Emotions In a Furnace?  Susanne Bier's Passionate And Powerful "Fire" Comes To America

Susanne Bier, director of "Things We Lost In The Fire", with one of its producers, Sam Mendes, Oscar-winning director of "American Beauty".  Ms. Bier's new film opened last week across the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Doane Gregory/Dreamworks)

By Omar P.L. Moore

The Popcorn Reel

October 23, 2007

San Francisco

Susanne Bier has finally arrived here from New York, or Chicago, or from whichever destination caused her to be late -- her plane was severely delayed.  She is in good spirits however, upon her arrival to one of the suites here at the Ritz Carlton, where she is relaxed and eager to talk about her new film "Things We Lost In The Fire", which incidentally is her first in the English language -- and her first foray with Hollywood studios.  The Danish director of films such as "Brothers" (Breothe) and last year's "After The Wedding", the Academy Award-nominated Best Foreign Language film, says that she found it remarkably easy to deal with Dreamworks, Paramount's sister company, the studio which distributes the film in North America.  "Dreamworks asked lots of, loads of questions, but they were totally supportive all the time.  And the questions were there in order to either make sure that I was certain about what I was doing, or 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," said Bier.  "There might be other movies where the exchange becomes unhealthy.  In my case it wasn't."

For one of the characters in "Things We Lost In The Fire", a powerful story about loss, hope, despair and redemption among family and friends, there is an unhealthy situation: drug addiction.  Jerry Sunborne (Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro) has a heroin habit that has him under its deep control.  A lawyer, he is the childhood friend of Brian Burke (David Duchovny) and has earned the ire of Audrey Burke (Halle Berry).  There is much more going on in Ms. Bier's film though, and her use of two Oscar-winning actors whose characters have a delicate, uneasy chemistry for the purposes of the story, which is written and executive produced by Allan Loeb, and produced by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (and Sam Mercer), works well for the film.  "Fire" also stars character actor John Carroll Lynch, Omar Benson Miller, Paula Newsome and Alison Lohman, who has a key role in the film.

Ms. Bier, who has an easy smile and a polite, assured manner, mentions that the European Film Awards can be counted on to have "loads and loads of speeches where people talk about how great European films are and how bad American films are -- which is pathetic," Bier says at one point.  The director had no difficulty transitioning from working with European actors to American actors, noting only that the crew on a film set is much larger in Hollywood films than it is on the films that she has done in the past, with the budgets also being more substantial in the United States.

You Can Count On Me: Halle Berry as Audrey and Benicio Del Toro as Jerry, in "Things We Lost In The Fire", directed by Susanne Bier.  (Photo: Doane Gregory/Dreamworks)

Working with actors, Bier says, is "the most essential part of the storytelling."  Of her Academy Award-winning lead Halle Berry, the director says that, "Halle was incredibly dedicated.  She was very creative . . . very concerned that it all be honest.  She's very, very courageous.  There's nothing vain about her."  Ms. Berry, a child of an interracial marriage, plays Audrey Burke, a woman living in the Pacific Northwest.  Brian Burke (David Duchovny) is her husband, and together they have two adorable children (played by Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry).  The relationship between them is played strictly as it lays.  Where most other filmmakers would devise a story that centered around the differing racial backgrounds of the Burkes, almost as if to justify their existence together in a racially-conscious, racially-tense America, Ms. Bier resisted this type of storytelling device from day one.  "Firstly I told her, 'I'm not going to address the fact that you are black.'"  Ms. Berry herself brought up the angle and important issue of race where her character and Mr. Duchovny's were concerned, to the director.  "She came in asking, 'what do you think of a black . . .' -- I said, 'I'm not gonna address it.  It's not relevant to this story.  If we need to address it every time we're just 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.'  And that was the first thing I said to her.  And, secondly, 'you're not going to wear any makeup.'"  Berry said "fine", to the director's request.  "She is incredibly beautiful, but she's not vain, which is very interesting . . . in a way it's very important for an actor because it means that you don't do things in order to protect Halle Berry from Audrey.  You are totally capable of being Audrey all the time," said Bier.

Halle Berry is Audrey all the time, and she delivers a nuanced performance as a mother who has to pick up the pieces and grapple with Jerry's presence in a number of ways after suddenly becoming a widow.  Playing a character less sympathetic perhaps than her character in "Monster's Ball", Berry gives Audrey several shades, and is intricately interesting to watch.  Mr. Del Toro is intense and vulnerable as Jerry, and is likely to be named as an Academy Award nominee come January.  He puts a lot of charisma into Jerry, even if the character is not the most likable person onscreen.  Watching the two performers grapple with the other's existence in the wake of one's death is very intriguing.  Ms. Bier's visual trademarks -- close ups of an eye, or a part of a mouth -- define the emotional textures and moments that her characters are feeling, and this method has been effective in conveying mood and feeling in all of her films.

Susanne Bier talks about kids and makes an analogy to film -- she said she has known of some European films where people on the set aren't asking each other or the director questions about the film shoot.  "If my daughter's going to go out in the winter with summer clothes, I'm going to question it.  At some point, I'm going to assume if the conversation goes on long enough if she can't convince me, she will probably put on some warm clothes.  And I think that exchange (questioning things) is pretty valuable."  The Danish director works with kids in "Fire", and she talks about working with Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry, the young kids who play the children of Berry's and Duchovny's onscreen incarnations.  "They're fantastic.  I thought they were really cute.  And they're not like film kids.  They're not like, overtly ambitious, and their parents are not overtly ambitious, which is even better.  I don't like parents pushing kids.  I don't think kids should have too many responsibilities," Bier said.  "I'm not going to push kids into working long hours, and I can't" said the director, citing American child labor laws.  "I don't think that (Alexis and Micah) left the movie feeling pressurized." 

Still, Bier did not shield Alexis and Micah from the more harsh aspects of the film's story, and they are both integral to it.  "There's no way I could have them play in the movie and be overtly protected.  They had to understand things.  And they were very sensible."

Of all of her actors on "Things We Lost In The Fire", the director said that "we had fun".  The film contains tough situations and Ms. Bier acknowledges this.  "The film does deal with sad things, but I don't think it's depressing.  I actually think it has a lot of hope in it."

"Things We Lost In The Fire" opened on October 19 and is playing in numerous cities across the U.S. and Canada and will expand its release in the coming weeks.

Read The Popcorn Reel Review of  "Things We Lost In The Fire"

Susanne Bier at the Academy Awards Foreign Language Film nominees symposium at Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, California, on February 24, 2007.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore)

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