Interview: Susanne Bier on Making Audiences Comfortable By Getting Out of Her Comfort Zone With “Love Is All You Need”

In making a film about a cheery coiffeuse experiencing a run of bad luck, Susanne Bier caught a bit of a break. Unlike Ida (Trine Dyrholm), whose recent troubles, including a cheating husband and recovering from cancer treatment, would seem to extend into seeing her relatives in such a vulnerable state at the wedding of her daughter, Bier’s cinematographer Morten Søborg and producer Vibeke Windeløv were only able to find a picture perfect setting for the nuptials just off the Amalfi Coast in Sorrento, Italy thanks to some squabbling between relatives.

“This house belonged to a brother and sister and they are not really on speaking terms,” says Bier, noting she required a locale that could be made over for a film shoot in a private residential area where the privileged denizens are unlikely to acquiesce. “Therefore it hasn’t really been redecorated, they haven’t sold it and there was a beautiful lemon grove just there.”

The lemon grove plays a prominent role in Bier’s latest film “Love is All You Need,” but so does such bittersweet serendipity in general as the filmmaker known for heartwrenching dramas such as the Oscar-winning “In A Better World” and “Open Hearts” makes her first foray into lighter territory, finding the humor at the weekend before a grandly romantic ceremony where both Ida and her daughter Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind) are having second thoughts about who they’ll spend the rest of their days with, if anyone.

In Bier’s home country of Denmark, the writer/director made her intentions known upfront of finding silliness amongst the sadness with her preferred title, “The Bald Hairdresser” and while that moniker didn’t make the trip Stateside, the humanity and grace she’s able to bring out of her characters in crisis once again translates beautifully, with the added enticement of Pierce Brosnan as the groom’s father who might make a fine companion for Ida. On the eve of the film’s release in the U.S., Bier spoke about changing things up, how she and longtime screenwriting partner Anders Thomas Jensen keep things fresh and why it’s important to keep challenging herself.

How did this come about initially?

It actually came about because Mr. Jensen and myself had been approached a number of times to make a movie which somehow dealt with the topic of cancer and we both felt we don’t want to do anything heavy-handed. We didn’t want to do anything [where cancer was] the center of the movie, but on the other hand, we also thought it’s something which somehow everybody has a relationship to, so let’s see if we can do something where it’s part of it, but it doesn’t define it. Then we got to talk about Ida and this hairdresser who is this wonderful, positive, illuminated human being and the story just grew out of that. I had been wanting to make some sort of romantic comedy for a long time, but I wanted to do something which wasn’t completely superficial.

It’s probably different each time out, but do your collaborations with Anders often start with thinking about a certain subject rather than a specific story?

Every time we work together, you start with certain notions and then they change a little bit and then they become something else and then you realize by the end of when the screenplay is there, they change a lot, but it’s basically the same idea. [In “Love is All You Need”], the character of Ida is built a little bit on my mom, who had breast cancer twice and has always been this very positive person. I’d always been very impressed by her because when she was feeling most horrible, she would always talk about the nice nurses or find something which was really positive. Anders and myself had been talking about it, almost like joking about how we could make a character like that. That was the initial idea for Ida.

When it comes from a personal place like that, do you pass any of it onto Trine, who plays Ida?

It’s not like that. But Trine also has it in her. She has this incredible charm and warmth and kindness in her, so it was very obvious to us to ask her to play it because she’s got that.

She’s also got those incredibly soulful, piercing blue eyes, which you’ve drawn upon before to devastating effect in “In a Better World,” but here you’re able to tweak it so when they flare, it becomes a great comic effect. Was it fun to play around elements that you’ve used for drama and to subvert them?

So much fun to do. It has to stay playful all the time. But it can’t be shallow. Also, there’s the whole thing of [filming in] Italy and the landscape, so you have to indulge the lemons. You have to be there and enjoy it and my inner plan was to make it a completely romantic film because I think there’s so many movies at the moment where they’re fun and they are [called] romantic comedy, but in their heart, they’re very cynical. And I wanted to make something that was unashamedly romantic without you throwing up. [To do that,] there has to be a strong sense of humor in it and it has to be elegant.

SusanneBierLoveisAllYouNeedIs color a big part of that? You’ve developed a style where bright colors are often highlights, but here the entire frame is bright.

[It clicked] once we figured out with the costumes that she was going to wear this dress. In the beginning, the costume designer was like [Ida should wear] trousers. No, she is a woman who’s very much about being a woman and she’s going to dress like that. Once we figured that out, there were so many things which also came naturally. That whole heightened [reality], the yellow of the lemons, the pink of [Ida’s] dress and all of that was very conscious and very satisfying.

There’s the long-held adage that comedy is harder than drama. You’ve got a bit of both here, but did you find that to be the case?

Comedy more than anything requires accuracy. It requires actors who can be very accurate because any kind of comedy, but this kind of comedy [in particular] where it’s funny, but also sad and very emotional and very, very romantic, you have to balance that. You can laugh with the characters as opposed to laugh at the characters. That was the main thing this movie needed to have. You kind of smile with them, but you don’t smile at them.

How did the casting of Pierce Brosnan come about?

Our heroine in the beginning of the film has lost everything. She just finished treatment for cancer and her husband is having an affair with a beautiful blonde her daughter’s age and she feels she’s [hit] a wall. [For her], who would be the ultimate treat? That would be James Bond. Once we had that thought, we approached Pierce Brosnan and he liked the script a lot. Then we changed it according to him acting it and it was fun to play with that awkward notion of [wanting] to meet James Bond and you make it real.

Has it been interesting to invite different collaborators such as Pierce Brosnan into the fold? “Love is All You Need” is a bit of a hybrid, but it seems a pattern has developed where you’ll make a film with familiar folks such as Anders and Trine from Denmark and then something like your next film “Serena” with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

It’s not a conscious choice, like every second time or something, but there definitely is a balance. As a director or as an artist, it’s important to keep a balance between a shorthand and being challenged. You want to have a shorthand, but you don’t want to be comfortable because once you’re comfortable as an artist, it becomes boring. I try to put myself in a spot where I know I have enough immediate understanding so I can actually communicate swiftly, but also that I’m not feeling so comfortable that I pick easy solutions.

It’s really interesting because when you reach a certain point in career, particularly in Europe, where people tend to agree with you, even if you’re not right. You don’t want that position and this is not just as a filmmaker. I think it’s also as a politician or as a head of a company, it’s a very dangerous spot to be where people think that you might be unable to make mistakes. I want to stay in a position where I am surrounded by people who will ask questions, but not to a point where it just becomes disturbing. So it’s that cocktail of both.

“Love is All You Need” is now open at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Sunshine Cinema in New York and the Landmark in Los Angeles and will expand into limited release across the country next week. A full list of theaters is here.

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