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In A Better World

Fresh from her Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film, director Susanne Bier talks with Tribeca about westerns, bullying and her award-winning work.

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Academy-award winning director Susanne Bier believes if you have a story to tell, you’d better tell it. This mantra may have branded her “commercial” by Europe’s film elite, but it’s a label she embraces, especially if it means reaching her audiences. And with In A Better World, recipient of this year's Foreign Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, she does just that.

 

The film is a penetrating oeuvre, that follows the budding friendship of two boys, Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) and Elias (Markuus Rygaard), whose paths cross when Christian relocates to Denmark after losing his mother to cancer. Anesthetized by this tragic event, Christian channels his rage towards Elias’ tormenters—the school bullies. At first, Elias is grateful for the protection, but as Christian’s bloodlust grows and he threatens an act of revenge far beyond the schoolyard, Elias begins to fear the savagery his debt may require.

 

Intricately layered within this plot are the parallel relationships of the boys’ parents. Christian’s father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) is a traveling businessman, struggling to connect with the stoic son he’s never really known, while Elias’ separated but unremittingly nurturing parents (Mikael Persbrandt and Trine Dyrholm) strive to help the boy they raised right choose a path of virtue and nonviolence.

 

Biers made her cinematic breakthrough in 1999 with romantic comedy One and Only, and has gone on to direct acclaimed films such as Things We Lost in the Fire, starring Halle Berry and David Duchovny, the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding, and the original Brothers, Bier's first film with writing/directing partner Anders Thomas Jensen.

 

Reteaming for In A Better World, Bier and Jensen deliver a haunting exploration of good and evil in our modern age. The expertly cast ensemble (most impressive among them the young Nielsen and Rygaard) commandeer the screen with enthralling ease, leaving cinematographer Morton Soborg’s shimmering shots of the Danish coast to fill in as a subconscious silver lining—for those who can resurface from the “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” the world can still be a beautiful, and better, place.

 

I had a chance to sit down with Bier at The Four Seasons NYC earlier this month.



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Tribeca: First off, congratulations on the big win at the Oscars! Did you ever imagine that this was where your film was headed?

 

Susanne Bier:
No. I mean, you don’t really think about that, or at least I don’t. You just try to make the best possible movie out of the material.

 

Tribeca: There were so many rich and penetrating elements in the film from the cinematography to the casting, but one thing that I found interesting is that the story itself, and the themes that it deals with are quite Shakespearean, and even Ancient Greek, in terms of their exploration of man’s dealings with morality and fate. Were there any authors, playwrights or filmmakers who inspired you while working on this film?

 

Susanne Bier:
I can’t say that there was a distinct, specific inspiration. But I think both Anders Thomas and I have a real affinity for classical theater, of course Shakespeare, but also Ibsen or Chekhov, whom we both really love. I don’t think you can necessarily tell from the story at all, and I wouldn’t say these playwrights directly inspired us for this film, but we have been learning from them in terms of dramatic structure, and possibly we’ve been trying to learn more from them than by watching films.

 

Tribeca: Then perhaps this is completely irrelevant, but I’m a big fan of Westerns, and couldn’t help but notice a really strong element in your film of what’s dealt with a lot in that genre: whether or not you stand up to encroaching bullies with violence and action. The Western hero is generally the one who has to take this daunting responsibility upon himself to uphold justice in society, and in a lot of ways, the main character Anton resembles the classic Hollywood “lone ranger.”

 

Susanne Bier:
That’s interesting that you say that, because when I cast Anton, that part was actually written for someone softer, someone less masculine, but I really wanted Michael Persbrandt to play that part because I thought that Anton had to be somebody truly masculine. And I think that plays into the whole Western idea, because you have to be very forceful even if you’re a pacifist, like the scene at the car repair place where the car repairman hits Anton and he refrains from hitting back. In order for that scene to really have an impact, Anton has to be someone that could easily beat his aggressor up, and Michael is like this tall, huge muscular guy with tattoos and so you don’t feel that Anton is not hitting back out of fear—rather, you clearly feel he is not hitting back out of choice. 

Tribeca: What was the writing process like for you on this film? Did Anders approach you with the original idea? Was it originally his script, which you then helped co-write?

 

Susanne Bier:
No, we actually developed the idea together. It’s a kind of fun process where we go, “OK, let’s do something.” And then we were working on something else and he had written some scenes with some boys, which was sort of out of blue, but I really liked them. And then we were thinking about what to do with them. With us, it’s very much like a ping-pong process, where suddenly you have 25 pages of a script. He does the writing; I don’t write. But I suggest scenes for him and kind of tell him the contents of a scene, and then he will write a really good one, which, in a way, will only have tiny traces of the scene I suggested. But it’s a very uncomplicated and happy collaboration.

 

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Tribeca: So you were collaborating with him from the beginning on this project?

 

Susanne Bier:
Right. That’s the way we work.

Tribeca: Do you find that allows you a lot more freedom when you’re on set?

 

Susanne Bier:
The thing is, because he writes, I feel like I have a really solid skeleton to work from. But then I do feel at liberty to do with it what I want. He’s not precious about it and I’m not either. I’m always happy to hear ideas and suggestions and to choose the one that works best, but I do feel I can only really work if I’m pretty free with what I’m doing.

 

Tribeca: And how about your cast in this film? They all did such wonderful jobs with their roles and really inhabited these characters. Did they bring suggestions to you?

 

Susanne Bier:
Yes, lots of suggestions, and the crew brought suggestions. There are so many creative free gifts. It is true that the director is the person you see, but actually there are a lot of creative people involved in the process, and this is something I embrace and enjoy. And I think in a way that as a director, it is about having enough strength not to lose the idea but also having enough strength to receive and embrace all sorts of suggestions. But the danger of course is that your film ends up all over the place, so it’s about being tight and yet welcome to anything that might come.

