When Everything Changes: Susanne Bier Talks About “Open Hearts”
by Wendy Mitchell
In Susanne Bier’s “Open Hearts,” a horrible tragedy inspires a very unpredictable love story. The unlikely couple in question is a woman whose fiancee is paralyzed after being hit by a car, and a doctor who works at the hospital where he is being treated (who also happens to be the husband of the woman who caused the accident). That’s not the only unlikely aspect to Bier’s film: it also combines melodramatic emotional content with the documentary-esque style of the Dogme 95 guidelines.
Bier has found success in her native Denmark with her previous work (like the 1999 box office hit comedy “The One and Only”); yet “Open Hearts” marks her first foray into the U.S. market. The film claimed the Danish entry slot for Oscar consideration (but didn’t make the Academy’s final list of nominees), and Newmarket opened it on Friday. indieWIRE’s Wendy Mitchell spoke with Bier about the role of fate, the frustrations of the Dogme rules, and cooking for her screenwriter.
indieWIRE: Why do you think this film is the one that caught the eye of an American distributor?
Susanne Bier: I think this film has a very universal theme. It describes a state of mind and situation that lots of people in the Western part of the world can identify with: something unexpected happens in your life and everything changes. In a way I think we have this fear in us and this anxiousness; that’s the way our lives look.
iW: Has a lot of your past work dealt with fate and chance or is this a new theme for you?
Bier: There’s been fate and chance in [my other films], but the other films are more like comedies. In the other movies, [it is presented] like in a dream, like romantic comedies, like the way we want life to be, and this is a real attempt to describe how I believe life is, for better or for worse.
iW: Had you been wanting to try a Dogme movie for a while?
Bier: I had been talking for a while about making a Dogme film. I thought I had the right story for it because I don’t think all films are really suitable to be Dogme films. After the story was written, I thought that this one could work, plus it could really add to the story to be a Dogme film.
iW: Why do you think this story in particular lent itself to the Dogme technique?
Bier: I think the good thing about Dogme is that it forces you into an extreme sense of reality because there’s no artificial light and no set design and all of those icings on the cake that you usually have on a movie. You are really forced to deal with reality, and I think the story really gained from being firmly tied up with reality.
iW: Did you enjoy the process of working within those rules?
Bier: Yeah, it’s kind of funny because you have a set of rules, but in a way they are liberating because there’s things you don’t have to worry about. You can’t change everything, you can’t control everything. This whole idea of putting yourself in the situation where you can’t just indulge your inborn desire to control everything is really healthy. For me it was very helpful. And also a lot of fun.
iW: What was the hardest part? What was the biggest challenge for you?
Bier: To use it in the ultimate sense, because it becomes a tool. It took me a couple of days to realize what the tool was, how to use it as a tool. Because there’s no lighting and actors can move in space how they like. So you have to realize the tool of that, but you also have to realize where it’s good and where it’s not good.
iW: Was there a particular aspect of the Dogme rules that you found frustrating?
Bier: I thought the sound was extremely frustrating. You have to produce the sound at the same time as the image. I think while the rest of the rules set you free and makes you much more flexible. This particular rule is actually restraining the easiness of the shoot.
iW: What about the music? There is more music in your film than in a lot of Dogme films.
Bier: All the music is done according to the rules. There is a rule that there can’t be music, unless it’s in the scene. And all the time that the music is [in “Open Hearts”] it’s coming out of her Walkman. And its always used as a way of telling that she enters into her own state of mind. Having said that we did have an edited version where you saw it all the time. You saw her switch on the Walkman and switch it off. And I kind of felt that we were doing a manual in Dogme [with those scenes]. We just decided to whoever wanted to be doubtful as to whether the rule has been obeyed or not was welcome.
iW: How did you come to work with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen [previously known for “The King is Alive” and “Mifune”]?
Bier: We had coffee and we said, “So why don’t we do something?” And we did. He’s a master of really, really black comedy. And I’ve been the comedy queen. So we were going to make the comedy to end all comedies. But at the point when we met, we were in a completely different field. And it was in a field in which we were trying to describe life and I think it frightened both of us a little. He was in my basement and I would act the scene and then he would sit down and write. It would be totally different from what I had acted but there was some kind of undercurrent of a mutual interest and then I would go upstairs and I would cook for him. I would try to cook all sorts of interesting nice things for him and then he would come and throw something on the table and be all embarrassed. He would say, “This is far too emotional for my tastes.” I would read it and be quite happy that it was emotional. We had a lot of fun.
iW: Did you come up with the initial story?
