Director Susanne Bier on creating the international intrigue of John Le Carré's The Night Manager
How a theme about secrets became a six-hour miniseries5
Longtime fans of Danish writer-director Susanne Bier probably associate her with the stringent, realism-focused Dogme 95 movement, or a series of intimate, tragic family dramas like Things We Lost In The Fire and In A Better World. So it’s a bit of a surprise to see her helming the slick, action-packed BBC spy-thriller miniseries The Night Manager, which makes its American debut on AMC on April 19th.
The series, which adapts John Le Carré’s 1993 novel, stars The Avengers’ Tom Hiddleston as a refined hotel manager who has a run-in with an international arms dealer (played by House’s Hugh Laurie), and subsequently becomes a spy in his household, looking for a way to expose him. Bier directed all six hour-long episodes, which is unusual for a TV project. But as she explained in a Q&A with Hiddleston at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, where the first episode and a teaser for the second screened for a sold-out audience, she approached the entire series as a single six-hour movie. After the screening, I talked to her about why Hiddleston is the ideal spy, how he and Le Carré had a charm battle on the set, and why she’d “cut off her ear” to direct a James Bond movie.
Tasha Robinson: It’s becoming more common to see well-known film directors doing TV, but it’s less common to see film directors doing entire series runs. What drew you to this project so much that you wanted to direct six hours of it?
Susanne Bier: Directing the entire project was part of the draw for me. I was intrigued by doing television, because so much great writing is being done for television right now. But I was also quite adamant that I wanted to do something that would let me embrace a distinct vision as director. I didn’t want to come in and do one episode of someone else’s project and leave again. I wanted to create a vision of my own.
How do you specifically define that vision here?
It becomes really banal when you start to articulate your personal vision for any particular project. My basic thought with this series was, everyone has secrets. Everyone has something they aren’t revealing. It comes in the visuals here, in the way the story’s being told. In terms of the aesthetic shape, the images need to enhance that idea. But it’s also in the narrative. It’s an abstract idea, so how do you express it onscreen? But once I had that in mind, it became an intuitive determinator that informed all my choices throughout.
How did the idea of secrets affect your shot choices?
It wound up working in terms of keeping a close focus on the characters, putting a lot of emphasis on the characters in the shots. And also in using nature as a character, using setting as a character. These are backgrounds that seem familiar. It’s putting something onscreen that seems as if we know it, when we really don’t. When you use location as an almost human character in the film, you suggest there’s life in the world that can’t be defined. You don’t necessarily address those secrets, but you’re aware as an audience that there are things about the world, about the setting, that aren’t overtly revealed.
You mentioned at the Q&A that there have been other efforts made to adapt The Night Manager, but they never made it to the screen. What made you confident this project would work?
I think the impossible thing was boiling the book down to a feature-length movie format. It was very different, doing it for television and having six hours to tell the story. Part of the intrigue of the novel was the cat-and-mouse game by the protagonist and antagonist. But the quality of the novel comes from the incredibly interesting gallery of minor characters. My guess is that what didn’t work in the shorter format was those minor characters. In two hours, you can’t give them the space they need to breathe.
Speaking of settings, how did you go about choreographing the chaos of the Arab Spring in Egypt for your opening scenes?
We shot those sequences in Marrakesh, and it was amazing shooting there. The assistant directors were incredibly skillful, and the extras were just so engaged, so dedicated to making it real. It was this amazing feeling, where the extras all really wanted to be a part of the story we were telling, really wanted to help create it realistically.
Was there a political element for them in reliving this recent part of history, or in getting to be part of it if they weren’t from the area?
I think their reaction was apart from the political content. I think it was about the joy of spectacle. There are times as a director where you get extras from commercial agencies, and they’re paid quite heavily, but you get a sense that they just want to get their money and get out. But here, there was an incredibly strong energy to the performances, a commitment to creating this sequence. And you can really feel it onscreen.
What made you want Tom Hiddleston for this role?
Well, Tom is almost like a real spy. He’s incredibly handsome, funny, and well-spoken. And he’s an actor. He has his layers and his secrets. You can keep looking at him for days, and he’s never going to reveal everything about himself to you. At this point, I’ve watched 300 or 400 hours of him on film, and I still don’t really know him. He’s perfect.
You also said in that Q&A that Olivia Colman was your only choice for the role of his handler, Angela Burr. Why was getting her to take the role so important?
I was on a jury at Sundance in 2011 where we gave her a Special Jury Prize for best actress for Tyrannosaur, and I couldn’t get the film out of my head. Her performance in that film was just so present in me, so alive. I felt I really had to work with her at some point. When the character was changed from a man to a woman, I immediately thought of her and asked her to do it. Angela is incredibly tough and quite relentless, but she’s also the most human character in the story. She’s the heart of the piece. It had to be Olivia to work.
Did you ask for the gender change when you came on?
In the first script I read, Burr was still a man, and I didn’t even think about it. Then the executive producer came to me and said they were trying to update the story for a modern setting, and they wanted to bring in more female characters. He said, "For instance, Burr could be a woman," and I immediately thought, "Yes, that’s perfect." Later, I talked to John Le Carré about it, and he said if he’d written the book today, that character would have been female.
