The emotionally fraught monologue that Ellen Burstyn delivers to her daughter played by Vanessa Kirby in “Pieces of a Woman” is done in one long take, and Burstyn found the strength and conviction to give that performance and go to painful places because of something Kirby told her just before they began shooting.
The scene comes late in Kornel Mundruczó’s film after Kirby’s character has lost her baby in child birth. Burstyn wants her daughter to testify in a criminal trial against their midwife, and in Kirby’s reluctance, she pleads with her by invoking her own painful childhood as a survivor of the Holocaust.
Burstyn told TheWrap’s Steve Pond about how she got into the moment, and the inspiration came after Kirby told her a very specific piece of advice.
“Just before I did that take, Kornel was about to say action, and Vanessa said to me, ‘make me go to court.’ That was the purpose of the scene, that’s what I had to accomplish,” Burstyn explained. “And I started the scene, and I got to the end of the written speech, and in that moment, I could feel that I hadn’t made her go to court. So I kept on going. I don’t know what I said. But I kept on going until I knew I made her go to court.”
Mundruczó said they ended up doing only a handful of takes of that scene, and in every instance it was envisioned as an intense close-up of Burstyn’s face alone.
“It makes the suspense higher and higher and higher,” Mundruczó said. “Your concentration is not under manipulation with the cuts, and that was the idea.”
Of course Kirby, who won Best Actress when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, also has to endure a lengthy, unbroken take in the film’s opening scene that depicts Kirby’s child birth. Mundruczó explains that though the shot was truly done in 30, unbroken minutes, the scene itself takes place over eight hours of a grueling birth, something that blends the lines between cinema and reality.
Kirby has never herself gone through the experience of child birth, and despite all the research she could do on her own, she eventually was able to watch someone do it for real.
“I was mainly so excited to do it after I watched it because I really wanted something authentic to represent that journey on camera. It was a bit like flying,” Kirby said. “As soon as action is called you just strap in and hope for the best, and you have to be so in it, so it can require such presence and such immediacy, which is always the goal but also the challenge of anything.”
Netflix acquired “Pieces of a Woman” out of Venice and TIFF. Check out TheWrap’s interview with the cast and crew above.