[Editor’s Note: The following piece contains spoilers for “The Undoing,” including the ending.]
Susanne Bier is in demand. HBO reached out to “The Night Manager” Emmy-winner to direct the limited series “The Undoing”; she didn’t have to pitch. That’s not just because she’s a sought-after filmmaker — and because experienced women directors are a prize get these days — but the Danish Oscar-winning auteur (“In a Better World”) has a sophisticated skill set that includes something hard to find: she knows how to reach a wide audience.
In fact, showrunner David Kelley’s six-hour “The Undoing” not only drew a massive audience when it played on HBO and HBO Max last fall, but the numbers went up episode by episode until the climactic “whodunit” finale, which delivered 3 million viewers across all platforms. It was the most-watched HBO night for an original series since Kelley’s “Big Little Lies” finale in 2019.
This time Kelley adapted Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel “You Should Have Known,” and with executive producer Nicole Kidman already on board, Bier knew the series would be a plush must-watch for HBO Max subscribers. Clearly, she knew what to do with the mystery drama set in the wealthiest enclaves of Manhattan society.
For one thing, when she read the first version of the series pilot, she saw that Kelley had left the script open to pull in the direction of a drama or a thriller. She voted for the latter, she said on the phone from the Atlanta set of Showtime’s “The First Lady.” “It would embrace the psychological tangles and the spider’s web, but it would also enhance the viewer experience,” she said. “David was keen to do that for all the consecutive episodes, and harnessed that approach.”
And when Bier called Kidman and Kelley to say she was on board, she told them she wanted Hugh Grant as the husband. “He’s got something trustworthy and kind, and weirdly, charmingly, humble, about him,” she said. “While you don’t really think he’s capable of having a dark side, I always felt that Hugh Grant did have a dark side. I had no doubt that it had to be him.”
She was right, as Grant delivers an alluring star turn. Only he could make you root for this reckless husband who’s fired from his perfect job as a pediatric oncologist for losing his head over Elena, the sexy mom of one of his patients. Maybe he didn’t commit this dastardly crime! “He’s amazing at improvising,” Bier said. “Singing in the car with the son, he’s so brilliant, so insanely psychopathic and charming. Also, like most great actors, he’s scared on the day, when they get to the set and have the fear, the terror, of not doing the scene in their mind. It’s inspiring with him and Nicole; they were incredibly creative.”
As an outsider from Denmark, Bier has had to do deep dives into American culture, from presidents and their wives to the upscale corridors of high society New York. “I find it fascinating,” she said. “It allows me to delve into a world and learn a lot of things. I have never studied so much American history!”
For “The Undoing,” the director was “meticulous,” she said, “about getting to know everything in that world, exactly what brand of sneakers the moms wear when picking up the kids, all of that. I was obsessed with accuracy.” Executive producer Kidman’s curly-tressed psychiatrist strode around the city in expensive clothing, but she stood out from the other private school moms. “She’s of the world, but with the feeling that she doesn’t necessarily want to be in the world 100 percent — her hair and clothes are different from the other women. They’re equally expensive, but slightly more Bohemian. She doesn’t have a house full of stuff, her beauty is part of her character, and you want her to have this supposedly happy marriage and everything, as these two beautiful people have fun together. There’s a lot of positive things until their world falls apart.”
Bier took care to set up a believable perfect couple. “It’s very dangerous to fit,” she said. “If it’s too perfect, the audience will be super suspicious right away. You’re hitting the precarious balance where you build trust. They argue a little in the morning, there is a version of an unbelievable marriage where they get along all the time, have sex all the time. This is quite a different dance. We were making sure we didn’t go overboard with the heaviness, so the audience doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to go now.’ Audiences get it.”
While some of us may treasure Bier’s lauded art films — since her debut in 1991, Bier made her name with a series of well-reviewed and compelling dramas in Denmark with her long-time writing partner Anders Thomas Jensen, from Dogme film “Open Hearts” to the Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding” (which both starred mads Mikkelsen) to the Oscar-winning “In a Better World,” and “Brothers” (which was remade by Hollywood) — Bier is clearly leaning into competing with the big boys by delivering commercial hits. She represents the director’s branch on the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Board of Governors, and this year took on the role of co-chair for the International Film Committee.
“Susanne has a very fine eye for when it works and when it doesn’t work, for what we are doing right here, now,” ” said Mikkelsen. “I trust her.” While Bier directed the hit Danish comedy “The One and Only,” starring Pierce Brosnan, her English-language outings such as period drama “Serena” (Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and Dreamworks’ “Things We Lost in the Fire” (Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro), did not yield much box office. On the other hand, her Netflix debut film “Bird Box” had more than 80 million total subscribers watch it, per unverified numbers from the streamer.
