Exclusive: Danish Director Susanne Bier

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It’s not quite April yet, but Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier is already having quite a year. Her latest film After the Wedding, which comes out on Friday, was nominated for a foreign language Oscar a few months back, but she’s also putting the finishing touches on her first American film Things We Lost in the Fire, starring Oscar winners Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry, and it’s already strongly thought to be an Oscar contender for next year. On top of that, two of Bier’s previous films, Brothers and Open Hearts, have been optioned for English remakes, the latter to be directed by Zack Braff (Garden State, “Scrubs”).

Mads Mikkelsen, the star of Bier’s After the Wedding, recently made a name for himself here as the bad guy in the James Bond relaunch Casino Royale, but in his second movie with Bier, he plays Jacob, a benevolent man working at an orphanage in India, who agrees to return home to Denmark to meet with a businessman named Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård) who’s offered to make a financial contribution to the orphanage. Once there, Jacob winds up attending the wedding of Jørgen’s daughter, and that’s where secrets about his past and the real reason for him being back home start to unveil themselves.

With everything that’s going on, you would think that Bier, who previously embraced the simplistic Dogme mentality of filmmaking, would be going all Hollywood, but as ComingSoon.net found out when we spoke with her last week, she was more impressed with the caliber of gossip going on in the ladies’ room at the Oscars than the ceremony itself.

ComingSoon.net: This is your third collaboration with Anders Thomas Jensen, so how do the two of you work together in coming up with ideas and developing your scripts?
Susanne Bier: Actually, we usually go away somewhere, so we can concentrate and we just start out by “what if?” In this particular movie, it was like “Let’s do a comedy.” Actually, all of our previous movies, we also said, “Let’s do a comedy,” so this time I said, “Okay, this time, we’ll REALLY do a comedy.” So we had this guy who was late for his daughter’s wedding and we played around with that comedy idea for a while, and little by little, it changed. That particular scene is still in the movie, but the movie’s not a comedy.

CS: So you’re saying that even “Brothers,” which was about the wife of a soldier who died at war, started out like a comedy or was that one always going to be a drama?
Bier: Yeah, we always start out saying we’re going to do a comedy and then actually doing a drama. If we’re asked, what we’re really interested in and where we meet in terms of mutual interests, it’s very much in moral dilemmas. We’re fascinated with “What would you have done in a given situation?” We’re fairly fascinated with speculations about that, both of us, and then I think we both really appreciate humor, because one of the things that characterizes our films, even if they are dealing with fairly dramatic topics, there’s quite a lot of fun scenes in them anyway. I guess there’s a sense of that we do appreciate being able to laugh, even if we’re dealing with things that are quite awful.

CS: How do you go from this comic idea of a man late for his wedding and wind up in India, of all places?
Bier: After we had done “Brothers” where we were filming in Afghanistan, it kind of felt that we weren’t through with… I think traditional Scandinavian films have been this real privileged almost like island–not in a physical sense, but island in a mental sense–where the rest of the world doesn’t concern us. We were so far away from everything that everything else could go away or could just happen and wouldn’t concern us. After 9/11, there was a sense that it wasn’t like that any more. The rest of the world is very much connected to our thoughts, so after we did “Brothers,” we felt that we wanted to continue that whole thing, so we did this story. We also wanted this story to happen in a cool place, but not in a sort of a desolate, depressing place. India had those elements, in that it was very poor, but you couldn’t necessarily say, “Which is better, Denmark or India?”

CS: Did you always plan on having Mads star in it while you were writing the character?
Bier: I never have particular actors planned when I’m in the process of writing. I usually cast the script with actors who are not accessible like Spencer Tracy and then the script is more or less finished or we’re on a second draft, I start finding real actors. I find it destructive doing it too early.

CS: Since you’d worked with Mads before, when you finished doing the script, was he one of the first actors you approached? Did you have to convince him or had the two of you already wanted to do another movie together after “Open Hearts”?
Bier: Mads is very concerned, because he really just wants to do characters which he can really appreciate, and he was very concerned that he got Jacob right. I guess we wanted to work together again, but it was very important that the character was somebody that he could embrace.

CS: Did you realize that he would be good with kids like he is in this? I’m not sure we’ve seen him in this kind of role before.
Bier: Oh, he’s got kids, and he’s brilliant with kids.

CS: Did you have to go to India to do a lot of preproduction and casting before you shot there?
Bier: We spent about two weeks there prior to shooting, but the orphanage is a real orphanage and most of the kids are real kids from the orphanage. It’s pretty much for real.

CS: Did you have Mads interact with the Indian boy beforehand to see how they would work together?
Bier: Yes.

CS: Obviously, India has a lot of movie productions done there, but how was it working with those crews?
Bier: It’s completely different from Denmark. In Denmark, we have a crew of maybe 30 people; there it was like 150 on the Indian crew. It was very interesting because I remember we didn’t shoot many days, so we didn’t really get to know each other’s way of working so much. I’m just used to the tiny crew where everybody has a lot of responsibility. I didn’t know what to do with all these people, and I wasn’t sure what they were all doing there. (laughs)

CS: What about the casting of Rolf Lassgård as the Danish businessman Jørgen? I’m used to seeing Mads doing darker roles, but in this case, Jørgen is the antagonist of the film as Mads’… can I call him a rival?
Bier: Yeah, you could say that. Well, Rolf is one of the most influential Swedish actors. He’s he’s done a lot of police and completely different roles, but I thought they were really interesting together, the two of them.

