'Bird Box' Director Susanne Bier Calls Apocalyptic Movies Fairy Tales For Adults [Interview]

Most post-apocalyptic movies delight in showing off their wastelands, whether it's Mad Max's desert car parks or I Am Legend's overgrown New York City. In Bird Box, the survivors can't even take in the emptiness. There is something outside that, if they see, it will make them kill themselves. The movie never shows us what it is, but director Susanne Bier shot a scene where Marjorie (Sandra Bullock) imagines the creature in a nightmare. They ultimately deleted the sequence. So the survivors of Bird Box cover all the windows, and if they do have to leave the house, they wear blindfolds. 

Bier spoke with /Film about making Bird Box, that big scene she removed from the film, and how post-apocalyptic stories are like fairy tales for adults. Bird Box is in theaters now and hits Netflix on Friday, December 21.

How do you design a visual aesthetic for a movie where the characters literally can't look?

It's tricky and it's kind of interesting. It's part of what is interesting. You do want to suggest to the audience what it is they don't see. So you do that and then at the same time, you want to have the joy as the audience of seeing the world they can't see. I think the red line for me was do not lose emotional touch with the character. Stay with Malorie. Stay with how she feels and then allow yourself to, yes, at times maybe you see what you can't see through the blindfold. We made lots of experiments and we ended up with something where it's there but it's very suggestive.

What were some of those experiments that ended up revealing too much?

They were pretty intimate. Can we see her eye behind the blindfold? It wasn't just what does she not see. It was also what do we not see in her now that she's blindfolded. Are we in danger of losing touch with her? It was a whole lot of things which were tricky and challenging, but we figured it out. It wasn't that easy.

Were devices like GPS and the collision detection systems helpful?

Oh yes, very much so. Most of it was a result of what would we do? What would you actually do? The car thing is a complete result of yeah, they would do that. They would totally use the GPS because that would actually be a way of getting food, getting whatever they needed. Then it's also kind of scary. It does that thing that I feel anyway about GPS which is slightly alienating, but it makes alienating a virtue.

How is GPS alienating?

Because it has a knowledge that you don't have.

Then there are times where you let us see what they can't. When was it important to show the audience things your characters can't see?

That's just storytelling. That's the world. That's pretty much the entire movie. We see where they are and they're not looking.

This is my favorite genre, the post-apocalyptic world where the survivors have to find ways to adapt. Did you have an affinity for this type of story before Bird Box?

Yeah, I do. I do have an affinity. How come that's your favorite genre?

That's an interesting question. I guess everyone thinks they're going to be Will Smith and I Am Legend. Realistically I'd probably be someone who doesn't make it but I can dream about being resourceful.

It's really interesting because I think that is a reason why we like those kinds of movies and why those movies are important to make. I think probably all of us are questioning what would I do in a given situation, how would I behave in a crisis? I think watching a movie like that allows us to play that game, but because it's in a confined space of two hours, you can do it relatively freely. I think it's like fairy tales for kids. They can be really harrowing, but I think in a way that's also kids addressing the most dangerous thing they can think of, the scariest thing they can think of, meeting a witch on the way. I think for us, dystopian post-apocalyptic movies are a bit like that. That world that we fear is coming to the end, how am I going to behave and do I understand any characters behaving in a certain way? Part of what drew me to this was firstly it has a female protagonist, which very few of those movies has. It has a badass female protagonist. She's hard and she's brutal. She does whatever it takes for those kids to survive and it's not always pleasant. I think that was really interesting.

Right, it took four Mad Maxes to have a female protagonist. And I think there's a little wish fulfillment of being the only one left in a supermarket or fancy stores to take your pick. Were you able to explore that in the supermarket scene?

I don't have that desire. I don't have that desire to be the only one left in the supermarket. I would find that very, very sad. I think there's an element of suddenly owning the world which is pleasing or fascinating or attractive. I think they had that feeling. I think when they come into the supermarket, there is an element of "Oh, we can do anything here." But, I really think it's about connecting with other people, which enables them to survive.

That's ultimately what you realize. You wouldn't want to be the only person left for very long.


They adapt in Bird Box fairly quickly, blocking out the windows and stringing along fishing lines. Did a lot of that come from the book?

I can't remember now what came from the book. I think the fishing line came from the book but I can't remember. There were a lot of things, a lot of physical things that came from the book. I can't remember which was which.

When you did the deleted scene where we saw a creature...

That was a nightmare. It wasn't actually a deleted scene. It wasn't actually a creature.

I mean the scene you decided to take out. Would it have been a makeup prosthetic or a digital image?

Both. It was the whole thing, but the problem being it was a little bit funny. I think that would have been inevitable. I have to say, I pretty much feel that with creature movies. I pretty much kind of go, and they can be amazing, I recognize they are amazing but there's always a part of me that goes, "I'm not scared now. I've seen it."

We learned that back in Jaws, what you don't see is scarier than what you see.

Yeah, but then in Jaws it is scary when you see it. In general, I think that's the case.

Still a lot of work went into the nightmare scene that was counterproductive.

That's pretty much always the case. It's pretty much always the case that you do shoot something which you think is crucial and hugely expensive and very necessary, and that is one of the things that goes. You can't really present it. I think that is in the nature, in the DNA of moviemaking. There are elements, and I think the reason why that's the case is that because you shot that scene and then you shot other things differently, then whatever was necessary is ingrained in some other context. It's just the way. Moviemaking is an organic process and it keeps being an organic process.

Working with Netflix were there different sorts of restrictions or demands than you'd have with theatrical films?

You know, it's interesting because everyone is so concerned about that element of it. I firstly think for me the fun about thinking about making a movie for Netflix is 130 million subscribers. You can probably double up in views. Just imagine the access to an audience like that for a filmmaker who wants to tell stories that she wants audiences to see. It's an insanely potentially big audience which is very interesting.

So was the process of making it the same as your other films.

Yes. It's shot for cinema. It's shot for the big screen for sure.

Because the sound design is so important, did you do a different mix for the Netflix at home version?

No. We've done a mix that works both ways. It really works for the big screen. I think there are some technical differences in the delivery but I'm not really sure what they are.