The Night Manager’s Susanne Bier on How She Directs and the Problem With Treating Women Like Minorities

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Photo: Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic

John le Carré’s 1993 espionage thriller, The Night Manager, has finally been adapted for the screen, 20-plus years and several permutations —including one with Brad Pitt — since its publication. AMC’s stylish six-part miniseries stars Hugh Laurie as international arms-merchant Richard Roper and Tom Hiddleston as former soldier and luxe hotel concierge Jonathan Pine in an updated story reflecting recent foreign affairs. Even Pine’s spymaster has morphed from Yorkshire intelligence officer Leonard Burr to very pregnant Londoner, Angela, played by Olivia Colman. Perhaps most intriguing, Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, whose In a Better World won the 2011 foreign film Oscar, has directed the nearly $30 million miniseries. In the Guardian last month, Bier said the producers (who include le Carré’s sons) “took a leap of faith” hiring her, because despite her diverse filmography (Things We Lost in the Fire, Serena, After the Wedding), women directors are stereotyped as making “intimate dramas.” Ahead of Tuesday’s premiere, Vulture spoke with Bier about getting the gig, why women are treated like minorities in the industry, and whether she would direct a Bond film.

You wrote in the the Guardian that the “world of spies and arms dealers was not an obvious fit” for you because “anything made by someone who isn’t a white male is labeled art house and niche.” How did you convince producers to give you the job?
I had a conversation in which I explained why what I wanted to do was not far away from what they wanted. I've always been an avid John le Carré fan and been very envious of anybody [who’s been] able to touch his material. So it wasn't like, Hey, let me do something I'm not brought up on. It was, Let me do something I’ve always wanted to do, and that I know what to do with.

You’ve said casting is the most important thing for a director, and Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston were already attached to the project when you came on. How did that change your approach? Did having a female perspective on the characters and their relationship impact the story?
Part of my interest, other than le Carré, was Tom and Hugh, because I thought the casting was really spot on. Hugh being the most charming man in the world playing the worst man in the world; and Tom being this really enigmatic, beautiful, intelligent actor who’s actually a bit of a spy himself. [As for bringing] a female perspective, of course, I am a female director. I think directing is pretty much an individual thing, and I’m not even sure that there is a female perspective, to be completely honest. There’s an individual perspective, and part of what I did is make the female characters real characters. I was adamant that the girlfriend, Jed, not be a cliché, that she be a troubled human being with secrets, which is what everybody in the series is. 

What’s Roper’s motivation for selling arms and chemical weapons, using refugee camps as cover for training mercenaries? In the first episode he’s described as “the worst man in the world,” and later we learn he’s comfortable with the idea of  “war as spectator sport.” So is he just an amoral sadist and psychopath?
He also says he’s a free human being; no one can tell him what to do. I think he’s a person who decided at some point that he has no obligation to morality. He’s a free man because he’s so wealthy, and because he’s not confined by any moral limitations. He is beyond having a conscience.

Is there overlap between Pine’s skills as a hotel manager and those of a spy? He pretty easily deceives Roper and penetrates his inner circle as no one has before. Later, when Angela offers him a way out, he turns her down, saying “I was living half a life when you met me. I’ve got nothing to lose.” Is it about revenge?
In the beginning it’s about revenge. But Pine, as opposed to Roper, is a deeply moral human being. In a very simplistic way, it’s about avenging Sophie’s murder. But basically, it’s about feeling so guilty that he inadvertently caused her murder that he wants to do one thing right in his life. And that is to get Roper.

Only one script was written when you got the job, and Burr was still a man. When the character became a woman, you said you thought of Olivia Colman. What did you think she’d bring to the role?
I was on the jury at Sundance [in 2011] when we gave her a prize for Tyrannosaur. Ever since then, I’ve felt she has this amazing combination of being totally honest, totally vulnerable, and yet tough as nails. I just thought she’d be fantastic for this part. Almost one of the first things I did after becoming attached to the project was to meet with her. And she told me she was pregnant. And I was like, Wow, that’s great for the part. But we will have to deal with insurance! I thought it was a real advantage for the part. But I also realized that it was going to be tricky; we were filming all over [Laughs].

