Non-binary filmmaker Laura Moss, who uses they/them pronouns, likes to tackle projects that break away from societal norms.
Moss' first feature, titled birth/rebirth, and tells the story of a single mother and a morgue technician bound together by a wish to bring a little girl back from the dead. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and was also screened recently at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. A short film by Moss, Fry Day, previously screened at Tribeca Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival and South by Southwest.
Moss took time off the busy festival circuit to discuss the creation of birth/rebirth.
Windy City Times: Start off with your background.
Laura Moss: I was born and raised in New York City. I worked as a production designer and a special effects makeup artist before transitioning into writing and directing. For a brief period in the middle, I was an emergency medical technician, which strangely I think has informed me as a director more than anything else.
In my mid-twenties, I went back to film school for directing. When I was finished, I had to go right back into the workforce as a production designer because no one wanted to pay me to be a director.
I went into co-writing with Brendan J. O'Brien and started producing short films.
WCT: This has led to the creation of birth/rebirth. Why is the title in lowercase?
LM: I don't know. In our first iteration people said there was no way we could write the title like that, but that made me want to do it more.
WCT: So it is an act of rebellion?
LM: It is a little bit, and it almost feels femme to me. It is subversive and somehow soft in a way that somehow suits the film. That is just instinct really…
WCT: Musicians do it all the time. Ariana Grande does it all the time with her song titles.
LM: It is because we text all the time.
WCT: I work in healthcare so birth/rebirth hit home.
LM: I want to give a shout-out to our medical advisor Emily Ryan. She is a Stanford pathologist who took two months off of her job to be on the set as our medical advisor. She makes the film feel grounded.
She worked with our actors, production designer and special effects makeup artist. She had a hand in every medical aspect of the film.
WCT: What recipe did you use for blood?
LM: Karo syrup and red food coloring. I'm not sure what brand our special effects makeup designer Lisa Forst used specifically, but that is generally what we used.
WCT: Is birth/rebirth inspired by Frankenstein?
LM: Yes. The character came into my brain when I first read Frankenstein. I thought about what if the character was a woman who needed to reckon with her body to create things with her mind. That was the central question that I couldn't get out of my head.
I brought it to Brendan as a series of journal entries written by the mother of Frankenstein, to the mother of the child she reanimates. There wasn't a plot there yet, but it was a way to explore the psychology of that character.
WCT: The movie was a combination of Thelma & Louise mixed with Pet Sematary to me.
LM: I love that! People describe it as The Odd Couple, but I prefer Thelma & Louise. It was really important to me that these two women needed each other. As different as they were, I wanted to see them bond and co-parent together, to form a family. That is an important element of the film.
There was an earlier version of the script where they were more adversarial and it was less interesting to me. I liked figuring out the ways that they were dependent on each other.
WCT: How do you think the main character of Rose in birth/rebirth identifies?
LM: I don't think Rose would identify as non-binary because she is incredibly literal-minded and not culturally literate.
I think her spirit is non-binary because she defies categorization and rejects gender limitations that are imposed on her. She would find the conversation around gender identification bewildering.
WCT: Rose showed she doesn't need men at all in the film except for sperm.
LM: True and the men in the film don't have names, or talk to each other either. When discussing these topics, I am more interested in what women have to say. That was the impetus for that choice.
WCT: What would birth/rebirth be like if the genders were switched?
LM: It would be very different. Look at the film Dead Ringers. Jeremy Irons was originally the star, and now the reboot is made with Rachel Weisz as The Mantle Twins. It is great ,with the same sensibility, but the issues the two movies explore couldn't be more different.
WCT: What was involved for you recently mentoring at Cinema Femme Film Festival Chicago?
LM: I was assigned a mentee, Gabriela Ortega, who is a very brilliant filmmaker in her own right. We had a series of conversations about her work and career development. I felt she didn't need me! [laughs]
What they are doing with that film festival is community-building and really important. I hope to continue to be a part of it.
WCT: It is a new film festival in its first year of being in person, and it's refreshing how inclusive it is.
LM: It has been a cis-male-dominated industry for a long time, and the reaction to that is women empowerment. Where does that leave someone who doesn't identify as binary?
Cinema Femme and The Future of Film Is Female, which has a very strong name, have both made an effort to expand their scope and requirements of the filmmaker they want to support.
WCT: Why isn't gender taken out of award ceremony categories?
LM: It's an interesting discussion to have because some will say taking gender out of the categories will reduce opportunities for non-males. It is because of the inherent bias in the world that men might only receive those awards, but I say let there be backlash, and let's reckon with reality!
WCT: What else would you like to see change in the film industry?
LM: I would like the Writers Guild of America West to be working under more equitable contracts. Streamers should pay creators what they are worth.
Filmmaking is always a marriage of art and commerce. For myself, I would like to find financiers and companies that have a mission that aligns with my values. I was lucky to find that with Shudder, and they were incredible supporters of this film. They didn't try to change it. They just helped me make it into the best version of what it could be.
WCT: What are your future projects?
LM: I am working with Brendan O'Brien again, but the film Gordon is on hold because of the writer's strike. It's about a misdiagnosed sociopath trying to date without killing anyone, and it's a comedy. For me, it is what an outside perspective on what a toxic society does to the male psyche. It is about the labels put on people and if it is possible to defy that. It speaks to me very personally.
WCT: When does birth/rebirth come out?
LM: It will be in theaters this August and will be streaming on Shudder.com by Halloween.
WCT: For Pride month, what can others do to support their non-binary friends?
LM: We are all biased and conditioned in a certain way, so this is something I am guilty of as well, but everyone should make an effort not to assume pronouns ever. I am feminine presenting and it is understandable that someone would refer to me using she/her pronouns if I don't announce my pronouns, but I appreciate it when others don't assume my pronouns.
I really make an effort in my life to do the same, no matter what age someone is or the business setting we meet them in. It is easy to make a set of assumptions, but that is what I would like to see…
WCT: And it doesn't hurt to ask to find out.
LM: Yes, and everyone can be a "they" until further notice!