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SXSW: Capone chats with Susanne Bier, director of the Oscar-winning Danish film IN A BETTER WORLD!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

Director Susanne Bier has been making film in her native Denmark since the early 1990s, but for those of us that passionately follow Danish filmmaking since "discovering" it as a result of the Dogme 95 minimalist movement, it was her 2002 work OPEN HEARTS (starring Mads Mikkelsen and written by her frequent creative partner Anders Thomas Jensen) that opened us up to her talents. She followed that film up with BROTHERS in 2004 (the film was remade a couple years back, starring Tobie Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman) and AFTER THE WEDDING, also with Mikkelsen. Her first American production was the 2007 drama THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE, and it would appear that she's on the verge of making yet another English-language production soon.

However, the film that brought us together last month at the SXSW Film Festival was her most recent work IN A BETTER WORLD (original title Hævnen), which just won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This interview was set up before the win, and conducted just after it, so it was a rare treat to be able congratulate a winner so fresh from her victory.

Like many of her movies, IN A BETTER WORLD is about a fractured family. In this case, the families are those of two young boys who have just become friends. One belongs to Christian, whose mother has recently died and whose father relocated the two of them to a new city. The other family is that of Elias, a timid kid who gets bullied quite a bit at school. His father is a doctor who frequently goes to war-torn area of Africa to give medical assistance, while his mother sits at home lonely. His parents are on the verge of divorce, and it's extremely upsetting to Elias. The boys conspire to end the bullying and find a way of being respected by standing up for themselves in sometimes-violent ways. It's a shocking and deeply poignant work, and Bier has outdone herself in many ways.

Getting a chance to speak with Bier was a real honor. She loves to challenge those that interview her and interpret her works, but really I think she just loves to converse and make those who take in her work think. IN A BETTER WORLD is beginning to make its way around the nation's art houses, and you should see it immediately. We talk both about the movie and the importance to her and Denmark that an Oscar brings. Enjoy Susanne Bier…

Capone: First of all, congratulations on the good year or good last couple of months.

Susanne Bier: Yeah, wonderful actually.

Capone: About as good as it could go, I think it’s fair to say. I’ve been a huge admirer of your work, and I've really made an effort to see every film from Denmark that makes it my way. They never seem to disappoint.

SB: You have?

Capone: Yeah. I’ll admit I discovered it through the Dogme movement. That’s kind of what got me started and that’s probably the first film of yours that I saw, your Dogme entry, OPEN HEARTS.

SB: Yeah.

Capone: Yeah, so that’s kind of where it started and I started seeing this pool of great actors, directors and writers working together.

SB: Ah, good. I know you're doing the interviewing, but it just makes me curious, what do you think the state of Danish movies are at the moment?

Capone: It seems like a huge industry, and I love that film seems like such an integral part of the culture. I couldn’t talk about it in terms of financial successes, but I mean I love just about everything I see from there. Granted we are probably not getting everything, but it seems like every year I’m seeing 8 to 10 films either on DVD or that actually get released and I think they're great. I love that it seems like this very tight-knit group work together and exchange and I love that I’ve gotten to know some of these actors and seen some of the actors that you have used in other English language things. You’ve worked with Mads Mikkelsen a few times, and I love that he has now sort of broken out into this internationally famous actor. It feels like a big industry, which is funny, because not a lot of people in the world even speak the language. Let’s talk about that, am I imagining that? It does feel like it’s this community…

SB: Well, the reason why I’m asking you is that I don’t know whether it’s still like that, because, yeah of course, we all know each other and we are all friendly or many of us are friendly and some are more friendly with others, but I just wondered from the outside whether it still seems it, because after Dogme there was like a clear sort of a collaborative effort. There was like a slate of films that had sort of relationships with one another. I don’t know whether it still feels like that.

Capone: It’s not quite like that, but it still does feel like that. It sort of started there--even though it didn’t really start there, but in my mind it started there--and then I still see those same people, all of the artists, still making films. And when I see a familiar name or face, I say, “That’s the person from that Dogme film and that’s the person from that one and that’s the one that wrote that.” So are you saying now maybe it’s not as much?

SB: I don’t know, but I know that there’s not that kind of… I know that Dogme was a very particular thing, and there hasn’t been a thing which has brought everybody together in the same way.

