Susanne Bier and Christopher Kyle were at the London Film Festival with their new film arthouse drama SERENA which stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Matthew Turner spoke to them:
How did the project come about, first of all?
Christopher Kyle (CK): I read this remarkable novel when it was still in galleys and I really asked my agent to go after it hard and eventually got the job to adapt it. I was really attracted to the dark love story, to see a woman in this crazy macho world of the logging camp, the way they love nature and want to destroy it at the same time, all these big themes were really exciting as a writer to dig into, so I started working on the script, wrote a draft and then a year later, Susanne got involved and we started working on it together.
Susanne, what was the appeal of the project for you?
Susanne Bier (SB): The same. (Laughs). No, I mean, I was attracted by the dark love story and I was attracted by the fact of having this woman who is forceful and who is actually more capable than most of the men and who has a kind of a damaged soul, in a way. I was very attracted by all of those elements. And I still am.
With regards to getting on board with the project, is it right that Darren Aronofsky and Angelina Jolie were originally tied to the project and was there trepidation for you to pick it up after that?
CK: You know, the nature of this business is that people get attached to projects and then unattached to projects – it happens all the time. Darren was involved with the project for six or eight months and then financing came through for Black Swan, so he became unavailable, so we moved on. He did talk to Angelina at one point, I don’t know how far that got, but that’s normal, you talk to actors, you see who’s interested. None of that developed very far before Susanne got involved.
What had you seen Jennifer Lawrence in at the time that she was cast in Serena?
SB: Winter’s Bone. And that’s it. She had not yet done Hunger Games and she had not worked with Bradley. So she got involved and, actually, at the time, she had only done Winter’s Bone and because she was a clearly very talented, very beautiful, very interesting young actress, but not yet a big star, it was quite difficult financing the movie on the basis of her, so it took a little while. But on our first conversation – I mean, she now claims that it was her idea [to cast] Bradley, but I was also going to talk to her about Bradley, so it was clearly both of us who had the same idea, and then we asked Bradley and he was quite keen to get involved and he was quite keen to portray a kind of slightly troublesome character, someone who is an idealist, but an idealist for reasons that today we don’t really consider particularly proper or particularly wholesome. And I was very fortunate that both of them wanted to be attached, but then it took longer to finance it. And in the interim, Jennifer had then done Hunger Games and they then did Silver Linings, but none of the movies had come out when we shot Serena.
What had Bradley Cooper done when he was cast then? Had he done Limitless?
SB: He’d done Limitless, he’d done The Hangover, he was an established star, which is sort of what made it possible to finance it. And then she became a huge big star in the interim.
You also have so many great British actors in the cast – I’m thinking of Sean Harris, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones and so on. How did they get involved?
SB: There are Danish stars too! The movie was shot in Prague. It was tempting to partly use a European cast, but also I always felt that Britain has this richness of amazing character actors, character actors who are really distinct and special. And so the script was full of archetypes, like the archetype sheriff and the archetype villain, in a way. And actually, we were pretty much agreed that it would be really interesting having character actors who would not just fit into the archetype and would add something very extra to the characters. So, Rhys Ifans, who has a very gentle way of talking, that just makes him doubly scary when he plays the villain.
Did you have many of those character actors in mind early on in the process then, when you were looking at the script?
SB: It came together quite quickly. Once we started casting out of Britain, it was very joyful and fun to do that, because it left space for slightly unexpected choices.
How was the experience of working together?
SB: Very problematic. (Laughs).
CK: Susanne’s like a dream for a screenwriter. I mean, she knows what she wants, she can be very clear about what she needs from the script, but she’s also a great collaborator, she listens, she’s willing to entertain other ideas, so you really can’t ask for anything more, as a writer.
SB: That’s very nice of you! I want to say the same thing. But we have a tone between us where the characteristic of the tone is that we don’t pay each other compliments!
CK: We express our fondness through insults, which is unusual.
That’s very British…
SB: Which is quite fun! We’re actually having a lot of fun, I want to say. And it’s actually been really seamless and very creative.
CK: I wish it was always like this!
You mentioned Danish actors. I spotted Kim Bodnia on screen for maybe two or three seconds. So does that mean that you cut quite a lot out that you were sorry to see go?
SB: Yes. I think what happened in the process of the script was – it’s such rich material and the novel was such rich material that the challenge is losing scenes you love. The challenge is not losing things you don’t like, because that’s easy to do. The challenge is losing things you love. And that was true for the script as well as for the editing. And there was possibly a bit too much complexity in the film in the first edit, which is why we actually had to focus on the love story, which is why certain characters became much less prevalent or almost virtually disappeared. So Kim Bodnia was Rachel’s father in the film and he was one of those characters.
