Susanne Bier, one of Denmark’s most celebrated and popular filmmakers, has mined a successful career out of family disruption. From her Academy Award-nominated “After the Wedding” to her first English language feature “Things We Lost in the Fire,” starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, Bier has tackled tales of familial strife, mining exceptional performances from her ensembles.
Her latest, “In a Better World,” finds her exploring similar territory on a broader scale. The film, which won Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, hops between an idyllic small town in Denmark and an African refugee camp, to follow the intersecting lives of two families.
indieWIRE caught up with Bier in New York shortly following her Oscar win. Below are highlights from the chat.
Congratulations on winning your first Oscar. Has the whole ride been exhilarating… or exhausting?
All of the above. It’s been fantastic, kind of like a grand moment. It was amazing being there, it was amazing receiving the Oscar. The whole experience was overwhelming.
And how’s the reception been back home since winning?
I came home to a reception worthy of a win at the World Cup. It’s a huge thing for us. Denmark is like a big family of people. It’s like everyone took on a lot of responsibility for the film. Also the film’s been seen by lots of Danes, around ten percent I believe, which is a lot for a movie like mine. There were a lot of people rooting for it.
What do you think it is about the film that spoke to Denmark and to Academy voters?
I think it’s extremely timely. We talk about revenge in an everyday term today and that has only happened in the last three or four years. Prior to that, that whole notion was a much more biblical and alien. It’s something that’s crept into our consciousness without us really realizing it. I think that’s one of the things. The bullying element is the other. Sadly, judging by news reports, it seems more prevalent than ever.
And maybe in a more subconscious way the whole parents/children storyline…how little we actually know about each other despite being family. All of that I think is just as relevant to America and the rest of Europe as it is in Scandinavia.
You worked with your longtime collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen (“After the Wedding,” “Brothers”) on the script. How did the idea of the project evolve? Did you field ideas off each other?
Yeah. It’s very hard to answer that question. He had written scenes where kids were being interrogated by the police. Those scenes didn’t make the movie, but the movie retains traits from those scenes. We were actually working on a different story at the time I came across these but I really felt pulled towards them.
I was also intrigued by the notion of having two kids in really important parts. I thought it would be something new for me. And then we also talked a lot about ‘the ideal.’ How idyllic daily society is. You don’t have to go very far away from Scandinavia to realize what an idyllic society it is. But maybe it’s also that much more vulnerable.
How was the actual experience of working with these two children, each exceptional performers in their own right?
Well, it was the first time for both of them. They hadn’t done any theater or anything like that. I pretty much work with kids the same way I do with adults. In a way you could say Elias’s [played by Markus Rygaard] part is the part of the boy. The part of Christian [played by William Johnk Nielsen] is much more complex, like an adult character played by a boy in a way. He’s a very well behaved boy. I think it took a bit of getting used to – shouting to his father, even hitting his father, things like that. But once when he realized that, yeah, while you’re shooting this is what you do, and then the director says cut, and then you can go back to your well behaved self…I think he really enjoyed throwing himself into that imaginary world.
Did you ever feel that you had to protect the children from not really going over the edge?
You can’t put kids in those kind of parts then think you can protect them from the actual storytelling. You can’t do that. So what you do, is you tell them the story and you explain exactly what’s going on. It has to be meaningful for them. There might be a misconception out there that you have to protect children on set. If you look at children’s stories in fairy tales, they’re pretty brutal.
I think kids have a fascination and obsession with brutal things. I don’t think the way to deal with it to reject it, because then it’s just going to grow in them. I actually believe the way to deal with it is to address it and then make them comfortable, secure in their world.
Most of your films are portraits of families. Where does this interest in examining the family unit stem from?
For me, personally, family is very important. That personal obsession plays into my films. I’m from a Jewish family, so we have a very close knit unit. It’s quite common in Scandinavia that people choose not to have any relations with their parents or their siblings, and I find that that defines just as much as having close relations with their family. It’s a major thing. In a way, our family is our modern identity.
I’ve read in past interviews that that none of your films are outright autobiographical and yet they seem so personal when viewed from the outside. Was this latest one a more personal tale?
No. I think I would be terrified of doing anything autobiographical. I think part of my creative energy is a sense of freedom. I do have a healthy lack of respect for the script and a healthy lack of respect for all the preconceived ideas about how to do the scenes. I would have that less with anything autobiographical. So they’re personal in that I can identity with the characters and recognize certain traits. And they might be personal in terms of the psychological complexity. But they’re distinctly not autobiographical.
One thing that jumped out at me when I first caught “In a Better World” was the mannered and saturated look of the film. More than your previous work, this film really has a signature ‘look.’ Am I wrong?
No, the look was very deliberate. It was important to establish one from the beginning, because it dealt with the fragility of the ideal. I felt the movie has to look really beautiful. Otherwise you don’t really describe the ideal and you can’t understand what you can lose.
Can you tell me about your upcoming project, “All You Need is Love” starring Pierce Brosnan?
It’s a tiny little romantic comedy.
This sounds like quite the departure.
Well it’s written by Anders Thomas Jensen, so not really. But you know, I think part of the challenge as an artist is to challenge yourself and do things you haven’t done before. I think it’s the right time now to do something else.
Anders told me about this article he read about the curse of winning the Oscar; and from what I’ve seen, there is a kind of anxiety that creeps in – the anxiety that your next project won’t be as successful in a way. I decided a long time ago that I’m not going to get like that. You have to have fun. And I’m really looking forward to doing a romantic comedy and challenge myself in a different way.