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January 10, 2019

6 Filmmaking Tips From Susanne Bier

Danish director Susanne Bier came of age as a filmmaker in the 1990s alongside the Dogme 95 movement with peers including Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Bier explored a range of interests including art and architecture before going on to pursue film school in her early twenties, and she has never looked back, directing a wide range of critically lauded and commercially successful films that have covered every genre from romantic comedy to politically charged thriller.

Recently, Bier became the first female director to collect a Golden Globe, Oscar, and Primetime Emmy (for the 2011 film In a Better World and the 2016 limited series The Night Manager), and her latest, Bird Box, is one of the most-watched Netflix movies in the history of the streaming service. With three decades of experience under her belt, she has plenty of great filmmaking advice to share, including the six tips featured below.

Make Movies for an Audience

Bird Box was viewed by over 45 million Netflix accounts in its first week, setting a record for the streaming platform. Like many filmmakers who have recently worked with Netflix, Bier has commended the company for giving their directors creative control. However, in recent interviews, the point she consistently hits hardest regarding the appeal of Netflix from the perspective of a content creator is the huge audience one is able to reach through their streaming service.

As she told IndieWire in December 2018, “My main reason [for making a Netflix film] is that they’ve got 130 million subscribers.”  However, Bier’s emphasis on audience is far more central to her approach to filmmaking than just a motive for working with Netflix, as she explained in a lengthy interview included as a postscript in ReFocus: The Films of Susanne Bier, a book of essays on Bier’s films released in 2018: 

“There’s nothing particularly attractive in making a movie so complicated and so sophisticated that you get an audience of 10 in a select cinema. I’m not talking about everything being a major, huge studio thing, I’m just saying, recognize that part of what you’re doing as a director is actually communicating. And if you have important stories to tell, if you have an important point of view, doing it in a way where you actually address it to an audience is way more important than—and I always feel, ‘come on, festivals, don’t have 80% of the selections for the competition be completely uninteresting to an audience.’ It just doesn’t work.”

Bird Box

Susanne Bier and Sarah Paulson on the set of ‘Bird Box.’ Credit: Merrick Morton

Rules Are Your Friends

Bier rose to prominence in the 1990s along with a wave of other up-and-coming Danish auteurs and the minimalist, realistic movement known as Dogme 95. While Bier was not involved in the creation of the movement, she did follow the rules laid out in the Dogme 95 manifesto to make her 2002 film Open HeartsSpeaking with NPR in March 2011, Bier addressed this decision and her general attitude towards the value of rules in art:

“I believe in rules. I believe in artistic limitations, and I always have. I’ve always thought that setting out a set of rules before you start, and then being completely consistent with them, is the only way to make a really good film. These particular [Dogme] rules are austerity rules. They force you to deal with the storyline and the characters, and that’s it. And I thought it was a real challenge in a positive way.”

Inabetterworld Still

‘In a Better World’ (2010)

Respect Your Budget

If there’s one question that pretty much every filmmaker addresses in interviews and Q&As sooner or later, it’s “What advice would you give young filmmakers?” In this feature, we’ve featured many of these responses over the years, and while certain themes are extremely common — follow your heart, stick to your guns, etc. — Bier’s chosen advice, as addressed in her masterclass at the 2014 Zurich Film Festival, covers somewhat less traveled territory. While we have all know stories of iconic films that went hugely over budget, like Jaws and Apocalypse Now, she warns aspiring filmmakers to never, ever follow these examples:

“I have always worked on very small budgets, and it has always been hugely important for me to keep my budgets […] if I ever were to give good advice to young filmmakers, it would be to respect the budget. Because it’s just going to make your life hell afterward if you can’t — if you don’t know how to work within a budget.”

You can watch Bier’s masterclass below. The featured quote starts at the 6:10 mark, but the whole hour includes a bunch of other great moviemaking tips:

Dystopian Fictions Are Fairy Tales For Adults

If you ever find yourself underestimating the power of fairy tales, just look up Disney’s quarterly profits and that should set you straight. While Disney has a large number of grown-up fans, the target audience of the vast majority of fairy tale films is the kiddos. In a /Film interview published in December 2018, Bier noted an intriguing parallel between fairy tales and the ever-increasingly popular post-apocalyptic and dystopia-centered film, presenting a compelling explanation for not only why the genre continues to appeal, but also why it is particularly suited to cinema:

“It’s really interesting because I think that is a reason why we like those kinds of movies and why those movies are important to make. I think probably all of us are questioning what would I do in a given situation, how would I behave in a crisis? I think watching a movie like that allows us to play that game, but because it’s in a confined space of two hours, you can do it relatively freely. I think it’s like fairy tales for kids. They can be really harrowing, but I think in a way that’s also kids addressing the most dangerous thing they can think of, the scariest thing they can think of, meeting a witch on the way. I think for us, dystopian post-apocalyptic movies are a bit like that. That world that we fear is coming to the end, how am I going to behave and do I understand any characters behaving in a certain way?

Magnoliapictures

Susanne Bier on the set of ‘Serena.’ Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Films Need A Distinct Vision

So the saying goes that failure is the best teacher, and while the vast majority of Bier’s work has been critically and quite often commercially successful, she openly admits that her second English-language feature, Serena, featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, is not her best work to date. However, in line with the aforementioned traditional wisdom, Bier says she learned a valuable lesson from the experience, as she told Variety in a February 2016 interview:

“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. Once that vision becomes soft, it just can’t really be a very strong piece.”

Bird Box

Sandra Bullock and Susanne Bier on the set of ‘Bird Box.’ Credit: Merrick Morton

Commerciality And Artistry Are Not Enemies

On the subject of money and budgeting once more, Bier has some great advice regarding the attitude one ought to take towards financiers that she shared in a post she wrote for MovieMaker magazine in February 2016 as part of their “Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker” series:

“When approaching a potential financier, realize that he or she has a point of view that, despite coming mainly from a financial perspective, isn’t always wrong. Don’t underestimate this insight. Often the commercial aspects and the artistic aspects of a film are more aligned than you might think.”

The article features 12 tips total, and the other 11 are also definitely worth a look.

What We Learned

The all-male directorial categories of this year’s biggest award shows serve as a firm reminder that there’s still a long way to go as far as representation behind the camera is concerned. While seeing the rise of relative newcomers like Chloé Zhao and Greta Gerwig is exciting, there is something especially heartening about looking at women like Bier, who have gotten consistent work in the industry for several decades.

That said, to switch gears entirely, perhaps the biggest takeaway one can make looking at Susanne Bier’s career to date behind the camera is that one need not force oneself into a particular niche in order to carve out a steady, lasting career in film. While certain themes are present throughout her ouevre—complex interpersonal relationships, familial bonds—she has switched back and forth between arthouse and commercial, crowdpleasers and daring issue dramas.

Bier’s films present a coherent artistic viewpoint but also daring freedom with regards to genre and platform. She’s the sort of director who, at any point in time, could move in one of many different directions. Until she announces a project, possibilities ranging from a low-budget romantic comedy to a big budget thriller to a television series all seem equally possible, which only makes her career that much more interesting to follow.

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