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
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
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
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
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)