By Anna Weinstein.
British director Susanna White began her career in documentaries and in BBC television in the mid-1980s. She directed seven episodes of the BBC series Bleak House (2005) and all four episodes of the Jane Eyre miniseries (2006). Two decades into her career, she got the opportunity to direct some grittier material in David Simon’s Generation Kill (2008) for HBO. In 2010, White directed her first feature, Nanny McPhee Returns, written by and starring Emma Thompson, also starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ralph Fiennes. Since then she has directed shows such as Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014), Parade’s End (2013), Masters of Sex (2013- ), and Billions (2016- ).
White has been nominated for two Emmys – one for her direction on Jane Eyre and one for Generation Kill. She won a BAFTA for Best Dramatic Serial for Bleak House, and she was nominated for a BAFTA for Parade’s End.
White’s most recent feature is Our Kind of Traitor, adapted by Hossein Amini from the John le Carré novel, starring Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, and Damian Lewis. White spoke with me about her new film, as well as the movie that inspired her to pursue directing features, and Britain’s most recent efforts to bridge the gender gap in films directed by women.
Your new film, Our Kind of Traitor is a thriller, but I’d consider this a relationship drama as well. Can you tell me what initially drew you to the material?
What appealed to me about it is that it’s a very contemporary story for le Carré. I suppose one thinks of le Carré and Russia in terms of these Cold War stories, but what’s remarkable about this piece of writing from a man in his 80s is that actually it’s a story of a very modern marriage.
Ewan McGregor’s character is married to a young lawyer, and they were once very happy, both with careers. And then suddenly his wife overtakes him and becomes more successful, and he’s in a bit of a dead-end job. So he’s really a lost soul when we meet him in the movie, and he falls under the spell of this very unlikely character, Dima, played by Stellan Skarsgård, and goes on this journey of rediscovering who he is as a person – and most importantly as a man.
So for me it’s a contemplation of masculinity and what it means to be a man in 2016. And I think couples are still working a lot of stuff out. So that really excited me. It wasn’t what I expected in a spy thriller. It has all the thriller qualities, but it also has much deeper emotional layers, which I was interested in exploring as well as the politics.
Yes, there’s a line toward the end of the film, when Skarsgård says to McGregor, “It’s the only thing that matters, you know? The rest is bullshit,” talking about his marriage. It seems that might be the heart of the story for you, do you think?
It really is the heart of what I was looking at in the story. What Stellan teaches Ewan is that what matters in life is the very close personal relationships. That nothing is perfect – you have to work at it.
Interestingly, in the screenplay, Stellan’s wife had literally no dialogue – she didn’t utter a word. But I needed Stellan’s marriage to feel very solid and real in order to make this whole thing work. So I had a long chat with Stellan when we were casting, and we discussed if we should ask to have more dialogue written, but Stellan said, “No, I think we can just do it with the actress through improvisation.” So Saskia Reeves, a wonderful actress, took it on trust from us that we were going to give her a real presence in the movie even though she had no lines at that point.
So we talked a lot about what the story of their marriage was, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of about the film, how solid that relationship feels. I’m so happy you picked up on that, because it really is what I was trying to do, show that through the relationship with Dima and Tamara, McGregor realizes what matters – that he’s got something special in his relationship with his wife and that’s what he should focus on.
Could you discuss what your journey has been like as a female director?
Well, I’ve been lucky in my career, and I’ve worked pretty solidly. I’ve done a lot of TV. It took me a long time to get to make my first feature, which was a family film, Nanny McPhee. It was great for me to get a movie on that scale, a big studio film, but like a lot of female directors, people think of you first to do children’s films or family films. They don’t necessarily think of you to direct espionage thrillers. I think only 3 percent of those are directed by women. They’re not the scripts you immediately get sent, so it’s been exciting for me to get the chance to flex my muscles in that arena.
In moving from documentaries to television to features and now to a film in this genre, has this been a challenge?
Well, my story is that I came out doing documentaries, and I was trying to cross over into drama, which was hard. All the studies show that women tend to do quite well directing with small crews, but it’s very hard to get your foot on the next rung of the ladder where you’re suddenly in charge of 100 people – that’s a really hard leap for women to take. And then again, to cross from television drama into feature film.
