"I think I am very romantic," laughs Susanne Bier. "I think there has always been a contradiction between what people expected from me as a director and who I was. And I guess with this film there is less of a difference between who I am and what the movie is like."
"The exciting thing about a romantic comedy is not who's going to find each other but the journey of how they will get together."
The film is "Love Is All You Need", a delicious romantic comedy set over a wedding weekend in Sorrento where a host of characters fall in and out of love. Bathed in sunshine, lemon groves and beautiful sunsets, it's Bier's first romantic comedy since 1999 when she broke Danish box office records with "The One and Only". Since then, she has become internationally acclaimed for a string of powerfully intense dramas revolving around moral dilemmas kicking off with her Dogme film "Open Hearts", followed by "Brothers", "After the Wedding", for which she was Oscar nominated, the US-set "Things We Lost in the Fire" and "In a Better World" for which she won the Oscar in 2011.
And, as you would expect from a filmmaker with those extraordinary films under her belt, this is no bland romantic comedy with two-dimensional characters. She and her frequent writing collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen build all their work around authentic characters and in this case they have come up with Ida, a sunny, positive woman getting over cancer and a philandering husband, and Philip, a slick British businessman working in Copenhagen who has never been able to recover from his wife's death many years before. Most of the film takes place in Philip's property in Sorrento where his son is marrying her daughter.
A lonely Englishman
"The exciting thing about a romantic comedy is not who's going to find each other but the journey of how they will get together," Bier explains. "We have done a number of dramas where we dealt with the notion of "what if." And with this film we had this woman in a very unhappy and lonely situation and we wanted to bring her back to a joyful state."
"But," she cautions, "you can't be heavy handed in a romantic comedy. You have to be emotionally engaging. So you have a character for whom you feel sorry but this person has to have a lot of charm and unpredictability."
For the part of Ida, Bier cast veteran Trine Dyrholm who played one of the key dramatic parts in "In a Better World".
"I think it was fun for her because she has been playing characters on the dark side for a while," says Bier, "and at the beginning I think she was afraid of playing it so light. Ida is someone who maintains high spirits even when things are really awful. I would say she is slightly inspired by my mother who also had cancer but always managed to see the positive side of things. We wanted the character to have traces of that: it's intrinsic to who she is that she would at all times choose the positive way."
For Dyrholm, it was a challenging balancing act to maintain that sunny nature without being irritating either to those around her or the audience. "You must never sense that this woman is stupid," says Bier, "because she is not."
Meanwhile as Philip, Bier cast the legendary Pierce Brosnan, who gives one of his most vulnerable performances to date. Bier always wanted the character to be a foreigner living in Denmark to heighten further his isolation. "For this character to be lonely, almost alienated in Copenhagen, it had to be someone who was clearly a foreigner."
Brosnan attempts a couple of lines in Danish, but speaks for the most part in English, a fact which adds to the international flavor of the film. "He is a great actor," says Bier about Brosnan. "Yes he has been James Bond but he is a real actor and he completely understood what the film was about. I think there was a part of him that wanted to do something a little more fragile."
Flesh and blood
Including cancer in the story is a risk for any light endeavour, but Bier made a determined effort not to let it overwhelm the film's central charm.
"I am not sure I would want to see a film about cancer and I wouldn't want to make a drama about cancer," she explains. "But we wanted to treat it in a way that was potentially painful but not disturbing. The intriguing thing was to deal with an uncomfortable subject matter in a charming way. It's just part of the story."
If the film sounds too heavy, it isn't. Bier and Jensen readily embraced romantic comedy conventions in the script. Ida and Philip start out with a frosty relationship when she backs into his car at Copenhagen Airport, but as in all good romcoms, the frost melts over the course of the weekend. Meanwhile various supporting characters fulfill certain types: Paprika Steen plays Brosnan's stuck-up, vitriolic sister-in-law who is determined to snare him for herself, Kim Bodnia is Dyrholm's obtuse husband who carelessly brings along his mistress to the wedding, and Christiane Shaumburg-Müller is the gauche sex bomb mistress who puts her foot in her mouth at every turn.
"Good taste is the worst hindrance to movie-making so you have to be courageous and take on clichés and conventions," says Bier. "If you are terrified about them, you could lose the engagement of the audience. It's about engaging with them. We all live according to clichés. Ten times a day we all do things which are full of clichés. The important thing is to make sure the characters are real flesh-and-blood human beings and to really care for them. You can't avoid conventions, you have to make it real."
She says that she likes the comedies of Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral", "Notting Hill") for this very reason: despite the fairytale English settings, the characters are authentic. "I think he's a genius," she says. "He reinvented the romantic comedy by being pretty real."
