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Susanne Bier Considers “A Better World”

Susanne Bier Considers “A Better World” (photo)

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In recent days, many people have thrown around the word “accessible” in writing about Susanne Bier’s work, a description that has no doubt has led to Hollywood interest in remaking at least two of the Danish filmmaker’s previous films including the already-produced Jim Sheridan take on “Brothers.” For some, it’s been a compliment and others, a curse – Bier deals in direct terms with her audience and while she tells stories that are easy to digest, it’s because they’re undeniably about the human condition.

Bier’s win for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscar for “In a Better World” was yet another confirmation that she’s working on a global stage, yet it’s long been evident from her films that it’s been a goal to cut across borders. In her latest film, she achieves the near-impossible with a parable about violence that spans from the small scale of schoolyard bullying in her native Denmark to the large scale genocide in Sudan, bridged by the story of a doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) who serves a refugee camp while his son (Markus Rygaard) must defend himself with the help of a new friend (William Jøhnk Nielsen) in the former, and in both cases, she’s quick to identify evil in the form of a debilitated warlord named Big Man and a blond teen terror named Sofus. As I wrote back when I saw at the Toronto Film Festival, “Whatever lack of sophistication exists for the aggressors in the film is reserved for the conversation that Bier and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen would like to inspire about violence begetting violence and where the line should be drawn.”

Not surprisingly, Bier is equally engaging, if not more so when you speak to her in person, which I did a week before she collected her first Academy Award, discussing the difficulty of staging such continent-skipping films on small budgets, her pre-film school days at the Architectural Association in London, and why she likes to be a rule-abiding filmmaker.

What I was so impressed by is how you were able to capture a spectrum of violence with the two parallel stories – during the writing of the script, did one side emerge out of the other?

We came up with the themes at the same time. It’s always really difficult to say how you develop an idea, but [Anders Thomas Jensen] had written some scenes where some boys were being interrogated by the police. I really liked those scenes and at the same time, we had been discussing about how fragile the Danish ideal really is, and also the whole notion we live in a very privileged society, very safe in Northern Europe. We always tend to think the enemy always comes from the outside. The threat is always something alien, something exotic, something foreign. What if the threat is really from within and what kind of story would that be? So we had those more theoretical discussions and he wrote those scenes and they are not actually in the movie, but they were very inspiring in terms of the development of the story.

04012011_InaBetterWorld1.jpgYou walk a fine line here of making a film about violence without glorifying it, but is it much of a consideration is it that at some points in the film it’s a release for the audience?

The thing is you don’t want to glorify it, but on the other hand, you also don’t want to soften it. It’s always that dangerous thing that you deal with — you deal with a certain fascination and yet you don’t want to glorify something. I definitely don’t think the movie glorifies violence. Quite the opposite. But I think it understands the urge of violence at certain cases. When the doctor finally gives in and feels in his heart he can’t defend Big Man anymore, that’s a very violent moment, but it doesn’t glorify it. There’s a sense of relief, but there’s a sense of relief of getting rid of this guy who’s just going to go out and do more atrocities. I think it’s about understanding that even if you don’t really believe in violence and even if you don’t believe in revenge, you can also not accept anything. There are certain things you cannot accept. There are certain things that human beings cannot tolerate.

Your last three Danish films have all involved people relating their experiences overseas to the ones they have at home. Has there been something particularly appealing about that theme or is it coincidence?

I think there is an understanding that the bigger world is part of our world where we can’t just exclude ourselves from the rest of the world anymore. But also I think there’s this whole theme of how difficult it is, which my last movies have dealt with, in contemporary society to be a decent human being. That whole thing of wanting to do the right thing and actually wanting to help people and yet having issues at home and possibly being a flawed human being is to me very essential and interesting.

It was so interesting to learn then that you initially studied architecture, which is an art that seems as removed from dealing with human nature as one can get. However, did your education there inform your film work?

I think there are similarities, which have to do with both fields being in between art and craft in a way. There is a certain craftsmanship that you need to understand in order to make movies and also there is a certain technical thing you need to understand, which is the same for architecture. Also, I think as a director, your main thing is you have to understand the entire movie, even if while you shoot it or while you edit it, it’s very fragmented. You have to stay with the image of the entire story or the entire development and that ability to see something from above, which you also do as an architect, is where those two things play into each other.

04012011_InaBetterWorld4.jpgThat kind of foresight must come in handy – I heard you only had five days in Africa, which seems insane to me since it takes up such a significant portion of the film.

It is insane. [laughs] Here’s the thing, it doesn’t seem insane to you, it was insane and I can only say that I’m grateful that we actually succeeded and I would not do it as insanely another time because it was kind of crazy.

Since you’re working on a fairly limited budget, do you have a lot of time to scout the locations or is it purely instinctual?

No, usually my [director of photography] does a lot of scouting and the set designer. I don’t do that much scouting. Being economical in terms of filmmaking isn’t just about not spending a lot of money. It’s also about being accurate. And accuracy is extremely important. It’s a little bit like wanting to take a self-portrait and you can go and do 500 of them and probably not one of them is great, but you can go for the right one. I think being economical is going for that one right moment. So in Africa or India [where “After the Wedding” was partially filmed] or anywhere else, when you don’t have a lot of money, you’re forced to be economical and you’re forced to be accurate and I think it’s pretty healthy.

This film marks a return to Denmark after your first American production “Things We Lost in the Fire,” which while being a modest film for a studio was still a larger budget than you’re used to having. Were there things you took away from that experience?

04012011_InaBetterWorld2.jpgI did learn a lot from “Things We Lost in the Fire,” but I’ve learned different things from different films. The main thing as a director, you always want to have a bit of a worry about the material you’re going to get yourself into. You want to be a bit scared of it so that you have that excitement of having to climb the mountain. With this particular movie, I was scared of having two boys playing very important parts – two completely inexperienced first-timers – and I was also worried about dealing with these big themes because you can really end up falling flat if you do that. But I think that worry is incredibly stimulating because it forces you to not be arrogant with your material.

You’ve said before you approached this as a thriller. Is it really helpful to you to have a particular genre in mind, even if that’s not what the film turns out as?

It is. I quite like rules and I don’t necessarily pronounce the rules, and I can’t say what the rules are here, but I did think about it as a thriller throughout, even before shooting. I know it’s not a thriller, but it has elements — people come out of the movie and saying they were sitting on the edge of a chair watching the film and that’s exactly what you do watching a thriller. So I guess having that in the back of my mind somehow helped what could’ve been a much more slow, dramatic story to become something which is essentially exciting yet substantial.

“In a Better World” opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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