Danish director Susanne Bier is missing Vancouver. On the line from Toronto where she is promoting her latest Vancouver-shot film, Things We Lost in the Fire, Bier–who gained critical acclaim for films like Open Hearts (Elsker dig for evigt) in 2002 and Brothers (Brí¸dre) in 2004–talked about how she loved the things that tourists normally list: the sea, the mountains, the "human tone", and "the nature within the city".
"It was a great experience being in Vancouver," she says, "and I'd love to go back."
Bier says this, however, even after seeing a side of our city most tourists don't: the grungy buildings and alleyways of East Hastings Street. In the film, which is set in Seattle and opens here on Friday (October 19), recent widow Audrey (Halle Berry) seeks out her dead husband's best friend, Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), who is struggling to recover from a drug addiction.
Reaching out to others despite differences is a recurring theme in Bier's work. While in her previous film, the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet), Indian slums contrasted with Danish mansions, here, in her first Hollywood feature, the Downtown Eastside–shot scenes are a world away from Audrey's handsome house.
Bier's sensitivity to this city prompted a change of location for Audrey's home. "Originally, the house was described as a Tudor-style house," she says. "And then when Halle and David Duchovny were going to be this couple, I didn't feel they should be living in a Tudor-style house. So we were looking, and for me, with nature being so much a part of Vancouver, I wanted a house that reflected that. So when we found that house [on Blenheim Street] I was so happy about it, because it had that sort of sense that nature is within the house, which I really like."
This sense of place is important to Bier: "People in the Pacific Northwest are often slightly different from people in the rest of North America, and I felt that it was really right for this story that they should be there." Her dedication to social realism extended to the casting of two non-Caucasian leads–Berry and Del Toro–in a script that doesn't address their ethnic identities.
"When I met Halle for the very first time, it was the first thing she asked me. She asked me, you know, 'What do you think of me in that part? What do you think of a black woman playing that part?' And I told her, 'There's no way I'm gonna address it. Let's talk about how you see Audrey and let's talk about the character, and if you play the part I'm gonna treat it like I would have any other actress.'"
Bier's approach reflects her intention to represent society as it is. "We do live in a multiethnic society, and we can't keep needing to address it every time," she says. "This movie is about something completely different. And these were the right actors–they had a whole lot of other characteristics which were right for the part. So I just didn't in any way want to pull in a sort of artificial, fake side story in order to explain something which is fairly common."
Her concern for realism underscores everything, from her attention to location and clothing as a way of conveying authenticity to the use of handheld cameras and extreme close-ups. Many of these techniques are characteristic of Dogme 95, the Danish movie manifesto created by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, whose filmmaking tenets Bier followed when she made Open Hearts.
The director's dedication to truthfulness sets the stage for the depths of her characters' emotional natures exposed in the film. "I was very keen on maintaining their humanity," Bier explains. "Often, when rich people are portrayed in film, their wealth makes me alienated to their emotional state of mind in a way. I see more the diamonds on their fingers than actually see what they feel."
Ultimately, altruism brings together people from different walks of life in both After the Wedding and Things We Lost in the Fire. "Both films embrace love in a greater sense. [In Things We Lost in the Fire] Benicio's character actually manages to sort of love these [Audrey's] two kids, who are not even his own, and also this woman who is not even very nice to him. And there is a kind of generosity. Both movies are trying to convey a certain kind of generosity, which I hope for and occasionally see."