Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has directed fifteen films since 1991. Her film Brothers (2004) inspired the 2009 U.S. remake starring Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Tobey Maguire, and her film After the Wedding (2006) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Picture. Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) was Bier’s first U.S. production, starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, and she won the Oscar for her Danish film In a Better World (2010). Her most recent movie, Serena (2014), stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Anna Weinstein spoke with Bier about her creative process, her frequent collaborations with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, and her perspective on female storytelling.
Anna Weinstein: What inspired you to go to film school? Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Susanne Bier: I always knew that I had some kind of creative drive, but I wasn’t quite sure what shape it was supposed to have. I studied religion for a short while, and then architecture for a couple of years, and then eventually I became more interested in set design. I actually applied to film school to do set design, and at the interview I told them I might be more interested in directing. I remember they said, well, why don’t you make up your mind and apply for exactly what you want? So I applied as a director.
Are you involved with the set designs for your films? Is that something you’re still interested in?
My interest is in the storytelling. I’ve never been able to have a clean, aesthetic interest in set design. It’s always like, how does it work with the character? Or what does this environment say about the character’s state of mind? That I find extremely exciting. But as a clean aesthetic, it doesn’t interest me very much.
Can you talk about your process of coming to story? How does that work for you?
This is probably the most difficult to talk about. Story is the magical, playful element of movies. Kind of like, what happens if this character does this, or if we expose this character to that, what would happen then? And then you play with those consequences.
So you start with character?
Yeah, we do start with character. When I’m working with Anders (Thomas Jensen), this is how we work. When I’m given a script, it’s obviously different. But Anders and I, we might also start out with a situation instead. There tend to be situations that imply some kind of moral dilemma. I think that’s probably the most accurate description – a mix between a moral dilemma and a character, that’s what we start with.
How did your collaboration with Anders begin?
He came to a premier of one of my early films, and he actually hated it, which he told me. It was really very funny. But then we tried to write a movie based on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, modernizing it. We couldn’t figure that out, so we did our film Open Hearts instead. That was our first collaboration.
What is the writing process like with Anders? How many drafts do you typically write?
It varies. I would say we do three to four major drafts, and then a whole lot of revisions. But it starts from one idea that one of us will have, and then we end up changing it radically, of course. It’s very playful, very much like a ping-pong back and forth until we figure out the story.
It’s widely known that you’re Jewish. How would you say religion influences your storytelling, or does it?
I’m not religious, but my family is, and I think family is very prevalent in my movie making – anything dealing with family relationships. It’s a kind of an essential identity. And for me, being Jewish is tied up with that. I think there’s an obsession I have with raising some kind of tolerance. I guess I’m always dealing with that in terms of religion and trying to figure out how to embrace it. I’ve had a lot of tolerance and generosity in my life, but my movies always have to do with forgiveness, I suppose. I guess most religions deal with forgiveness, and for me it’s a hugely important element.
How has forgiveness played into your life experiences? I read about your family’s escape to Sweden during the Holocaust.
I don’t think any Jewish person is indifferent to the Jewish history, so of course it has shaped who I am in some ways. But it’s almost more of a pragmatic point of life really, like looking around and noticing, the people who are having a happy life and the people who are not having a happy life, what is the difference there? It’s very primitive, I think. And it’s very clear that the people who are capable of forgiving are much more likely to have happiness than those who cannot forgive. This does seem to be the case.
How would you describe the environment in Denmark for female directors?
I’ve never felt I was treated any differently because I’m a woman. Of course, there’s this dance you do on sets, particularly in the beginning, where you’re trying to figure out what your role as a director actually is. I mean, I’m not going to get off on a whole lot of technical stuff that some of the guys might get off on – but in general, I haven’t felt any different. In other parts of the world, there is a clear discrimination, but at least in the West, it’s not so different for men and women. I think the reason there aren’t as many female directors, at least in the West, is because there really is a question for young women about whether they can have kids and still work as film directors. I think a lot of young women feel at some point that they need to choose between kids and a career, which is obviously an almost impossible choice to make. Nobody can make that kind of choice.
