If you were looking for a demonstration of how skillful execution can elevate a cliché pitch into a strong film, you couldn't do much better than Things We Lost in the Fire, Danish director Susanne Bier's American debut. Things We Lost in the Fire follows Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) a wife and mother whose world changes when her husband Brian (David Duchovny) is slain in a random moment of brutal violence. In her grief -- and desperate to maintain a sense of connection to her dead husband -- she reaches out to Brian's life-long fallen friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a recovering heroin addict. She offers him a place to stay; the better question is, what does Jerry offer Audrey?
Bier's 2006 After the Wedding was an Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Film; her 2004 release Brothers followed two siblings -- one as he adapted to life outside of prison and the other as he dealt with his military posting in Afghanistan. (A remake of Brothers, slated to star Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman, was recently announced.) Cinematical spoke with Biers in San Francisco about working with her acclaimed cast, adapting to working with American crews and studios, child actors, shooting people you like, and more as part of a roundtable interview; Cinematical's questions are indicated.
Cinematical: Watching Things We Lost in the Fire, I felt a strong sense of thematic parallelism with Brothers -- these two separate films, but at the same time they're about these families remaking themselves in the light of tragedy. Was that something that you consciously thought of when you read the script for Things We Lost in the Fire, something you wanted to explore again?
Susanne Bier: Actually, I read the script and I thought '"Ooh, there are some parallels to Bothers: Do I want to do that?" And then I kind of felt that ... firstly, in Brothers, I kind of felt the female part was slightly unexplored; I mean, she could have been the main character, but that was not the story in Brothers. And I all the time had the feeling that there was another kind of story to tell, about her. And suddenly, I had a script, where this story was told, and I felt it was really compelling. And secondly, I've never ever dealt with a drug addict (in film) and I don't have any personal experience with that, and I'm not an addictive personality; I don't really have a sense of it, But I was really fascinated by it. And part of moviemaking is also sort of stirring up your own curiosity; at least, it is for me. I have to be really curious about stuff, and really kind of fascinated by it. And I was really fascinated by the notion of these two highly unlikely people who were going to somewhat save each other; this very unconventional love story. So even if there were parallels, there were a lot more things that weren't the same, and that really drew me to (Things We Lost in the Fire).
There was a time earlier this year at the Academy Awards -- actually a panel discussion on Foreign Film the day before the Academy Awards -- and I just had to ask you about this. There was a debate you had with Florian von Donnersmarck, the director of The Lives of Others, about subtitles. And in this film -- in all of your films -- there is something that you do with close-ups of people. That, to me, seems like there's an emotional subtitle or an emotional subtext in those shots, without words, without descriptions. That's something you've cultivated in all your films; what is the genesis behind that in this film? Is it emotion, is it feeling?
SB: It's a really interesting thing, because I've just been doing it intuitively -- because I've been wanting that shot, because I've been longing to look into the eye or look at details; I've always been fascinated by these kind of ... If I'm sitting on a bus, I will watch people in detail; I'll watch what they're doing with their feet, and I'll kind of make up stories from those details ... so it's always been a kind of obsession of mine. And I guess it does a strange thing; it sort of, in a weird way, alienates you from the spirit of the person for a split second. But it takes you very deep into their emotional state of mind. Because you don't see the face anymore; you only see an abstract image of an eye, or of what could be an eye, or could be a part of a mouth or a hand or a tea cup; then it's like a wide shot, like a landscape. And you only sense the emotion at that point; you don't sense the physical features anymore. And that's why I like it. I think it's very strong in depicting how these people are feeling.
Benicio Del Toro's really outstanding in this film; Halle Berry's performance is different, and there's a lot more complexity there than one might think when they're first looking at her performance. And she's done work where sometimes there's a lot of nuance, particularly in Monster's Ball. How did you channel her performance? Because you hadn't worked with American actors before -- so what was it like dealing with her or any of the other American actors?
