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Interview With Susanne Bier - Oscar Winning Director of In a Better World

by Melissa Silverstein
March 31, 2011 3:50 AM
5 Comments
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WAH: Congratulations on the Oscar. What did it feel like? That moment?

SB: You know one of those few moments in one’s life when everything comes to a standstill? This was a moment like that. And I was really, really anxious and really nervous and I really wanted to win. And then you’re also scared of winning because it will mean you’re going to have to go and give a speech. And then when it happens, it was like, wow. And then it’s grand. I think many people talk of like horrific experiences of that kind so this was like a very positive experience of when everything freezes.

WAH: Did things change for you? Did you get different scripts the next day? Did people think about you differently here in this country? I know you’re one of the top tier directors in Europe but here we are fucked up about our women and our women directors, so I was wondering what happened.

SB: You do obviously receive more interest. There’s no doubt about that. But I also haven’t, in Hollywood, felt like I was being treated differently than the male directors. I think possibly, as an artist, you’re always treated with a certain respect but also with a certain sort of nervousness. I haven’t felt like I wasn’t treated with the same level of respect.

WAH: One of the things I am curious about is that you direct movies from a male perspective. This movie especially, you really defined a certain masculinity. I notice that people who direct movies about women can be treated a little differently versus people who direct movies about men. And I’m just wondering if you had any of those thoughts?

SB: It’s something I’m often asked about because many of my movies have strong male characters and strong male leads. I only had girlfriends when I became an adult. I was always playing with boys when I was a kid. And I always had a natural access to the world of boys and men. And I still guess I feel that. I always had very close friends that were men. And I guess that in a funny way I feel more like I’d rather be in a group of men than with a group of women. I feel more comfortable. And I think when I was younger, before I went to high school, I had a really hard time with the girls in the class. And I think that’s always stuck with me.

WAH: Girls can be horrible.

SB: Yeah, they can be horrible. And if you don’t get the code... If you’re not like natural with the code you can get lost in it. And I find it fascinating.

WAH: Did you play sports when you were younger?

SB: Yes, but not in team sports. It’s interesting because I can look at my daughter and she has a much easier access to that feminine side of her. I’m extremely straightforward. And I can’t do that sort of traditional girl thing of saying one thing that actually means something else. I never understood it and I still don’t understand it.

WAH: I read in an interview that you said you were obsessed with moral issues. Can you elaborate more on that?

SB: I find the whole thing of testing your moral strength fascinating. As a screenwriter, part of what we do, part of what we talk about, is very much like you being on Titanic and wondering what you would have done. That kind of thinking. You play and build with what is to be expected. And I think many of my films have dealt with that. And this one to an extreme degree deals with it.

WAH: Let’s get back to masculinity. We have a doctor trying to be a role model and then you have the boys trying to become men. And then you have this man who is just a monster. I thought it was like gradations of masculinity as men were struggling with being a man in the different cultures.

SB: The part of the doctor was written for a more anemic actor. And I purposely wanted Mikal Persbrandt who is much more of a forceful, masculine actor to play that part. He’s got tattoos all over and he can go out drinking all night. I wanted that forcefulness underneath someone who’s a real believer. I wanted, for the scenes at the car repair, you know that if he hits him, Anton could actually hit him back. But it’s a choice that he doesn’t do it. I guess I’m kind of very comfortable with that sort of masculinity.

WAH: I was struck by the brutality against the girls and women in the camp.

SB: That’s actually built on a real story. A female doctor from Doctors Without Borders told me about somebody coming into the camp who had been doing this. And it was probably the most viscous thing I’ve ever heard. And the viciousness wasn’t just that he did what he did but he also did it as a gamble. He did it so you could gamble on him. If the sex of the baby in the womb was a girl, some would win. And if it was a boy some others would win. It was horrific.

WAH: What does it say about our world that these women were not protected at all? And the doctor had that moment where he just broke.

SB: Yes, and it’s an interesting moment because you feel that he feels defeated. But I as a filmmaker, and you as an audience, feel relieved because you don’t want that monster to go on.

WAH: I’m wondering if he had daughters what he would have been thinking in his head...

SB: I don’t think that that would have changed it. The thing about ethics and feeling dutiful is that you do the right thing. And then even for him that is a breaking point. He can’t. I am not capable of defending this monster.

