Underneath the lavish New York lifestyles, penthouse apartments, maids and exclusive schools, Susanne Bier saw a universal theme in The Undoing, HBO’s new psychological thriller: how well do we know those we love?
“We all have had someone we’ve been completely drawn to, who has shown completely different characteristics than we thought and maybe wanted them to have,” says the Danish director on a call from her home in Copenhagen. “That space between hoping and [reality] is really, really interesting.”
There was also a wow factor that persuaded her to take the project on. Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland star in this six-part series, adapted by David E Kelley (writer of Big Little Lies) from the 2014 book You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Even child star Noah Jupe is a known face, from the BBC spy series The Night Manager (which Bier also directed) and Shia LaBeouf’s film Honey Boy.
The Undoing tells the story of marriage therapist Grace Fraser (Kidman) and her husband Jonathan (Grant), a doctor specialising in children’s cancer. They appear happy — never closer, according to Grace — and exotically wealthy. They attend black-tie fundraisers and send their son (Jupe) to the kind of school that expects donations on top of fees to secure a place.
But their world implodes when the young, seductive mother of a scholarship child arrives in their social clique and a bloody murder brings the family under intense media scrutiny. As a lawyer says of their attempt to hunker down: “This is what rich, entitled people do when threatened. They conceal the ugly truths to protect themselves.” Grace, whose bread-and-butter is marital strife, tries to unpick the truth of her own domestic situation.
Bier is full of enthusiasm for Kidman’s skills as an actor. “Nicole is crazy,” she says. “Sometimes I think she might come from outer space because she has this uncanny ability to be someone else. And then do it in a million different ways.” Sutherland too is extremely enjoyable as a dapper patriarch.
I suggest to Bier that Grant has been constrained by his public persona — the posh, charming Brit — and tends to play versions of himself on screen. But she extols his versatility. “[He is] very, very compelling and intriguing. I always thought that he had a lot of depth. And he’s got such a lot of charm and fun.” When I say Grant has never looked so physically crumpled as he does in The Undoing, she agrees: “He hasn’t done the parts where . . . he shows that kind of extreme vulnerability.”
Nothing in Bier’s Copenhagen childhood suggested a future career as a director. “I’m mostly from a family of lawyers and businessmen,” says the 60-year-old. It was attending art school in Israel that allowed her to “get away, and be alone a little bit . . . until I figured out what I really wanted to do.”
The shift to film came in London, where she studied architecture and became involved in set design, leading to a return to Denmark to work in the film industry before directing features in the 1990s. In 2002 she made Open Hearts, a film shot according to the rules of Dogme 95 — the strict manifesto devised by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg that upheld a stripped-back naturalism and deplored film trickery such as visual and sound effects.
“It was a lot of fun,” she says. “[Dogme 95] has been hugely influential in terms of bringing European film-making back to its core, because it’s only about character and storyline. At the point when it came out, we were very obsessed with trying to look like American films, which we couldn’t. It was very helpful in that perspective.”
The film cemented Bier’s reputation beyond Scandinavia, and in 2011 In a Better World won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It was a rare moment of recognition for a female director at the Academy Awards, and she describes it as “devastating” that no women were shortlisted for the Best Director category this year. In 2016, her Oscar was followed by an Emmy for The Night Manager, a BBC John le Carré adaptation that starred Tom Hiddleston and became hugely successful first in the UK and then across the world.
Stephen Garrett, executive producer of The Undoing and The Night Manager, describes Bier as “the most emotionally intelligent person I’ve ever met”. Rather than shoot scene by scene, he says, she “prefers to rehearse the whole day’s output for several hours before shooting, almost like a theatre director, reimagining the scenes . . . The actors are almost living the experience in the moment. It’s the pictorial equivalent of molecular gastronomy.”
Bier’s work on The Night Manager has prompted speculation that she may one day direct Bond. “I’d love to,” she says. But while she thinks a female perspective would be interesting, she would not make the next Bond female. “The moment you force an artificial thing, it’s going to be counterproductive. It’s about being really smart and thoughtful.”
She enjoys moving between film and TV. A series is “essentially one feature film divided into chapters”, she says. “It’s almost like the difference between a novel and a short story.” After years of extravagant TV dramas stretching over many seasons, limited series such as Chernobyl and Patrick Melrose, and now The Undoing, are refreshing. Would she want to work on a multi-season TV show?
“Part of what always drives me is that I want to do something that I haven’t done before. Would I jump in and do four seasons of something? Probably not. But would I want to do the first season? That would be exciting.”
Inevitably, she is concerned about the pandemic’s effects on the film and TV industry, worried that financial constraints will inhibit creative risk-taking. Longer term, she believes cinema will need to reinvent itself in a world of streaming by staging big events.
While viewing films on TV sets and laptops at home means missing the “social experience of cinema”, social media creates a new shared connection, she says. Her 2018 Netflix film Bird Box is a case in point. A dystopian thriller starring Sandra Bullock, it became a viral sensation after viewers shared memes based on the film on social media. “It was crazy. It took on its own life,” Bier says. “For a film-maker, it’s a dream to make something which then generates such a creature.”
Nonetheless, she is also wary of social media backlashes. “If artists stop doing provocative things because the social repercussions are so severe, then art stops being meaningful and innovative.”
‘The Undoing’ is on HBO in the US from October 25 and Sky Atlantic in the UK from October 26
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Get alerts on Television when a new story is published