it was kind of nerve-wracking, but we wanted it to have a feeling of being very real. Which it did.
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I don’t think it necessarily takes longer, but it puts pretty huge strain on one’s sense of harmony or one’s calm. The steady cam operator had to start with Sandra every day kind of moving around, anticipating her next move and trying to be out of the way. But it was pretty exciting.
Why did you not want to actually show the monsters?
The creatures mess with your mind; they tap into your deepest fear. And, because they tap into your deepest fear, we can’t ever see them, because that deepest fear is going to be different whoever you are.
For me, the most exciting point in any thriller has always been that point right before you see the monster, right before you see the villain. That has always been the most frightening, and I wanted the whole movie to have that atmosphere. To be completely honest, every time I see a monster in a movie I kind of go, ‘Is that all?’
Does it bother you that most of the viewers will be watching Bird Box on a small screen on Netflix rather than in the cinema?
Look, in an ideal world, I’d have anybody watching anything I did on a huge screen. That’s not the reality.
I want them to see the stories that I’m making. The reason why I’m a filmmaker is I feel strongly that I’ve got something to tell the world. Netflix has 130 million subscribers, so the potential of hitting a really big audience with something that is entertaining and thrilling and has a real heart to it is irresistible.
John Malkovich in Bird Box
For a filmmaker, that’s an irresistible cocktail. And I’d much rather do that than insisting on something which is only going to be on a big screen and is going to hit a much lower audience. I’m going to be killed by a lot of my colleagues, but that’s actually what I feel about that.
So do you feel that the lines between TV and film are being blurred?
Completely. Completely blurred. I think the division between film and television is a bit of an outdated division. I know that audiences don’t have those lines; in the media world we do have the lines still, but they are getting increasingly invisible, and I think they will become even more so in the next few years.
For me, if I do six hours of television, I approach it as a very long movie. And if I do a movie, I mind less whether anybody is watching it on a smaller or bigger screen, but I’m obsessing about them seeing something that is exciting and that might, just a tiny little bit, change some prejudices that they might have had.
Lil Rel Howery in Bird Box
In this context, Sandra is portraying a mother in a pretty controversial way [Bullock’s character is considering adoption before the apocalypse takes that option away from her]. It’s a kind of motherhood which has not been portrayed in most mainstream media. Yes, you could do it in an arthouse film. But she’s doing it because it’s like a thriller, because it’s an exciting film that actually deals with core values within our society and just gradually tweaks them.
A few changes were made to the original novel – like adding the relationship element between Sandra Bullock’s Malorie and Trevante Rhodes’ Tom. What was the thinking there?
Trevante Rhodes and Sandra Bullock in Bird Box
I felt it was very interesting making a contemporary female hero, a real one. And I think Sandra and I felt strongly that we wanted her to have a moment of a love life. We wanted her to have someone who she could be close to and it could feel real.
And actually it’s kind of interesting that you asked: we did a lot of test screenings, and everybody has kind of felt that it was a very organic, real love story. I think it’s interesting because, given the clichés of male and female, and given what is conventional, it’s actually rather ‘unconventional’.
In a way you can say that their roles are reversed: Tom is a guy who embodies a lot of conventional motherly qualities. He’s the one who talks about telling stories to kids and showing them love.
And he does a whole lot of things: there’s a racial divide, there’s an age divide, there’s a whole lot of things involved which are not conventional – and yet it seems very organic.
You worked with Olivia Colman on The Night Manager – did you anticipate the kind of trajectory she would take on after that series aired?
Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown series 3 (Netflix)