Why this Danish director took on America’s most prominent women

The limited series is directed by Susanne Bier "The First Lady."

Susanne Bier directs the limited series “The First Lady”.

(Elizabeth Weinberg / For the Time)

When award-winning filmmaker Susanne Bier was offered the job of directing Showtime’s limited series The First Lady, an epic tale of the momentous tenures of Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), the challenge was obvious, but so was the pride of being asked.

“To be able to touch the crown jewels of American history as a Dane was like, ‘Whoa, that’s a real honor,'” Bier recalled recently while sipping an Earl Gray tea on the terrace of the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles in Beverly Hills. “I have to treat it with respect, but also with a certain freedom. And it was the right time to tell a strong female story.”

It hadn’t escaped Bier that a producer (“First Lady” showrunner Cathy Schulman) asking a female director to bring three of history’s most important women to life was a golden opportunity for women as subjects and creators. The reality, however, is that Bier is as accomplished as anyone behind the camera, having traveled the world directing over a dozen films, winning an Oscar (for 2011’s “In a Better World”) and an Emmy (for the series The Night Manager), and whose most recent project was the hit HBO thriller The Undoing.

Not everyone can encapsulate a 10 episode saga with three interlocking narratives spanning 110 years and hundreds of parts and suggesting its panache and intimacy. “It takes someone with a lot of experience to pull that off,” says Bier, who may be from the art house world but is diligent in keeping audiences interested. “If I don’t sleep for a year and a half and work all the time, I want people to see it!”

This working principle inspired her first major decision as a director: she initiated a rethinking of the scripts, which, when she first saw one, contained all the cuts between the three timelines. Bier wanted to create the episodes herself, only after making sure that each of the women’s story arcs was fully fleshed out and understood. The fact that Pfeiffer, Davis and Anderson’s shooting schedules were staggered helped with the rewrite.

Viola Davis as Michelle Obama in "The First Lady."

Viola Davis as Michelle Obama in The First Lady.

(Jackson Lee Davis / SHOWTIME)

Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in "The First Lady."

Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in The First Lady.

(Boris Martin / SHOWTIME)

Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in "The First Lady."

Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in The First Lady.

(Murray Close / SHOWTIME)

“While we were shooting Betty Ford, [the writers] reworked Michelle Obama’s scripts, and while we were shooting Michelle Obama, they reworked Eleanor’s scripts,” says Bier. “I ended up with essentially three 3 1/2 hour feature films about each character. And then I took that footage and mixed the stories with six editors.”

Bier describes the intensity of the concentration on each individual character and their performer as a gathering emotional force. “I fell in love with Betty Ford’s story, her candidness, this elegant, vivacious woman speaking publicly about breast cancer and substance abuse, and I fell in love with Michelle’s portrayal,” says Bier. “And then we got to Michelle Obama and I didn’t know how to fall in love again. But then Viola walked in and you look into those eyes, there’s so much depth, so many mysteries, and the same thing happened. Then we were done, and Gillian walked in, this extremely intelligent actress, and did this whole weird thing, being incredibly fragile, deeply insecure, and at the same time being relentless and tough.” Bier pauses as if remembering the shoot lost. “And I just fell in love!”

If Roosevelt’s personal life was the most difficult for beer to manage — “her sexuality was complex, so you don’t want to be exploitative” — Obama’s was the most disheartening because, she says, “we all think we know Michelle Obama.” And yet, has the series’ focus on finding what’s real, beyond what flash and media coverage have captured, has always led the way for Bier and her cast. “We want to see them vulnerable, their fragility as well as their strength,” she says. “Where they weren’t just glorified hostesses.”

Although this was Bier’s first historical project, she wanted to avoid the trap of emphasizing authenticity rather than speaking to a contemporary audience. Beer wanted both. “With Eleanor, being cheated on by your husband will always be relevant,” she says. “This is immediate engagement. But today you can get a divorce. She couldn’t get a divorce. Here the period adds reflection.”

In researching and producing The First Lady, Bier sees this domestically-titled, routinely underappreciated role in US political life as a “secret weapon.” “It’s not a political position, but it’s incredibly influential and powerful,” says Bier. “Franklin Roosevelt realized what a strength it was to have Eleanor in America getting two presidents. And also with Barack Obama. Michelle has changed our perception of how we engage young people. And Betty Ford, she was perhaps the biggest influence. She saved lives on a scale we don’t really know. Once they realize their potential impact, they change the world.”

A woman in a purple shirt is leaning on a balcony.

(Elizabeth Weinberg / For the Time)

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-06-08/susanne-bier-first-lady-betty-ford-michelle-obama-eleanor-roosevelt Why this Danish director took on America’s most prominent women

Sarah Ridley

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