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Director Series-Susanna Bier-After the Wedding

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After The Wedding is Danish director Susanne Bier’s ninth film. It was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, and it opened in theaters in the U.S. at the end of March. Like Bier’s other critically acclaimed films such as Open Hearts and Brothers, the piercing character drama revolves around the complexity and strangeness of family relationships. Its plot involves the unraveling of surprise family ties and the consequences of their discovery.It stars Mads Mikkelsen (known by many as Le Chiffre, the villain in Casino Royale) as the head of an orphanage in India who returns to his native Denmark to seek possible funding to keep the orphanage open. The visit triggers the unfolding of some potent past secrets.Bier worked with a team of longtime collaborators: director of photography Morton Søborg, DFF; editor Pernille Bech Christensen; production designer Søren Skjær and composer Johan Söderqvist.Bier recently finished directing her first Hollywood studio film, Things We Lost in the Fire, starring Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro. The Danish director talked to Below the Line.Below the Line: Was After the Wedding was shot entirely on location?Susanne Bier: Yes, in Denmark and in India.BTL: How long was the shoot?Bier: Approximately eight weeks. We shot seven weeks in Denmark. And we did a little over a week in India—in and around Mumbai. There everything was done very fast—from casting—mainly the kids in the Indian orphanage—through actual filming.BTL: Talk a little about your director of photography, Morton Søborg? You’ve worked together often?Bier: Yes, we’ve done several films together. He’s great. He operates mainly handheld and he’s always at the right spot. I never get the sensation that he didn’t get that point or particular movement, because he’s always there.BTL: You frequently used of extreme close-ups—lingering over a hand, or a face, or often just an eye.Bier: It’s a personal obsession I have. It’s not the first film I’ve used that technique and it won’t be the last. For me it’s almost like a wide shot, when it is framed so tightly that it becomes abstract. You don’t just see an eye, you see an abstraction of an eye. It engages me, it doesn’t make me feel comfortable. And it’s not supposed to make the audience feel comfortable either.BTL: To get such shots, you and your cinematographer and your actors must have been working in very close confines.Bier: Yes, I want to ensure that the scenes become as organic and as truthful as possible. I like to stage from the inside and then out. I have to stage a shot within the situation. Every morning I work with the actors and rehearse with them before the crew comes on the set. We start with the way a particular scene is scripted; eventually we might have a scene with the same concept but with a completely different shape than what’s in the script. When the crew comes, we show them what we are doing. But when we start shooting, it may evolve more. Once the actors really get going, you have to be open to some minor changes again.BTL: You say Søborg mainly shoots with one handheld camera, but in some scenes, I noticed several cameras.Bier: I sometimes work with two cameras, but usually from the same angle. I may have two cameras pointing at different characters, but not often.BTL: Have you worked with your editor, Pernille Bech Christensen, on most of your films?Bier: Yes she and I started collaborating in film school in Denmark. So we’ve been working together, off and on, for most of the last 20 years. She knows exactly what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Sometimes I shoot things that I know I won’t use, just to get somewhere else in a scene. She recognizes this and works with it.BTL: Does the editing start while you’re still shooting?Bier: Yes, from the first day. I usually use two editors while I’m shooting. Because I work so freely with the script, I need to have it edited while I’m doing it. It’s part of the organic process. I spend most of my lunches with the editors who have seen the dailies from the day before. Often they may suggest shooting an extra close-up or something from a different angle.BTL: When is the first rough edit finished?Bier: I get to see something fairly soon after we finish shooting, but I’m the only one that gets to see that.BTL: And then when the fine editing starts, is that a lengthy process?Bier: Yes, I do edit for a long time. And I tend to shoot very economically. I like to do a number of takes, but overall I don’t waste a lot of footage.BTL: That requires good preparation, and lots of rehearsals?Bier: Every time I rehearse in advance, maybe a couple of weeks before the actual filming starts, I always wind up changing it pretty much when it’s time to shoot. Socially it might be worthwhile—rehearsals are good in getting to know the actors. But in terms of having knowledge about how the scene works, I can’t remember one scene I’ve shot that wound up the way it was anticipated during the advance rehearsals.BTL: So you like to leave room for spontaneity?Bier: Moviemaking is such an organic process. The way I make movies I have to embrace the organic nature of it without losing the sharpness of my original vision.BTL: Do you spend a lot of time in the editing room?Bier: I do. But movies are a collaborative effort. You don’t get the most out of other people’s creativity if you start limiting them. Even with the actors or with new people in the crew, you make sure those people feel comfortable being collaborative. But you also have to make sure that with the many creative people involved, they don’t confuse the clear vision I’m going for.BTL: Were the scenes in Denmark in actual premises, no sets?Bier: It was all shot on location. My production designer Søren Skjær of course had to dress most things. But the house we used, and the wonderful surrounding location, are pretty much the way it actually looks.BTL: The music by Johan Söderqvist creates the psychological tension, but for long stretches you don’t use music at all.Bier: For me music loses its meaning if it’s there all the time. Music is an important spice, but it’s not the dish. Sometimes you see a movie but you don’t really experience anything, you don’t feel anything. Instead the music tells you what you’re supposed to be feeling. I don’t like that.BTL: Your most recent film, Things We Lost in the Fire, was your first Hollywood movie. How did it go?Bier: It’s been very interesting. There are a lot of European prejudices about coming and making movies in Hollywood and getting crushed by the system. I didn’t feel that. It’s a DreamWorks movie and Sam Mendes is the producer. He’s been fantastic. And DreamWorks, instead of asking me to pull back has asked me to be quite edgy. So it has in no way fulfilled the prejudices I brought with me from Europe.BTL: Unlike your previous films where you had a familiar crew, this film required working with new people. Your director of photography on Things We Lost in the Fire is Tom Stern, ASC, who is Clint Eastwood’s regular cinematographer. How did that work out?Bier: Tom Stern has been fantastic, as has the whole crew. There’s been so much respect. When I met Tom, I said: Mr. Stern, I’m a great admirer of yours, but you have to know that in this movie we have to be able to shoot 360 degrees. So you have to construct lighting so it’s going to look beautiful in all directions. He laughed, and then he said, sure. I presume I’m making an American movie because my previous movies have been viewed with some interest. So I have been fairly clear about how I’ve wanted to work, which is the way I’ve always worked.BTL: Tell us a little about the film?Bier: It stars Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro. And it has a script by Alan Lowe—the first script he’s written that’s been made into a movie. It’s about two unlikely people who get to know each other and become very close. And through that closeness come back to life after what they thought w
ere totally devastating experiences. It’s a very beautiful and redeeming story.BTL: How did you latch onto this script?Bier: I was sent it through my agent, and I met Sam Mendes, and we got along really well. I came out to meet the DreamWorks people, and everything happened very quickly and smoothly. Sam Mercer has been producing together with Sam Mendes. They have been an amazing duo to work with. Sam Mercer is like a practical genius, keeping everything running smoothly. And Sam Mendes has been a challenging artistic collaborator. Meanwhile, the actors have been fantastic.BTL: How did you became a director.Bier: I went to film school in Denmark. And after graduation I did a Swedish film called Freud Leaving Home, and I’ve been doing movies ever since.BTL: Were you always set on being a director?Bier: Actually, I started in architecture before I went to film school and I went into designing. But I soon found I was more interested in the people within the buildings I was designing.

Written by Jack Egan

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