You’ve mentioned in the Q&A that he does a brief cameo in a later episode, and that he was "naughty," that he gave you and Tom Hiddleston a lot of trouble with it. What was the conflict?
I shouldn’t have said "naughty." John has been totally supportive, hugely supportive throughout the project. It’s just that he doesn’t buy into bullshit. That scene had a dramatic structure, where Tom is supposed to charm John’s character, and John in character didn’t necessarily agree with that structure, or the charm. I think he was testing Tom a bit by resisting. But shooting that scene was incredibly fun. John spent something like 12 hours out in the baking heat, being incredibly charming, elegant, and funny, while not backing down and letting Tom have his way.
Did he have input into other aspects of the show?
At the beginning, he said to me, "Look, I’m not going to interfere in this production, but if you need anything, feel free to call me and I’ll tell you what I think." And we did! I wanted his perspective. In particular, I was keen to hear how the agent-handler relationship works. I wanted to know how a handler would feel about sending an agent into the field. How emotionally entangled is she? How important is his success to her? John helped me walk through that.
The film’s already had a lot of success and received a lot of critical praise in its UK release. Do you think it’ll be seen any differently here?
It’s a different culture, so I’m sure there’s going to be some difference. I’m hoping — it seems like Americans are going to respond extremely positively to it. I’m assuming that because there is a different in consciousness, they’ll focus on different specific things. But so far, it seems to me that the response is just as positive. The first episode was shown in Denmark, my home country, last night, and it got really got amazing reviews, and a really big audience. So that was a fantastic experience. I really think this show can travel around the world.
What about it do you think makes it so accessible to different cultures?
I think there’s something universal about it. It’s universally thrilling. It’s that cat-and-mouse idea again. I think there’s a universality in a game of intrigue between strong men. And there’s the love story — a few love stories, really, throughout the film.
Tom Hiddleston was asked recently if he wanted to play James Bond someday, and he was hugely enthusiastic about the character. This feels like a possible trial run for him — he’s playing a spy, and specifically a very capable, debonair, but closed-in man who has a defining tragedy in his past involving a woman. Did Bond ever come up as a touchstone when you were working on this?
Actually, we never did talk about him. I think we were much too involved and engaged in making Jonathan Pine. I guess when you deal with a British spy, and you’re mixing in a sophisticated world of wealth, the comparison becomes inevitable. There are the fancy suits and cars and iconic things that are obviously familiar. But it’s more those trappings than anything else, creating the comparison. We didn’t think of that while we were shooting it.
I’ve always thought of you as a particularly strong director of women’s stories and female characters. Does it feel different directing something that’s so intrinsically tied up in this macho face-off, this contest of masculinity?
For me, it doesn’t really make a difference. It’s far more about dealing with an interesting character I can be intrigued and fascinated by than by about differentiating a character’s gender. It was important to me that the female characters were substantial and real, and not just the extension of a man’s dream. And I mean that both about Burr, who’s touching and interesting and intriguing, and about Elizabeth Debicki’s character Jed. There’s a classical danger in being a villain’s girlfriend, in allowing yourself to be a trophy. We were very keen on making sure that she wasn’t a cliché. Elizabeth herself, in real life, is not a cliché girlfriend. She’s incredibly beautiful, but also intriguing and different. And Jed is as flawed and secretive as everyone else on the show. She’s a human being.
What does it say about Jonathan Pine that he falls in love as quickly as he does, that he lets a relationship define his world so quickly?
I think he gets seduced by Sophie because she’s beautiful and captivating, but also because she’s vulnerable. And I think in a story about secrets, he’s seduced by her being so outrageously honest with him. I think the reality is, it’s an extreme point in time. It’s almost civil war in Egypt. The setting and the violence of the time pulls them into a real and profound intimacy.
Do you want to direct more television from here?
I would like to do more, but I’d also like to make more feature films. They’re quite different in working method, and quite different in their strong qualities. I can’t say one is better than another. But mostly, I’d love to direct more action. I was so surprised by how much fun action was to direct. I didn’t anticipate liking it so much. I’ve done so many compelling, interesting, intimate personal stories that I actually didn’t think it would be as intriguing doing action, but it was. I don’t think I’d ever do it for its own sake, like just putting a car chase into a story. But I find coordinating action incredibly satisfying. Maybe not forever — by the fourth action film, I might be ready for something else.
So would you also like to do a James Bond story? Maybe directing Tom Hiddleston?
I would probably cut off my ear to do James Bond. But really, I would love to do any kind of action. I couldn’t say what I would do with the character, unless it was a real project. But action is only interesting if the characters are real. Directing action is like figuring out dance. It’s thinking about movement, thinking about vision. I can’t really describe it more than that. I could never do something that was pure action, without a story I could relate to. But as long as it has strong and meaningful characters, that’s what I want to do.
The Night Manager’s American run premieres on April 19th, on AMC at 10PM ET.