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.

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 Night Manager airs on BBC1 on 21st February

Tim Dams

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