WAH: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

SB: I guess I was extremely worried about having two boys with such important parts. But I think for me in a way as a filmmaker, part of what makes me want to do it is a real fear of the material. I have to feel like this might not work. The biggest danger is becoming lazy and self-confident, so that was the biggest challenge.

WAH: What do you want people to get out of this film?

SB: I really want them to think about some of the themes. I really want them to leave the cinema and think about the whole issue of revenge and forgiveness. And that’s also why it has the title it has. The title of the movie suggests that there is a better world. I want them to think about that. I also want them to have a gripping experience. As a filmmaker it’s not that you just want them to consider the topics but you want the watch them be drawn into the film. When I watch a movie myself I want to forget that I’m watching a movie and I want to be inside the movie. That’s the kind of experience I want my audience to have.

WAH: You're the third woman to win an Oscar for a full length film. Do you have any comment on that?

SB: I do but I think it’s a mistake to relate it to cinema because I think it’s the entire society. If you look at the entire society there’s a real shortfall of women in key positions. And unfortunately I think it’s very, very simple. I think most young women feel at some point in their career that they’re going to have to choose between kids and career. And unfortunately many women than men pull back on their career. And I think that’s where we really need to address it. It’s not about the movie industry. It’s not about any specific industry - it’s about life and work together. I have two kids. One is 21 and the other is 15. And I spent the entire of my beginning career using all my money on childcare facilities. I wanted to make sure that they were okay and I wanted to make sure that I could express myself. I think the thing is to support young women in feeling that they don’t have to make that choice.

WAH: Do you find it easier for female directors in Europe?

SB: I do think it’s easier but I don’t think it’s easier because of Europe. I think it’s easier because we do have a childcare system. It might be a very primitive answer but sometimes things are very simple and I think that is the simple answer for it.

WAH: And you also have funds in your country to make films?

SB: Yes, but so do men.

WAH: But we don’t have that here at all.

SB: But the funding is about the scripts and about the storytelling. The funding doesn’t have anything to do with women or men. If you look at commercial films and directors in Europe you find that there’s a reasonable high percentage of them being women. And I don’t think commerciality is bound to be men, which is what I think you suggest when it has to do with the funding. I think it is much more about focusing and focusing on something important. I think young women need to stop focusing on changing the men. I think that’s where you get into a dead end. The men need to change the men themselves. And as a woman you can take upon the responsibility for yourself.

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5 Comments

  • Kathleen | April 2, 2011 3:58 AMReply

    "The men need to change the men themselves. And as a woman you can take upon the responsibility for yourself. "

    It will never occur to men that they need to change unless women tell them. Without challenges from feminist women, we would have NEVER had pro-feminist men.

    Susanne Bier is an honorary patriarchal male.

  • Kathleen | April 2, 2011 3:54 AMReply

    Susanne Bier is in such deep denial about patriarchy. She sounds like a very talented woman. However, she seems to feel superior to other women and does not respect the feminists who helped her make inroads in her career.

    Bier seems to be a gender decoy - a woman in a leadership position who hides the institutional sexism of the film industry and contributes to it.

    It's fime to get great directors who are out-of-the-closet feminist women. NO EXCUSES.

  • Deb | April 1, 2011 1:53 AMReply

    Akiva, I've been to Denmark. They are so far ahead of us in women's rights. Women are a large percentage of their parliament. I also don't have children and the door slammed in my face all the time. Really, it sounds like being a "women director" has almost been a non-issue for her, except for childcare. Hopefully, some day we'll get to the point here in the US where female directors feel the same way.

  • Akiva Penaloza | March 31, 2011 8:04 AMReply

    Congrats to her for the Oscar. But honestly, she turns me off with all the talk about being better around men. And the women and childcare issue? I have no kids. Many women who want to bust into film have no children. It's not about childcare and childcare choices. That was HER issue. I don't know, something about her rubs me the wrong way. Again, because she is a woman, I wish her the best.

  • Linn D. | March 31, 2011 6:29 AMReply

    I love the last 4 sentences of this post.

    "I think young women need to stop focusing on changing the men. I think that’s where you get into a dead end. The men need to change the men themselves. And as a woman you can take upon the responsibility for yourself."

    That's true of so many things. For years I tried to change my parents and then after much therapy, support of girl friends and boyfriends, I realized I could only change myself. I have no control over everyone else, including my parents.

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