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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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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