Things We Lost In The Fire - Susanne Bier interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DANISH director Susanne Bier talks about finally making the switch to Hollywood for Things We Lost In The Fire and working with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro…
Q. One of the themes of the movie is the innate goodness of people. Was that always deliberate?
Susanne Bier: That has been the theme of all my movies. I’m kind of obsessed about good people doing bad deeds in order to be good [laughs]. I think that these people are basically at heart good. But they’re in a very stressed and painful situation and therefore not necessarily at their kindest. The character that Halle plays, for instance, is sometimes harsh.
Q. But rightfully so given what’s happened to her?
Susanne Bier: Oh, very much rightfully so, because she is coping with grief, she is protecting her kids and she does that in a very together way. And any time she is close to showing any sort of emotion, she feels as though she’s going to breakdown and therefore not be able to protect her kids.
Q. What was it about Halle Berry that made you feel she was right for the role?
Susanne Bier: Well, when I met her for the first time I couldn’t imagine anybody else. Audrey Burke is a woman who closes down after a shock and I was extremely concerned that the actress to play would not accommodate the inbuilt possible coldness that this character could have portrayed. Meeting her, there was this very strong-willed, very passionate and very warm actress who I knew that audiences would have no doubt at any time that she was grieving. That was my most important motive in wanting Halle to play the part.
Q. Was it the characters that drew you to come and work in America finally?
Susanne Bier: At the point where I received this script, I’d probably read about 200 scripts and most scripts were pretty boring. This was not. This was gripping, touching and I was very moved by it. But I was also laughing a lot while reading it. I found that very compelling. I’ve wanted to make a movie in English for some time – not to earn money or something but because I happen to believe that I’ve got some stories to tell and something I want to convey to the world. To do that in Danish you’re bound to have an art-house audience if it’s not in the English language. I thought it would be really challenging and stimulating to try and see whether I could target a bigger audience and do it in English.
Q. Did you have any difficulty casting the film and getting the people you wanted for other roles, such as Benicio Del Toro’s?
Susanne Bier: I had a very good casting director who helped a lot during that process. I guess casting is one of the things I enjoy the most. You read a character on the page and there are obvious actors to play them, but then you kind of start thinking in other areas and it becomes so vivid and fun. On this one in particular I thought the kids [Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry] were amazing. I saw close to 200 kids and then I auditioned 20 of them, and then I picked the ones I chose because they had great hair! But you wanted to cast kids that could look like Halle but still have other characteristics.
Q. Did you seek to protect them from some of the film’s themes in any way?
Susanne Bier: You have to be very honest with them. You have to have them address the real thing. You can’t sort of sugar-coat it and pretend. When I did the audition with the 20 kids, I said: “This is a movie about your father dying and you will have to go through all those sorts of emotions…” I did talk with them in a more child-like way but I also made it very clear to them and their parents. And they were fine. I also actually think that it might be pretty healthy for some of the kids to address some of their unconscious fears at the time. But they were also comforted and hugged and a whole lot of other things that made it more pleasurable for them.
Q. Is the finished version of the film the way you had always intended, or did you have to make compromises for an American audience?
Susanne Bier: I don’t feel that I made any compromises in the way I made it. I wasn’t in any way forced to make compromises, and it wasn’t even suggested. Sam Mendes [who produces] was greatly supportive and encouraging. When you read a script, I never know how the movie is going to come out. I know what I want and I know what’s intriguing in it. But I don’t really know how the movie should be at the end because it is an organic process and that’s the fun of it. I feel this movie maintained that organic process right until the end.
Q. Will there be a Danish version?
Susanne Bier: [Laughs] Why don’t you ask Lars Von Trier about that?