You’ve said Burr is the “moral heart of the piece.”  What does Jed represent, besides someone who likes to take her clothes off? Is her power her sexuality?
No, she has a lot of sexual power, but she is also a troubled human being. The one thing that was in my mind [about the story] was that everyone has secrets, and no one is actually showing 100 percent who they are to one another. Yes, on one hand, you could say there’s a bit of gold digger about her. But she’s not really about moving up in the world. She’s about living, which is quite a rare thing. She loves her life with Roper until she realizes what it’s all about. And then everything falls apart for her.

What’s Burr’s secret? That she doesn’t love her husband?
Yeah, she really loves [Joel] Steadman. Everybody there has something, and it doesn’t have to be articulated. I think it gives [the story] a certain depth, and a certain sense of realness. Maybe it’s also a fascinating trait in human nature that we don’t necessarily want to know every single thing. There is a certain layer that is enigmatic or inaccessible, which is always attractive.

I read you spent an hour with the actors on set before the crew arrived each day to rehearse and discuss scenes. Is that how you always work?
Yes. It’s probably more like one and a half hours, depending on how complicated the scenes are. But I do rehearse on my own with the actors every single morning. I get up like three hours before I’m supposed to leave, and I prepare very meticulously the scenes of the day. Then I rehearse with the actors, and we play around with the dialogue, and we take away the dialogue; it’s kind of a playground. And it means that between the actors and myself, we own the set. Because at times, a set becomes very technical, and the actors kind of come in, and they don’t take ownership. This way we do. Then the crew comes in, and we change things according to [their] technical suggestions. But basically it gives such strength to the day, and a layered-ness to the performances. I find it very gratifying and exciting, and an efficient way of working.

You said you wanted viewers to “feel like spies, peeping in through doors and windows, catching the characters unaware in moments of vulnerability.” What were your favorite scenes to shoot?
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the action scenes. I don’t know whether its because it’s not something I’ve done a lot of before. But I had a lot of fun doing those.

Like the Egyptian revolt?
Yeah, and when the trucks explode. I loved the scene where they have the meeting with the Arabs when the deal is being signed, and they all get out of their cars. I had a lot of fun doing all of the scenes — some of the ones between Pine and Jed, and some of the ones with Burr. I’d happily to do it all over again.

As a director, do you care what people on set think of you?
I’m not an asshole! I don’t think you have to be to be a good director. But I don’t really care. I hate when people shout at their assistants. I hate the power game that certain directors have where they want to be boss just to show how powerful they are. None of that interests me at all. I want to do the best possible scene, the best possible image. And I don’t really care what anybody thinks. But I don’t find any particular pleasure in being horrible.

Whose idea was it to have le Carré make a cameo in episode four?
I think he does it quite often. And we certainly weren’t going to let him go without doing it [Laughs].

Last fall, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said it was interviewing female directors about discrimination they face in film and television. Did you, or will you, speak to them?
They haven’t asked me to come talk to them. But I’d be happy to. 

You said it remains to be seen what the impact of the recently launched nonprofit We Do It Together, whose aim is to finance and produce empowering female content, will be. Does that mean you’re not optimistic?
No, I am very impressed and very positive about any effort being made to heighten equality. If it has success, that’s wonderful. What I’m a little bit concerned about is making film or television made by women fringe. That’s my worry: I don’t want us to be fringe. We are more than half of the world’s population, and we are always put in a box as if we’re a minority.

Do you think your work on The Night Manager will open more doors for women? It was just announced Rachel Talalay (Doctor Who, The Flash) will be the first woman to direct an episode of Sherlock. Did you feel pressure taking on this project?
So I don’t let my gender down! I feel very strongly about gender politics. I feel very strongly about fighting for female equality. Whenever I’m asked, was my ambition not to let my gender down, I get worried because my ambition is not to let anyone down. And if I start living in that [I’m representing] my sex, I immediately put myself in the category of a fringe or niche thing, and I don’t want that. The mistake is to think that women can only deal with female topics. A female director is going to be just as great doing a huge action film. It’s more about accepting the fact that directors are individuals. They might have a slightly different code in the way they present themselves, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less talented, any less well equipped.

Have you gotten more and better offers since The Night Manger aired to great success in the U.K.? I read your name has come up as a possible candidate to direct the next Bond film. Is that something you’d consider?
Of course I would! If you’d ask any director in the world, I can’t think of anybody who wouldn’t consider the next Bond film. Yes, I am getting more interesting offers. And I am getting more offers that are less in the traditional female territory.