One time Dogme alumni Susanne Bier might seem an unusual choice to helm a lavish Hollywood period piece. All her films are marked by their contemporary settings and unsparring depressiveness, but with Serena, this is in fact exactly what novelist Ron Rash has written, a misberalist melodrama, producers of the Christopher Kyle adaptation are hoping audiences will be more willing to wash down with the Tinseltown tonic of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar-winning pair of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, re-teamed on screen for a third time.
Ahead of the film’s general release tomorrow, I met up with Bier at this month’s BFI London Film Festival, which not only screened Serena, but the Danish film she made during its lengthy post-production, A Second Chance.
Vérité: You’ve got two films at the London Film festival and both of them aspire to Shakespearian tragedy in a way. Is this a connection you’re very conscious of?
Susanne Bier: No, though I think Ron Rash had a clear Lady McBeth in the back of his mind when he wrote the novel. A Second Chance deals with a moral dilemma, and as a tragedy that puts its characters in extreme situations, many films like it might be described this way, but it was definitely less of a conscious reference.
Both films also deal with moments of intense grief. What is your approach to directing intense scenes like this? Is it discussed long beforehand so that the actors are prepared and can quietly focus on the day of shooting?
I always feel that trying to prepare yourself for big moments never really works. As in life; the magnitude and joy of giving birth, or the extreme pain of losing someone can only be prepared for so much, and even then the reality always looks different I think it’s the same with acting in this respect. Yes, there’s an element of preparation, but there’s an element of preparation to all scenes. It’s really about making sure that on the day it feels authentic, strong and vivid instead of laying out the beats in advance. Sometimes I feel when I’m watching other films, I can see how the emotional beats in a scene have been laid out and I stop believing in it. It works in theatre, but I don’t think it works in film.
Up until she meets George Peberton, Serena is too much woman for any one man. This seems to fit perfectly with the parts Jennifer has played in the past, like American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook.
Every fibre in her is talent. Jennifer Lawrence is a force of nature. And so is the character of Serena. The major difference between them is that Serena has a real damage inside her, a past that has made her frail and that over the course of the movie comes back to haunt her.
Coming from you, this lavish type of period picture is very surprising. What drew you to this quintessentially American time and place as a Danish filmmaker?
I was fascinated by a strong woman in a man’s world and the world itself. Pemberton is equally interesting for being this He’s a scrupulous visionary and very complex. On one hand he’s very sympathetic, and yet is ruining nature to achieve what he considers progress. I thought the meeting between the two of them was compelling because their instant attraction and love story is so explosive.
Seeing Serena brandishing a gun quite often as this very strong, new frontier woman, dressed in these striking silk blouses and neck scarves is strongly reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck in Western noirs like The Furies and Forty Guns. Was this a visual influence?
Yes. I felt the script had a bit of a noir quality to it, but as a psychological kind of noir, it’s more modern and complex than when Barbara Stanwyck was making them. Watching it now, it’s clearly a contemporary style of acting, but I do see the similarity between Jennifer and Stanwyck, not only in the way she’s dressed but the way she moves.
Your film Love is All You Need is a perfect blend of the sensibility of your Danish films with Hollywood. Do you feel now, looking back, it was essential to have made that film in order to have taken on the scale of something like Serena and found the right tone?
I’ve never been a careerist. My movies aren’t made to build upon one another so that I can make bigger and bigger films.
But what about in terms of being on a set away from home and trying a much less austere style and genre, unlike your first Hollywood film, Things We Lost in the Fire which was very much apiece with what you made in Denmark. Surely that helped for this next level kind of filmmaking?
Yes, I think it did. I’d made A Better World before that and shot in Africa, which was very demanding, so I’ve done things in different contexts which helped prepare me for the scale of Serena, but you’re right, you have to be dressed for the occasion on a big film like this.
Bradley and Jennifer re-uniting for a third time, having better chemistry here than the films before, must have been like your secret weapon. Did you feel it gave the project a head start?
What happened was that when I asked them to do it, Bradley was a big star but she had only done Winter’s Bone at that point. After seeing that film, I was convinced she was Serena, but I had a very hard time convincing financers about it. Our first conversation, she started talking about Bradley, who I’d already meant to mention to her as I thought they’d be an amazing couple. He then got attached which helped with financing and then they did Silver Linings and she did Hunger Games, but neither of them had come out when we were shot Serena.
Which brings us to the film’s lengthy post-production process, during which you went off and made A Second Chance.
It had a number of different cuts, but I was never fighting for a director’s cut. With the number of characters in this story, it took a long time shaping it so that the focus was always on Serena’s relationship with Pemberton.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on October 23, 2014