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Conversation With Bille August
by Stan Schwartz

It's a busy time for Danish film director Bille August. He will soon have two new films released in the United States, Smilla's Sense of Snow based on Peter Hoeg's internationally best-selling thriller, and Jerusalem, an epic period piece based on the Swedish classic by the Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlof. And, Mr. August is already in production with a new film treatment of the classic Les Miserables ("Not the musical," he is quick to point out) featuring a starry cast including Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes.

These films perfectly reflect the dual nature Mr. August's career has taken in recent years. On the one hand, there are the big, international productions in English with international stars: (The House of the Spirits featured Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Winona Ryder, amongst others, while the current Smilla boasts Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne and Richard Harris). On the other hand, there are the small budget films (ironically, longer in length) like Pelle the Conqueror, The Best Intentions, and now, Jerusalem, all films shot locally and in Swedish with some of the finest Swedish actors around: Max von Sydow, Pernilla August (Mr. August's wife), Lena Endre, Borje Ahlstedt, Johan Rabaeus, just to name a few. With the exception of Max von Sydow, these are names virtually unknown in this country unless you have followed the film and/or stage work of Ingmar Bergman, and this group of films looks and feels so different from the big international productions that you could easily imagine they were directed by someone else.

But -- so far, at least -- it is this second category which has garnered top awards at Cannes for Mr. August and his actors. Call it a bias towards European art films if you like, but they happen to be superior films. I invite the new Les Miserables in a year's time to break the rule and certainly Liam Neeson is up to the task, actor-wise. In the meantime, Mr. August and I chatted about these matters in his hotel suite on a recent visit to New York. Soft spoken, quietly intense, politely reserved and in sum, Scandinavian. Mr. August first told me what drew him to the novel Smilla's Sense of Snow.

BA: First of all, I was very fascinated by the character of Smilla -- her profoundness, her depth, in combination with her completely unsentimental way of viewing our world. She comes from this Arctic part of the world, Greenland. And people who come from that part of the world have a very unsentimental relationship to their surroundings because the living conditions in the Arctic are so cruel, Nature is so merciless. And yet, still so powerful and beautiful. And I liked that inside of her as part of her character. I also like her clarity, her point of view and the fact that, in the beginning of the story, the only person Smilla likes is a little boy who she finds dead. And although everyone tells her it was accident, her instinct tells her someone killed him, and from that moment on, she relies more and more on a kind of primal intuition and goes deeper into a dangerous world. She is also brought to a point of zero in the beginning of the story, and I think you can say that about a lot of my films in that they are often about people who are brought to the point of zero in the beginning of the film. I like the vulnerability, the naked face. And then, of course, I hadn't done a contemporary story in 3 or 4 films, so that also interested me.

UD: Did Peter Hoeg have anything to do with writing the screenplay?

BA: It was actually Peter's idea that I should make the film. He called me in the very beginning, and I hadn't even read the book. So I read it and I liked it very much and I knew I'd certainly like to do it. But Peter also said. "I wrote this book a couple of years ago, I had already "done" it, so to speak, and I know nothing about movie making. You are the professionals and you should do it." But I could also call him, and I did call him from time to time with certain questions.

UD: What was it like working within the thriller genre?

BA: It was not at all difficult working in a thriller genre. What was difficult was combining the genre with the psychological portrait of Smilla. To combine her inner universe with the outer elements of a thriller genre, that was the difficult part. And we had difficulty doing that in the script-writing stage.

UD: Why did you choose to make the film as a big, international production in English with international stars?

BA: There is one very particular reason. When we started to work on the project, before we even decided how we wanted to do it language-wise, we ended up with a budget of around 20 million dollars. And that kind of money doesn't exist at all if you want to do it as a Danish film in Danish. So the decision to do it in English was a very early decision. And the entire scripting-writing process was in English.

UD: The whole process of that kind of film making must be very different from a smaller production in Swedish or Danish . . .

BA: The big difference is the size of the crew and the flexibility of shooting because of the size. If you work on a big international film, you have 30, 40 cars plus . . . I mean, it's crazy. So you can't improvise, you cannot suddenly do something that comes to mind, whereas in a small production you have much more flexibility. But the star-system is quite interesting. I like both ways. My first international film was House of Spirits and I was taken by surprise by the size of it and I learned a lot from it. I think I profited by my experience on that when it came time to do Smilla.

