Bier’s craft

Bier’s craft

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
February 9, 2021

The Director’s Chair

Danish director Susanne Bier opens up about her film and television career, winning an Oscar and working with Nicole Kidman on HBO thriller The Undoing.

During a career spanning 30 years, Danish screenwriter, director and producer Susanne Bier built an award-winning movie slate before moving into television on series including John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and HBO’s recent thriller The Undoing.

Her Danish films include Once in a Lifetime, Open Hearts, Brothers, After the Wedding and Love is All You Need. Among her many accolades, Bier has won an Oscar, a Golden Globe (both for Danish film Hævnen – In a Better World) and an Emmy (for The Night Manager), while she was also the director behind one of Netflix’s most watched original movies, Bird Box.

This month, Bier was guest of honour at Göteborg Film Festival’s TV Drama Vision event, where she spoke about starting out as a director, how she works with actors and why she is excited about the changing media landscape.

Susanne Bier

Bier originally wanted to be an architect before enrolling at the National Film School of Denmark…
I was thinking I should be an architect. I liked the way they looked and dressed. I was fascinated by it. Then I found myself being much more interested in who was going to be moving around the buildings I was attempting to design. I started reading about set design and it slowly evolved. I applied to film school in London to do production design and at the interview I was like, ‘Maybe I want to be a director instead.’ They all went, ‘Why don’t you go home and make up your mind and apply again?’ I applied two weeks later for the National Film School of Denmark and did not look back.

Television no longer holds the same stigma it had for a film director when she started her career…
When I started, there was this very clear hierarchy where film was considered more artistic and more auteur than television. Television was very much the writer’s medium. At that point, it wasn’t that interesting visually. That has changed remarkably.

After finishing film school, her directorial debut came with 1991 comedy drama Freud Leaving Home, which she filmed while caring for her young son…
I got pregnant soon after finishing film school and then somebody sent this script when my son was eight months old. I was like, ‘I’m going to do this.’ So I did it. I was juggling having a young child and directing my first film. It’s stressful and emotionally complicated but it’s absolutely possible.
I keep telling my young colleagues the same thing: don’t let the world and your environment tell you how women are supposed to behave and how we are supposed to prioritise. Don’t let anybody else define that for you, because it’s definitely possible to have kids and have a career.

Bier’s early films mix family dramas, thrillers and romantic comedies, a sign of her eagerness to always try new things…
I’ve always been driven by my curiosity and driven by something I haven’t done before. I did comedies [early on]; I’ve always loved romantic comedies. I’ve always wanted to watch them and still want to watch them. I was quite keen to do those but I’ve done all sorts of different things and the big red stop light for me is a sense of, ‘Oh I’ve done this before. I know this.’ I don’t ever want to feel too comfortable about anything. It’s got to be too big or daunting in some way for me to be intrigued and excited by it.

For the director, working with actors is as much to do with finding the right haircut and costume as it is rehearsing on set…
There’s always a lot about the physicality of a character so, once you’ve figured out how that person looks, what they’re wearing, the way they walk, the way they talk, their specific dialect, all those kinds of things, a lot of things are revealed about the character.
I tend to preserve the secrets of their psychology a little bit. We talk about certain things and relationships, things like that, but there are also things that are better not being massaged too much. I love being surprised by actors; I love seeing something I didn’t see coming but I recognise the truth in it.

Bier’s 2010 movie In a Better World won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Bier encourages improvisation from her actors…
I rehearse every morning with the actors and the main crew for 45 to 90 minutes when the set is ours. There’s a sense of innocence – it’s a playground for the start of the day. We improvise, we do the scenes without dialogue, we do them with different dialogue and we improve a lot. By the end, we’ve agreed a way of doing it. We might still improve more during that day. I’m not a great fan of completely free improvisation but I do like to improvise upon a great script skeleton.

Her Oscar-winning 2010 movie In a Better World starred Mikael Persbrandt as a doctor who works between his home in Denmark and a refugee camp in Africa, while tension is building in his marriage and his son is being bullied at school. When a new boy, whose mother recently died, arrives in town, he provides support for the father and son, but tragic consequences await…
The writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, and I had been building up to that movie with Open Heart, Brothers and After the Wedding. It was evolving and we had investigated certain themes so, with In a Better World, we had gotten to a point where we were very clear about what we were investigating and what we wanted to articulate.
Then there is that weird thing about movies and television and serendipity. Yes, you have all the right elements, but you need that extra intangible luck or to be at the right time and the right moment. That intangible thing, you can have to more or less of a degree. With In a Better World, we were fortunate to have it to quite a strong degree.

