PASADENA, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 15: Susanne Bier of “The Undoing” speaks during the HBO segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 15, 2020 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
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Susanne Bier on ‘The Undoing’: “I approached it like a film”

Susanne Bier is at it again. The Danish director, a Golden Globe winner for In a Better World in 2011, is also known for her Danish feature films Brothers and After the Wedding and as well as last year’s huge Netflix success Bird Box, has returned with another limited series. She is following the success of The Night Manager, which won three Golden Globes in 2017 and garnered her with an Emmy for best director. The Undoing, a six-part limited series, is based on the bestselling novel “You Should have Known” by Jean Hanff Korelitz and will premiere on HBO in the Fall.

Hugh Grant said that with The Undoing, you have taken a great American script by David E. Kelley and turned it into Scandi-Noir – do you agree with him and why

He loves Scandi-Noir, so it is quite a compliment. I took something, which was hugely entertaining and I turned it into darkness, but I don’t think that that is the case. I think what he means is that it is not very conventional but I don’t think David ever intended to be very conventional. I think that David and I have been in a very harmonious agreement about how to deal with the material

Some claim that women are the best at telling women’s stories but David E. Kelley has proven that he writes female characters very well. What makes him so good at it in your opinion?

I find that often when I read male writers writing female characters that they are at times overtly respectful, but David is not scared of making them weird or unsympathetic or rushed. He is not worried, which I often read in scripts with female characters. I think it comes very naturally to him.

The series seems to differ quite a bit from the novel “You Should have Known”. Can you speak about what this change means without revealing too much?

It is only the first two episodes, which use the book as a starting point. So when David started writing from the book, he was very clear about the fact that he could use it as the start and then the story needed to go somewhere else. So the rest of the storyline differs very much from the book and that is actually an incredibly healthy relationship between a literary kind of starting point and then doing something, which is creatively different. It made it a very playful and harmonious process. 20 days into shooting David and I were on the phone and he went: ‘what if?’ and then he turned the whole thing upside down and whoever is lying is not lying and the other person is lying now. So there was this constant sort of organic treatment of the material, which I think is very visible in the show. Because the same way that the audiences are being thrown in between who they are suspicious of and who they are not suspicious of, and what they are expecting from somebody, the same way we would be playing with those elements while doing it and that was very exciting and thrilling doing that.

Nicole Kidman said that you have a lot of pulling power and that she always thinks that people will say no, but you got a yes from a great cast – including Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland. What is your secret?

I think that actors instinctually feel that I have a lot of love and understanding of their art and their craft. I have a lot of admiration for them. Also, I am a bit Scandinavian in the way, that they also know that I don’t know how to lie, so there is also a candidness, which inevitably makes them feel quite comfortable. They just know that there is no bullshit. I have never played games. I will always be honest and at times, it can be a bit jarring. I remember in the beginning that Hugh Grant was looking at me going: ‘Oh, that was not very diplomatic.’  And then we were laughing at it because it is correct, but on the other hand, it also means that there is a very, very high degree of trust both ways. I hope that the pulling power comes from an intrinsic sense of trust.

You had the crew that had just come off Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – how important is it to have a great crew like this?

We were shooting in New York, so I think everyone came from shooting The Irishman. A great crew is essential. The thing that makes movie-making or television is the collaborative effort and every single person is so crucial in order to get the best result and every single person needs to do their utmost and needs to be the most talented person within their field in order to create something really truly astonishing. That is also the excitement of it, so it is challenging all these talents and all this immense amount of creativity into this cohesive piece of expression. As a director, that is really what you do. You are grateful and embrace this kind of insane creativity and then you want to make sure that it all comes down to being a very cohesive and persistent point of view.

Hugh Grant plays Jonathan Fraser an apparently devoted father and husband, who reveals that he was not exactly that. He does a great job creating doubt as to who he really is. What made you decide that he was the right one for the role?  

Hugh is the most lovable, charming and wonderfully innocent kind of man. Presumably, there is almost like a flawlessness to him and I think that is wonderful and I think that is wonderful because we know that anybody who seems to be that, probably has something else going on as well. But you cannot quite tell. I think that was what we wanted. We wanted all of that – charming, innocent and yet we wanted something, which is possibly also a bit more sinister because for somebody to be sexy, there needs to be some kind of darkness as well.


Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant in a scene from The Undoing.




Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a therapist, who seems to have less insight into her own life than her patients and there is a mystery to her. Nicole does the mystery very well. Why do you think she is in such high demand?

Nicole is the most enigmatic creature. Anybody who has seen Nicole in anything knows that you only see the tip of the iceberg. There is so much, which she will never reveal. That makes her eternally charismatic. You look at her and you understand everything she feels. Except that while understanding everything she feels, you also understand that there is probably 90 percent more that you had no idea about but which you are incredibly intrigued by. And I think that for a great actress, the great secret is almost everything you are not being told and the lengths you want to go in order to know more about her. With Grace, this is really an extreme situation because you really keep wanting to know more and you keep knowing that you will never know that.

You directed The Night Manager – also a limited series – which won several Golden Globes as well as an Emmy for best director. Do you approach a TV series differently than a film?

No, a limited series like this I approach as one long film. It is also shot like one. It is cross boarded, so we shot for 90 days and we would shoot a scene for episode 6 in the morning and one from episode 1 in the afternoon and it was totally cross boarded. So it was essentially being treated like one long film, but with the element of still wanting each episode to be a satisfying, dramatic arc. It is very exciting doing a TV-series because you have that richness, which goes with 6 hours, so you can get into minor characters and all sorts of other things, which you cannot do in a film, but you still want to adhere to the dramatic arc of one hour and yet have the longevity of having a long, long film.

Your Danish film After the Wedding was adapted into an English language film by Bart Freundlich. Do you think the gender swap makes it a different story?

A few of my films have been remade and it is always weird because you kind of go: ‘wow, my baby was adopted by some other parents’ and then you kind of step back like that initial kind of honor and you go ‘that was actually really interesting.’ I am embracing the fact that they did the gender swap. Of course, it changed it but I thought it was very exciting. It is kind of a weird thing because I am so biased. I am fascinated by the changes but it is very difficult for me to have an objective point of view but I thought the idea was a really beautiful notion.

What is your next project?

I don’t know what my next project is. I am reading and considering right now. I went directly from Bird Box, which opened December 21st last year, to The Undoing, so I have not had a break for a while. Bird Box became this unexpected crazy, crazy success. I don’t know if it was unexpected but everyone was fascinated by the way it took off. So it also became very encompassing in terms of time and additional press, so I went directly from one thing to the other.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus has paralyzed the world and we are all stuck at home. How do you take advantage of this lockdown situation?

I think we all think we have a lot of time, but we are also very spooked by what is going on. So we are spending time now a bit erratically and I think that in a couple of weeks, we will all have learned how to juggle the situation. We are all concerned about all our dearest ones and for the world in general. I just hope that we can navigate everything so that the damage becomes as little as possible. I think everybody is just trying to make sure that everyone we love is ok. I am sure we are all just thinking about that.