UD: Jerusalem is in Swedish with many of the well-known Swedish actors you've used before, including your wife Pernilla. It's also an epic period piece, not unlike Pelle and The Best Intentions. But all these films, including Smilla, do have one common element: ordinary people up against the extraordinary physical conditions of Nature.

BA: That is true.

UD: The original novel Jerusalem is a Swedish classic. I'm told, in fact, it's required reading in Sweden. It must have been quite exciting bringing something like that to the screen.

BA: It was a major dream come true at last. In many respects, Jerusalem is a very modern and important story about people in a period of transition, with all the unrest that permeates society on the eve of a new century. The big life issues are at stake. The novel is a penetrating study of morals and ethics.

UD: I was going to say that although the film concerns itself with the theme of religious fervor, it is ultimately about much more than that.

BA: Yes. It is not a "religious film." It is a magical and gigantic love epic: a straightforward tale about the universal power of love, with man in the center.

UD: Do I understand correctly that, like The Best Intentions, Jerusalem was also made in two versions -- a longer version for television and a shorter one for theatrical release?

BA: Yes. I was mostly interested in it as a theatrical film. Personally, I am not so interested in television, simply because I don't watch television myself. I'm into movies. And I wanted to make Jerusalem as feature film. But we couldn't finance it only through theatrical release, we couldn't get all the money we needed. We had to get some money from television. So we said, ok, let's do it both ways. So we did it in four parts. There is a four-hour version for television. But it was mainly done for theatrical release.

UD: Let's talk a bit about The Best Intentions.. How did Ingmar Bergman come to ask you to direct it? Were you nervous about this monumental name attached to the script?

BA: One day, I got a call from a man, and he said "This is Ingmar Bergman and I've written a piece about my parents and I've decided at this point in my life I don't want to direct anymore and I would like you to do it if you are interested." Of course, I was extremely honored and thrilled. At the same time, when I started to think about it, I started to get scared because at that time,I was pretty established and therefore, I couldn't really be his assistant or "do a Bergman film." The only way I could do it was to work as I had always done. Anyway, I went to see him and the first thing he said to me was, "I've done more than 50 films myself and I know how important it is for a director to keep his integrity. I am the screenwriter on this one, you are the director, and YOU make the decisions." So that answered all my questions and I was really very relieved. He only had one demand. He said, "Pernilla -- I wrote it for her and I want her to play my mother." And that was fine with me because she is a wonderful actress. Then I spent almost 3 months with him, four hours every afternoon. We sat and went through the whole script. To be honest, most of the time we talked about life and other different things. It was really a wonderful time.

UD: As much as I loved The Best Intentionswhen I first saw the theatrically released version, I didn't realize just how remarkable it was until I finally saw the original 5-1/2 hour version. Who decided how to cut what for the shorter version?

BA: It's funny you mention it, you know, because when Ingmar made Fanny and Alexander, he made a five-and-a-half-hour film for television. He also knew he had to make a shorter version for theatrical release. So he thought he could make some easy cuts and wind up with a 2-1/2 hour film. So he made these cuts, screened it, and discovered he still had a 4-1/2 hour film. And he was deeply shocked. He had only cut out one hour! And in order to cut some more, he had to make some drastic dramatic compromises. So that now, he considers the theatrical version of Fanny and Alexander an amputated version of what his original film was, and he doesn't really like the shorter film. With all that in mind, we talked a lot about The Best Intentions and how we could shoot certain scenes in different ways with slightly different bits of dialogue and information, so that later on, we could cut the piece more easily and it would still feel complete, even though it was shorter. So from the beginning, we were prepared, we know how we would shoot and cut the two versions.

UD: What other film directors have influenced you?

BA: When I was young and still a student, I had a lot of directors who meant a lot to me. And of course, some of Ingmar's films. A film like Cries and Whispers is for me a masterpiece. But also, I was very inspired by some of Coppola's early films. The Godfather. And some of Milos Forman's films. Also some of Ken Loach's early films like Family Life and Kes.

UD: What is the new film you are working on?

BA: Les Miserables, not the musical, the book. We start shooting the 15th of March in Paris and Prague. It's an American production with Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes. I never read the book before, but when I read this script it was so outstanding, so brilliant, I wanted to make it.