Susanne Bier: Queen of the luxe thriller

With exquisite touch and lavish locations, Susanne Bier is the Danish director behind some of the most sensational – and sumptuous – shows. Here she explains the appeal of undoing the elite

The HBO thriller The Undoing may be the TV show of lockdown 2.0, much as watching Tiger King or The Last Dance defined for many people the first period of evening incarceration. We are now halfway through the six episodes on Sky Atlantic, which are being released weekly, like in the old days, and – with as few spoilers as possible – there’s been a brutal murder. Who can we trust? Well, nobody. Who are the main suspects? Everybody, pretty much. The list certainly includes psychologist Grace Fraser (played by Nicole Kidman) and her oncologist husband Jonathan (a vacillating, ambiguous Hugh Grant). The other star turn comes from New York, a city endlessly depicted on screen, but shown in The Undoing at its most privileged and in all its well-heeled, plutocratic, 0.1% glory.

“The voyeuristic part of me got intrigued by access to that world, which is just inaccessible, that Upper East Side rarefied world,” explains Susanne Bier, the 60-year-old Danish director of the series. “Everybody’s been a tourist in New York and walked in Central Park and looked at those apartments and wondered what life is like. You see the well-groomed small kids in chauffeured cars with their nanny, and it makes me curious.”

Phew, I say to Bier, it’s a relief to have permission to gawp at the Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter paintings that hang on the characters’ walls or the Max Mara and Etro outfits the mothers casually wear on the school run. “I know, it’s a guilty pleasure!” she replies, laughing. “But I also think it’s a lot of fun placing a bump underneath the world” – essentially watching the self-destruction of the high and mighty – “because you actually see how the world really is.”

Bier is the first female director to win an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and an Emmy. The Oscar and the Golden Globe came for the 2010 refugee drama In a Better World; the Emmy was for The Night Manager, her 2016 John le Carré adaptation for the BBC starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki. Like The Night Manager, The Undoing manages to combine the frenzied, taut pace of a thriller with an uncompromising stylistic vision that encourages the viewer to linger on small details. Before becoming a director, Bier studied at the prestigious Architectural Association in London and then as a set designer, and it shows.

The director Susanne Bier with The Undoing’s stars Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman.
‘It appeals to my voyeuristic side:’ the director with The Undoing’s stars Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman. Photograph: HBO

While The Night Manager inspired much swooning over Debicki’s eveningwear, the attention with The Undoing has been on Kidman’s more low-key, bohemian looks. Bier worked on both series with the Danish costume designer Signe Sejlund. “We wanted Grace to feel natural among the other women, but also look different,” says Bier. “On the other hand, though, Nicole is so beautiful you could put her in a paper bag and she’ll still look stunning. It’s tricky as whatever she puts on, it looks a bit glamorous. Jeans and a shirt? Oh my God, how can you look this stunning? It’s actually annoying!”

The Undoing takes place in New York’s winter and, at least on social media, the most controversial outfit has been one of Grace’s coats. It’s double-breasted, chameleon green with a ruffled texture almost like astrakhan – and yes, a hood. There’s a strong Scottish Widows vibe. Bier and Sejlund had it made specially for the series. “We wanted it to be beautiful and majestic, but also something that I hadn’t really seen anybody wearing,” says Bier. “Maybe we should make a clothing line!”

For Bier, it doesn’t matter if you don’t notice any of these details when you watch the show: in fact, it’s definitely not ideal if you’re distracted by where you can buy a bronze-framed bed like the one in Grace’s townhouse (it’s custom-made by DLV Designs in Brooklyn). “While you watch something, there are so many impressions, and a number of them are going to be subconscious,” says Bier. “But if details are not consistent and cohesive, you don’t quite buy it. You might not be able to explain why, but you just don’t really believe it.”

The Undoing has been compared to Big Little Lies, the 2017 TV drama, though it is less frothy and sun-kissed: both shows revolve around a murder, star Kidman and are written by Ally McBeal creator David E Kelley. Both are also driven by female characters, specifically mothers. Strong, complex roles for women are, for Bier, an area in which TV is far more progressive than cinema. “Even in television, it’s still not quite up where it needs to be,” she says. “But television is so severely competitive at this point in time, it needs to be innovative. It also needs to connect to whatever is the undercurrent of anything in society. So it needs to be gender-friendly; it needs to be diversity-friendly in a much bigger way. Because otherwise, it’s just going to lose its audience.”

