Detectives and best friends Andreas and Simon are leading vastly different lives. Andreas has settled down with his wife and son while Simon, recently divorced, spends most of his waking hours getting drunk. But all that changes when the two of them are called out to a domestic dispute between a junkie couple. It all looks very routine – until Andreas finds the couple’s infant son, crying in a closet. The usually collected policeman is shaken to his core. As Andreas slowly loses his grip on justice, it suddenly becomes up to the unruly Simon to restore the balance between right and wrong.
After triumphing at the Oscars with her global drama In a Better World (2010), Susanne Bier turned to romantic comedy in Love Is All You Need (2012). Bier’s US feature Serena is expected to release later this year.
A Second Chance, celebrating its world premiere at Toronto Film Festival and its European premiere at San Sebastian, is produced by Sisse Graum Jørgensen for Zentropa.
“The film is about a cop who kidnaps a baby. Now that’s what’s interesting. He breaks every rule. Sure, you can make a film about someone who breaks all the rules and you don’t understand him. What’s exciting is making a film about someone who does something so wrong, but nevertheless you understand him.”
“If people thought my films were proper and nice and predictable, I would rather open a bakery or write a cookbook. That’s not why I make films. It’s brutal and demanding work, and it’s fun because you lie awake at night thinking about it. It should satisfy your creative curiosity and provoke you. That’s why you do it.”
Susanne Bier beams. She’s happy. The Danish director has two new features coming out soon: Serena, a period drama starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, and A Second Chance, a dark, Danish-language tale with a cast including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Ulrich Thomsen, Maria Bonnevie and supermodel Lykke May Andersen.
A Second Chance is the reason why I’m sitting across from Bier in an office in Filmbyen, the former military site outside Copenhagen that’s home to her production company, Zentropa.
A Second Chance is a harsh thriller drama about a police detective, Andreas (Coster-Waldau), and his wife Anne (Bonnevie), who have recently had a much-wanted baby. We are also introduced to Tristan (Lie Kaas), a violent career criminal and drug addict who has just had a baby with his girlfriend Sanne (May Andersen), though they clearly don’t know how to care for a child. Ultimately, Bier says, the film is about navigating your own and others’ destinies.
Breaking All the Rules
Like most of Bier’s films, A Second Chance takes up the kind of personal and moral themes we all ponder: What is a good mother? When can a person do something he shouldn’t, and still be a good person?
But it’s a hard film for the director to talk about because it includes a number of twists she doesn’t want to spoil. “I can say, though, that the film is about a cop who kidnaps a baby,” she says.
The interesting thing about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is that he’s tremendously attractive, convincing and heartfelt, but then he has this other side, his Game of Thrones side.Susanne Bier
“Now that’s what’s interesting. He breaks every rule. Sure, you can make a film about someone who breaks all the rules and you don’t understand him. What’s exciting is making a film about someone who does something so wrong, but nevertheless you understand him. I want the audience to hope he will succeed at something we all know he shouldn’t be doing.”
Where Do You Draw the Line?
A Second Chance is the sixth film Bier has developed with writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, who also wrote the script. They previously made the Dogme film Open Hearts (2002), Brothers (2004), the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding (2006), the Oscar-winning In a Better World (2010) and, most recently, the romantic dramedy Love Is All You Need (2012), starring Trine Dyrholm and Pierce Brosnan.
Bier and Jensen have worked closely together for so many years that they have a running dialogue about things that interest them and possible subjects for future films. A Second Chance comes out of that dialogue and their mutual desire to do something more brutal than the romance of Love Is All You Need.
“One of the things we have in common is a strange obsession, a moral obsession – it could almost be religious, but it isn’t – with where to draw the line,” Bier says.
“What’s right and what’s wrong? We can easily spend a whole night discussing that. But it’s not like we said, ‘Let’s make something now that’s more brutal than anything we did before.’ It was not anything cerebral, more like a physical desire for us to do something more violent. A kind of restlessness in both of us which manifested itself in the way we both, at this point in our lives, wanted to be working with something that’s a bit more transgressive. There are no career considerations in it. It’s pure curiosity and a wish to explore.”
Images of Human Situations
At the end of the day, A Second Chance is about the wish to change other people’s lives and what right you have to do that. That’s a big question, Bier acknowledges. Even if it sounds a bit abstract, it’s still relevant and interesting in an everyday sense, because it’s so crucial in most people’s lives.
“It’s something you start thinking about when you have kids and you suddenly have to answer things and concretely relate to those kinds of questions,” Bier says.
In films you can illuminate moral issues emotionally. Films aren’t words. Films are images. And for me, that means images of humans and human situations.Susanne Bier
“Why is it you can’t take candy in the supermarket when it’s just lying there? Anyone could do it, but most don’t. These are quite basic things and I wanted to investigate them. Film is good for that, because it’s such an emotional medium. In films you can illuminate moral issues emotionally. Films aren’t words. Films are images. And for me, that means images of humans and human situations.”
All the Way
Bier says Anders Thomas Jensen was surprised at how brutal A Second Chance was when he saw the finished film for the first time.
