When I initially wrote about this film, several people emailed me asking how they could watch it. The answer, unfortunately, was that it wasn't available anywhere yet (I screened it as part of the awesome Final Girls Berlin Film Festival). As of 2 October 2018, I have some excellent news! You can now watch "The Book of Birdie" on all major streaming platforms, just in time for the creepy (best) season 🎃
Last week, I broke up a boring work day by talking to Elizabeth E. Schuch about her work on “Wonder Woman”, Birdie's (Ilirida Memedovski) incredible bangs, and the magic of bedazzled objects. I am so glad that I actually remembered to turn on my camera for this Skype session. Elizabeth was in her attic studio in Bruges, Belgium which is much cooler than my living room in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Konstantinos Koutsoliotas, her husband and the person responsible for cinematography and visual effects on this project, was also present, along with two cats. I love getting to see where people live/work, so this was a real treat.
If you want a primer on the film before reading the interview, check out my review here, but read the "thoughts" section with caution as there are some mild spoilers. For those disinclined to click, here is a quick summary:
Birdie is a young girl with strong Lydia Deetz vibes. She's beautiful and quiet, but as far from boring as you could possibly imagine. After her grandmother ships her off to live at a dying convent, she starts to hallucinate, collect jars of her own blood, and fixate on Saint Philomena. I am 98% sure Birdie is an INFJ.
Interview with Elizabeth E. Schuch:
WiR: Tell me about your career trajectory and what led you to directing your first feature. I know you've been involved in the film industry for a while now.
I grew up in Wisconsin, as you may have guessed from the film, and was really, really into theater ... musical theater, everything. We had an awesome drama program at our Catholic high school and the big dream was to be ‘in the plays.' For a small school in a small town, we got great training, which was really lucky. As a teen I had been doing a lot of dancing and singing, but then I hurt my knee and started painting the scenery backstage and got into that whole world. When I got back to performing I was like: "Hey, it's great being in this wig and stuff but what's this backdrop going to be painted like?" - I couldn't stop thinking about those other aspects: the lighting, color, costumes ... the overall look of the show.
When I went to college, I needed to get as many scholarships as possible to afford it. My best grades were in English and art, I decided to study set design at DePaul. I figured at least it's a technical field and I could go into props or backstage crew to get by.
Where is DePaul? I should know this.
It's in Chicago. The Theatre School at DePaul - formerly the Goodman School of Drama and has been around since the 50s. It's really practical and conservatory-style, so they give you a heavy enough workload, complex enough jobs and put you on enough shows that it's realistic to the stress of a professional life in the arts.
What was your first job out of college?
Chicago is such a great town for theater. You can start working in proper theaters while still in college. At nights and on weekends, I worked for Blue Man Group. First, cleaning and tearing tickets, then working my way up to house management, lighting, props. It was really interesting to see a successful, long-running show play to different audiences every night. It was fun, great people, really messy.
But I took literally every job I could - set design, load carpenter, painting, or props. Then one winter, in a scenery-building warehouse, I remember chipping the ice off the paint that morning and dipping thousands of fake tulips in pink paint for the Houston Opera. I started thinking to myself, "You know... maybe I should go to grad school…” (Dip, dip, dip.) “Maybe abroad ...”
I managed to get an internship in Berlin with architect Sergei Tchoban - he’s the most incredible architectural painter - traditional Russian sepia drawing with really unique sense of perspective. There are things he taught me that I still use every day at work ... especially in terms of how to focus the eye in the frame and contrast.
While I was out in Berlin - the Berlinale Film Festival was going on, and that was my first introduction to the world of European filmmaking. You could go and see a film from anywhere in the world for just €4 and the director would be there, talking about how they did it. It was so exciting. I hadn’t even considered film as a career, even though I was obsessed with Hitchcock from a young age. (Thank you, Blockbuster unrated classics!) I remember watching "Spellbound" over and over ... reading Du Maurier ... so maybe that had some effect ...
You worked on "Wonder Woman" and a bunch of other big deal films. What was that experience like and how did it lead to "The Book of Birdie"?
For the past ten years or so I’ve been a storyboard artist in London, specializing in visuals effects - a lot of factual, science and history shows, especially for the BBC, Discovery, and the History Channel. I ended up on "Wonder Woman" on what they called a ninja squad. We were brought in right at the end to work on some sequences they wanted to improve. For weeks, we came up with ideas for potential action beats, which was exciting. I'm sure there was another team doing the same thing in LA and another one somewhere across the world. For me, that was an amazing gig.
This comes up a lot when I talk to other women filmmakers: It just doesn't occur to you that directing is an option or you feel like you need permission to have that ambition. You assume you need to stay in your box. I don't know why it didn't occur to me sooner. I’d even rented out a theater in high school - so my friend and I could direct our version of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)”.
