In Susanne Bier’s post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, monsters target sight — once you see one, you die. But to Bier, the film, adapted from Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel, isn’t just a vision-centric version of A Quiet Place. “They’ll inevitably get compared,” the Danish filmmaker says. “But I have to admit, I don’t see a lot of similarity.” The plot toggles between flashbacks of the worldwide horror’s immediate aftermath and the present, with heroine Malorie (Sandra Bullock) desperately seeking shelter with two children. “It’s a thriller about motherhood,” Bier explains. “[Malorie’s] very forceful, very uncompromising. She’s a very contemporary female hero.” You’ll see.
Below, the Emmy-winning director (The Night Manager) discusses Bird Box, which premieres Monday night at AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The story juggles a couple of different genres — horror, romance, thriller, and more. What attracted you the most to adapting the novel?
SUSANNE BIER: I was very intrigued by that synergy, by the way they played together. It’s a scary movie, but it’s also a movie with hope. I would never have a made a movie that was just going to be [one thing].
How did you think about portraying the characters’ disorientation, particularly Malorie’s? She has to stay blindfolded or keep her eyes closed; that’s not exactly easy to translate on screen.
That was the biggest artistic challenge. How do you convey the fact that you can’t see and yet not lose touch with the character’s emotional journey? At every single point of the movie, I kept asking myself, “How do we track her? Do we understand where she’s at? Do we know exactly what she feels?” Because Sandra is such an amazing actress, you do feel it and you do track her. The camera also needed to do its work with it, so it was a combination of those elements.
Bird Box has a huge supporting cast, including Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, B.D. Wong, Jacki Weaver, Sarah Paulson, and more. You’ve said before that casting is very important to you as a director. How did you approach casting with this film?
Casting is absolutely the most important thing — at least for me, it is. I kept thinking about each character, and it doesn’t happen super fast. It builds. In this case, we started with Sandra Bullock, and then we moved from her, we moved outwards. It’s kind of a strange thing of combining, if this character is played by this character, then it would be interesting if this other character was played by this actor, and then making each of them very specific and very different. At times, I had to convince everyone… I try not to make obvious choices but clear choices.
You started with casting Sandra. Why was she perfect for your heroine? Malorie is tough and doesn’t coddle the children with her. She calls them “Girl” and “Boy.”
I can’t think of this movie with anyone else, and that isn’t just because I’ve done it. It’s also because she has the courage [to handle the material]. She has a lot of compassion and a lot of love in everything she does. Most actors would go, “I can’t be this brutal,” but she does that. It’s real, it’s very difficult to do what she does, and she does it with an ease. Imagine playing a reluctant mother. In itself, that’s a pretty difficult thing to do, and a pretty painful thing to do, and it was for her.
What do you think of the comparisons to it?
I think A Quiet Place is a very good film, but I think they are very different. They’ll inevitably get compared, but I have to admit, I don’t see a lot of similarity. It’s almost a slight — because they are two thrillers with two female leads, they’re compared. I guess I kind of go, “Hey, would you say the same thing if it were two guys?” And I don’t think anybody would.
Well, I think the reason they’re being compared is because the central threats both target senses — in A Quiet Place, it’s sound, and in Bird Box, it’s sight. Maybe it’s just a trend, then?
Look, the book [Bird Box] came out way before A Quiet Place. And I really don’t think it’s a trend. I mean, there are probably lots of movies that deal with sensory experience of something horrific. But I enjoy them both!
To wrap up, then, what do you hope people take away from the film?
I hope they will be entertained, and scared as well. I hope it will stay with them just a tiny bit longer than most things do, because I think there is a really compelling portrait of a mother, which I haven’t actually seen before, and I hope it’s going to be really entertaining, but also interesting.
Bird Box makes its world premiere at AFI Fest on Nov. 12, and will hit Netflix on Dec. 21.