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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.