Capone: I can see that, but there hardly ever is in film. There is hardly ever a movement like that that was so concentrated.

SB: No, you're right, and there hardly ever is like a strong collaboration and not just because of competition, but also probably just because everybody is just so concerned with their own projects that once they are finished, then they start another one. But we do invite each other, I mean, I do invite my colleagues, when I edit, I do invite a number of my colleagues to come and see the movie and comment on it and I’m also happy to go to screenings and have comments.

Capone: I was obsessive about the Dogme films. I would go and track all of the films down and go find the… What do you call them, confessions? Where you had to say which rules of Dogme you broke. I loved looking for that stuff; I thought it was great. In terms of your films since OPEN HEARTS, you seem to love these very dysfunctional family dynamics in a lot of your films.

SB: Do you think they are very dysfunctional?

Capone: I think they start out that way, yeah. I think when we meet them they feel out of joint. They are not conventional, certainly.

SB: They are definitely not conventional, but does unconventional necessarily equal dysfunctional?

Capone: It doesn’t necessarily, but in a lot of your films it does, I think so. I really feel like somehow the family dynamic is broken, and then a lot of the films are spent, including this one, trying to sort of pull it back together. Is that something you agree with?

SB: In this one, it’s definitely a fair statement, yes.

Capone: What is it about the family dynamic in general that you seem drawn to make films about?

SB: In general, I have always been kind of not just fascinated by families. I think it’s our identity. A lot of people in Scandanavia don’t want to deal with their family, and many people for example, like many adults don’t talk to their parents or their siblings, and even that defines them. I think we are defined by our family in a strange way and I think I’ve always been fascinated by that, and I think also in a way being Jewish almost plays into the family thing that I’m very close to my own family--both to my immediate family, but even to my extended family and I’ve always been. I think that that’s why it’s sort of a natural setting, but [her frequent collaborator and writer of IN A BETTER WORLD] Anders Thomas Jensen who a few years ago one would never have thought of as a family man is even more obsessed with family.

Capone: I guess since you work with him so often that that’s really a product of his writing more than anything, yeah. Then in this film specifically there is the idea of danger and the more overt kinds of danger that we see in those scenes in Africa, and then there are the places we are not always looking for danger, which are these children building bombs and beating people up. I was really kind of rattled by that idea that we are so focused on terrorism that we are kind of ignoring what’s going on in out own neighborhood.

SB: Yes, that was actually in a way the notion of the film. Okay, let’s just for a second see how easy it is for us to educate a little terrorist, and I’m not talking about he access to the internet. I’m not talking about it in that superficial way, I’m talking about we can sort of imagine a little terrorist through a lack of love in a strange way or at least a lack of feeling loved. Not feeling loved and being very angry and very hurt and very upset and therefore wanting to react and therefore wanting to take revenge on the world.

Capone: I want to talk about those child actors that you used. Was it difficult finding kids that were cute and scary at the same time? Did you have trouble with the parents letting their kids even do some of the things that these kids do in the film?

SB: No, the thing is I wouldn’t venture in without being completely open with the parents, with the kids having read the script, having the parents read the script. So there’s no doubt; they knew. These kids are 12, and the thing is that one tends to underestimate kids’ own understanding of the world and kids’ fascination with the world with whatever is dark. Think about it, fairy tales are so dark and so severe, because kids have it all in them. I think the way you do it is to do it and to do it honestly. You address the dark issues, but you make sure that you give enough comfort. You can’t act those parts without understanding them.

Capone: Especially the actor that plays Christian, I wanted to know did he have to ask you, “Why is he doing this? Why is he reacting this way?” or did he get it?

SB: He is a very well-behaved kid and it was hard for him to scream at his father and hit his father and do all of these things, because if you are a well-behaved kid, that’s not what you do. You talk nicely to your father, and he really had to be provoked, but once he understood it and once he understood that when the director says, “Cut,” “It’s over and I can be my own well-behaved self again and I am not Christian, I’m playing Christian.” Once he understood that, he really threw himself at it, and it was amazing.

Capone: I had anticipated a much darker fate for some of the characters and one of the things that I took away was our capacity for destruction and violence is hopefully evenly matched with our capacity for compassion and forgiveness.