Kostas and I had already produced our first feature film (THE WINTER, which he directed) when "Birdie" occurred to me. It was this flash of inspiration about a girl who bleeds - and to her it's a superhero power. Our working title was "Bleed Hard." You start asking questions - Where is she? Maybe she’s trapped somewhere? Where could we shoot? There was this incredible haunted convent in my neighborhood growing up (Kemper Centre). It was one of my favorite spots, by the edge of the lake, staring out into oblivion. I knew all the ghost stories - there was really a nun who hung herself, one who fell down the spiral stairs ...
So you start writing all that into the script, woven together with some ideas from medieval mysticism. I tend to have flashes of visuals, and then we need to figure out if and where it fits in the narrative. Anami Tara [Shucart], who is also our costumer, co-wrote the script - she has her own unique views on the mystical. She’s also really good at structure and the spine of a story and we’re intrigued by a lot of the same themes.
So we wrote it up, then saved up some scraps of money, and all went off to Wisconsin to shoot the film.
Oh, shit. So you didn't fundraise at all? I didn't realize this film was self-financed.
Yeah. I got the idea in May, Anami Tara and I wrote the script in July, and we shot in December. There was no time. We did a Kickstarter for our first film but running a campaign takes a ton of work and you need to know the funding audience you’re going for - when you’re linking up religion, horror, feminism AND lady-blood - you’re basically eliminating/alienating a lot of potential sponsors and supporters. So instead, Kostas and I just worked every job we could get leading up to the shoot and took out loans to cover the gaps. But that’s brutal, and in the future, I would love to do a funded project.
It would be a little less stressful.
Oh yeah, just a bit. I would like to be able to pay our crews better and feel a little more secure on set ... that we can afford extras if we need them. Like more gas for a car or an extra heater. Although, the building was so old that we could only plug in two things at a time. It was like, choose between lunch being hot, a light, and a heater. You can't have all three!
The film may have been low-budget, but it certainly didn't feel that way to me. One of my favorite aspects is the animated paper puppet sequences. How would you describe those?
Thanks! We all worked really hard on that. In my head, those sequences are chapter titles. Most saints in the Bible get a ‘book' ... so this is like an unwritten story of a saint, Birdie, who may or may not have existed. For those sequences, it’s a mix hand drawings of mine with antique etchings - Kostas animated them in 3D as if they were paper cut-outs.
It's been a few months since I've watched the film, but I will never forget the flying ovary. It’s seared into my brain.
If I never did another film again, just the fact that there is now a flying ovary captured on screen ... I'm so happy that scene exists. We've tried to illustrate cramps in the most metaphorical way possible - someone takes that pain and lets it fly away ... it’s very liberating.
All of Birdie's glittery fever dream hallucinations are super cool, too.
And I had to sneak a tap number in! So much of my life had been framed around musical theater, so of course Birdie's dream world includes it. Partially it was based on the possible hallucinations of someone with iron deficiency. I had been dealing with the effects of polycystic ovaries - at one point resulting in 40 days of heavy bleeding ... you get a little loopy after a while. So we considered how the slow, creeping madness of someone who is bleeding to death would play out. Especially in an environment where the character is imaginative, highly susceptible, and has nothing else happening.
I wanted the film to have the feel of private little strange rituals. As a kid I stayed up way too late and had perpetual nosebleeds - so blood was more fascinating than gross to me. When it came time to sit down and write the script, I collected lots of jars of blood and candles, put on the spooky choral songs, and dove into that world.
I'm very into it. Especially the idea of having collected jars of blood that are used for pen ink or whatever ... multi-purpose.
Yeah! I mean, she really has no choice. Birdie's been ordered not to soil her sheets, so she has to do something with all of the blood.
When we initially talked on Facebook, I remember you mentioned that you saw Birdie as a spiritual little sister to Veronica from "Heathers." Are there any other characters you were inspired by?
Definitely - to me Birdie is a bit magical like Amélie [the titular character from the Jean-Pierre Jeunet film] - if you stuck her in a horror film. Ilirida [Memedovski] even looks like her. She also looks quite a bit like Winona Ryder or Wednesday Addams- the same facial characteristics. And sometimes I would see her from above on a take and you’d catch a flash of Audrey Hepburn blinking back. I was amazed with how she played the screen. She was a hugely lucky find for us.
I thought that finding the right girl to play Birdie was going to be tough. It's a small town with a lot of kids who are trained in theater, but film acting is a different beast. At the audition, we had a line-up of girls waiting in the corridor and I saw Ilirida and thought, "HER!!! Oh, god, I hope she's good ... because she looks perfect."