Can you discuss your experience, in terms of not making that choice?
Look, I spent many years paying for childcare. It’s actually free in Denmark, childcare, but the hours never worked. You know, as a film director you can’t pick up your kid at 5:00 pm necessarily. So for many, many, years, I spent my salary making sure my kids had a functioning home. And I very quickly decided I wasn’t going to worry about who was emptying the dishwasher and all those kind of household things, the things that eventually kill your excitement and enthusiasm. I just decided, yeah, I won’t have a great savings, but I’ll have fun, and my kids will have fun. And I decided that for me, that was more important.
You mean you hired help?
Right, I hired help. And I know a lot of women have this feeling that they need to figure it out themselves, but I really think you have to pick your point of ambition. You can’t satisfy all of your ambitions. For me, it was just more important that I could do what I needed to do in my artistic endeavors and that the kids were happy. So I made compromises with other things in life.
Did you have guilt about your career and your kids, especially when they were little?
That guilt thing is such a female problem. And I think in a way, the guilt is a hindrance for women to actually do things with their career that men can do. In all parts of the world this is true. More than anything else, it’s that guilt that makes it more difficult for women to do what they need to do. So it’s not the men who are the problem. It’s the guilt about not living up to some standards that other people have determined for you.
Could you talk about representations of female characters in film? How much do you think about how you position your female characters, in terms of societal expectations?
Like most women audiences, I get incredibly bored by female characters having to be really beautiful and of no consequence. I get very bored with that. I’m not less interested in male characters than in female characters, so for me I’m just as happy doing a movie where the main character is a man. But I wouldn’t want to do a movie where the characters aren’t interesting. Whether they’re small or big parts, they still need to be interesting.
Could you describe what you’re looking for in a script, what makes characters interesting?
They need to be real, for one. And they need to have a distinct voice. I’ve had these discussions with other women directors. I don’t mind that they’re good looking. I think audiences like to look at certain things, so it’s great if the women and men on screen are good looking. I just get bored if it’s like a complete stereotype, a man’s dream of a woman.
How did you come to the Things We Lost In the Fire project? And what did you see in Allan Loeb’s script?
Well, that script really came to me, and I was sent it by Pippa Harris and Sam Mendes, who at the time were producing for DreamWorks. I was very touched by it. I’d read a lot of scripts, and it was one of the first where I felt these are actually human beings. And I also jumped at the opportunity to have Sam Mendes as a producer, because I thought it would be a lot of fun and intriguing, and it really was.
What was it like directing in the U.S. as compared to Denmark? Any significant differences?
It was great. DreamWorks, the producers, were very supportive and very sort of fantastically engaged and fun to work with. You know, as a director, I don’t think the difference is huge, not while you make the movie. The difference comes when the movie is supposed to be released, which is very different. And the way movies are financed is also different, because in Europe, there’s somewhat less commercial pressure, which obviously has an influence on the kind of movie you make. All my Danish movies have done amazing business locally, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, not to have the commercial pressure. In the end, too, movies need to convey a story that the audience wants to see.
There are so few screen stories told by women. Could you share your thoughts about this, why it’s important to have women’s stories?
It’s important for human beings, and since half of the human beings in the world are women, obviously it’s important to tell female stories. But I don’t really agree with it. You know, I’m not particularly interested in the specifics of female movies as compared to male movies, because I think if it’s a good movie, it’s so much more than that. Every director is different, and I think I probably actually feel more indebted to male directors than to female directors, in terms of who I really appreciate or who I’m inspired by. I think also, it’s almost like we stigmatize ourselves, female directors, by pointing to the differences. But of course, when a movie like Zero Dark Thirty becomes a big hit and wins all the major critics’ awards, it’s great. And when any gender or minority issue that hasn’t been properly dissented, when we uncover that, it’s huge progress. But I don’t think we’ve reached that progress by suffocating ourselves with the differences. I’m not particularly interested in the differences. I’m more interested in the similarities.
Anna Weinstein is a US-based writer, editor, and screenwriter. She writes frequently about women working in film and television, female screen storytelling, and on-screen representations of women and girls.