Susanne, you tend to explore relationships in your films rather than creating something effects-driven or, say, an action film. Do you find that this is something that you particularly connect with and interests you still?
SB: I am interested in human beings. I am interested in relationships. Basically, that’s the only thing that interests me. However much I theoretically would love to do a real action film, I can’t really see myself engaging for hours and hours about a car chase. The thing is that I really enjoy some of them. I enjoy the ones that still have a human aspect to them or the ones that have a sense of humour, but I am always longing for the car chase to stop and for them to start talking, or kissing, or any other possible human exchanges.
CK: Certain types of movies get so technical that the director spends all their doing everything but work with the actors on the human beings in the story.
SB: It would drive me crazy and I can’t really see anyone who would offer me that type of movie!
You have two films at this festival, Serena and A Second Chance. Will you continue to go back and forth between Hollywood and making films in Europe?
SB: I would love to, but it’s also a little bit about working in different financial scales and that’s probably the major difference.
What are the main pros and cons of both?
SB: The pros (of working in Hollywood) are that you can actually make an epic picture, which is really attractive and satisfying in terms of beauty and the whole cinematic experience. The cons are that it is a more complicated process.
So, is it a case that the reverse is true, where making films in Europe is a more streamlined and simple process but the financing is harder?
SB: Ah, but then when you see a lot of small European films, you wish it were a more complicated process, because there is also that thing of an auteur arrogance in Europe. ‘I’m the director, nobody’s going to say anything, so I’m just going to do the movie I want to make’. Then it’s a three-hour long, incomprehensible and very boring movie. I do actually think there is a kind of healthiness in a bit of an exchange. I don’t think making a movie by committee works either, but I think that a certain relevant questioning is probably healthy.
In the first half of the film we see the start of the relationship between the two central characters. In a lot of the scenes where they are alone together, it just becomes a sex scene. Was that a conscious decision?
SB: Love is a funny thing. I think that we wanted to suggest the character of their love was also a very physical character. I do also think that the trigger for someone like Serena, to make her so crazy, is also a physical love. You’re right, but that was also in the nature of the love affair. Yes, of course, you could have made another sort of love affair, but we didn’t want to do that.
We’re experiencing a strong time for television and, in particular, Scandinavian television. Would either of you ever be tempted to move into that?
SB: For me, television is the most exciting thing. It’s the most exciting place to be right now so, yes, absolutely. I think one has to live in the last century for not recognising where most, but not all, of the… well, it’s also where the best writing is. [Turns to Kyle] Don’t you agree?
CK: It’s so depressing trying to get work as a screenwriter in Hollywood right now, because all the movies are about toys or comic books. Opportunities like Serena are extremely rare and very competitive, because all the writers want those jobs, so where there’s growth, where there’s excitement, is television. Not just in the US, but all over the world. Everybody’s clamouring for these interesting, serious dramas with good writing, good acting and good directing. The production values have exploded. You see something like True Detective. It’s shot like a beautiful eight hour movie, which wasn’t what television was like 5 or 10 years ago at all. A lot of people are excited about television…
SB: I also like watching it! And I want to say, particularly, in writing. You mentioned Scandinavia, because I actually think that the writing in Scandinavian films is still, comparatively, really good, but I think that particularly in America, I think that the writing in television is way better than the writing in films.
Does that mean that it is just a question of you waiting for the right project to come along? Or would you be thinking about producing or developing your own material?
SB: I’d love to do television. Whether it would be me initiating it or doing a project with him [indicates Kyle], I would be very intrigued by that.
CK: I’ve just made a deal to write a pilot for FX, based on a French historical novel called ‘The Cursed King’, it’s about the 14th century and the events that led to the 100 years’ war.
What was the hardest thing to get right in Serena?
SB: The hardest thing was balancing the fact that we’re dealing with two fraught human beings and still rooting for them, because it’s all very well having a clean heroine or a clean hero, but the complexity of what the characters are doing, and yet still being attracted to them; still being fascinated by them; not being repulsed by them. I think that’s probably the trickiest balance of all.
CK: I agree; the tone. It’s very tricky when you place at the centre of a film characters who do things that are objectively offensive. And yet, if you make them compelling, fascinating and complex enough, the audience will go with them. Last night, a young woman at the Q&A was going all the way with Serena to the point where she said she was rooting against Rachel and the baby.
Was something like Macbeth at the forefront in terms of references?
CK: Yes, absolutely, and that starts with the novel. The novelist was inspired by Lady Macbeth and also Medea; these tragedies with strong women at the centre of them, so that was something we were conscious of from the beginning.
Were there any other specific reference points for you when making the film?
