‘Serena’ Interview – We talk to director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle

October 24, 2014

Serena is arriving in cinemas after a fair time lying in wait. As can be seen below, at the point this was made its central star, Jennifer Lawrence, hadn’t even made the first Hunger Games film. Bradley Cooper was the sole star tied to the project.

We sat down with the Danish director of the film, Susanne Bier, and her screenwrite on the film, Christopher Kyle, for a rather interesting and illuminating chat, which included Darren Aronofsky’s original involvement, the rise of television and the pros and cons of working in Hollywood vs Europe. 

How did the project come about, first of all?

Christopher Kyle (CK): I read this remarkable novel when it was still in galleys and I really asked my agent to go after it hard and eventually got the job to adapt it. I was really attracted to the dark love story, to see a woman in this crazy macho world of the logging camp, the way they love nature and want to destroy it at the same time, all these big themes were really exciting as a writer to dig into, so I started working on the script, wrote a draft and then a year later, Susanne got involved and we started working on it together.

Susanne, what was the appeal of the project for you?

Susanne Bier (SB): The same. (Laughs). No, I mean, I was attracted by the dark love story and I was attracted by the fact of having this woman who is forceful and who is actually more capable than most of the men and who has a kind of a damaged soul, in a way. I was very attracted by all of those elements. And I still am.

With regards to getting on board with the project, is it right that Darren Aronofsky and Angelina Jolie were originally tied to the project and was there trepidation for you to pick it up after that?

CK: You know, the nature of this business is that people get attached to projects and then unattached to projects – it happens all the time. Darren was involved with the project for six or eight months and then financing came through for Black Swan, so he became unavailable, so we moved on. He did talk to Angelina at one point, I don’t know how far that got, but that’s normal, you talk to actors, you see who’s interested. None of that developed very far before Susanne got involved.

What had you seen Jennifer Lawrence in at the time that she was cast in Serena?

SB: Winter’s Bone. And that’s it. She had not yet done Hunger Games and she had not worked with Bradley. So she got involved and, actually, at the time, she had only done Winter’s Bone and because she was a clearly very talented, very beautiful, very interesting young actress, but not yet a big star, it was quite difficult financing the movie on the basis of her, so it took a little while. But on our first conversation – I mean, she now claims that it was her idea [to cast] Bradley, but I was also going to talk to her about Bradley, so it was clearly both of us who had the same idea, and then we asked Bradley and he was quite keen to get involved and he was quite keen to portray a kind of slightly troublesome character, someone who is an idealist, but an idealist for reasons that today we don’t really consider particularly proper or particularly wholesome. And I was very fortunate that both of them wanted to be attached, but then it took longer to finance it. And in the interim, Jennifer had then done Hunger Games and they then did Silver Linings, but none of the movies had come out when we shot Serena.

What had Bradley Cooper done when he was cast then? Had he done Limitless?

SB: He’d done Limitless, he’d done The Hangover, he was an established star, which is sort of what made it possible to finance it. And then she became a huge big star in the interim.

You also have so many great British actors in the cast – I’m thinking of Sean Harris, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones and so on. How did they get involved?

SB: There are Danish stars too! The movie was shot in Prague. It was tempting to partly use a European cast, but also I always felt that Britain has this richness of amazing character actors, character actors who are really distinct and special. And so the script was full of archetypes, like the archetype sheriff and the archetype villain, in a way. And actually, we were pretty much agreed that it would be really interesting having character actors who would not just fit into the archetype and would add something very extra to the characters. So, Rhys Ifans, who has a very gentle way of talking, that just makes him doubly scary when he plays the villain.

Did you have many of those character actors in mind early on in the process then, when you were looking at the script?

SB: It came together quite quickly. Once we started casting out of Britain, it was very joyful and fun to do that, because it left space for slightly unexpected choices.

Susanne, you tend to explore relationships in your films rather than creating something effects-driven or, say, an action film. Do you find that this is something that you particularly connect with and interests you still?

SB: I am interested in human beings. I am interested in relationships. Basically, that’s the only thing that interests me. However much I theoretically would love to do a real action film, I can’t really see myself engaging for hours and hours about a car chase. The thing is that I really enjoy some of them. I enjoy the ones that still have a human aspect to them or the ones that have a sense of humour, but I am always longing for the car chase to stop and for them to start talking, or kissing, or any other possible human exchanges.