The move to Hollywood for Danish directors “is tricky,” said Mikkelsen. “[Studios and producers] fall in love with what they do in Denmark. They take the trip: ‘can we change this and this?’ Then all of a sudden they could have asked someone else. She has found her feet and understands the world over there. She can put her own fingerprint on it.”
Saeed Adyani / Netflix
It’s a lot easier to reach a huge global audience these days, clearly, via one of the big streaming platforms. And after her Emmy-winning direction of the John le Carré series “The Night Manager,” Bier can do whatever she wants.
The first thing Bier shot in “The Undoing” was the grisly murder of Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) which drives the marital courtroom drama, and pops up in flashbacks throughout. “Who killed Elena Alves?” is the question that lured viewers every week, as suspicion is cast on several players, from Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) and his psychotherapist wife Grace (Nicole Kidman) to their son Henry (Noah Jupe), as details are revealed.
“Elena getting murdered was a nice way to start shooting,” Bier said. “I decided to shoot more of that stuff than was in the script. I suspected it might be incredibly useful. There is serendipity in this industry. It’s weird, there is a kind of randomness that at times becomes defining. Because we had the murder, I kept thinking throughout that it could be a red line within the storytelling.” In the editing room, Bier intercut vivid visuals of the gory killing throughout the series, building up to the finale, when we see who actually did the dismal deed.
And she leaned into the luxurious lifestyle of her protagonists. “Portraying that lavish world of wealth,” she said, “piques voyeur interest. We’re always fascinated by enclosed worlds, not exclusively the wealthy. But this particular world is inaccessible. There’s something about the world of New York privilege and entitlement — I always wondered what it was like. We’re dying to get inside the mansion. This is a chance to describe it and enjoy the lavishness and see the sub-layers, the horror, the arrogance, the lack of trust. Having the combination of darkness and the beauty is an irresistible cocktail.”
Needless to say, Bier also did a refresher course on Alfred Hitchcock. “I needed to be educated again,” she said, “not to imitate or copy from him but to get a sense of what he did.” She made sure that while the spotlight shifted from one MacGuffin to another, she did not mislead the audience. “It became a phenomenon, where people were engaging with it. My 90-year-old father was calling me every week, saying ‘You have to tell me!’ We seduce and confuse people but we didn’t cheat with anything that wasn’t consistent with the characters and the truth. That makes me angry; I don’t like it when I’m being lied to. I like being seduced.”
Niko Tavernise / HBO
Most of these characters turn out to be not very nice people. Bier went with the relatively unknown Noma Dumezweni as the high-powered defense attorney after casting director Ellen Chenoweth sent her a casting tape. “We had interest from a couple of way more famous actors. But there was something formidable about her. She’s a real raw presence despite being so sophisticated. If you put somebody in that triangle [with Kidman and Grant], it has to be somebody equally imposing, with different energy.”
In the editing room, Bier was willing to keep a rhythm of longer scenes even with the risk of losing forward momentum. “You don’t want to lose a sense of depth,” she said, “in the police station interrogations, scenes with Nicole and Donald [Sutherland, as her father], and Hugh, Nicole and the boy having lunch.”
Clearly, Bier believes that mainstream entertainment can be a vehicle for taking political themes (say, prodigious wealth is not a recipe for happiness) to the masses. She sees a clear moral compass inside the delicious wrapping of “The Undoing.” “The point is clear,” she said. “In the justice system, privileged or white people have all these advantages. [Fraser] would have gotten off, been a free man, had Nicole’s character not realized [what he did] and outsmarted him. I’m not claiming that it’s a political piece, but you can articulate a point of view because you have something that is fun and entertaining.”
At a time when so many people are ignoring facts, Bier figures that she’s sneaking ways of looking at the world into their brains. “When something is super entertaining, and not necessarily incredibly complicated,” she said, “there’s a potential mirror in it. The rejection of the uncomfortable truth is so prevalent right now. It’s not a narrow, complicated, and complex Danish arthouse film with a more obvious point of view, but that will target a smaller group of people. I managed to get substance to a helluva lot more people than something more substantial. We need to confront our unwillingness to face reality. We need to understand there is a clear tendency in our minds to see what we want to see. There’s something to be said for pop culture with a heart.”
Next up: Aaron Cooley’s Showtime series “The First Lady,” featuring Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, which Bier is finally shooting in Atlanta after the series was halted due to the pandemic last May. “We’ve finished Michelle Pfeiffer and Dakota Fanning [as Betty and Susan Ford] and Aaron Eckhart [Reverend Jerry Falwell],” she said, “and we’re starting Viola Davis.”
Bier will thread the cradle-to-grave strands of three first ladies through 10 one-hour episodes. “It’s pretty exciting and slightly daunting,” she said. “It’s like doing three and a half high-level features in a row, with no breaks in between. Then we cut it all together.” Luckily when it’s all over, she’ll forget all the stress and hard work: “It’s like giving birth.”