CS: What would you consider Jørgen’s motivations for Jacob? Do you think he really wants what’s best for his daughter or is he just playing games with Jacob?
Bier: Well, he’s definitely got the best motivations. His plan is beautiful basically. We suspect that he’s really evil in the beginning, but then we realize it’s not as simple as saying he’s just evil. You know, I had this saying in the back of my mind all summer while working on this movie, which is from Oscar Wilde, who said, “If you want to punish a human being, you get them what they wish for.” I guess it was a bit like that. He keeps his plan, but it also makes him very upset.

CS: I thought it was interesting that while Jørgen’s plan would be good for a lot of people that it also creates this moral dilemma for Jacob. There’s obviously a big question mark about where things go after the end of the movie, so do you have any theories of your own about that?
Bier: I’m asking YOU that, I’m not going to answer that! I don’t want to say that because part of my reason for wanting to make movies was that moviemaking is a lot about asking questions, not about posing answers. I like for audiences to go and ask themselves those questions.

CS: Fair enough, and you just finished shooting your first quote-unquote Hollywood movie “Things You Lost in the Fire.” What was that experience like, working with Western actors and being in that environment?
Bier: It was great. The actors were amazing and really open and creative, and Sam Mendes was the producer, together with Sam Mercer, and he was extremely supportive and keen that I should go along with my artistic instincts, and so were DreamWorks. Notes on the script were not like “make it more mainstream” but “please remember to make it edgy,” so actually, it’s been fantastic. I didn’t work on this particular script with Anders Thomas, but I worked on the script with Allan Loeb the screenwriter.

CS: As far as the cast, were Halle or Benicio familiar with your work beforehand and do you know if they went back to see some of your films once they came on board?
Bier: Yes, I think they both did. They certainly saw some of my previous movies, they did, because I met with Halle Berry, and we had a really good meeting and she saw some of my movies, and she called me. I woke up to this message fromm Halle Berry on my answering service saying, “I saw your movies and I loved them, and I’m going to do this film no matter what.” (laughs) So that was really nice.

CS: I can’t remember who it was, but another person I interviewed recently was saying how much they loved “Brothers,” particularly Connie Nielsen’s performance. Then last week at ShoWest, a representative of Paramount was saying they’re already considering “Things We Lost” as one of their Oscar movies. Were you aware that the studio is thinking of your movie in that way already?
Bier: No. You know, as a filmmaker, I always try not to concern myself with the outcome of things. I make the movie and I do that as honestly and good as I can. I don’t want to pollute my thoughts with what is going to happen with it afterwards, because I have to work inside-out.

CS: Have you already finished this and started working on your adaptation of “The Duchess”?
Bier: I’m not going to make that movie, no.

CS: What about all these English remakes they’re doing of “Open Hearts” and “Brothers”?
Bier: Yeah, it’s really weird. Suddenly your baby is being adopted by someone else. (laughs)

CS: I was wondering about that because they seemed like very personal movies that you put a lot of time and heart into, so how did these remakes come about?
Bier: Well, apparently the stories are strong enough for people to remake them, which is a great compliment, but I’m a little miffed, I must say.

CS: Are you going to read these scripts or do anything with them?
Bier: (very quickly) No, I’m not going to be involved in it. I mean, I’ve had the momentum with these films and I’ve done them, and if somebody wants to remake them, I’m not going to be involved with it.

CS: If you had a chance to watch them when they’re done, would you do it, or are you not even interested in doing that?
Bier: I don’t know, we’ll see. I don’t know if I can. It might be upsetting.

CS: I can see that. So what are you going to do next? Do you have something else you’re working on already or are you just finishing up “Things We Lost…”?
Bier: No, I’m going to finish the DreamWorks film and then I’m going to spend some time with my family and then I’m going decide what my next movie’s going to be.

CS: You had such a lengthy career in Denmark, nearly 20 years, and it’s only been recently where people have started discovering your work, even “Open Hearts,” which is 4 or 5 years old. How does it feel to suddenly get this attention and have this new audience discovering your films?
Bier: I’m eternally grateful that I’m not inexperienced, because it gives me some kind of balance on how to deal with it, which is kind of quite healthy.

CS: Did you actually go to L.A. for the Oscar ceremony and how was that experience?
Bier: Yes, yes I did. It was fun, it was fantastic, but it was crazy. The thing about the foreign films is that you feel extremely celebrated, because they have a ceremony where they give out diplomas to everyone nominated and somebody makes a speech, and it was a beautiful ceremony. The guy who wrote “L.A. Confidential” made this most amazingly beautiful speech, and it was a grand experience.

CS: Did you sit with anyone interesting at the Oscar luncheon?
Bier: The foreign films have a different lunch and it’s a completely different set of arrangements for them, so I didn’t go to that major lunch, but you go out to the ladies room at the Oscars and Meryl Streep is chatting with Cathy Bates and Penelope Cruz. You wash your hands and go out again, so it’s kind of fun, and it’s just like, “Wow, they’re all there.”

CS: Maybe they should allow press coverage in there!
Bier: (laughs)

After the Wedding opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, March 30. Bier’s next film Things We Lost in the Fire is scheduled to open on October 19.