The director talks about working with Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper on Serena
Award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier has given a masterclass to National Film and Television School students in which she spoke about her latest films, Serena starring Hollywood actors Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and the independent film A Second Chance.
Bier, who won an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film for In A Better World as well as European Film Award for Best Director, has been described by critics as “…a bomb thrower,” “emotionally challenging and honest”.
Speaking in conversation with film critics and Visiting NFTS Tutor Mark Johnson, following a screening of Serena, Bier spoke candidly about working with actors Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, who she said had been cast before their careers had skyrocketed.
“I’d seen Jennifer in Winter’s Bone and just thought she was an incredible performer. I knew she would be right for the lead role in Serena. This was before she’d done The Hunger Games and the financiers were concerned that she would not be a big enough name… This is barely four years ago.
“I had spoken with the producers about Bradley as I always thought and still think he is one of the most fascinating actors of our time with an equal amount of sex appeal and depth and when Jennifer then suggested him on one of our first conversation it was clear that we had to ask him.
Serena is a dark love story, based on a book by Ron Rash, set in a logging community in the mountains of North Carolina, USA during the depression. Its powerful lead character, Serena, is central to the downfall of the men around her.
“It’s a period noir story but we had to make it modern; you can’t have a purely evil woman who leads men into disaster. That was part of the challenge. The psychology needs to be more complex. Jennifer (Lawrence) has an irresistible innocence about her which makes it impossible not to fall in love with her - she is unbelievably talented”.
The film was made on a relatively tight budget and the almost unknown Jennifer Lawrence was able to walk around the streets of Prague freely. Bradley got a bit bothered by quite a few female fans but i believe he still enjoyed his time.
In the intervening years, their celebrity has risen and this has affected the film’s accessibility, said Bier: “It was a crazy trajectory they went through. With this level public profile come expectations of the film.
“It was always meant to be a dark film, not a mainstream love story. When your actors have certain levels of presence, it changes that balance.”
Shooting on Location
It was shot with a mainly Danish /Czech crew and many English actors, outside Prague in the Czech Republic where they built a set ‘camp’ designed to look like America.
Bier said she deliberately avoided rehearsing scenes beforehand, preferring instead to rehearse on location for about an hour in the morning in preparation for filming in the afternoon.
“I have readings with the actors beforehand but I don’t rehearse with them. It changes everything if you do it in a different location. We did it with liberty to the script…sometimes without dialogue, maybe adding an extra scene.”
Digital vs Film
Bier shoots on Digital preferring the freedom this offers, “…I shot an enormous amount…about 200 hours,” often using a handheld camera.
“Digital is smoother, quicker than film. I don’t want someone breathing down my neck telling me I’m using too much film stock.”
Comparing Serena to her independent low budget film A Second Chance, Bier had “…more freedom in editing…less external pressures.”
Working With Actors
Asked about her methods of working with actors, Bier said for her the key was not to look at the rushes on set and to avoid discussing the actors’ performances while shooting.
“If you let them look at the rushes, they step out of the moment and I want them to be in the moment, to tap into their intuition. If you comment on set, they become nervous. You need to create a sense of security and trust. It would be poisonous to the actors if it was discussed on set.”
Instead, she works with two editors afterwards who go through the rushes and give their objective comments. Asked how she managed to work with so many rushes, she revealed a staggering mental skill: “I have trained my mind to remember every shot. It is a useful when you need to find a shot!”
She also revealed that she uses test screenings and audience questionnaires to gauge public opinion before a film is released.
Surviving long shoots
Student directors in the audience wanted to know how she managed her personal relationships and handled stress while directing a film. Bier said she went running to keep mentally and physically fit and read books, “I rarely watch films,” and added, “You need to maintain a sense of balance to avoid pressure from outside. You are being asked to make millions of decisions on set and everyone believes their question is the most important. But you need to take a certain distance; only answer questions when you are prepared for them. You are in control.”
Asked for her advice to student and up-coming directors, Bier said: “Make your work personal and striking. Work seriously on the script before filming, listen to other’s opinions – but don’t lose your own thread. And work day and night – for nothing – because these early films will be your calling card to making films in future.”
Serena is released in the UK on October 24