One of Scandinavia’s top directors, Susanne Bier was on hand at the Goteborg Film Festival to receive the Dragon Honorary Award. The helmer, who earned an Oscar nom for “After the Wedding” and won an Oscar for “In a Better World,” is now making her TV debut with the British-American spy series “The Night Manager,” which is based on John le Carré’s novel and stars Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman. The upbeat Danish-born director has been working in the Nordics and in the U.S. throughout her career, making character-driven, often heart-wrenching movies that explore themes such as grief and family disruption. Bier has made a few English-language pics with A-listers, such as “Things We Lost in the Fire” with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, and most recently “Serena,” starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
How does it feel to receive this lifetime achievement now, at the peak of your career?
I hope it doesn’t mean that that I’m done! I’m having so much fun with what I’m doing. In no way do I feel prepared to retire. I couldn’t think of doing anything else than working and doing all these fun projects.
So you’ve just done this ambitious TV series “The Night Manager” for AMC and BBC One. How was it?
It’s a John Le Carré novel and it’s produced by the Ink Factory and Stephen Garrett. They produced it and John Le Carré has been quite involved with it. It stars Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and there’s Tom Hollander as well. It’s been fantastic making something which is so extensive in scale. In feature film, you have an hour and a half and here it’s six hours. And it means that all the minor characters are substantial. It’s filmed exactly like a very long film. Also, we didn’t shoot out each episode. On the morning, we would do a scene from episode one then, scene five from episode six – exactly like a movie.
Did you get to work on the script at all, the adaptation?
When I got involved, there was a first draft of episode one. Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston were attached. It was something where I went “I have to do this.” I was reading this big bunch of scripts and I saw John Le Carré written on one of them and was adamant about it. The rest of the episodes came through and then we worked them too. They kept evolving whilst we were shooting. They were finished but we changed things. It was an extremely creative group of people and Hugh came with suggestions, Tom did too and John Le Carré. It was a very involving project.
Were you surprised when you got offered this series project? Was it something that you were immediately comfortable with – the universe of John Le Carré?
I’ve always been envious of people who’ve had the pleasure of touching John Le Carré’s material so I thought at some point maybe it would be my turn. Since there was a script there and no one else was attached, I thought “I’d go for it.”
How does it fit in your body of work?
The thing about John Le Carre is that I’ve always been fascinated by his universe and spies. He is the perfect combination of spy, thriller and yet psychology. I thought it would be a fantastic match.
And there is also a political element in it, right?
There is a strong political element. I want to say that it’s more moral than political. Yes it’s political but it’s almost more moral. It’s a point of view of the world, the way we understand human beings. It’s almost more profound than just being political.
Does it make you want to go back in TV, after that?
I don’t know what I’ll be doing next but it definitely makes me want to do more. That form is very exciting. It’s like having three chessboards – that sort of energy that it gives you to keep all those things in the air. It’s very stimulating.
A lot of great talent are now going into TV right now.
Fantastic actors. I mean, I think, actors and directors are realizing how much great writing there’s in TV at the moment and they want to do that. There’s also an element, an exciting one, that it’s AMC and BBC. It’s good to know that so many people are going to watch it
Now, could you see yourself making a Danish TV series?
I definitely would. I don’t really care where I do things. I want to do the stories that I’m crazy about. I want to know that when I do something, it’s thoroughly exciting and challenging. It has to be challenging.
Are you developing any original stories?
Yes, I am. I’m working on a couple of different things and I’m also going to be writing with Anders Thomas Jensen.
Are these Danish-language movies?
We don’t know. We are in the midst of three different things and we haven’t quite decided which of them. It’s the way we work.
Looking back at the last couple of years, would you consider making “Serena” again? What would you do differently again?
Serendipity is essential for any kind of moviemaking, and I think that movie suffered particularly after filming. It definitely suffered from a lack of serendipity. It suffered from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think that possibly, the different expectations of what the movie was going to be weren’t aligned. At some point, it changed tracks. I will never do that again.
Was it a complicated film to make?
It wasn’t complicated. I asked Jennifer Lawrence before she had done “Hunger Games” and “Silver Linings” — and likewise with Bradley. We were always behind because it took time to get financing … but I hope we will look at it in 10 years and think, “Wow, it’s really interesting.”
It feels like in your career, you’ve had more success with local0language movies than English-language movies. How do you explain this?
I don’t think it’s a question of language. I think with the Danish financing, there was always a very clear understanding of what the movie we were making. What happened with “Serena” was that there was not a clear understanding of the kind of movie we were making. And also, I think the mistake I won’t ever make again is not being abundantly convinced that whoever is financing the movie is totally in agreement about what kind of movie this needs to be. It’s one of the pitfalls of movies in general because there has to be a very distinct vision. One that vision becomes soft; it just can’t really be a very strong piece.
What do you think about working with a big studio in Hollywood?
I’d love to do that and I wouldn’t be worried about it. Because with the right project and with taking the time, making sure that the movie I want to make and the movie the studio wants to make is the same movie – then I’d be very happy to do that. I’d be very confident that it would be amazing. I think what wouldn’t work is somehow not getting those ideas totally in sync.
What do you think right now about the effort of many women in the industry to achieve equal pay and greater exposure? Do you feel that there are still boundaries in terms of the genre of movies which a woman director can make today?
I think it’s great. Female directors can do anything. Here’s the thing: Any director will have areas where he or she is obsessed. Anything that works within that frame, he or she can do. There are definitely things that I wouldn’t say yes too.
Like a horror movie or a genre movie?
Not necessarily, I might be interested. I do pass on a number of things because if I don’t feel, deeply in my stomach, that I can make a great piece, I’m going to say no.
So what are you obsessed about?
I’m obsessed about relationships. I’m obsessed about strong characters. I’m obsessed about strong characters in various situations, compromising situations.
Would you say “The Night Manager” picks up on some current political, social crises or at least use that context as a backdrop?
I want to say that “The Night Manager” isn’t set against that background. But it’s set against a very timely background. It deals with the weapons trade. And Hugh Laurie plays someone who deals weapons. He plays a very charming man who is also the worst man in the world because he deals weapons. Tom Hiddleston is partly drawn to that world, partly wanting to take him down.
So where are you going to go from here (Goteborg)?
I’m actually traveling back to London to do the mix of that show (“The Night Manager”)!