Susanne Bier
Photo by Austin Hargrave

Susanne Bier: “I never looked back”

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Short Profile

Name: Susanne Bier
DOB: 15 April 1960
Place of birth: Copenhagen, Denmark
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter, film producer

Ms. Bier, are you a perfectionist?

In terms of work, yes, I think I am. In terms of other things in life, maybe not, because I think you’ve got to choose your wars… But in terms of work, absolutely, I will go for the very best at all times. I do actually really care about the characters in my movies, and I don’t think any actors think that I’m overtly tough, but I think I’m probably wanting it to be the best possible movie. So trust me on that and also accept that maybe that I am not too diplomatic. I might actually say, “Hey, that was a bit boring,” and they will go, “Wow…” But it all serves the purpose of actually achieving the best possible result.

Apparently it is in a Scandinavian’s nature to be a bit blunt in that way…

I think it could be a very Scandinavian thing, yes. I have just always been very honest and very direct. And I think once the actors kind of get over the initial sort of, “Okay, that was very direct,” I think it also makes them trust me a lot because they know I would never say this is great if I don’t mean it. I would never continue if I didn’t really believe that we had the take. So I think it also induces a certain amount of trust!

“The possibility of making a very mainstream movie with controversial elements was just much more interesting than making an art house film.”

And have you always known you wanted to direct?

Well, actually, I started in architecture. But then I started being interested in sets and then I started being interested in storytelling… And then I went to visit somebody, a director friend of mine, somebody who was a director at film school. And I thought what he was doing was really fun and I was like, “I am going to do that.”

Did you change paths immediately?

No — I had a project as a set designer and then when I came to interview I was like, “Maybe I want to direct… Maybe, I don’t know.” And then I went in to see him and I was like, “Yes, I do want to direct.” And then I applied for film school, and two weeks after I applied to film school I got in. And that was it. So I never looked back.

It has never crossed your mind to go back to architecture?

I do have times where I have wanted to quit and open a bakery... (Laughs) Baking is probably the only other thing where I am as ambitious as when I am making movies or television!

Lately, most of your films have been some combination of drama-thriller. Was that a conscious decision?

I’ve always loved movies where you kept the suspense! Within movies, I always thought it was way more exciting before you saw the monster, before you saw the villain… I always felt that whenever I saw the monster, I went, “Oh, really?” And so for example, with Bird Box, I wanted to make a movie where you didn’t hit that point, really, where we never reveal it. For me, the possibility of making a very mainstream movie and still having some very controversial elements was just much more interesting than making an art house film.

How come?

I think having elements, like for example a bi-racial relationship, which, age-wise is not necessarily conventional, and having them seamless within something which is entertaining and mainstream… If you want to change things and question values, there is something very intriguing about doing it within the context of something that is going to reach a huge big audience.

Were you surprised by how much people loved that story?

I think we were all surprised! I think once it started trending on Twitter in that extreme way, I mean I was texting with Sandra Bullock and we were all so nervous. I mean, you are always nervous before something opens, but then it kind of started taking off and then we were both like, “Whoa, this is crazy.” And then all of the memes came out, all the kind of crazy people wearing blindfolds wherever they went. And it just became this big huge phenomenon that nobody could have anticipated, but which was wonderful.

Have thrillers always been intriguing for you?

Well, with a thriller you would have a cake and eat it, basically. You would have a tension of a who dunnit thing, and you would have a tension of being scared and concerned for the characters, but you also have the depth of watching relationships unravel and watching your trust in someone sort of disperse. I think it’s the right way to maintain all the psychological traits, whereas still sort of enforcing the delicious excitement of the story.

“I don’t feel that I’m limited artistically. Whatever story is the right one is where I will go from.”

Does the thriller aspect of some of your films also help keep things different from a drama or love story that we’ve seen a hundred times?

I rarely think, “Hey, this is too much to something else.” For example, when we were shooting my series The Undoing, which stars Nicole Kidman, if there were overlaps and Nicole would kind of say, “Hey, that scene in being in a bathtub, I am actually doing that in Big Little Lies,” and we said, “Okay, we’ll do something else.” That’s the good thing, that you can admire something and still do something different. And I admire Big Little Lies, but I think it’s very, very different. I think it’s more the outside world wanting to compare it.

How did you experience working with a lead actress who is also your producer?

Nicole is brilliant at dividing her time. But I think in this case it’s been amazing because I actually have my closest creative collaborator also being a producer, so it means that we were completely aligned in what we wanted at all times. When she works as an actress, she is totally focused and she totally goes into her part. I think maybe she is like from another planet or something, because she has that weird thing where she becomes this otherworldly character. She acts the emotions and things from that other character, and every single take she does is different. She offers millions and zillions of possibilities.

Your last few projects have been two TV series and a Netflix film. Are you worried that your stories will just not be told on the big screen anymore?

I do think it’s possible. I think cinema and television is going to figure a way to work synergetically, as opposed to considering one another enemies. And I think it will happen, but I would rather have it happen sooner than later. But for example,The Undoing is a series but it was shot exactly like a six hour long film. So for me, I don’t feel that I’m limited artistically, but I would also go back and do a two hour film. (Laughs) Whatever story is the right one is where I will go from.