Oscar-winning Danish director Susanne Bier on the making of a very British John le Carre thriller
Danish director Susanne Bier’s films include Dogme 95 feature Open Hearts, After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire and In a Better World, which won her an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. The Night Manager is her first TV drama.
The Night Manager is the first TV adaptation of a John le Carre novel in 20 years, and is an updated version of his 1993 spy story about organized modern crime. It follows a British hotelier (Tom Hiddleston) who is recruited by an an intelligence agent (Olivia Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of a charismatic arms dealer (Hugh Laurie).
Why have you made the move from film to TV?
There is so much amazing writing in television now, and as a director you want to be where the great writing is. Also, for me to have six hours as opposed to less than two hours is a lot of fun. It means all the minor characters can become really interesting, and so have their own small trajectory.
Which do you find easier – film or TV?
You can’t really say one is easier than other. The Night Manager has been shot the same was as you would shoot a film. You don’t do a first second and third episode. You do everything – one day you will do a scene from episode five, then a scene from episode two. So it is about keeping that overview of the whole thing and making sure that each character at various points fits into where they are set in the story.
How did you come direct The Night Manager?
I told my agent that I was interested in television. Then I got to read the first episode of this. And I loved it. Three days after I read the first episode I was on Skype with Stephen Garrett, the executive producer.
I felt that when I read it, I really got the characters. The series is really a play between how attractive do you want to make this world of evil, personified by Hugh Laurie, and how borderline Tom Hiddleston is going to be. Is he going to venture in and become an agent of evil, as opposed to being the agent of doing the right thing which he sets out to be. I wanted to explore that play between those two worlds.
Did you see it as a character study first?
I do see it as a thriller, but I see it as a thriller with quite compelling and complex characters. Which I think is what John Le Carre does so well. He’s a thriller writer – but the psychology is at all times surprising.
How involved has John Le Carre been?
Very. He has written scenes, and notes. The one thing is that we didn’t want to let him down. We have set it in a different location from the book and at a different time. David Farr also wrote the two last episodes, which are not in the book. We recreated a different version of it but wanted to stay completely true to the core of the book.
Was it challenging to direct such a British project?
I find the texture of the Britishness exciting and compelling. Some years ago there was British director making a Swedish film and I just remember thinking it was one of the most Swedish films I have ever seen. It became a love story to Sweden in a different way to how a Swedish director would have done it. And I do like to think there is a parallel.
You filmed in Morocco, Eygpt, Switzerland, Majorca, London and Devon. How was that?
It was challenging. But the main thing, as a director, is that I want to get the basic story telling right and I want the basic characters to be fascinating. It was a big project, but one of most fun things I have ever done.
What was it like dealing with the BBC and AMC?
Before we started I was a bit concerned. Would it be two major forces, giving contradictory notes. But this particular project seems to be one of those miraculous situations where everyone involved basically wanted the same thing.
Which camera did you use?
A Red. I think it has quite a cinematic look. There is a whole new audience of television viewers who demand a look which is more cinematic, sensuous and more adventurous. Television viewers are used to visuals having a real impact.
What are you proudest of when you view the finished series?
What I am really proud of, and what was the true challenge of this piece, is the fact that you watch the whole thing and you still want to hang out with the worst man in the world. That is sort of the trick of whole thing.
Details Produced by The Ink Factory for BBC1 and AMC Executive producers
Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Garrett, David Farr and Polly Hill Producer Rob Bullock Director Susanne Bier Script David Farr Production designer Tom Burton DoP Mike Snyman Line producer Matthew Patnick Editor Ben Lester Post supervisor Elaine Waugh Colourist Jet Omoshebi Online editor Rob Cooper VFX Blue Bolt Sound recordist Aitor Berenguer Re-recording mixer Howard Bargroff Music Victor Reyes
The Survivalist, Stephen Fingleton's first feature length film, earned a Bafta nomination earlier this month for outstanding debut.
Shot in Northern Ireland, it’s a post-apocalyptic thriller set in a time of starvation, where the Survivalist (Martin McCann) lives off a small plot of land hidden deep in forest protecting his crop and cabin from intruders with his shotgun and improvised traps. But everything changes when a starving woman and her teenage daughter ask to share his secluded shelter.
After its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Indiewire cited cinematographer Damien Elliot’s “patient tracking shots”, “exquisite framing strategies”, and “incredibly textured green-and-brown palettes of the outdoor landscape,” for helping to create the film’s suspense.
Elliott used the Arri Alexa Plus as the main camera for The Survivalist. Many of the film’s scenes are shot in a dark cabin, lit with practical light such as a stove fire and oil lamps.
“I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to use a lot of the lighting tools you’d normally have, so you’re relying more on the camera: you have to use the best, and I feel that’s the Alexa,” says Elliott, who explains that the camera “really allowed us to use some very low light levels.” He adds that in hindsight the new, compact Alexa Mini would have been perfect for the film.
Elliott also used a Blackmagic Cinema Camera (2.7k version) for some smaller scenes done in a documentary style, and for some very tight spaces in the cabin set. “The Blackmagic Cinema Camera performed surprisingly well, although I never used it as a B-Camera against the Alexa, that would have been an unfair competition, and would have stood out in the edit.”
Most of the film was shot on two Angenieux Optimo zooms: the 15-40mm and 45-120mm. “I would say that a good half was on the 45-120. After the tests Stephen chose the 45mm focal length as a sort of standard lens, it was a good call. These lenses are so good, really amazing, and with a doubler the longer lens became a 90-240 (obviously there is a stop loss, but we only went that long in daylight so it wasn’t an issue). Having all that range in a compact form was a real benefit....We also had a set of Zeiss SuperSpeeds which we only used on the Blackmagic, and for some flashback scenes, and they worked great – a very different look.“
The edit for the film began on location, where editor Mark Towns and his assistant spent five weeks with their suite set up in a two-berth caravan. Goldcrest carried out the majority of the post in London, but the grade was done in Goldcrest New York by “an amazing colourist” John Dowdell, who Elliott describes as a “legend” in grading and timing.
Asked for his advice on what film-makers should do when planning for a shoot, Elliott’s opinion is straightforward. “It’s just the old adage of test, test, test. The cheapest (and least stressful) place to try anything out is before you go to shoot. We only did one day of camera test in our principal location but it was so valuable, just seeing the main actor in the environment, and seeing how the forest read on camera. It really gave myself and Stephen a sort of head start in visualising certain scenes, angles and focal lengths.”
But he warns against getting too obsessed with technology. “The one thing that can really get in the way of filmmaking is the camera itself. We often get so obsessed with the camera, and sometimes it takes precedence. You have to not let it lead you. You always have to consider it to be just a tool, like all those other tools of the process. Occasionally we wished for a smaller, less intrusive camera, particularly during emotional scenes.”
The Survivalist is in cinemas from Friday 12 February