Susanne Bier Looks for ‘Better World’ in the Mainstream

Danish director of the Oscar-nominated “In a Better World” talks about morality, violence … and going Hollywood

Susanne Bier's "In a Better World" hadn't been widely screened before it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film last month – but in the aftermath of that win, word spread about the tough, moving Danish drama that has quickly become one of the frontrunners in the Oscar Foreign-Language race. Sony Classics is now preparing for a post-Oscar release for the film, which deals with two families drawn together by a pair of 10-year-old boys drawn into murky moral waters of (initially justified?) violence and revenge.

Susanne BierThe film's director, Susanne Bier, was responsible for another Oscar nominee four years ago in "After the Wedding"; her other films include the acclaimed original version of "Brothers," which Jim Sheridan remade with less success last year, and the English-language "Things We Lost in the Fire," which misfired at the boxoffice in 2007.

Was it a big surprise when you won at the Golden Globes?
Yes, it was. I was very, very happily surprised. I'm really proud of the film and I feel that the film has a lot of meaning, but I felt that because it hadn't opened yet, it might be less of an obvious contender. And also, I kept talking to the Scandinavian press, who told me that the bookmakers had it very low down. So I guess I'm a bit annoyed that I didn’t gamble on myself.

What was the genesis of the project?
Mr. Jensen [screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen] had written some scenes where some young boys were interrogated by the police, which I thought were really interesting. And then we had this discussion about the fragility of our idyllic society. What is the threat if it's not from the outside? What if it's from an unlikely source from within? And so we somehow, in a strange stew, merged those elements and started working on the story.

When we discuss our stories, it's always a little bit difficult to say how we get there. It's very playful, very much, "That's a good idea, okay, and what if he … " It's very enjoyable. And I must say that although the myth is the opposite, it's my experience that the more fun we have doing it, the better the film.

Is it typical for you to start by just kicking around ideas, concepts and themes, rather than plot lines?
We also have plots, but because our movies are character-driven, the plots are always somehow an organic result of the interaction between the characters. As opposed to very shallow movies, where you start with the plot, and then the characters mean less somehow.

When you're writing, do you have a sense of how you want to shoot it?
Yes. I have a strong sense of that, but then maybe I don’t do it that way anyway. One of the great things about for me about being a film director is that it’s so fluid, in that I can allow myself to change my mind. Within reason. But I'm also pretty respectful of budgets. I might change the content, I might change the location, but I usually shoot the scene on the day where it's set.

I quite like that there is a production plan. I quite like that I can control certain things and I cannot control other things. I find that is a very stimulating balance creatively, where controlling everything is not necessarily so fulfilling.

In a Better WorldThis is a film with two different familes who connect through their kids, but the adults are sometimes on different continents. For much of the movie we don't quite know how they're going to connect. Was it hard to figure out the balance as you pulled the strands of the story together?
Yeah. We had more scenes with the adults than we were able to use. It's figuring out that balance in the editing, so that you can have a generous movie which still has a distinct forward story to it. And it's hard, because you have many characters and many facets and many different stories that somehow need to have an impact on one another. So I do quite a lot of test screenings.

Test screenings? Really? I thought most directors hated those.
They're a little bit different from the American ones, because I tend to invite people I know and then discuss the movie with them. I get more out of a conversation with the audience, hearing what they like and where they are bored, than them filling out questionnaires.

In this film, you're dealing with blurry lines of morality. And there are certainly times that as audience members, we're complicit with the characters as they do things we know are wrong. You want to see the bully get beaten up.
Yeah, yeah. It's kind of a sinful pleasure. One is actually relieved that he's beaten up with a bicycle pump. I mean, of course he shouldn’t be doing that. But on the other hand, it's great.

When you made "Things We Lost in the Fire," did you find it hard to work within the American system?
Look, I really enjoyed making "Things We Lost in the Fire." I loved having Sam Mendes as a producer, and felt DreamWorks were really supportive. I think it came out at an unfortunate time. And you know, I don’t think I should be stupid and say that it's just the timing. You also have to understand things, and learn. I think it was sad that it didn’t have more audience, but I did learn something from it.

Are you talking to American companies while you’re over here?
Yes I am. I would like to make more American films. I mean, here's the thing: It might sound pretentious, but I actually think that I have stories to tell that can appeal to an audience. And you know, in Europe I'm not arthouse enough to be part of the real elegant European movie scene. I am considered mainstream, and I'm quite happy to be there, because I feel that yes, I do have stories to tell and I do want to target an audience with them. What's the point otherwise?

In a Better WorldWhat are you working on next?
I have a couple of things. Mr. Jensen and I have written a comedy. It's not a Hollywood comedy, not terribly conventional, but still a romantic comedy. And then we are also doing a remake of a French film for an American company. I think I'll probably be doing the comedy first.

It seems as if your Oscar category carries with it more pressure than most others. You're not just representing your film, you're representing your country.
You are. You're basically playing in the world championship. And that's the bulk of the work, doing everything that has to do with not just my nation, but in this case all of Scandinavia.  

Because you went through Oscar season when "After the Wedding" was nominated, are you able to relax more this time around?
It's so turbulent and so crazy and so fantastic, and I think that last time, in 2007, I just let myself be in the midst of the tornado. What happens is that everybody else's agenda ends up running your day.

And this time, because I've tried it before, I think maybe I will keep … not both feet on the floor, but maybe one of my toes on the ground.