Susanne Bier wanted to keep you guessing with HBO’s The Undoing. I admitted to the Emmy winning director just how much I yelled at my television every week with the twisty murder mystery and since the limited series was HBO’s most-watched show of 2020, I’m sure other people were doing the same thing. Not only is The Undoing a courtroom drama, but it’s an emotional rollercoaster held together by the wits of its stellar cast. Susanne Bier knows how to make every twist land with a heavy hammer thud.
Not only did The Undoing reveal much about the American justice system to Bier, but she wanted to explore the realm of privilege to a heightened degree. These New Yorkers are at a different level of wealth, but Bier wanted to ground it with Nicole Kidman’s Grace. With the camerawork and cinematography, she almost invaded the mind of her leading lady and it allowed us to stay with her rather than judge her choices.
With a show like The Undoing, you never want to give away too much away too quickly. Bier has delivered pulse-pounding work with Bird Box and The Night Manager so she knows how to manipulate the audience’s perception with a look or a cutaway glance. If you get this invested in a pulpy thriller, you have the director to thank for it.
Awards Daily: I read about how involved David E. Kelly was with the project. I think he’s one of the few men who can write complicated characters. What was that collaboration like?
Susanne Bier: I think we work well together. He writes very sharply. It’s very effortless and very crisp, his writing. That’s incredibly fun to work with. He’s not one of those writers who writes endlessly. His dialogue is very much about the characters and the interactions between them. It’s very visceral and muscular. That’s why he writes women well. He doesn’t have that preconceived notion that sometimes male writers have when they write female characters. They lose that muscularity.
AD: Any time his names pops up on screen, you know the writing is going to be good.
SB: You do.
AD: This show had me guessing someone new at the end of every episode. I thought it was Noah Jupe’s character even before the hammer reveals comes up. How much of confusing the audience is direction, how much is performance, and how much is the writing?
SB: It’s all of the above. David and I had a lot of fun with it. It’s very conscious balance to pull things. If you pull it a tiny bit too much, you lose something. It’s the balance of not lying and not doing something untrue. Still you need to seduce the audience into thinking the reality might differ from what you assume.
AD: Was that the hardest with Hugh [Grant]’s character? He’s so slippery, and I kept coming back to him and then immediately leaving him.
SB: Yeah. It was so tricky. When do you think he’s a creep? When do you like him? How do you feel about him as a husband or as a dad? That was also a big thing. I want to say for Hugh it was a very fine dance where he was terrified of stepping too far. It’s funny that you bring that up because my parents watched it every week and my father–who is going to be ninety–shouted at me over the phone, ‘It has to be him!’
SB: Sorry, dad, I’m not telling.
AD: Is this the most vocal reaction you’ve had to your work? Bird Box was kind of like that but it hit all at once. The Undoing kept building and building week to week.
SB: Bird Box grew like crazy but this was week to week. The Undoing is the only HBO show to grow every week. I got messages from people I hadn’t talked to for fifteen years and they were kind of fishing for details.
AD: One of my favorite things about the camerawork, especially in the beginning of the series, is that it focuses a lot on Nicole Kidman’s eyes and we stay very much with her. Tell me about that choice because it helps the audience stick with her amid all this chaos.
SB: That was our main goal. Essentially, we are experiencing what she is experiencing. Her confusion about who had done what and who to believe. She even begins doubting herself. That’s very aligned with the audience’s experience, especially in particular the lies her life has led. The fact that Grace wanted to trust Jonathan and then she would step further into everything and realize the truth. We were trying, very consciously, to align the audience’s experience with her experience.
AD: I feel that’s hard to do with the everyday lives of these characters. In the first episode, they are quite literally auctioning off a glass of water. Did you want to explore privilege in America? I read that The Undoing shed some light on the American justice system for you.
SB: I want to say that this kind of wealth you can’t fully grasp it.
AD: It honestly feels so otherworldly.
SB: It’s bizarre. You can say Donald Sutherland’s character is wealthy enough with those kind of measures. Grace and Jonathan are super wealthy and live in a brownstone, but they are trying to have a normal life. It’s not like they have a house full of maids. There is a sense that they are more like the rest of us. It’s important for Grace to somewhat lead a normal life, and I think that’s why we can identify with them. With Grace, we can connect with her because she doesn’t dress like the rest of the moms. She made a conscious decision to remove herself from that world a bit and that’s how we understand and identify with her as a character.
AD: Now that you mention it, we do see Grace in the kitchen making breakfast for her family in the first episode.
AD: I really admired that you directed the entire series. You did that with The Night Manager too. Was there ever a question with that?
SB: I guess I feel that need to put that director’s vision onto it. I don’t really see that limited to one or two episodes. It’s shot like a film.
SB: It’s not like we took our time between episodes. We could film a scene from episode two in the morning and then one from episode five in the afternoon. It’s structured in a way if one person directed everything.
AD: I’m so excited for First Ladies. There is a musical called First Lady Suite that I love that isn’t produced very often. When I heard about that, my brain went to that project. What can you tell me about it?
SB: The whole world of those women is interesting. They are in such a unique, colorful position and they have so many expectations which they didn’t necessarily define themselves with. How they navigate those expectations and change the world for what they believe in is fascinating.
The Undoing is streaming on HBO Max.