SB: I think it’s not evenly matched. I actually think that the forgiveness and compassion is stronger.

Capone: It has to be a little bit stronger in the case of this film, yes. Was there ever a temptation to let it get really dark and grim?

SB: The thing is I don’t see the world that way. I know that the world is full of horrors, but I don’t see the world and I don’t see human beings as being hopeless, and therefore I could never make a movie that suggested that. I actually allow myself to be a fairly optimistic person and I believe that there is hope, that there is some sort of kindness to be found, and I’m much more interested in that and I’m much more obsessed with that. I think I wanted to address all of the fear, not just for my sake, but also for the audience I wanted to address whatever is in the back of our mind, which I think is really important and I think movies should do that, but I also want to suggest that there is hope.

Capone: It’s not that I get that many chances to talk to someone who is right off the Oscar adventure. What was that like for you? I guess it kind of started with the Golden Globes and then kind of ended with the Oscars.

SB: It’s like a dream. [laughs] I still haven’t quite gotten over it yet.

Capone: I thought you'd have your statue right here with you.

SB: I have it with me. I’ll go get it.

Capone: I want to see it.

SB: It’s quite amazing, like traveling with that in your carry on, and you go through security and they go “What?” Even when I went to Britain where everyone is so and well behaved, they went crazy at security. It’s fascinating and it’s really huge. It’s been a huge thing in Denmark.

Capone: I was going to ask you what does it mean to the people of Denmark.

SB: I don’t think any of your guys realize, for a small country with 5 million people, how big it is to win a prize like that.

Capone: Yeah?

SB: And it’s a movie which has been seen by almost 10 percent of all Danes, so there was already like a real investment in the country for the film, and everybody has taken an almost personal pride and responsibility for the film.

Capone: That’s great.

SB: Yeah, it’s great. It's wonderful

Capone: You’ve had a film nominated for an Oscar before before, but on this particular trip, were other directors or actors that you got to meet while you were in California?

SB: You know, the thing is you sit in that room at the Golden Globes and everybody whom you have at some point in your life or your career have admired are all sitting there. So, it’s a pretty overwhelming experience and likewise with the Oscars. It’s not really about being star stuck, it’s more about having the access. Everybody is there, and you kind of go like “All of the people that I just admire are sitting in this room.” Then when you get to go onto the stage, you're kind of a bit paralyzed.

Capone: You don’t know where to look, I bet.

SB: It’s grand. It really is grand and it’s overwhelming.

Capone: I’ve heard a couple of things about what you’ve got coming up. Can you talk about what you are actually doing next?

SB: Well, Anders Thomas Jensen has written a romantic comedy, which we have been wanting to do for ages, and every time we have been working on these other films we have kind of said, “This is going to be a comedy,” and I don’t think we have actually never done a romantic comedy, so this is completely different. It’s like a tiny little film, and then I have some American things where it’s a bit premature to talk about.

Capone: So the romantic comedy will be a film in Denmark?

SB: It’s actually going to be shot in Italy.

Capone: Okay. Then I’ve heard about WRAPPED. Is that something you are still attached to?

SB: The thing about WRAPPED is that Anders Thomas Jensen has just started writing the script for it, so I would say it’s very premature to talk about. I mean, I’m happy to talk about it once it’s there, but let’s wait for the script. There are certain stages where it’s kind of more realistic, but the cute little comedy is going to be in Danish and a little bit Italian and a little bit of English.

Capone: Okay.

SB: We're talking to Pierce Brosnon about a role.

Capone: I saw the title ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE. Is that the film ,or is that not the title?

SB: Here’s the thing, the script is called THE BALD HAIRDESSER; the reason why you see ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE is because somebody prefers that title. You in the press think that you are manipulating us. I can show you that people are always trying manipulating you. [laughs]

Capone: I‘m not trying to manipulate anybody [laughs].

SB: I don’t think you are, but people apparently have things they want to push onto this film.

Capone: Let's hope they don't succeed. I look forward to whatever it is that you are doing next. Thank you so much.

SB: Thank you.

Capone: I meant to ask you: the title of IN A BETTER WORLD is just one word in Danish.

SB: It means “Revenge.” I much prefer the English title.

Capone: For some reason, I got really curious about that. Thanks for clearing that up.

SB: Very nice to meet you.

-- Capone
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