But I do feel that things are starting to change. We’ve certainly had some big successes in Britain within the last six weeks. We’ve been campaigning to get more films directed by women, and the two publicly funded bodies of the British Film Institute and Creative England have committed to having 50 percent of their movies directed by women by 2020. And the government has been looking at how we can make it a condition of the tax credit that there’s a diversity requirement. So I feel that things are shifting.
Was there a film or a director who inspired you when you were coming up?
I was inspired to have the confidence that I could be a feature film director by watching Jane Campion’s movie, The Piano (1993). So I do hope that in some small way other women will see that I’ve been out there directing a thriller and it will inspire them, too. If they like it, they might say, yes, women can direct these kinds of movies. It’s been a long gap since Kathryn Bigelow did her two great movies, and it’s nice to see women going out and doing more hard-hitting material.
What about Jane Campion’s film resonated with you?
I grew up loving movies, and I loved the world that cinema opened up to me. I was a lover of Hitchcock and Billy Wilder and almost every classic film you could name. But I’ll tell you what it felt like to me. It’s like you’re trying to sing a song, and people are singing in a different key than the one you can sing in. And I saw what Jane Campion did in that movie, and suddenly here was someone with a voice that felt like my voice. She was telling an extraordinary story, yes, but I think it’s almost the perfect film for me in that it’s so visual and so powerful in its poetry. And it’s a very strong story of female sexuality that’s told in such a subtle way and in such a different register than I’d even seen in a film before, that you just can’t image a man would have made The Piano.
So it just felt different, a different kind of creative impulse behind the movie. It’s not to say that all women have to go out and make films like The Piano, but for me, I thought, wow, maybe I could make a film like that one day.
You could relate in some way to the character and the story.
Yes, the things that interested Campion were a lot of the same things that interested me. It was a woman’s story as well, which we don’t often see – a very interesting, compelling, layered woman, with literally no voice, and yet it’s a woman who holds that movie. That felt really exciting to me. It was like the landscape had changed and a door opened, and I finally saw how cinema could be something that very directly connected to me. So watching The Piano, it certainly gave me the confidence to think, I’m going to go off to direct feature films.
You mention that not all women need to direct a film like The Piano. Given your successes and the challenges you’ve overcome in the business, what kind of advice would you give women who are aiming to become film directors?
I think the big thing is being very true to your own voice – finding your voice as a filmmaker and staying true to it. We’re seeing increasing numbers of people wanting to tell women’s stories at the moment. I’m working with a remarkable financier, Erika Olde, who is backing my new movie, Woman Walks Ahead, and she’s very committed to films that tell women’s stories. So I think these opportunities really are opening up now – and not just in independent films, but I see a real willingness in the studio system as well.
Can you address balancing family life with your career? How you’ve negotiated those challenges?
Well, I have a very supportive partner and family, but I actually don’t think balancing family has been an issue for me. The issue has been getting the opportunities. At the same time, I have two twin daughters who are going off to college this week, and it’s a very nice feeling to have these two gorgeous, talented young women who haven’t been damaged by the experience of me doing what I do, but in fact the opposite – they’re proud of what I do, and their friends are excited to meet their mom. So hopefully it’s like a ripple effect – the more people know it’s possible, the more women will have the opportunity to do it.
It’s about not giving up. If you get setbacks, you just keep knocking on doors. I’ve been very lucky with people who have opened doors for me in my career, whether that’s David Simon giving me a break on Generation Kill, or Working Tittle giving me a break directing Nanny McPhee, or Nigel Stafford-Clark giving me a break directing Bleak House, or Gail Egan on this movie, Our Kind of Traitor. Eventually, if you don’t give up, you will connect with someone who will give you those chances and believe in you.
Our Kind of Traitor opens in theaters July 1.
The Diva Directors interview series has appeared both online and in the print editions of Film International. To date, the series has included interviews with internationally acclaimed filmmakers Gillian Armstrong (Australia), Susanne Bier (Denmark), Isabel Coixet (Spain), Cristina Comencini (Italy), Anne Fontaine (France), Marleen Gorris (The Netherlands), Caroline Link (Germany), Claudia Llosa (Peru), Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (Pakistan), and Kirsten Sheridan (Ireland).
Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International.