“When I work, I dedicate myself to the film completely and it turns out the way I think it should be. I felt this story had to be told in a very uncompromising way for it to make sense. Sugar coating it would make it irrelevant. Even with everything that happens to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s character Andreas, at the end of the day you’re still interested in him – you’re still really compelled by him, and I don’t think you would be if the story had been softer. It’s his story, his journey, and if you start compromising on that, you lose him and the film becomes irrelevant.”
That’s the worst thing that could happen, the director says. She fights to make films that audiences react to and think about.
“If people thought my films were proper and nice and predictable, I would rather open a bakery or write a cookbook. That’s not why I make films. It’s brutal and demanding work, and it’s fun because you lie awake at night thinking about it. It should satisfy your creative curiosity and provoke you. That’s why you do it. You do it because you can’t not do it. Sure, A Second Chance may go too far, but at least I did what I could to make it right. It’s only fun if it’s a little bit nerve-racking. It might not succeed, but you have to be able to forgive yourself if it fails. And you can only do that if you take it exactly as far as you can with an honest heart.” She pauses.
“It doesn’t have to be about anything moral, but it should make an impression. Isn’t that what you want out of a film? That’s what films can do: give us violent emotional and physical experiences.”
You Have to Be Brutally Honest
For the same reason, Bier doesn’t read what film critics and others write about her. It would only be a distraction if she started seeing herself through the eyes of others.
“You can’t organise your life around whether other people think you’re a success or a failure. I have to have a compass in my gut and follow it,” she says. That doesn’t mean Bier doesn’t listen to other people. On the contrary, she encourages her closest collaborators to tell her if they disagree or if there’s something they don’t understand.
You can’t organise your life around whether other people think you’re a success or a failure. I have to have a compass in my gut and follow it.Susanne Bier
“I thrive on a certain amount of pushback. No one thrives with too much or the wrong kind of pushback, that’s frustrating and uncreative. But if the pushback is constructive, I love it. I welcome discussion, including on the set. Often, the sound guy will grab hold of me and say, ‘I think that line is nonsense,’ or ‘I don’t understand what’s going on in this scene.’ And I take that very seriously, because I know the sound guy is only doing it because he wants everything to be as good as possible. That sometimes forces me to articulate something I otherwise wouldn’t have articulated.”
Likewise, she and Anders Thomas Jensen have an unspoken agreement to be honest with each other – brutally honest – when they are working on a script.
“It’s a bit unsparing, but loyal and fun. We trust each other and it’s really no problem.”
Every role in a film should be distinctively cast, the director contends. In A Second Chance even the smallest parts are filled with some of Denmark’s and Sweden’s most able and popular actors. Even so, with the three male leads played by such a powerful trio as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Ulrich Thomsen, is there a concern that they might overshadow each other?
“I don’t think so,” Bier says. “On the contrary, I think they infect each other with more energy and provoke each other in a good way. I never thought you should make sure the roles don’t outshine each other. Quite the opposite. There’s a unique space between Coster-Waldau and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who plays the career criminal Tristan, that becomes enormously explosive. It becomes very obvious, because their characters don’t like each other.”
In general, casting a film is an exciting process. For Bier, it’s about finding the right actors but also thinking outside the box a little bit.
“Lykke May never made a film before,” Bier says, “and I never worked with Coster-Waldau before. It’s been ten years since he last had a lead role in a Danish film. The interesting thing about him is that he’s tremendously attractive, convincing and heartfelt, but then he has this other side, his Game of Thrones side, where you don’t really know what to think of him.”
“That cocktail was perfect for A Second Chance. It wouldn’t have worked if he was just handsome. But there’s that other side to him, as well.”
A Second Chance, celebrating its world premiere in the Special Presentations programme at Toronto Film Festival and its European premiere in the Official Selection at San Sebastian, is produced by Sisse Graum Jørgensen for Zentropa.
Christian Monggaard is a film critic at the Danish daily Information.
Director Susanne Bier, born 1960, graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 1987.
Bier won the Best Foreign Language Oscar with In a Better World (2010), which also fetched a Golden Globe and opened to rave reviews and top box office.
Over the years Bier’s name has been firmly established with titles such as the Dogme film Open Hearts (2002), Brothers (2004) and the Oscar-nominated After the Wedding (2006). Her first US production came with Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), and expected to release later this year is her period drama Serena. Bier turned to comedy in 2012 with Love Is All You Need.
A Second Chance is selected for the festivals in Toronto and San Sebastian.
A Second Chance is the thirteenth film Susanne Bier has made with editor Pernille Bech Christensen, their partnership going back to Bier’s first film, Freud Leaving Home (1991). There are two particularly good reasons for that, the director says.
“Pernille has a kind of BS detector that enables her to tell if something is believable or not. You can’t fool her. I may not agree with her, but I know why she’s saying what she’s saying. Also, she’s extremely musical. There’s music in everything she does. That cocktail makes her the superb editor that she is.”
Pernille Bech Christensen also edited Kristian Levring’s Cannes participant The Salvation.