Before winning the Oscar for In a Better World, Bier won the Golden Globe, which took her by surprise…
[At the ceremony] I was just relaxing, drinking wine, having fun. I’d taken off my shoes because no way were we going to win. I had these very complicated high heels with straps and suddenly they called my name and the whole table went, ‘It’s you.’ I desperately got my shoes on. I was so thrown by it. Of course, I was incredibly happy.
Then came the Oscars, and now the chances of winning were much bigger. At that point, I wasn’t having fun. I was super nervous, not being able to eat and thinking everything was going to go wrong. I was insanely tense. Then we got the Oscar. You get up to the stage and you look at that very intimidating space – Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Robert De Niro all sitting in the first row – and you’re supposed to say something. It took a few days before I realised I wasn’t in a dream, it was actually real.
Probably the biggest difference [after winning] is that you suddenly see big stars are interested in meeting with you, [and that can] generate interesting projects.

The director chats to star Tom Hiddleston on location while filming The Night Manager

Bier is a big fan of author John le Carré so when she heard The Night Manager was being developed as a television project by the BBC and AMC, she jumped at the opportunity to direct the six-part series, which starred Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander and Elizabeth Debicki…
I felt like it was a mistake that other people were directing [adaptations of le Carré’s work] and not me! When I heard [The Night manager was being adapted] I just wanted to do it. I had to convince a number of people I’d be right for it. He’s always had that combination of thriller and something incredibly romantic in all his novels and stories, and I love that.

Learning on the job is part of the fun for Bier, who particularly enjoys orchestrating stunts on set…
I enjoy doing stunts; I enjoy doing all those slightly masculine things. I have a lot of fun with it. The one thing I really had to study [for The Night Manager] was the art of espionage, which I thought was incredibly exciting. One of the pleasures of doing what I’m doing is you need to learn about things all the time. You need to study and understand things, and it doesn’t have the boredom of being in school. I acquire completely new knowledge every time i get into a project. It’s a huge privilege.

Bier directs Sandra Bullock for Netflix original film Bird Box

Bier then helmed Netflix’s 2018 original movie Bird Box, in which a mother tries to protect her two children in a post-apocalyptic world where a mysterious force compels all those who see it to kill themselves…
It had some obvious qualities, one of them being getting to work with Sandra Bullock. She’s an amazing actress and a really lovely human being. Stylistically, telling a story with a monster you can’t see was a huge challenge. It was really interesting and I wanted to do that.  It’s really a story about motherhood, which is something I could relate to and Sandra Bullock could relate to. Although it seemed like a weird project for me to take on, actually it wasn’t.
I thought Netflix were great. I’ve been in many meetings with people asking questions, and I think they asked all the right questions. We would sit at a script meeting and they wouldn’t ask questions where I went, ‘I don’t understand why you want to ask that.’ They would ask questions where I would go, ‘I get that.’ And if I didn’t know at the time, I would have to figure it out because it was relevant. They’re super smart and incredibly good at what they do.

Last year, Bier helmed HBO’s The Undoing. Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, it focuses on a woman who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in which her husband is the chief suspect…
The appeal was partially Nicole Kidman and partially [writer] David E Kelley, who I have always admired. Nicole decided she wanted me to direct it, so she came to see me at my hotel in LA when I was there for Bird Box. It was a surreal thing because we were having dinner together and right behind her was this huge big portrait of her. So I was looking at her and then looking at this enormous, beautiful black and white portrait of her. There was something about that weird juxtaposition where I was like, ‘OK, I’d better do it. This is a weird sign. I don’t know what it means, but I’d better say yes.’

Bier collaborated with Kelley on the story, deciding it should follow the path of a thriller rather than a family drama…
He had done the first version of the first episode and his writing is so beautiful and seductive that you find yourself in the world. I was very tempted by that. We spoke about it and I was quite keen for it to go more thriller. I just thought it was perfect for a real thriller. It must have worked because it’s the only HBO show that has gone up [in the ratings] every single week in the history of HBO. The thriller aspect was definitely driving that.

Most recently, Bier (left) helmed HBO’s The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant

Bier describes a feature film as a “beautiful short story,” whereas miniseries are comparable to very long films…
A feature film takes a very specific type of accuracy. The miniseries I’ve done, which have been six hours, I’ve essentially shot them like a very long film. The way I’ve treated them has not been episodic. That’s like a novel, in a way. You can get into detail with minor characters and take a detour from the actual storyline with the main characters, and there’s a richness to that I enjoy. I love both.

Bier now hopes to continue working in both features and television, and also wants to direct Danish- and English-language projects…
We are all slightly concerned about the future of cinema – how do we ensure we still get people to watch things in a cinema? But the diversity of the media right now is amazing. As a user of it, I enjoy that I can watch so many things. As someone who creates content, I’m also enjoying it. It excites me to reach a huge audience. I am now reaching an audience I would never have reached before in my life. I think the stories I’m telling have some sense of meaningfulness, and I enjoy that they reach a huge audience without compromising quality or trying to be something else than what they are. I find that incredibly exciting.

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