Rapid Round: 'Night Manager' Director Susanne Bier on Her Love of Spies and Advice For Female Filmmakers

Susan Bier - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Susan Bier - Getty - H 2016

The Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker talks about working with John le Carre and her love of 'Jason Bourne.'

Susanne Bier is joining the growing ranks of directors — like Cary Fukunaga and David Fincher — downsizing from the big to small screen. The Danish director, who is the force behind films like After the Wedding and the foreign-language Oscar winner In a Better World, took on the challenge of helming six hours of the television drama for The Night Manager.

Based on a John le Carre novel of the same name, the AMC series stars Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, a war veteran whose life as a luxury hotel night manager is upset when he's asked to spy on billionaire international arms dealer Richard Roper, played by Hugh Laurie. 

The series has racked up an impressive twelve Emmy nominations, including noms for Hiddleston and Laurie, as well as for Bier for Outstanding Directing For A Limited Series. She talked to The Hollywood Reporter about making the move from the big to small screen, her love of Jason Bourne and her advice to any young, female filmmakers.

How did you initially get involved in The Night Manager?

I have always been crazy about John le Carré, and I have always been a little bit envious of people who got to touch his material. So when my agents mentioned that there was [The Night Manager] and it wasn’t completely written yet but there was a version of the first episode, I was like “give it to me!” When I did read it, I found it very compelling and I had been so intrigued by the cat-and-mouse game between Jonathan Pine and Richard Roper. I was like I absolutely want do this. I had no doubt at any point about it.

What do you think sets apart a John le Carré spy title from the rest of the genre?

They are spy thrillers, but they are also psychological. You have this story moving forward and its so exciting and thrilling, yet its filled with interesting and flawed and complex characters. That combination is certainly irresistible to me and, luckily, it's irresistible to a whole lot of human beings.

Was le Carré involved in the production process at all?

He was. He was very modest and would say he had nothing to do [with it] but he did. We were all extremely conscious of not wanting to disappoint him and to honor the book, so I had a lot of questions I had a lot of concrete questions for him. It had to do with the characters, but it also had to do with sort of bits of information that I couldn’t really get anywhere else. There was a time where we asked him about a scene, you know he offered to write an exchange and some dialog, which would sort of illustrate his explanation. He's also got a cameo in episode four, and I want to say that he was very charming and very patient.

Did having the author around change the on-set dynamic?

He was only there for a day but it was fun. We had a lot of extras on set that day and you have John le Carré sitting in the midst of it all. There is a sense that everybody is quiet honored and quiet happy that he’s around.

How did you achieve the onscreen dynamic between stars Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie?

I rehearse every morning with the actors on set, on our own, before the crew comes for quiet a substantial part of time. Every single day for one or two hours, we are the owners of the set. We go over all the scenes and we rehearse them and we take away dialog and add dialog, but we usually come go back to the dialog that was originally there. It creates a type of confidence within the cast. It adds time to the actors' day and it's very gracious of the actors to add that time, but what it gives to all of us is a very very strong sense of knowing what we’re doing all day and also a sense of liberty. When we actually shoot the scenes, we play with it, and we have fun with it because we added that extra element.

Were you ever hesitant about entering into the world of television?

You know, I watch so much television at the moment and there’s so much great television writing. And, I think that for a director having six hours to tell a story as opposed to two hours is incredibly satisfying and intriguing and challenging in a very thrilling way. What attracted me was the idea of doing the entire series. It was very important for me to use my cinema experience in television. At this point in time, audiences want a visual experience. Fifteen years ago, or even ten years ago, one could get away with amazing dialog, but today you can’t get away with [just] that because the contemporary audience is so smart. [The show] needs to be fulfilling in the way it's directed. The sound and the music and the imagery -- it all has to be vivid. I think television today needs to be a cinematic experience, funnily enough.

Are there any TV shows that you think embody this cinematic experience?

It is about creating a world. What is so wonderful as a viewer is that you are in this world for many hours which is why binge watching is so satisfying. Game of Thrones is a perfect example. It is a world — or a number of worlds — that are very seductive. I personally love Transparent and Veep and the first season of True Detective.  

What are you working on next?

I am reading lots of stuff and trying to decide. It's not an issue of film or TV but if it's the right story or the right script or project.

Will you continue working in the spy genre?

I am definitely not finished with spies. The things about spies is that one of the most exciting things in film or TV drama is secrets, and who has more secrets than spies? If I read a more action-like thing I would be intrigued by that.

Like a James Bond or Jason Bourne.

I love watching particularly both those. I would love to do both of those movies.

What is the best advice you have gotten about working in film?

Always be the first on set. It's really simple and not very profound but it works.

What advice would you give young, female filmmakers?

I think that having a life is hugely important in terms of storytelling. If, in particular, I can advise women I would say do not feel that you are not allowed to have a life. Do not feel that you cannot have kids. Do not feel like you have to make huge choices that when you get older and look back, you might regret them. I don't think I could have ever made the movies or the work I am doing without having had kids.

What upcoming film release are you most looking forward to?

I am really looking forward to the next Bourne. Do you know when you get a feeling that something is going to be good? I just feel it is going to be great. I have no idea why.