Jodie Comer’s The End We Start From Explained by Director Mahalia Belo

The End We Start From stars Jodie Comer as a young mother struggling to survive an ecological disaster with her newborn son. She remains steadfast through heartbreaking tragedy in her desperate search for food, shelter, and safety as civilization collapses around her. The film depicts an apocalyptic scenario with a measured, feminine approach not usually seen in the genre. This isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster with overblown CGI effects and ravaging cannibals.

Director Mahalia Belo, known for the British television miniseries Requiem and The Long Song, has an outstanding feature debut with searing emotional depth. “Having been through lockdown with a new baby” gave her unique insights and perspective on a kindred protagonist. Belo had been given the novel as a gift from the film’s producer “a long time ago.” She was “excited to work” with renowned playwright Alice Birch (Dead Ringers, We Want You to Watch), who adapted it for the screen. Belo considers her a “great new voice” who had written “a phenomenal, insightful script.” Belo wanted to “explore a particular sort of violence, which is the shift of self that happens when you deal with birth and death.”

The End We Start From follows Comer’s unnamed mother from the moment she delivers. Belo uses “the flood that was actually happening in the story” as a means of talking about the “surges that take place when you’re giving birth.” Filming with newborns was “not an easy thing to do” but they “informed the way we shot.” Belo had a midwife who “bonded” with Comer and helped to create a history that “fed into the nuance of what she did each day.” She credits Comer as a “hard worker” with “a nose for the truth” and able to “capture subtlety on camera.” Read on for our full interview with Mahalia Belo.

Acting Like a Baby

MovieWeb: Benedict Cumberbatch acquired the rights to Megan Hunter’s debut novel, which was then adapted for the screen by Alice Birch. When did you get involved in the film?

Mahalia Belo: [Producer] Liza Marshall first gave me the book to read a long time ago. I thought it was beautiful. She gave it to everyone I knew as a present for their birthdays. It kind of stuck with me. It’s so poetic and well-drawn. The world of it properly resonated with me. I felt like I had to make it. Later, after I’d had a kid through COVID, it spoke to me in a wholly different way. Alice Birch had written a phenomenal script, a really taught, insightful script. I was excited to work with her. I had been wanting to work with her a long time because she’s one of Britain’s great writers, great new voices. Once I had the script, I’d known the book for a long time. I pulled together a lot of images, started writing my own feelings, thoughts, and had some meetings with them. It felt like it was a perfect connection between all of us.

MW: You have an unnamed new mother. The world is ending around her. The story is told in a gentle, singular perspective. Hollywood wants this genre to be explosive and loaded with CGI. Was there ever a thought to make it more violent and descriptive?

Mahalia Belo: I didn’t want to do that. For me, having been through lockdown with a new baby, my experience of violence was different. My experience of violence was on the outer edges of my life. I wanted to talk about that. That is a particular sort of violence. It’s something that gets under your skin, but also, you can live through it in a very different way. And yeah, I don’t think that was the movie we intended to make. I think we wanted to look at this other kind of violence, which is the shift of self that happens when you deal with birth and death.

Related: The End We Start From Review | Jodie Comer’s Deeply Affecting Survival Story

MW: You start off with a harrowing birth scene. It’s done in a realistic and poetic way. Could you extrapolate from the beginning how you dealt with filming babies?

Mahalia Belo: The beginning was dealing with the birth itself. Jodie and I talked quite a lot about that experience. We wanted to do that in a way that felt true. But also subjectively true, not like we were documenting it. The idea of using the flood that was actually happening in the story, but as a means of talking about the feeling of the birth. The surges that take place when you’re giving birth felt true to the story. Also, we were looking at a lot of birthing videos. I hope that people who’ve had kids will maybe relate to that experience. I think Jodie did a phenomenal job portraying that.

Then actually working with babies is hard. It’s not an easy thing to do. They notoriously don’t do what you want at any given time. They often do the absolute opposite. When you want them to be awake, they’re asleep. When you want them to be asleep, they’re awake. When you want them not to cry, they’re crying. When you want them to cry, they’re really happy.

