Susanne Bier has made 15 features that have received awards all over the world, but her greatest triumph to date may prove to be the BBC’s six-part John Le Carré mini-series “The Night Manager,” which debuts on AMC April 19 following its global ratings success.Taking a page from director Cary Fukunaga’s success with “True Detective,” showrunner Stephen Garrett, along with executive producers Stephen and Simon Cornwell (Le Carré’s sons), saw the wisdom of letting Bier take the helm for the entire series. And this globe-trotting BBC espionage thriller is well-matched to her subtle, intuitive directing style, combining elegant visuals and atmosphere with intimate psychologically layered confrontations that are both sexy and dangerous. (Reviews are strong.)
“I had a fantastic time,” said Bier, beaming at AMC’s DGA premiere, which was followed by a party at the Chateau Marmont attended by stars Tom Hiddleston (the hotel night manager who is recruited by a British intelligence officer played by Olivia Colman) and Hugh Laurie (the evil arms dealer they’re tracking).
Since her debut in 1991, Bier made her name with a series of well-reviewed, thoughtful, and compelling dramas in Denmark, organically created with her long-time writing partner Anders Thomas Jensen. Their collaborations include Dogme film “Open Hearts,” the Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding,” the Oscar-winning “In a Better World” and “Brothers” (which was remade by Hollywood). Bier also directed the hit Danish comedy “The One and Only.”
However, her English-language outings haven’t met with as much acclaim. Most recently was period drama “Serena” starred Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as an ill-fated couple; there was also breezy romantic comedy “Love Is All You Need” starring Pierce Brosnan. And Dreamworks’ “Things We Lost in the Fire” boasted impeccable performances from Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, but was too dark to yield much box office.
The first spy novel by Le Carré (“The Constant Gardener,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) to be made for television in 20 years, “The Night Manager” was updated from post-Cold-War 1993 by screenwriter David Farr (“Joe Wright’s “Hanna”). It begins in Cairo during the 2011 Arab spring as hotel manager Jonathan Pine (Hiddleston), a former British soldier, sprints through chaotic streets to the sanctuary of his luxury hotel. There, a mysterious woman reveals to him top-secret information about her lover, a violent arms dealer who has dealings with British merchant of death Richard Roper (Laurie).
Bier has been a longtime Le Carré fan. “His books are clear, straight, fantastic thrillers with plots and turns and all the things that classical thrillers have,” she said, “yet their characters are also deeply psychologically morally ambiguous and not predictable. I thought, ‘I should be doing that.’ I do like plots, but I love those kind of characters.”
After reading the first draft of the first episode, she was in. The book had been tough to crack, even for Sydney Pollack, as a two-hour movie. “Six one-hour episodes was the right form,” she said. “The novel doesn’t lend itself to a two-hour format.” So she worked closely with the executive producers and Farr to develop the series with Hiddleston, Laurie, and Colman, whose performance in “Tyrannosaurus” she had rewarded as a member of the 2011 Sundance jury.
Bier often explores male power dynamics as her characters try to parse doing the right thing in a world where that is not always clear or possible. The director draws naturalistic performances from her actors, including Hiddleston as the lonely, mysteriously motivated night manager, and Laurie as a complex and human villain—he’s a loving father, for one thing, which makes him even worse.
Le Carré first wrote the character of MI6 handler Leonard Burr —who enlists Pine to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle, putting himself at risk—as a man. Bier loved the idea of casting Colman in the role: “We met Colman, she said ‘I’d love to do it, but I’m pregnant.’ I thought, ‘That’s interesting, it could work fantastically for the character.’ Burr is the moral heart in the novel. Burr is the brain, the puppeteer who attempts to control Pine.”
With “The Night Manager,” Bier is in her element. She shot the series out of chronological order, as if it were a six-hour movie. She stayed flexible through shooting and editing, but couldn’t let go of any plot strands; she had to stay laser-focused. She likes to rehearse her actors every morning and make dialogue changes when things don’t work. “Having such vast material with a thriller, I had constant alertness to not making a logistical mistake, not doing something at the beginning that would come back to me in three months,” she said. “I was not just meticulous, I was very clear, very sharp, keeping it alive and organic and being able to play with it, while maintaining the threads.”
For Bier, the close-up is her most effective tool. “For me, filmmaking is a lot of what’s happening in the face,” she said. “It has always been. What’s most fascinating is the closeup. It’s a spy novel. Everyone has secrets and a hidden agenda. The audience knows more than everyone within the story.” And yet she keeps the audience “intrigued or slightly mystified by what’s going on.”
Happily, those close-ups are most often focused on Hiddleston. “The obvious thing is he’s a beautiful, handsome man,” said Bier. “There’s a certain incredibly enigmatic quality to his eyes. You aren’t sure you can trust him, but you are sure there is a pain there that he doesn’t show. He’s so immaculate and fun and elegant and charming, and there is somewhere inside of him a painfulness, which I think for most women, is irresistible.”
As usual, the director deploys roving hand-held cameras and natural light, but opens up with sweeping cinematic vistas as well. Bier likes to shape her narratives in the cutting room, steered by emotions, not linear storytelling. For her, the essence of the story is this: “Is Jonathan capable of sustaining his moral integrity or will he be eventually sucked into the world of Roper? His motivation is very complex. And it is not necessarily clean cut or sustainable. There is an element of revenge to it… Is the hero going to be drawn into the world of the villain and can we quite trust him? The one person you can trust is a woman…Burr’s mission is to stop the worst man in the world from committing more atrocities. She’s adamant. And in a way Pine is her instrument. Can she keep him in place? Or is he a loose cannon who can go anywhere?”
Whether she works on long series or two-hour movies in Danish or English, what Bier looks for, finally, is the same: “I do care what the essence of the story is, where my potential as a filmmaker is being challenged and it’s thrilling and exciting. And that can be in whole lot of different spaces.”