Then she came in and did this fantastic audition. Since so much of the role is silent and interacting with random objects, I had them do silly things like talking to jars during the audition. No script reading, just here’s a jar - “You hear a noise coming from the jar ... it’s making a beautiful sound ... now it's saying something scary. Now sing to it.” And she just nailed it. She was so sweet and innocent and haunting.
So much of the film depends on her. The audience need to relate to her and feel what she's feeling, even though she doesn't talk much. It's a hard role.
Absolutely. You have to get lost in Birdie’s strange little introverted world ... Everything of the story is in her eyes, her face, the props ...
The shot of her at the end in the snow with all of the Philomena symbols surrounding her is something that will always stick with me.
Thank goodness there was a nice arrow and anchor trend going that season - and we shot just after Christmas, so all the glitter and ornaments were on sale in all the craft stores. That shot was super important though - I knew the opening scene, and that we needed to get her to that shot at the end - the rest was a mystery that evolved.
It was freezing cold (-30) when we filmed that last shot, so we had to be very careful. We kept Ilirida inside until the very last second, so we only had about one minute to shoot it. The first take went fine, but the second time the camera literally froze from being outside too long. Luckily the one shot we had worked!
Birdie could totally be a fashion icon. She makes every piece of clothing look cool ... like a more modern Lydia Deetz in "Beetlejuice."
Totally. Imagine if Lydia grew up in a totally different household with her cranky grandmother and was shoved into a convent before she got lippy. It's really tragic for Birdie because she's trying to choose between these saintly illusions and a normal life. If she had just moved to New York with Julia [Kitty Fenn], everything would have been fine. They might not have stayed together long-term, but at least she would have transitioned to the outside world.
How did you decide to include Julia? Did you know that you wanted Birdie to have a relationship with another girl?
We needed a compelling reason to tempt Birdie away from her saintly visions and back into the real world. Anami Tara and I had already set ourselves the challenge of an all-female cast, and it seemed natural that Birdie would start having feelings for someone. It's like one of those inappropriate first crushes you get as a teenager. In this case, that James Dean-type character is played by Julia. We wanted someone who felt more worldly, older and cooler ... they might not necessarily be cooler, but they feel older and cooler.
The nice thing is that you could change the character of Julia to a male without changing a single bit of the dialogue. As we were developing our new film coming out ["The Fear of Looking Up"] which Kostas directed, we ended up swapping the gender of the lead characters about three times. And each time, we tried not to change the dialogue for gender any more than absolutely necessary.
I'm stoked that "The Book of Birdie" is finally available in the US. What are the details?
It's now out on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, places like that. We have an awesome sales agent: Reel Suspects, in Paris. They handle films that are indie and arthouse but also genre, which is a really specific section of the market. They seem to be one of the few places that understands that niche, so we were lucky to get them on board right after the shoot.
I've seen so many good genre films by women this year. And many of them have shared elements or remind me of each other in some way. I recently watched a film by Jenn Wexler called "The Ranger."
Ah, yes! I’ve been waiting to see that one - it’ll be at Razor Reel in Bruges this year. I’ve heard it’s awesome.
It is! One character in the film has a van that is definitely something Birdie would drive. Jenn describes it as "the Lisa Franked out "Return of the Living Dead" van." Birdie would love it.
I bet! Now, you can't see it because the wings beat so fast, but the only on-purpose, non-period thing in the film is the iridescent wings on the ovary. They're from a My Little Pony Flutter Pony, circa the late 80s.
I like to think my taste is sophisticated, but I will never stop loving glitter and Lisa Frank.
Oh, hell yes. I even bedazzled my headphones. [Elizabeth showed them to me and I can confirm that they are awesome. She was wearing them when we talked.] That way, when I work on jobs in-office as a storyboard artist - they make me feel glam (and since usually I'm the only girl - it prevents the boys from borrowing them by accident.)
Everything is better when it's bedazzled.
No film can have too much glitter and blood.
"The Book of Birdie" is available for streaming now, so wtf are you waiting for? If Elizabeth's declaration of love for glitter and blood didn't sway you, maybe this exclusive clip from the film will do the trick:
In you're in the mood to watch more movies or tv shows, here are a few that Elizabeth recommended when I asked if she had seen anything good recently:
- "Maniac" (on Netflix)
- "Glow" (also Netflix)
- "Hounds of Love" by Ben Young (iTunes, Hulu, etc.)
- "Dearest Sister" by Mattie Do (iTunes)
- “What We Do in the Shadows” by Taika Watiti, Jemaine Clement (Amazon, YouTube, iTunes)
We also discussed “Gilmore Girls" dialogue, it’s difficult characters and how much we love Emily. ASP, can we get an Emily spinoff with some actual singing and choreography? Kelly Bishop has talent and we want to see it fully utilized.