Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
If there’s a common thread that ties Academy-Award-nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s films together, it’s that each allows the viewer to reflect upon their own fears, regrets and anxieties through vividly-drawn protagonists.Whether it’s in LIGHTS OUT (where a woman deals with a demon haunting her family), or in ARRIVAL (where a woman is called upon to communicate with aliens),or even in HOURS (where a man’s quick-thinking skills are utilized to keep his newborn son alive), his characters engage the audiences’ heads as well as their hearts. His latest, BIRD BOX, is no different.
In this cinematic adaptation of Josh Malerman’s best-selling novel set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, the world is under siege by an unseen entity causing humans to kill themselves. If you look at it, you die. (The entity,not the film.) With supplies dwindling and danger mounting, tough-as-nails Malorie (Sandra Bullock) must get herself and her two young charges – all blindfolded –to a safe haven beyond treacherous rapids. She must also remove her metaphorical blindfold and accept her role as mother.
At the film’s recent press day, I spoke to the affable storyteller about everything from the challenging adaptation process, to what didn’t make the final cut, to how his original script would’ve birthed a sequel – and what underrated actor would’ve been the star.
****Warning: There are spoilers in our conversation, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, bookmark this page and return.***
A lot has changed from the book, to your script, to the finished film. But I’ll start by saying thank you for not putting a dog in your movie and killing it. I know that’s something from the book, done in a very I AM LEGEND kind of way.
Her one true friend,right.
And in both the book and your script, the last bit of her flashback shows Malorie raising these two kids alone as they’re getting prepared for the river trip. When did the idea to bring Tom (Trevante Rhodes) in surface?
That came when Susanne Bier came on board. She really wanted to do that. I had trouble making that work in my head simply because we know in the present timeline, it’s just her and the kids. And so any time with any other character for too long after that felt disingenuous to me. She disagreed and got to make the film.
There was a lot of stuff in your original script that was very hard “R” horror – a more gruesome aftermath, tougher decisions the characters faced. Was there an effort to soften those things, because I know Susanne didn’t really want to make a “horror”movie?
I think that was the case that a lot of things got walked back with her.
Malorie is an unconventional portrait of a mom we don’t normally see on screen. She’s not the perfect mother. Her “love language” is that she’s stern for the purpose of survival.What was that like collaborating to bring those traits out?
This is where a phenomenal actress like Sandra Bullock comes in and makes it a real thing for you. In the earlier drafts, it was always a younger mother who didn’t know this was the direction she wanted her life to go. So when you put this role of Malorie in Sandra Bullock’s hands, you have a new lens and new focus where she had some amazing personal insight into that let me know how to re-write the character. That is essentially someone who is already committed to the life that she wants and more than anything, it’s that motherhood, for her, is indicative of a deeper loneliness that she doesn’t want to be alone. Feeling like if she’s the only one to make the decision that she is going to fail.
What do you think it is about the genre where we get to engage with more complex portrayals of motherhood?
From my own perspective, if you’re writing a horror story where your protagonist actually prevails at the end, the odds are far greater that it’s going to be a woman simply because they have a biological coding that leads them more towards preservation and survival versus destruction.
There’s a lot more to be said in horror right now about the state of women and women’s rights than there is about men. There’s just a lot more to dig into thematically that horror allows you to do – or any genre really. That seems to be a good touchstone for us and why you’re seeing a lot of heroines. But hopefully not in the old trope of “The Final Girl,” where it had been before – exploitation versus exploration.
Was it a challenge to write this entity that’s never shown and to make it so it’s not THE HAPPENING?
Yeah. It was rough.But a lot of it had to do with making it as much a physical presence as possible and less of a metaphor. That’s why in my draft, it was small or large enough where it entered into the house at one point. Those things, making floorboards creak, making a splash in the swimming pool, are all tactile moments that gave you a real presence of danger.
And in the car, when it smashes the car.
Oh yeah! Which gives Tom and everybody a clue as to the size and that it can do this damage to a car [laughs].
There are also moments of tension relief where it’s about building character. Was there some figuring out where to place those pieces?
Very much so. The weird struggle with that was I wanted to spend time with characters I know we wouldn’t get time to spend with later on in the film. But then that gives the audience a sense of false confidence, like “Oh. These are the people we should be paying attention to. Maybe Malorie isn’t as big of a player.” And you don’t want to do that either. You want to make sure to explore the major arc of your protagonist and the people close to her. I had gone through quite a few drafts where we get to spend more time with Felix and Lucy, or Glen, or any of these other people we don’t get much time with. That has been and continue to be a struggle. I’m still re-writing those scenes right now. [laughs]
What I also loved about your draft was the Sinatra music – especially Gary (Tom Hollander) playing “My Way” during his whole meltdown.
I think “My Way” is a song assholes use to justify their bad behavior.
Thank you! I appreciate that. I held onto that as long as I could.[laughs]
Was that difficult to get the music rights, or was this a creative decision to change things?
I don’t know. That’s a question for Susanne.
Your draft also features a character that didn’t make it into the movie: Edgar. He’s kind of like the people Malorie encounters who were already crazy, they just go more crazy once this hits, right?
A little bit. Here’s the aspect we didn’t get to explore. I love this character. When Chris Morgan and I talked about it, we talked about hiring Kurt Russell for the role. The reveal we wanted to lay on Edgar at some point in time, whether it was in that particular draft, was that he has early onset Alzheimer’s and he forgot what they look like before he could kill himself. So he’s a special case.
Kurt would’ve been a great choice for that role.
Oh yeah. And that would be the great sequel I wanted to see was him out there hunting after the crazies.
Speaking to that, this has similar group dynamics of THE THING. Was your work on that something that sold the higher-ups on you being the perfect person to adapt this?
I got this emailed tome in early galleys, in April or May of 2013. I got obsessed by it. The group dynamic was something that was already in the book. I guess it’s the kind of story I respond well to, which is why it was emailed to me. I guess that’s something that’s in my lane.
This was written before this past election and all of us thinking our world is ending. How crazy that this post-apocalyptic story is so prescient?
I keep saying that about genre movies I wrote before. Even with ARRIVAL which showed up right after Election Day, it was like, “I did not expect this. This is all God.”
Do you think there will be fan theories as to the ending, whether or not Malorie and the kids made it to safety? Is this purgatory, or limbo? Or should this be taken at face value? Did you talk to Josh about it?
Yeah, I had a conversation about Josh about it. I feel like we’ve talked about how practical it could be so it can be accepted as truth, but the movie and the horror lives in the question of us wanting to know an answer even when we know that the answer could kill us. That human nature is curious and it’s hard for us to shut that down. I think this is a movie that begs for fan theories, really.
I’m sure this didn’t start out being a Netflix film, but now that it is one, do you get Netflix for life?
[laughs] I should! That should be in the contract. Because they acquired it, I didn’t get a chance to go back and renegotiate. But from here on out… Thank you, Courtney.
BIRD BOX is now playing in exclusive limited theatrical engagements in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and London. It will be released globally on Netflix on December 21 and will have an expanded theatrical release in additional theaters in the U.S., and throughout Europe. Read our review here.