Mahalia Belo: We had to be quite organic to that process. It informed the way we shot. There’s something quite beautiful about it as well. The fact that they’re so real affected all the other performances. Obviously, we have problems with baby hours. You can’t shoot that long. You have to take care, you need a chaperone all the time. The parents and I made a community on set. It was difficult because we had no time to shoot. We had a very tight schedule. The babies had their own limitations. It made it like we were just running to make this movie all together.

My Bittersweet, Terrible Moment

MW: There are some really poignant moments in the film. The father, another unnamed character, loves his wife and son, then realizes that he’s failing them. He can’t protect them. Talk about filming those scenes and capturing that heartbreaking letdown.

Mahalia Belo: Joel Fry plays the woman’s partner. He brought such vulnerability, but also strength to that character, a mixture of the two. It was heartbreaking. I was trying to hold back Jodie’s tears for a scene later in the firm. It’s really hard at that moment. Just seeing somebody at a point where the bravest thing that they can do is be honest about their ability to cope and support. It’s a complex moment. Most parents would be like, “Oh, but you can never leave your partner.” I don’t want to give it away, but I think he has gone through such a huge life-changing moment. It was very moving. We were all crying.

That is such a big shifting moment, when Jodie realizes that she has to go it alone from now on. She doesn’t want to. All of her outward force was trying to say no to it. There’s this lovely dichotomy there. That was such a pleasure to edit.

Related: The End We Start From: Is This Survival Thriller Based on a Book?

MW: Another relationship is really fundamental to the film. Katherine Waterston’s character just had a baby, and they’re stuck in the same situation. Talk about developing a friendship between the two women. Was that in the book as well?

Mahalia Belo: A form of it — she makes friends with another mother, and they become sort of co-parents in their own right. They share the childcare. What Alice [Birch] and I did was made sure that she had a fire in her that we really liked. She’s archaic and kind of forceful. Almost as though the flood was the best thing that could ever happen to her. Some people wanted the world to shift, so they could be renewed. That’s true of that character.

Mahalia Belo: We were shooting. It was cold. It was a gale. There’s a moment before they head to the island and the wind was extremely strong. The thing about Scotland, where we shot, is the weather changes every few seconds. It’ll be blistering rain hitting your face on the side, and then quite sunny. I think bringing these characters into the elements, both Jodie and Katherine, helped to sort of unify them. They were going through that journey and that connection. They’re bonding through this landscape.

Jodie Comer and Belo’s Bittersweet, Beautiful Moment

MW: Jodie Comer is spectacular here. How did you both craft such a brave and nuanced performance?

Mahalia Belo: She was with us through part of the development. We had a rehearsal where a midwife came and taught what birth will be like, how to hold the baby, and how to change a nappy. That experience together, as a kind of partner in the rehearsal, bonded them. We talked a lot about the past, what Jodie’s character had been through prior to the story. We had this history of hers that fed into the nuance of what she did each day. She’s phenomenal, such a hard worker, so intelligent, and she has beautiful insights. That was a joy to work with, both of us honing those nuances to capture subtlety on camera. She’s got such a nose for truth. It was very easy.

MW: What was the best and worst day for you as director of The End We Start From?

Mahalia Belo: There was a paparazzo on the beach when Jodie was going back into the water. It looked like we weren’t going to be able to get [the shot]. We couldn’t get this person to go away. I didn’t want to put her in that position. She was like, “I can do this.” But it just felt wrong. I was about to lose it. We had this little moment. We were only able to do one shot and the light was perfect. It was about not to happen. Someone was telling me to cut and [that I] can’t do the shot. I was dying. The whole film led to this one moment when she decides to make this massive change. That was terrible. I was broken. We managed to get this paparazzo to bugger off. We got the shot. Everyone was so exhilarated. That was my bittersweet, beautiful, terrible moment mixed into one.

The End We Start From is currently in US theaters from Republic Pictures. Signature Entertainment will have a UK theatrical release for the film in early 2024.


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