Being October and the time when studios start releasing their “serious” movies and heavy dramas they hope will garnish lots of awards in the coming months, one such movie has arrived that’s really quite special. Things We Lost in the Fire is the American debut by Danish director Susanne Bier (Brothers, Open Hearts) starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro as the closest relations of a real estate agent (David Duchovny) who is tragically murdered. Berry plays his wife Audrey, who seeks out Del Toro’s Jerry Sunborne, her husband’s childhood friend who threw out a successful career in law to become a crack-smoking junkie. Together, the two must help each other try to get over this tragic death, while helping Audrey’s two kids get over their own grief.
It’s a serious movie about grief and guilt and addiction handled in a superbly dramatic way by Bier, who got such great performances out of Berry and Del Toro that they’re both in strong contention for awards nominations in the coming months.
Bier and her two stars held a press conference in New York a few weeks ago, and ComingSoon.net was there to find out more about this riveting emotional drama.
ComingSoon.net: Susanne, how did you end up making this movie as your first English-language film?
Susanne Bier: “Brothers” won an audience prize in Sundance, so I guess there was some sort of build-up of interest within the States for my movies. Sam sent me the script, through our mutual agent, and I really liked it. I was slightly almost uneasy about recognizable elements of it from my previous movies, but on the other hand, you got personal obsessions and it felt very natural to deal with those personal obsessions in an English language movie. I read it and had a very creative and fun conversation with Sam Mendes where we played around with the basics of the story, like could Jerry be gay? All sorts of weird ideas, and it was very creative and a lot of fun, but the studio didn’t like those ideas nor did we, in fact. It was fun to have mentioned it. We then very quickly and very luckily got this wonderful cast. I think sometimes, particularly small movies, have to happen quite fast in order to be alive all the time, and this was one of them.
CS: For the actors, how did the two of you come onto this project?
Del Toro: I was sent the script first. I hadn’t seen Susanne Bier’s movies, but I read the script and I felt something. It took me in, and then I met with Susanne, and I saw that the themes of the movie were going to be treated seriously and we talked about the addiction, and the heroin and all that stuff. And then after, I saw her movies and said, “this is someone I’d really like to work with” and that was how it came about, and then Halle Berry jumped in and got everything rolling.
Berry: (laughed) For me, I read the script I think before all of them, not before Sam Mendes of course, but before Susanne I know for sure. I somehow got a hold of the script, I don’t even remember how. I was working on another movie and my manager gave it to me. I read the script and I thought, “Wow! I’ve got to play this part and be in this movie. I don’t care who else is in it, I’ve got to do this.” Vince put in all the proper calls and the response we got was sort of, “we don’t know we don’t know we don’t know about her we just don’t know!” (laughter) And then, we finally got, “Once we get a director in place, maybe we’ll know something more and maybe you can meet with the director.” There was an opportunity to meet with Susanne. I’d seen her movies when I heard she was being cast, and then I really knew I wanted to work on it and work with her. Somehow, a meeting was arranged where she was coming through New York where I was working and we got to have a little half-hour coffee together. When I walked in, my first question to her was, “Do you care that I’m black because this wasn’t written for a black woman? I think that might be my problem here.” And she said, “To hell with what color you are. I don’t care what color you are. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t relevant.” In her Danish mind, in her world, it didn’t matter, and she said, “Tell me why you like this character. Tell me about Audrey. Let’s start there.” And then it was a really good connection and I got the part. (laughter)
CS: What did you tell her about why you liked Audrey?
Berry: I don’t really remember what I said. I was pretty passionate that day, but I know that what I loved about it was I connected to all the characters, not just Audrey, but all the characters. For me, there was something that touched me. I haven’t lived this woman’s story in any shape, way or form, but I have lived what many of us have lived, which is having to go through the valleys of life and having to come through on the other side and realizing that somehow we are indelibly better. Life is different, sure, having had that experience, but life can often be better having had that experience. I thought it was a message that most people could relate to and somehow incorporate into their very own lives and see themselves through all of these characters and I thought, “Wow, that will make an interesting movie.”
CS: Can you talk about the relationship between Audrey and Jerry and how it evolves over the course of the movie?