 

Tribeca: What about working with the two children in the film? Had they had any acting experience before In A Better World?

 

Susanne Bier:
No it was the first time for both of them.

 

Tribeca: They did a fantastic job.

 

Susanne Bier:
They are fantastic. We did extensive casting. I think the casting agent auditioned around 120 kids, and then the editor went over all the tapes and she showed me 12 of them who I then auditioned, but I kind of fell in love with those 2 kids before they came in and was just hoping that they would be good enough for me to use them.

 

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Tribeca: What was it like working with them? Did they bring their own suggestions to you for their roles?

 

Susanne Bier:
Yeah, after a little while. I think they had to get used to it because they had never done anything like this before, no dramatic acting, nothing. So it took some getting used to, particularly for William Jøhnk Nielsen, who plays Christian, as he had to get used to being so hateful. He is a very nice, very well-behaved boy, and being this hateful was a big emotional strain for him, because you know, you spend your entire life being brought up to behave decently, and suddenly you are meant to scream and hit at your father, and it was disturbing for him. But then he kind of got to enjoy it because he realized: this is just playing, just something I’m doing until the director says cut, and then I can go back and be my well-behaved self again. So I think he ultimately found it fascinating.

 

Tribeca:  The film follows two narrative strands set in the two opposing locations of the stunning Danish coast and an African refugee camp where Anton travels to volunteer his medical skills. How did the filming process work? Did you film all the scenes in Denmark first and then head to Africa?

 

Susanne Bier:
Yes, and actually this is pretty typical of the way we work, but we filmed in Denmark for about 4 weeks, and when we were about to switch locations, I realized that I didn’t like the scenes we had written for Africa. I didn’t feel that they were right. So then Anders Thomas came over on the weekend to Fyn where we were filming and then we re-wrote the scenes for Africa and went straight there to shoot them. So there were a lot of immediate changes going on, which I think is good. But of course it put high demands on the crew. It does ask for the crew to be prepared for changes and to have the sense that new ideas can come along.

 

Tribeca: A true labor of love.

 

Susanne Bier:
Yes.

Tribeca: Were the extras in the scenes in the Refugee camp locals?

 

Susanne Bier:
They were a mix of locals, actors and people who used to work in a refugee camp: the nurses were real nurses, there were real refugees. We were very lucky because that cocktail really worked, but it was also kind of a risky thing to do. Then again, part of filmmaking is quite often risky. You want it to be messy and accurate at the same time.

 

Tribeca: The cinematography is truly stunning, particularly the shots of the Danish coast. But at the same time you’re dealing with these darker issues of violence and brutality. Was this juxtaposition of aesthetic odds a conscious choice?

 

Susanne Bier:
Yes, definitely. The choices of location they were all a very conscious choice. You have to show that beautiful, “better” world in order to realize how fragile it is.

 

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Tribeca: Those images really stay with you. Particularly those scenes with Anton and his children sitting alongside the beach at their house looking out at the ocean.

 

Susanne Bier:
Isn’t that a magnificent place?

Tribeca: It truly is. Where was that shot?

 

Susanne Bier:
In Fyn, and the couple that own that house are both therapists and were quite excited about us filming there.

 

Tribeca: Is this film in any way a commentary on Danish culture and tradition?

 

Susanne Bier:
It’s a commentary on Danish culture in terms of thinking, yes, the character of Big Man in the African refugee camp is really a horrific human being, but the owner of the car repair garage in Denmark is also horrific. It’s a comment on the fact that we are not that different. As human beings, we are much more similar than we are different. The circumstances of living in Africa vs. Denmark are very different, and therefore, the owner of the car repair doesn’t have the possibility of becoming as vicious as Big Man, but his character traits are not that different.

Tribeca: I gather you are considered commercial by European standards.

 

Susanne Bier:
I’m not really part of that very elitist, super-cultural movie club, which I quite enjoy. [laughs] The thing is, I just think it’s very old-fashioned. There is this notion in Europe dating back from the '70s and the Auteur tradition—that great movies don’t talk to the audience, great movies only talk to a very elitist group of people—and I so deeply disagree, because I so deeply believe that if you have an important story to tell, you’d better reach an audience. It actually makes sense. You want the audience to have an amazing experience, but you also want them to be able to address some issues. And so to be arrogant in that way where you don’t want to address audiences, I just think it’s stupid.

 

Tribeca: What issues/questions do you hope In A Better World will help audiences to address?

 

Susanne Bier:
Primarily, I want them to have had a gripping experience. I want them to be excited while watching the film, and then I want them to discuss the whole notion of revenge and forgiveness, which I think is extremely important, and at this time couldn’t be more acute. I think it’s also worthwhile to discuss bullying. You could say in a way that the movie deals with how difficult it is to be a decent human being today. Even if you want to, it’s super difficult, and I think that’s very interesting and worthwhile to talk about. Our hero, Anton, is a really flawed human being. He’s been unfaithful to his wife, but he’s still a really good person, and I like that. I think it’s important to recognize and embrace that.  

 

Tribeca: On that note, do you think this is an important film for younger audiences to see?

 

Susanne Bier:
You know, in Scandanavia they actually have this in-school movie series where they take films into schools and use them for education, and they are going to be screening In a Better World to either 11- or 12-year-olds and above. So I think it is fine for kids. It’s not fine for small kids, but for 11- and 12-year-olds, I think it’s appropriate. And the thing is, children get exposed to a whole lot of things anyway, so it’s much better to deal with these issues instead of rejecting them and pretending that they doesn’t exist.

 



In A Better World hits theaters in NY and LA this Friday, April 1. Visit the official website for wide release dates and locations.

 

Like In A Better World on Facebook.

 

Watch the trailer:

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