"Love Is All You Need" Photo: Doane Gregory
Found the perfect house
Bier has to be about the most glamorous filmmaker working in the world today. Her long black tresses of hair flowing over her tanned shoulders, she looks much younger than her years and is hardly the picture of the harried filmmaker. Indeed she laughs when she explains that she sat waiting in a cafe in London for an hour for a meeting with Sam Mendes (one of her producers on "Things We Lost in the Fire", ed.) before they both realized they had been sitting two tables away from each other. "I was wearing a nice dress and had shopping bags with me, and he told me he never imagined I would look like that. He thought I was this European arthouse director who should be wearing black. There's a contradiction between what I look like and the movies I make."
But Bier is no pushover, famously working intensively with her actors in her efforts to get the best from every scene. And that was no different on "Love Is All You Need".
"It was just as demanding as on a drama," she says. "Make no mistake, it's as difficult making a light movie as it is making a more heavy drama. We did have a lot of fun making it, but the laughter didn't necessarily go hand in hand with the material."
Shooting in glorious Sorrento of course was a bonus for everyone involved in the film. Cinematographer Morten Søborg and producer Vibeke Windeløv found the house where the wedding takes place when they went scouting for locations early on in the process. It was perfect for the film – unfurnished, empty and beside a lemon grove.
Bier and Jensen had often retreated to the Amalfi coast to write some of their earlier films, so for them it was a natural spot to set a film. "We had a key Danish crew but also a big Italian crew," she recalls. "And Italian catering. It was pretty uncomplicated actually because the movie is also about people visiting Italy, so it wasn't as if we were pretending we were Italians."
Hugging Steven Spielberg
It's not unusual to find Bier out of Denmark. She has spent much of the last 18 months on the road – first going through the rigours of the US awards season before throwing herself into shooting "Love Is All You Need" in Italy. She recently completed filming in Prague on an English-language film based on the novel "Serena" by Ron Rash. Set in Depression-era North Carolina, the film tells the story of two newlyweds who build up a timber empire and stars Hollywood A-listers Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence alongside Danes like Bodnia and David Dencik.
Bearing in mind that all four of Bier's last Danish films were partly set overseas, Bier clearly has an eye on the world.
"I think in a way, being Jewish, I have always had a sense that I don't belong to a specific physical country," she muses. "I have family everywhere. My father came to Denmark in 1933 and so I am a second generation immigrant. I do feel I am Danish and I am very happy living in Denmark, but I don't have that family history there that many of my friends have. It's pretty natural for me to work with people from everywhere and almost to live and work in a number of places. Since I was 12, I always preferred reading English books to Danish."
She smiles at the recollection of the awards season which she described as "nerve-wracking and demanding." She estimates she conducted around 500 press interviews for "In a Better World" to promote the US release and generate publicity for awards voters.
"For foreign films, the director is the person who represents the film because foreign actors are not well-known in the US. I do believe that the film had a story to tell and I wanted people to see it, but it was exhausting."
She recalls the Academy Awards night itself as a blur heightened by the tension of the day leading up to the ceremony. "When I came off stage after the speech, there was a bar backstage and I had a huge vodka and orange. I don't usually drink much and I think it was ten years since I'd drunk vodka, but I had another one and a third one. I wasn't really drunk after that, just in some kind of weird state." She laughs. "I remember hugging Steven Spielberg at the Governor's Ball and I don't know what I said to him."
Back in Copenhagen, she was met by her parents and a horde of press at the airport and then the film's production company Zentropa hosted a party for her. "That was amazing. At that point, I had held (the Oscar statuette, ed.) and I knew it was for real."
Among the Danish crew attending the Oscars with Bier was Anders Thomas Jensen, with whom she has worked on and off since "Open Hearts" in 1999.
"I have a great appreciation for him and the way he works," she explains. "We have a lot of fun. And he is a very close friend. We are both wary of getting to a point where you start repeating yourself. There is always a comfort zone which is dangerous in all artistic endeavours. I think that's probably why we did a comedy in order to avoid it. He hasn't worked on "Serena" but I am sure we will be doing other things. I don't know what we'll do next but we will definitely try and avoid that comfort zone."
Explaining that she is resolutely not a "careerist", she returns to why she felt the need to get romantic with this latest film.
"I just work with what I feel like and I felt like making a romantic film," she says. "The whole movie is about various kinds of love and it's an unashamedly romantic film. You aren't really allowed to be overtly romantic today. Even in the good romantic comedies there's always an element of cynicism. I wanted to make one which is not cynical but which I would still like to see. That meant it had to have some real content. I can't watch a romantic comedy if I don't feel like I am able to identify with the characters or if it's too slick. There had to be some edges to it."
"But most importantly," says Bier, "I didn't want it to be cynical. I guess I am particularly romantic."