Interview: Susanne Bier Talks Bullies and ‘In a Better World’

By  · Published on April 15th, 2011

Susanne Bier’s In a Better World made me, for the very first time, question my enjoyment of kids beating the hell out of each other on film. As someone that takes my fandom of kids kicking ass on film quite seriously, Bier stumped me. In a Better World is a film about violence, and the effects that it has. One of the two story-lines involves children, very nerd-like feeble children, striking back.

Most of you dear readers would most likely sympathize with these kids, like I did, but they end up going to the extremes that make you question their choices. Bier is a director that is known for exploring the extreme sides of humanity, and she continues that trend in a poignant and unique manner with In A Better World.

I spoke to Bier at SXSW where we discussed ‐ starting with some small talk, of course ‐ the grey areas of the film, the story’s structure, and finding realism in script and performance:

Are you enjoying your day of interviews?

It depends. You seem to be a nice person but you also get journalists who are…who hate what they do. You also get people where you kind of go, “Okay…” actually really trying. In general with this film people have been very positive so it’s nice.

Is it difficult discussing the film, especially since it’s more about questions than answers?

It’s hard trying…it’s hard talking about it and then you don’t want to repeat yourself but you also don’t want to…certain things only have one answer so you don’t want to…you can’t…

Like a scene say when Christian beats up the bully some could argue maybe that’s justifiable to a certain degree, but someone could violently disagree with that and say it’s terrible.

That whole thing… [hammering coming in from next store] It’s very annoying. I’m going to have to do something about it.

We should tell them to shut up, probably.

I’ll try and concentrate anyway and see if it goes away. The thing is the movie is kind of…one of the points of the movie is it does not really sort of approve of violence. The movie kind of thinks that non-aggression is better than aggression, but the movie also understands at some point that’s all you can do.

We’ve been trying to address the complexity of those issues. I think, in a way, if you treat them really black and white you’re bound to fail, because you’re bound to not understand why people…In the short term, Christian’s right. He’s completely right. The problem is in the long term, he’s not right. In the long term, there has to be another solution than beating up the guy. There has to be a…But the solution lies with the grownups.

But you could say, again, that bully leaves him alone after that point.

That’s what I mean. Short term works but long term it doesn’t work. In the long term that bully’s just going to hit at someone else. In a wider perspective, yeah he’s going to leave Christian alone and he’s probably going to leave Elias alone because Christian is protecting Elias, but he’s then going to hit someone else.

That’s a good point. You could say the same thing about Africa…

The thing is that Africa is a more…that’s kind of, in a way, the essence of the film, the whole thing with Big Man and Africa, because the doctor keeps holding back, he’s so firmly obeying to what he believes in. And that, at some point, even he has a breaking point and he can’t protect Big Man anymore.

And it’s interesting because we as an audience, and I, actually, as a filmmaker feel, “Oh good. Great.” Because I don’t want him to go on with his atrocities. I don’t want to see any more young girls being cut up by him. But I know the doctor feels it as a failure. So I find that very interesting.

I’m curious about the structure because I know [the screenwriter] Mr. Jensen started out with just a few scenes of cops interrogating kids. Can you talk about how the structure came about from that?

The thing is it’s kind of treated with how we deal with the structure because we always have a lot of elements and we basically have a lot of characters and a lot of interesting conflicts. Then we move the structure ahead.

But I think there are very few scenes in the actual film which are sitting where they sat in the script, so the structure’s also being redefined while editing, pretty much so. But I don’t think that that’s because…I think it’s basically the same script. I think if you have a really strong script you can easily then, in the post-production, you can then easily play around with the elements and make it the more fluid experience rather than…you can’t do that with a weak script. It’s interesting.

How the script differed from the final result? As you said, you’re finding the movie in editing, correct?

It’s very hard for me to remember because for now this is the structure. But the movie did start with a church and then Africa came much later. But the whole thing there was like the way the two boys get to know one another was completely different in the script. It was much more of a slower build-up.

And what’s his writing process like?

We actually have a very intimate writing process where we will talk a lot and then he will start writing and then he’ll write ten pages. And we’re usually in the same place. Quite often we go away. So he’ll write ten pages and then I will read and then we will talk about it, and then we will talk about the next…I’ll have corrections to those ten and then we’ll build the story little by little. We never have a synopsis. We don’t do treatment either. We can’t actually make the movie until we have the matter of the characters.

That sounds like a very organic process. Why don’t you want to do outlines or notes?

In a drama the action needs to be a result of the psychology. And one of the things that sometimes doesn’t work in movies is that you have a plot thing and then even if it’s completely out of character, they will still do certain things in order to make the plot move. And you can’t do that…In a believable drama you can’t do that.

And in order to get the characters right you have to deal with them and you really only get the characters once you make the scenes, because it’s the way they talk, it’s how you imagine they react in certain situations. That’s why even if we have, in the back of our mind, a notion of where the story’s going, which of course we need to have otherwise you can’t even write the first ten pages. We have an idea where the story’s going.

It’s still going to take us on a slightly different path because we actually deal with the scenes and because we actually deal in depth with the characters instead of just doing the outlines.

Tonally, the film is very reserved. Is that something that’s found in the script stage?

It’s very hard for me to say because I read that story into the script. I mean, what you do is that you get sort of humorous tone. Thomas is very, very good at writing…the way people talk is witty but not like’ ha-ha-ha’ humor. It’s very natural. He’s amazing at writing dialogue and he can actually manage to say a whole lot of pretty intense things without you feeling that it’s presumptuous which you often do.

The thing is that when you have that tone in scripts I think the actors feel that they can really put themselves into it. I think that the actors really feel that it’s not difficult to make it real and to make it honest and to…I don’t really aim at having a low key tone. That’s not…I always aim at its being authentic. I think authenticity is kind of what I’m after, but also authenticity and intensity.

Possibly these kind of stories could be very melodramatic, but they’re not. I perceive them as very real and I think they are really real. There’s none of this which…the thing about melodrama for me is a bit that it’s about forcing emotion. For me melodrama is very much about pretending that something is emotional and it isn’t really.

How much do you storyboard?

I don’t. At all. I purposely don’t because I purposely…I think when you storyboard you work outside and I always work inside out. I like that. In the morning I will rehearse with the actors for about an hour and a half. Then we’ll set the scene and I might actually change the scene. It might be written for kitchen and I might take it outside. We feel very free…we take away dialogue, add dialogue but eventually we usually end up with the dialogues that’s in the script, but we treat it very freely.

And then we set the scene and then we show it to the…the DP’s with me when we rehearse, but then we show it to the crew afterwards. Then they go into makeup and then they come back and I might change it again. I can’t storyboard because I very consciously…I want the action to be honest. You feel that it [referring to storyboards] becomes this very stylized, not vivid thing.

In a Better World is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.