CK: Certain types of movies get so technical that the director spends all their doing everything but work with the actors on the human beings in the story.

SB: It would drive me crazy and I can’t really see anyone who would offer me that type of movie!

You have two films at this festival, Serena and A Second Chance. Will you continue to go back and forth between Hollywood and making films in Europe?

SB: I would love to, but it’s also a little bit about working in different financial scales and that’s probably the major difference.

What are the main pros and cons of both?

SB:  The pros (of working in Hollywood) are that you can actually make an epic picture, which is really attractive and satisfying in terms of beauty and the whole cinematic experience. The cons are that it is a more complicated process.

So, is it a case that the reverse is true, where making films in Europe is a more streamlined and simple process but the financing is harder?

SB: Ah, but then when you see a lot of small European films, you wish it were a more complicated process, because there is also that thing of an auteur arrogance in Europe. ‘I’m the director, nobody’s going to say anything, so I’m just going to do the movie I want to make’. Then it’s a three-hour long, incomprehensible and very boring movie. I do actually think there is a kind of healthiness in a bit of an exchange. I don’t think making a movie by committee works either, but I think that a certain relevant questioning is probably healthy.

We’re experiencing a strong time for television and, in particular, Scandinavian television. Would either of you ever be tempted to move into that?

SB: For me, television is the most exciting thing. It’s the most exciting place to be right now so, yes, absolutely. I think one has to live in the last century for not recognising where most, but not all, of the… well, it’s also where the best writing is. [Turns to Kyle] Don’t you agree?

CK: It’s so depressing trying to get work as a screenwriter in Hollywood right now, because all the movies are about toys or comic books. Opportunities like Serena are extremely rare and very competitive, because all the writers want those jobs, so where there’s growth, where there’s excitement, is television. Not just in the US, but all over the world. Everybody’s clamouring for these interesting, serious dramas with good writing, good acting and good directing. The production values have exploded. You see something like True Detective. It’s shot like a beautiful eight hour movie, which wasn’t what television was like 5 or 10 years ago at all. A lot of people are excited about television…

SB: I also like watching it! And I want to say, particularly, in writing. You mentioned Scandinavia, because I actually think that the writing in Scandinavian films is still, comparatively, really good, but I think that particularly in America, I think that the writing in television is way better than the writing in films.

Does that mean that it is just a question of you waiting for the right project to come along? Or would you be thinking about producing or developing your own material?

SB: I’d love to do television. Whether it would be me initiating it or doing a project with him  [indicates Kyle], I would be very intrigued by that.

CK: I’ve just made a deal to write a pilot for FX, based on a French historical novel called ‘The Cursed King’, it’s about the 14th century and the events that led to the 100 years’ war.

What was the hardest thing to get right in Serena?

SB: The hardest thing was balancing the fact that we’re dealing with two fraught human beings and still rooting for them, because it’s all very well having a clean heroine or a clean hero, but the complexity of what the characters are doing, and yet still being attracted to them; still being fascinated by them; not being repulsed by them. I think that’s probably the trickiest balance of all.

CK: I agree; the tone. It’s very tricky when you place at the centre of a film characters who do things that are objectively offensive. And yet, if you make them compelling, fascinating and complex enough, the audience will go with them. Last night, a young woman at the Q&A was going all the way with Serena to the point where she said she was rooting against Rachel and the baby. 

Was something like Macbeth at the forefront in terms of references?

CK: Yes, absolutely, and that starts with the novel. The novelist was inspired by Lady Macbeth and also Medea; these tragedies with strong women at the centre of them, so that was something we were conscious of from the beginning.

Were there any other specific reference points for you when making the film?

SB: There were a number of references. There was a noir reference. A Barbara Stanwyck, noir reference. It was very important for me to give this a contemporary feel, but that there was also a sense of psychology; that she wasn’t just an evil black widow that would just seduce a man, because I don’t feel that a contemporary female audience would respond to that. I feel that a contemporary female audience would respond to someone who might behave in an offensive way, but we still understand her, which is what I was trying to aim at.

Serena is in cinemas from 24th October 2014


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