We Talked To The Oscar-Winning Director Of ‘The Night Manager’

Britain is caught in the grips of a TV show. Every Sunday night, around nine million people tune in to BBC drama The Night Manager – the big-budget adaptation of author John le Carré’s spy novel of the same name. If you haven’t watched it, it’s likely everyone in your office is divulging spoilers, or your mum's been telling you about it on the phone, or you noticed Twitter going into a total meltdown after Tom Hiddleston’s sex scene in the last episode. The series is based on a book written by a man, but at its helm is the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier. One of the few women to have won an Academy Award for directing, Bier swept up Best Foreign Language Film in 2010 for In A Better World, placing her in the hall of fame alongside fellow category winners Paolo Sorrentino, Ang Lee and Pedro Almodóvar.
Bier is vocal about what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s industry, and how the film business needs to change to better reflect society. Talking with her, it quickly becomes apparent that she's incredibly honest about the challenges she’s faced as a female filmmaker – and as a filmaker more generally, but that she’s also confident and unapologetic when it comes to discussing her work. In a recent Guardian article, Bier wrote, "As a director I can make a difference to the stories I choose to tell" and she practices what she preaches – Bier cast British actress Olivia Colman in what was formally a male part in The Night Manager, and is being talked about as a potential candidate to direct the next Bond film – a franchise on which there can be no doubt she'd leave her mark. We met Bier in London to find out more about how she got involved with The Night Manager and her experiences working with Hiddleston and Colman on set. The director also gave us her thoughts on why there needs to be more women working in Hollywood, and what she has learnt over the last 25 years making movies.
Hi Susanne. To start with, can you tell us how you got into filmmaking?
I studied architecture and I became gradually more interested in set design. Then I became more interested in script and the people who were going to inhabit the buildings I was to design. So I applied to film school. I did my first feature film about a year after finishing – it’s called Freud Leaving Home and it’s about a Jewish family in Stockholm. The kids come home for the mum’s birthday and it turns out she’s very ill. It was hugely successfully. Then I did a film right after that that was hugely unsuccessful. I thought I’d cracked it, that I knew exactly how to do it... but I didn't. Was that a valuable lesson?
Very valuable. Very necessary. You do get a bit of a shock. You think you can walk on water, then you survive it, and realise the accolades or the harsh criticisms... you have to have a veneer against both. It’s almost more important to have a guard against the accolades. The most important thing is not to be defined by what the outside world think. It’s quite important not to think of yourself as a genius [laughs]. When you were growing up, what kind of films inspired you?
I didn’t want to be a filmmaker until I grew up, so I was never a cinephile. I liked movies but I liked books more. I am a bit wary of filmmakers who grow up on films rather than real life, because having life experience aids your filmmaking. I read a lot of scripts and, quite often, all the content of this script is taken from other films. I don’t think that’s particularly substantial or meaningful to watch. You’ve worked with amazing actors, like Halle Berry in Things We Lost in The Fire, and Jennifer Lawrence in Serena – how involved are you in casting?
It’s the most important thing for the director to do. If you don’t look at the marketing perspective for a moment, it’s still about choosing your primary tools in a way. Look at any movie you like and think of the main actor replaced by another actor and you’ve got a different movie. What’s J-Law like?
She’s a fantastic actress. Every fibre in her is talent. She’s a lovely person, she’s fun and she’s unpretentious and she’s beautiful. But she’s also outrageously talented.
Photo: BBC/AMC/Ink Factory
How did the gig directing The Night Manager come about?
I always liked John le Carré. His thrillers are quite complicated, with morally ambiguous characters. They have a sort of sadness to them. An anger at the establishment. An anger at anything entitled. So I read the first version of the first episode. And it was such an early version that the character Burr, who in the book is a man, was still a man. I had a Skype call with Stephen Garrett, who executive produced the show with Simon and Stephen Cornwell, 'We’ve been thinking about turning Burr into a woman', and I said, 'Yes, great. That takes you out of the world of white public school educated men.'
As soon as we said it should be a woman I thought of Olivia Colman, she’s got a steeliness, she's just as tough as the guys. But she's also the moral heart of the piece.
On the same topic, do you think being a female director actually affects the way you direct?
Not really. It would be very different if any different director made it. I agree. But the camera lingers a lot on the women in The Night Manager – isn't there enough of that in film and TV made by male directors?
Yes but it also lingers on the men... on human beings in general... because it’s part of the story. It's erotic and it needs to have that element. Sex or love or whatever shape it is, is part of the story. I embrace it if it's real and it works and it’s part of what’s going on. If it’s just there for the sake of it, then yes, I despise it. What’s it like working on a television series, as opposed to a feature film?
Fantastic. I love having more material: six hours instead of an hour and a half. It allows me to get deeper with minor characters in a totally different way to the feature film format. There’s a depth to the TV form... an epic scale. It’s also hugely demanding shooting it because it's shot like a feature film: in a totally random order. Morning could be 'Scene 15, Episode 2' and lunchtime 'Scene 60, Episode 6'. It’s quite challenging. You’ve written a lot about what it’s like to be a female filmmaker – what needs to change to make the industry a better place for women?
Well I really believe the movies being made and stories we are telling need to represent the diversity of society more. I’m talking about women and other minorities. Film needs to develop in that respect. If you talk about action films or whatever, the fact that not more of them are made by women is pure convention – pure habitual thinking. I think there is a convention that they’re always going to go for the male director over the female, even though that’s not necessarily the best option. You've said there should be an Oscars category for Best Female Director?
I was saying that for a joke. If there were a best Oscar for female director it might make more movies by women possible, but I don’t want to put female directors in a minority category. It was just a thought experiment. But we do need more women making films, to tell women’s stories.

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