SB: I think as a director, your work with actors. And I won't say they're all similar; they're all very different. But obviously, that piece of the job is very much. ... I mean, I see myself as a storyteller. And communication with the actors is so much part of the storytelling; in a way, it's the most essential part of the storytelling. And Halle was incredibly dedicated; she was very creative, she was very concerned that it all be honest. She's very, very courageous. I mean, there's nothing vain about her. I told her when we first met, I said "First of all, I'm not going to address the fact you're Black ..." She came in asking "What do you think of a Black ..." and I said "I'm not going to address it. It's not relevant for this story. If we need to address it every time, we're never going to move forward. I'm not going to make up some odd side-story about 'They met at a concert ...', whatever stupid story. So I'm not going to address that." That was the first thing I said. "And secondly," I said, "you're not going to wear any make-up." And she said "Fine." And she doesn't. And she is incredibly beautiful, even at four o'clock in the morning, she's incredibly beautiful. But she's not vain. Which is very interesting And which, in a way, is very important for a actors, because it means you're not doing things to protect Halle Berry from Audrey (Berry's character in the film); you are totally capable of being Audrey all the time.
Cinematical: We just had a question about the differences in working with American actors; I'm curious about the differences between working with American -- as opposed to European -- production staff and technical staff and film even the studio; was that a significantly different experience, or did you feel like you were able to adapt to working with American crews and staff and studio executives with relative ease?
SB: I must say I was incredibly impressed with the crew; in Denmark, we have crews of 30 people. Sometimes, we have a larger crew -- between 30 and 50 people. And at times, if it's a larger crew, it always slows things down, because they're not used to working in a larger group. And here, we had a 150-person crew. And it was so flexible, so efficient; I was very impressed by that. I've grown up with European prejudices about American studios; if you go the European Film Academy, where they give out the European Film Award, half the speeches are going to be about how fantastic European movies are and how horrible American movies are. And apart from its being pathetic, because it's not true, it's ridiculous. And in the studio system, they ask lots of questions. And Dreamworks asked lots and lots of questions, but they were totally supportive all the time. And the questions were there to either make sure that I was certain about what I was doing, or to say 'Actually, there might be a different solution. ...' And I like that. I like that exchange. I think it's a very creative and very important exchange, because as a director you have to be able to convince somebody; if it's not a studio executive, at some point you have to convince an actor, or a DP, or a set designer. So the whole sort of exchange, for me, is very healthy. There might be other movies where the exchange becomes unhealthy; in my case, it wasn't. And with European films ... there's a number of really, really bad films being made because nobody ever asks the director any questions. "This did not have to have that shape; this could have been much better if somebody ..." It's kind of like with kids. If my daughter's going to go out in the winter with summer clothes, I'm gonna question it. And at some point, I assume, if the conversation goes on long enough, if I can convince her, she will put on some warm clothes. And I think that sort of exchange is pretty valid.
You have two wonderful child actors for the film (Micah Nicolas Berry and Harper Burke); what challenges did you face, if at all, having them on-set and directing them and dealing with Hollywood's rules regarding child performers?
SB: They're fantastic; I thought they were really cute. And they're not like film kids; they're not overly ambitious, their parents aren't overly ambitious, which is even better -- which I don't like. I don't like parents pushing kids. I think kids shouldn't have too many responsibilities. And these kids played, and they came and did what they did. The rules make it a bit -- I guess the rules are just in order to protect these kids, and I guess that's pretty sensible. It gets complicated, and it was pretty unexpected for me, because I had worked with kids before and I kinda felt (like) "Look, I'm very sensible with these things; I'm not going to push kids into working long hours ..." because you can't. Because if they fall asleep, they fall asleep. You just can't do that with kids. And so I was kind of "Oh, do we have to do that (follow the rules)?" And the rules are fairly strict, but it was okay; it worked fairly well. And I don't think they left this movie feeling pressurized, in spite of ... I didn't protect them, because it's a sad film; it's a movie where their 'father' dies, which is probably a frightening thing for small kids to think about. But I didn't feel I could have them play in the movie and be overtly protective; they had to understand things, and they did, and they were very sensible.
Cinematical: This is kind of a cavalier question, but, when you cast David Duchovny and met him and worked with him did you think "Boy, it's a shame I've gotta shoot this guy ..."?
SB: Yes! I did. But it was fun, because we shot with him the first part of the shoot -- he had to go do something afterwards -- and I got these reports from the studio where they'd been watching dailies and they would say "Yeah, it's fine, it's fine, it's fine ... and David Duchovny, he's so sexy. ..."
Cinematical: Would you be ready, willing and eager to work with any of your three lead actors -- Berry, Del Toro, Duchovny -- again?
SB: Anytime. Anytime. All of them. We had fun.
Cinematical: Which is strange, because it's such a depressing film.
SB: I don't think it's so depressing; I think it has a lot of hope in it. And yeah, it does deal with sad things, but I don't think it's depressing.