Susanne Bier has a high-profile career that many filmmakers dream about. There’s the Oscar (for 2011’s Best Foreign Language Film, “In a Better World”), the Emmy (for directing the six-part series “The Night Manager”), the Golden Globe (also for “In a Better World”), and the European Film Award (also for directing “In a Better World”). Two of her Danish-language features have been remade for American audiences (a third, “Open Hearts,” was set for its own remake from Zach Braff that never panned out; Bart Freundlich’s take on “After the Wedding” will open Sundance next month). She was recently elected to the Academy’s board of directors.
She’s been working for nearly 30 years, moving from Dogme 95 luminary to highbrow auteur. Yet despite all this, she’s still not thrilled with the way the industry treats women directors.
“I mean, it’s not even benevolence, it’s sense,” Bier said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Half of the world are women, and can we just please embrace that fact? Can we just please realize that movies, television, everything media, needs to reflect the fact that we are half the population? And we aren’t waiting for a lot of guys to give up permission to do anything. We are kind of fed up with it.”
Bier knows her stuff, too, particularly when it comes to studies that center on female filmmakers and female-centric films, like the 2017 “Celluloid Ceiling” report that found the number of women working behind the scenes in Hollywood has actually declined since 2015 (though the 2018 version provides some improvements) and a recent study that continues to show that movies that put women at the center of their stories are box office gold.
“If you look at the numbers of female directors, they’re actually falling, so that number is not particularly encouraging,” she said. “But then you look at the box office and you see that female-driven movies are actually making a lot of money. So fundamentally, I think we are slowly moving the right way. It’s a little bit of two steps forward and one step backwards, you know? It’s not going fast enough, but I do think it is happening.”
She bristles at cheap excuses, like that women don’t want to make movies, or don’t want to make big movies. If anyone knows about wanting to create and making it happen, it’s Bier.
“It is such bullshit, it’s such bullshit, it’s such bullshit,” she said. “Here’s the truth, a young filmmaker coming into a meeting where, if there’s 14 people in a room and 12 of them are men, it will be harder for her. … In general, there’s a lot of power sitting with males, it is harder for her to convince them that she’s as capable. There’s a language difference. We, unfortunately, still bring up our boys and girls slightly different. There’s a culture which is different.”
She’s not immune to casual disrespect, even though she’s consistently proven her talent and her ability to pivot to the next big thing. (Right now that’s her latest gig: the Netflix drama “Bird Box,” a high concept horror film starring Sandra Bullock and based on the Josh Malerman novel of the same name.)
“I feel it at times, and I’ve been around forever,” she said. “And I can talk to male executives and they are borderline disrespectful. They are borderline not actually listening to what I’m saying because my language is still different. I’ve kind of forced my way into that world. So if I’m a young female filmmaker, who isn’t as self-assured, because I don’t have my experience, I’m going to be thrown by it. And that does not in any way reflect this young filmmaker’s inability to do anything.”
The confidence that Bier brings to discussing the current state of her industry is apparent in other areas, from her on-screen work to her consistent desire to dig into her films with all kinds of people. In those conversations, she’s also finding evidence of a cultural climate that needs to catch up with the reality of the world.
“Sometimes when I speak to young filmmakers, when I give a class, or even when we have focus group after a screening, [it] might be 70 percent women, [but] if you look at the measurement of the time, the speaking time is probably 70 percent men talking,” Bier said. “I think that we subconsciously nurture the boys to trust themselves more, to speak more, to do all of those things. It’s a mistake and we need to change it and we need to allot for female filmmakers to do their stuff.”
Bier’s earlier films were typically built on stories about families and people dealing with life-altering events that breed intense emotional reactions. “Bird Box,” a post-apocalyptic film story that imagines a world in which supernatural entities suddenly arrive on Earth and inspire mass suicides in the population, is very much a Susanne Bier story, with some added sci-fi twists.
She said that she was drawn to the project because it centered on “such a strong female hero, a real contemporary female hero.” It also helped that the story feels so vital and relevant, though the current culture had to catch up with the project before Bier was willing to make it.
Bier and Bullock read the film’s script years ago (Malerman’s book was optioned for the big screen in 2013, a year before it hit shelves). Neither of them responded to it at the time. Then, the world changed. “The reason why I responded to it this time, is that it did feel more timely,” Bier said. “I don’t want to start interpreting, I don’t want to say it’s about this, or understand it about this, but for sure there is a sense at the moment, I think a lot of us feel like the current times are pretty dystopian in a way.”
However, she emphasized that the movie’s themes transcended any particular cultural moment.
“It’s not just that it then feels relevant, it’s also important because one of the ways we use to deal with a fear that is within us is actually watching a movie about it,” Bier said. “That’s why thrillers and scary movies are important, because it allows you to somehow subconsciously address the fear, but in a very manageable shape.”
Bier’s new movie makes her the latest revered filmmaker to bypass a traditional theatrical release for a Netflix-produced endeavor. “My main reason is that they’ve got 130 million subscribers,” she said. “I’m a filmmaker who feels that the stories I’m telling and the way I tell them is meaningful and should reach an audience. I feel like I’m actually doing something which is substantial and which is worthwhile. … The bigger the audience, the better.”
“Bird Box” will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, December 21.