risky business

Out of Denmark and into the 'Fire' for Bier

One month ago, Susanne Bier was in Hollywood, part of the select circle of filmmakers from abroad being feted as nominees for the best foreign-language film Academy Award. Bier's "After the Wedding" didn't capture the prize; the category boasted one of its strongest lineups in years, and the Oscar went to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others."

As for Bier, instead of returning home to Denmark to dine out on tales of her brief foray into Hollywood glitz, the director is ensconced in New York, deep into postproduction on her first English-language film, DreamWorks' drama "Things We Lost in the Fire," starring Halle Barry as a widow who begins to cope with her life with the help of her husband's best friend, played by Benicio Del Toro. Meanwhile, U.S. remakes of her previous two films are also in the pipeline: Paramount Pictures and Zach Braff are developing a remake of her 2002 film "Open Hearts," about a woman whose fiance is paralyzed in a car crash, and Sony Pictures is developing a remake of her 2004 "Brothers," about a sibling who goes off to fight in Afghanistan while his black-sheep brother looks after his family back home.

Clearly, Hollywood has taken notice of Bier. Speaking by phone from New York, where she is mixing "Fire," she attributes the industry's current infatuation with her work to the fact that "there is real interest in human-interest stories, stories where you can relate, as if this could be you or I. What I like is when people leave the cinema and they talk about the movie; they say, 'What would I have done in this given situation.' "

Bier's recent films jump off from premises that on paper read as pure soap opera. "Wedding," which IFC Films is launching March 30 in New York, begins when Jacob, a Danish aid worker in India, is summoned to Copenhagen by a wealthy industrialist interested in making a contribution to his work. But Bier takes her story, written with frequent collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen, in unexpected and deeper directions. Once in Denmark, Jacob — played by Mads Mikkelsen, who was introduced to international audiences as the villainous Le Chiffre in "Casino Royale" — learns that the industrialist (Rolf Lassgard) has an entirely different agenda as mutual secrets are revealed.

If comedies end with happy unions and tragedies end with death, then "Wedding," which concludes with a funeral, belongs in the latter category, though it still maintains a rueful hopefulness.

It also suggests that Bier is evolving as an artist. Originally, she and Jensen were known for comedies. With the dramatic "Hearts," Bier adopted the austere rules of the Dogme 95 movement even as she broke them in the process. "Wedding" demonstrates that, in pursuing the vagaries of the human heart, she is far from doctrinaire.

Moving from there to "Fire" seemed like a natural progression. "I really liked the script," she says of her first U.S. project. "I felt it was material I could relate to, and I could make a personal movie where I wouldn't feel like I wasn't compromising my artistic integrity."

Adapting to American production methods didn't throw her either. "It wasn't actually all that different," she says. "Obviously, the crew was much larger, but the scale of the movie and the scale of the story line was a scale that I was pretty familiar with. My work as a director is pretty much the same: I need to make scenes work, I need to make the characters come alive, I need to make sure the story is being told in an intense, truthful manner."
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