At the heart of The Undoing is an ultra-elite private school called Reardon, and Bier particularly enjoyed filming a scene where a committee of mothers comes together over a fancy tea to organise a fundraiser. “It’s a David Kelley classic,” she says. “He has a lot of fun writing bitchy groups of women. And I have to say, I enjoy it. I can’t say I’ve had a lot of personal experience with it, but I find it very delicious to watch and direct. Also they’re all slim. They are looking at the cakes as if it was the most dirty sex in the world.”

The Undoing cements Bier’s position as one of TV and film’s most in-demand directors – male or female. It is a rare spot, one that she has worked pretty well relentlessly for 30 years to find herself in. Bier also has the odd reminder of how unusual it is for a female director to have the freedom to pick and control her projects. “I do occasionally find myself in a meeting faced with some men who are still super male chauvinist pig, misogynistic – where you go, ‘Whoa, hey wake up! Don’t talk like that,’” she says. “But, of course, it’s way, way, way easier now than when I was younger.”

Bier grew up in Copenhagen, where she still lives, in the north of the city overlooking the Kattegat (the “cat’s throat”), the strait where the North and Baltic seas converge. Her parents were Jewish émigrés to Denmark in the 1930s, from Germany (her father) and Russia (mother). After school, Bier studied in Israel and London, but quit architecture after a couple of years, because – in short – she was more interested in people than buildings. “I’m not saying that designers and architects are not interested in human beings,” she says. “I enjoy architecture a lot, but I’m driven by the interaction between human beings. If I had to pick my favourite shot, it would probably be a closeup of someone.”

Nicole Kidman films a scene for ‘The Undoing’ wearing a long green coat
Female lead: Kidman in the coveted green coat. Photograph: Gotham/GC Images

For Stephen Garrett, the producer who approached her to direct The Night Manager (and is executive producer on The Undoing), Bier’s signature is her “emotional intelligence”. He says, “The way she uses the camera, and people talk about the close-ups of faces in general, and eyes in particular, that is her boring into the minds of her protagonists, and just getting something that is so much more compelling than most other directors would ever inspire from actors. Actors, I think, feel very exposed by her lens and that’s initially a bit scary, but once they learn to trust her, they’re thrilled to go on this journey with her.”

Not long after graduating from film school in Denmark in the late 1980s, Bier became pregnant with her son, Gabriel. “It was funny, I went to see this quite prominent producer,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s a disaster!’ And I looked at him and I was like, ‘No, it’s not going to be a disaster.’”

A few years later, in 1995, Bier had a daughter Alice, with a different father. (“And neither of their fathers are my current husband [composer Jesper Winge Leisner],” she explains.) She raised her children with the help of a nanny; most of the money she made for years went on childcare. “You can’t fulfil the world’s expectations of you as a mum, if you have a career like that and you have small children,” says Bier. “Because there’s a judgmental world around you that goes, ‘Oh, she doesn’t come to all the meetings at school…’ I remember once picking my daughter up from kindergarten and one of the teachers dragged me into the room where all the kids were – at that point my daughter had been there for almost a year – and she shouted, ‘This is Alice’s mother!’ Making a big thing out of apparently it being the first time I was ever there to pick up my own child.

“You have to not feel intimidated by people wanting to judge you because you will fall short of certain expectations, but who cares if you’re good with it, if the kids are good with it?” Bier continues. “I asked my daughter when she was 11, 12, whether she would rather have had a more conventional life and a more conventional mum. She thought about it for quite a long time and said no. Because she said, ‘I’ve had lots of interesting experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. So I would actually prefer what we did.’”

Bier is often asked to give advice to fledgling female filmmakers. Mainly, she thinks they need to trust their vision and know they are just as talented as – and are probably better than – their male counterparts. “I’ve sat at numerous panels at film school with a lot of self-assured guys in leather jackets and sunglasses who knew how to talk about films as if they were small masterpieces,” she says. “Then, after the panel I’ve gone into the cinema, and looked at the things they were doing, and it was really crap. I’ve come to a point of having less patience with this self-confident bullshit.”

There is an unflinching directness to Bier, both in person and in her work. But even though her films and TV series can go to some dark places, they often finish with an optimistic twist. “I don’t know why, I don’t have any desire to leave the audiences with a closed door and no hope,” says Bier. “It doesn’t mean it needs to be a sentimental, happy ending at all, but I do want to feel that at the end, yeah, we can pave the road, but there will be grass growing up through the pavement at some point.”

Does that give us a hint of how Kidman and Grant’s characters will end up then? Bier falls silent, until finally she says, “Um, no,” and laughs mischievously. Sounds like there’s plenty of undoing still to come.

The Undoing is on Sky and Now TV


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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