I couldn’t have made the movies I made without having kids.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Susanne Bier spoke to us from the shoot of The Night Manager (2016) in Morocco. A member of the Dogme 95 group, Bier is the model of a transnational filmmaker, working in Hollywood as well as at home in Denmark, and shooting internationally on films, such as Oscar winner Hævnen (In a Better World), that illuminate and underline the complex connections between the wealthy Global North and the developing world. She’s the mother of two children, and has been making films continuously for 25 years.
How would you sum up twenty-five years of raising a family and making films?
I think it’s an advantage: I couldn’t have made the movies I made without having kids. There’s an element of reality-check that you’re forced to have when you have kids, which is very helpful in terms of storytelling. It puts your life and your work into perspective. It’s having a life – which is not necessarily easy to have while making films, but it’s wonderful.
Do you think that’s specific to working in Denmark, where there is state-funded childcare?
For the first fifteen years I spent all of my salary on childcare. Although in Denmark there is publicly-funded childcare, the hours don’t work with the hours you work as a film director. You can’t drop your child off at 5 am to get to the set, and pick them up at 9pm. I think it’s more of an attitude thing, it’s more that it’s embraced in Nordic countries that being a mum and working is not a contradiction. It’s more conceptual.
[Parenthood is] quite healthy because it has helped me make quick, clear decisions. I think life is good for filmmaking.
That’s also true in your storytelling: children are front and centre, for example, in In a Better World. Do you think that’s a result of being a parent while filmmaking?
My usual writing partner Anders Thomas Jensen has also got kids, although he had them later than than I did: it’s definitely shaped our mutual collaboration. I don’t think it’s just because our stories are about our families and kids; the reason my stories are about families also has to do with my parents. And possibly to do with being Jewish, part of this long family tradition.
But there is also an element of schizophrenia about having kids and being a film director: you’re on the set and you get the call from school saying, “hey your daughter fell down from the tree.” So you have to navigate the sudden demands for attention somewhere else. It’s quite healthy because it has helped me make quick, clear decisions. I think life is good for filmmaking.
If I say I can make something within a budget, or if I say a day is workable, I stick to it. Being a mother is part of that burden: you embrace limitations in fun ways. The fact is, as a filmmaker, that you have to be creative within a space – of money, or time, or a physical space.
Is your filmmaking practice different now that your children are grown up? For example, in terms of doing shoots abroad?
I took my kids with me when I shot away on set, with a nanny. I made it work when they were small as well. I remember when my daughter was 12, I was concerned because I was travelling a lot, and she was in a class with lots of kids with very involved, hands-on mums. I asked her, “Would you have rather had a mum who was more at home?”
She said, “When you’re away I miss you, but I’ve had a more interesting life than I would have had with a more conventional mum. I’ve been to interesting places in interesting ways, not like a tourist, and seen things with you I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.” It was difficult but it’s incredibly exciting for her to have those opportunities.
Beyond the shoot – what about festivals? Are they family-friendly?
Usually festivals are quite helpful. If you talk about the stress of a huge festival – where you have two days of press, then you have to go to the screening in a gown – that’s not particularly family-friendly. But any of the small festivals, which are less press-heavy, they’re very family-friendly actually.
I didn’t think much about it when I got pregnant, the year after I finished film school. I remember one producer telling me, “This is the worst thing you could think of doing.” And I thought, “Too bad, I’m going to make it work.”
When you were starting out, as a filmmaker and parent, did you have any role models or contacts in the business that you could emulate?
No. I went to film school and thought this is what I want to do. I didn’t think much about it when I got pregnant, the year after I finished film school. I remember one producer telling me, “This is the worst thing you could think of doing.” And I thought, “Too bad, I’m going to make it work.”
So my advice is: don’t listen to any of it. Don’t try to plan when you have your kids; the earlier you have your kids, the more the chance of you making the bits fit into one another. There is something quite organic about having kids when you’re relatively young, and figuring out how to do both, when having kids doesn’t have to be a project. I’m wary about being ambitious with the kids. I think you have to be ambitious about being a caring and loving and generous mum.