Bier: No, we both did; it’s our story and his script.
iW: Where did the idea come from, is any of this based on a newspaper story or anything?
Bier: It’s two things. It’s the theme of the fragileness of life which is very strong there and I always felt being Jewish, you have notion of catastrophe as absolutely a possibility. Anders also has that, but I don’t know where it comes from for him, because he’s a Danish 30-year-old guy who doesn’t have that notion for any obvious reason.
And then I think that the whole thing of the mistress and the family is a theme that I’ve been preoccupied with. There was actually a court case that we tried to build the first version of the script on. There was a female doctor who set fire to a house where her lover and wife and kids were and the kids died. It was a horrible, horrible story. We were trying to make a movie about that and we were trying to somehow make us understand her instead of the mistress being viscous and the wife being nice. The kind of stereotype that I don’t believe in at all, because we couldn’t justify her actions. Even if you’re suffering and he’s an asshole, you’ve got no right. We moved it and it changed during writing, but we did give it a try.
iW: For me, the scene when Niels is leaving his wife is so realistic. How do think you were able to capture that?
Bier: It’s not as if the scenes are picked from memory. Actually I don’t think I could ever do that. I think I would feel very inhibited. If I were to recreate something from life, I couldn’t do that. When I work I just kind of try to imagine myself being there. I mean this is what I would do if I was him. This is where I would look, this is how I would feel. And obviously the actors are doing the same thing.
iW: Did you encourage the actors to improvise a lot?
Bier: It’s a question I have a hard time with because I don’t like improvisation. They tend to make the scenes imprecise and boring, in the sense that I do improvise during rehearsal. And I do encourage them to be to take up a lot of space within the scene, but I’m very firm on the skeleton of a scene. I don’t want actors to be writers. I think it’s too much responsibility.
iW: Did the actors enjoy working within the Dogme guidelines?
Bier: It’s exciting because they have a lot of responsibility: every morning they bring their own clothes. They bring the characters’ clothes. With Paprika Steen, who plays Marie, she said, “I think this woman is somebody who has flowers all the time.” So every morning Paprika brought flowers to the set. It’s exciting and it’s satisfying, but it’s also kind of exhausting.
iW: Do you think you’ll do another Dogme movie, or is that your one and only?
Bier: I might do another Dogme movie. It was fun, I don’t know. If I feel it’s going to add something I might do another one. I have a slight controversy with the Dogme brethren because I’ve been saying that rules are to be interpreted, not that I haven’t followed the rules, because I don’t see the point of submitting yourself to a set of rules if you don’t follow them. But having said that it is always a lot of interpretation. To me there’s a very distinct quality in a Dogme film which has to do with that very strong realism. I believe that it’s almost a political statement saying that we want to make movies that deal with the reality of life.
iW: Do you think you’ll ever make an English language film?
Bier: Yes, I think I probably will. I don’t feel that I’m strictly Danish, I don’t feel that my sense of humor is strictly Danish or my human sensibility is strictly Danish. So it would be interesting to see if I could proportionally get that kind of audience. Ten percent of all Danes have seen this film, which is a lot for such a fairly serious film. Nobody believed that when we were trying to finance the film, everyone felt that it was going to be fairly marginal because it was so sad and so troublesome. Nobody believed it was going to have a great audience. It’s been immensely satisfying that it’s actually really worked that well.
I think I’m a normal person, thinking like most other people and feeling like most other people and I’m being fairly truthful to that sort of simplistic attitude. I think that could work. It would be great if it could work.
iW: Do you think you’ll go back to working with comedy? I know you talked about a thriller.
Bier: I would definitely do a comedy again. I don’t know when. I like it. And I also feel that all the comedies have got something sad in them. But I think most good comedies have got that, but I don’t know what else. On the scale from comedy to tragedy. I don’t know where my next film will be. But all my films have elements of both.
iW: You’ve been talking about how “Open Hearts” is about life boiled down to twists of fate. Do you really believe in fate yourself?
Bier: I believe that we’re brought up to think that we choose a certain path in our lives. For many, many people it’s not like that. For most people the path always takes certain diversions and they can be larger or they can be smaller and they can be more or less obvious. And I believe that the diversions are life in a way. Then you find a path within the diversions and that’s the exciting bit of it.