Berry: I initially felt like Audrey rejected him because she really had no knowledge of addiction. In her mind and in her world, she could not understand why a guy like Jerry, who was once this lawyer who had decided to squander his life away sucking on a pipe. I don’t think she could really understand why her husband had such a need to have a connection with this person. In her husband’s death, I think she really started to think about, not only life differently, but her own life and Jerry’s life differently, and reached out to him, because she inherently knew that he was someone who could help her. He was one of the closest people to her husband, and she knew that and always hated that. I think she wanted to touch Brian one more time, and I think she knew that Jerry was a way to do that. In having these selfish reasons for bringing him into her life, she realized that she has a bigger purpose even though she was grieving and suffering and all of her own issues, she realized that she could actually help him in the process while he was helping her. For me, that was the magic of their connection.
CS: Can you talk about the style of the film and how you made it so that it really felt as if we’re watching something personal and private?
Del Toro: Well (takes deep breath) in my case, I went out and met some people, got some information about addiction, came to Susanne with a bunch of ingredients and passed them onto Allan (Loeb, the screenwriter). There was a freedom in front of the camera that I think you’ve seen in all her films. There was a freedom of exploring. I remember there was once scene where we decided that Jerry should try and kiss Audrey, and it was not scripted. We were doing it without the kiss and there was something not working, and I could see that Susanne wasn’t too happy with the way it was going, ’cause there was nothing going on really, and then she came up and she said, “I think you should try and kiss her” and I said, “I don’t mind if I do!” (laughter) I thought it was a really interesting moment of collaboration where things were being explored in front of the camera. It wasn’t every time like that but when it happened, it’s clear that’s what we see in the film. You feel like you’re peeping into someone’s lives or into the story.
Bier: For me, moviemaking stays an organic process from reading the script the first time until today basically. It really does. I think at any time, it’s about capturing what is the possibilities which are given at any moment. I think that’s sort of the excitement and the fun of it. It’s always the scary part, because you don’t want to lose the concept. I hate free improvisations, because they’re so boring. They’re always boring! The actors always end up arguing because you have to feel it with some kind of content and then in order to get energy, you argue. This is not about free improvisations, it’s about maintaining what is the core and the energy of the characters, and then treat it as real life. All the crew and the cast and everybody was so engaged in doing that, and that’s why you have that sense of it being like looking at a real family. It is real life.
Berry: As far as making the family feel like a family, I know that was one of my challenges, to have the relationship with David Duchovny and I feel like we were a married couple for ten years, and to have the excitement of that, because they’re still a couple that’s very much in love and they have a family. But also to find the mundane quality that comes with being married ten years and doing the same thing day-in, day-out, so he and I talked about it a lot with Susanne to find a way to have little hints of that mundaneness or that everything wasn’t quite perfect, but that there was deep, deep love there. When the children came into the process, the beauty of children is that they’re so honest and they’re so organic and genuine, and these kids weren’t actor kids. They didn’t have stage moms pushing them. They did a few things here or there, but they were really just kids. They just embraced the whole situation and they have such vivid imaginations, as all kids do, so they just right away accepted the fact that “this was my Mom, this is my Dad, and this is stepdad Jerry.” They were really able to grasp that in a natural way. Many days, I would watch the kids work and think, “Wow, I’m having an acting lesson here,” because they don’t have technique, they don’t think about the things we think about and subtext and “What’s the purpose of the scene?” They just say the words and sometimes, it’s the simplicity of just saying the words in the moment and find a real way to say that, and thanks to Allan Loeb, these kids had real kid words to say. They weren’t 10-year-olds speaking like 30-year-olds, which we often see in movies with kids. They got to be kids and got to do kids’ stuff, so feeling like a family really wasn’t that hard, because of the way the kids were required to act based on the words they had to see within the script.
CS: At times, Audrey is not a sympathetic character with some tough edges. Can you talk about taking that risk, both as a director and as an actress?
Bier: That was a reason in our initial meeting, that was my main reason for wanting to cast Halle, because she came in and I thought, “Here is an actress who can play on sympathies but whom you know is a very warm and passionate person.” One of the dangers with the character would be that she would just remain cold, and I think what Halle does is at all times maintain the tension of being harsh on the surface and basically pushing everyone away, but she’s pained and she wants to protect her children and she cannot allow herself to feel all the loss and all the pain she’s still feeling. I thought it was scary having that sort of main character, but with Halle playing the part, I felt confident that was what would be conveyed.