SB: There were a number of references. There was a noir reference. A Barbara Stanwyck, noir reference. It was very important for me to give this a contemporary feel, but that there was also a sense of psychology; that she wasn’t just an evil black widow that would just seduce a man, because I don’t feel that a contemporary female audience would respond to that. I feel that a contemporary female audience would respond to someone who might behave in an offensive way, but we still understand her, which is what I was trying to aim at.
Was that perhaps the biggest tussle that you might have had with the original source material, in terms of making sure you walk that delicate tightrope, right between not alienating the audience from the actions these characters are taking, making them sympathetic enough that they can still go with it, was that a challenge?
SB: Yes, a big challenge.
CK: It’s always a challenge with a novel, because novels can tell you what a character’s thinking, but in a film you only get to see what they do and what they say, so it can be more challenging to get that nuance sometimes.
In relation to the locations that you chose, because it’s set in Carolina, but you shot in Prague. Obviously with these Hollywood film stars – well, they weren’t both stars then, but Bradley Cooper was – you had to bring them over. Was it a convenience for you to be in Europe rather than in America?
SB: Because it was way more financially viable. And so it made sense. I mean, one of the things you want to do as a filmmaker is that you want to have the most part of it on screen, so you’ll go to great lengths to secure that. And, as we spoke about, since you don’t automatically just inflate the budget, that would be one of the decisions.
I have to ask a slightly facetious question: what do you have against babies? You have terrible, terrible things happening in A Second Chance…
SB: Stop saying that! I don’t want you to say that! Firstly, here’s the thing: I love babies. I mean, I’m crazy about babies. I’m kind of dangerous, to be honest. And so the truth is that it would be more tempting for me to steal babies than anything else.
So it’s a coincidence that it’s been terrible things happening to babies back to back?
SB: The babies on set had a great time.
CK: All of her children lived to adulthood. She took good care of them.
What’s your next project?
SB: Probably Mary Queen of Scots, with Working Title.
I wanted to ask about your other film in the festival, A Second Chance. How did A Second Chance come about?
SB: Well, it was the result of a collaboration between myself and my other writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, he wrote it. And he’s had four kids in a very brief period of time, so maybe you should ask him about what he thinks of babies.
And the casting for that? How did you get those two involved?
SB: Are you talking about Nicolaj Coster-Waldau? I asked him. He’s, you know, he’s Danish, and I know he comes out, and you know him from Game of Thrones, and we all know that he doesn’t really have a hand. But I’ve been looking, he hasn’t done a Danish film for 10 years or something, and I’ve kind of been looking to find a movie to work with him in. And when we had the first draft of this one, I thought, ‘He’s going to be amazing in it.’
I think Nicolaj Lie Kaas is a really fascinating actor, because he can play heroes and he can play villains, there’s not really very many people who can do both so brilliantly.
SB: It’s crazy, he’s crazily good at both. He’s really amazing.
So was getting him involved an important part of the film? Also, those two actors together, you don’t often see two such big Danish actors together in the same film these days, so was it important to have those two big presences together?
SB: Yes, and also Nicolaj Lie Kaas is probably the most funny person on the planet, so he just needs to be on set so I can laugh.
CK: That’s your number one, yeah?
SB: Do you think I’m getting silly? Do you think I’m being very un-serious there? Because I can feel it, the seriousness slipping out.
In relation to these two films, was there any overlap at all, or has Serena basically sat in the can for a bit longer?
SB: No, there was overlap, that was part of the delay of Serena. We had a delay in editing, and then we realised that the ADR was gonna be a real challenge, because it was shot in Prague, and it was huge on the ADR. And then I had another film, that I was committed to doing, so there was, I did that one while doing post on Serena, so there was a kind of crazy–
That must be really hard.
SB: I don’t know, it wasn’t necessarily hard, but it was crazy in terms of logistics, and planning and actually finishing Serena. But, I now have two films.
Yeah, exactly, that’s true. Do you have a favourite?
SB: That’s exactly what my kids ask me, and I consistently say, you know, when my son asks me I say, ‘Of course I love my daughter much more than I love you.’
Going back to the question of adaptation, I haven’t actually read the book but it’s my understanding that the endings of the book (of Serena) and the film are quite different. What was it that made you want to make the large changes to that in particular?
CK: You know when you adapt a book it ends up taking on its own logic. You start with what you see as the core story of the book, which was this love story, between these two really dark and interesting characters, and then start stripping away and trying to focus on the best parts of that story for the film. And then you have to look at it as the story that you have in the screenplay, and how do you end that story, regardless of how the book, which is tying together all these other plotlines that you’re not really using. So it’s just a process that you get to, and this ending seemed to make the most sense for the story we were telling.
SB: It’s also that sometimes in a movie, making a very long time gap gets complicated. And I think we kind of felt that it suited this move to actually finish within its own world.