Berry: For me, one of the big parts to playing Audrey was to not worry about being sympathetic. I think as an actor, that can be like suicide if you worry too much about how you’re coming off. I think it’s most important to be honest and truthful in being the character. What I discovered in my research is that the stages of grief are really severe and to portray her honestly and organically, we would have to see some of those stages, and it’s not always pretty to see someone dealing with grief and loss, because before there’s anything, there’s denial and when there’s denial, then you cannot accept anything that’s happening in your world. There’s anger, there’s resentment, and that anger is often misplaced and it’s taken out on the wrong people because you don’t know what else to do with it. It’s a fight to not completely fall apart, because if Audrey fell apart, her whole world would fall apart and what would happen to her children? For all practical purposes, she could have wound up in a mental institution. That was her fear. It was really about trying to be truthful and to be honest about the love that was inside there and to find moments to let that come out, but not sugar-coat the harshness of what one is dealing with when they’re really trying to come to terms with the loss of the love of their life. It’s a really difficult thing to navigate one’s way through, that’s what I discovered.
CS: I wanted to ask about the non-linear aspect of the movie and the pacing. Were the way the flashbacks were done in the first part of the movie in the script, and a lot of ground is covered over the course of the movie, so were you able to shoot in any sort of chronological order to know where you were in the emotional arc?
Bier: The non-linear was not in the script, that was actually done in the editing, and it’s not shot chronological. I know many directors love it. I don’t particularly like it. I like the coincidentiality (sic) of actually shooting slightly out of order. It becomes a bit of a game and it makes it more interesting. I would actually be terrified of shooting chronologically.
Del Toro: It’s making movies. You make movies, it goes out of order. All you have to do is go home and know and prepare for what you’re going to do the next day because if you don’t, you’re really not going to know what you’re going to do. In order to be able to help your character and to do the best you can, you gotta prepare and make sure you have that schedule right next to you, because sometimes you jump back and forth. I think we had talked about all of these levels or changes in the character, whether at this point, is he on dope and at what stage he is in the cold turkey. I think the cold turkey sequences were done in order, right?
Bier: No, they weren’t, but on the day they were and then we did a previous one the day after.
Del Toro: But the main cold turkey scene was done and then the rest after. You get used to it all you gotta do is be able to know where you are in the story and that takes about half an hour before you shoot every day, just to sit down and go “Where am I here?”
CS: This film is pretty intense, so did you end up taking any of that drama or emotions home with you or where you able to leave it on set?
Del Toro: No, personally I didn’t. I can’t. I leave it there and pick it up in the morning.
Berry: Yes, luckily I’ve found a way to do that. It wasn’t always the case, but I have learned a way to leave work at work, and it’s not really healthy for your real life to bring your stuff home. There’s a way to wind down and leave it there. You learn how to do that and you do start to have a bit of technique as you work. You don’t really have to live it to be it, and I think I’ve learned how to do it after these years.
Bier: But also, it’s not necessarily that sad and heavy to do a sad scene. Actually, sometimes it’s pretty fun. You don’t necessarily want to deal with the subject matter or talk about it all the time. You might want to talk about the food at lunch in order to protect the really heavy emotion or whatever is going to be there. You don’t necessarily massage it all the time.
Berry: And when you have Benicio Del Toro around (Benicio gives Halle a quizzical look that gets a lot of laughter), you cannot really get too heavy about anything, because he has a wonderful way of finding the funny in every situation. I might be imagining this, but I think every scene I worked in with him, there was one take where he just found a way to make it funny within the context of what the scene was supposed to be. He found a way to make it funny. Now Susanne obviously didn’t choose all those scenes for the movie, but it was really fun to sit back and watch him, because I knew it would be coming eventually. One of these takes is going to be his funny take, and it was really nice to sit back and watch. That for me added a lot of lightness throughout the day. Sometimes when you do deal with heavy things you don’t generally want to think about, he was good that way.
Del Toro: Especially when you’re discussing a scene and you’re saying, “Well, I don’t understand why this is going on” and I go to Halle and say, “I don’t know why he says this and you say that.” So she goes to Susanne and sits there, they have a meeting and they come back and I go, “I don’t feel like saying that line” and both of them look at me and go like, “Well, it’s a woman thing.” (huge laughter) I have to look for having some fun somewhere being the odd man out here.
Bier: (smiling) He’s lying. We didn’t do that.
Berry: But for years, on most movies, I had to hear, “But it’s a man thing.” (more laughter)
Del Toro: I took one for the team.
While Benicio’s comedy version of Things We Lost in the Fire would certainly be interesting, the dramatic version of it will hit theatres on Friday, October 19.