Women forging creativity: director Susanne Bier says the gender 'tipping point' is far off

From directing The Night Manager to putting the drama back into the Boots No7 brand, Susanne Bier is the first female director with an Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe to her name. She tells Nicola Kemp why women should not need to compromise to achieve their creative potential.

Women forging creativity: director Susanne Bier says the gender 'tipping point' is far off

Having recently teamed up with Mother to use a 50-year-old stuntwoman as the centrepiece of an ad for cosmetics brand No7, Danish director Susanne Bier is clearly comfortable with creative risks. "It is hugely important that young women don’t feel like they have to be someone else instead of who they truly are to succeed," she says. 

From directing the critically acclaimed BBC drama The Night Manager to being touted as a contender to be the first woman to direct a Bond film, Bier has carved a name for herself as a multifaceted director in an industry that resolutely remains a man’s world. It is a status quo she does not see changing soon. She believes the industry has yet to reach a tipping point when it comes to female directors, citing the fact that their numbers are shrinking.

What is holding women back? For Bier, the lack of diversity in creativity is mainly due to the curse of predictable thinking, where the arch enemy of creativity – playing it safe – is the norm. She says: "Whether commercials or longer-form fiction, directors need to be in touch with the world around them." When only a tiny percentage of that world is represented at the creative top table, it is difficult to imagine that the industry is anywhere near reaching its full potential.

See it; be it

As a female director, Bier has found herself in the position of being a role model. It is clear that the obligations that come with this are not lost on her. "I see being a role model as a huge privilege and I also feel a huge responsibility," she says.

For Bier, though, achieving your creative potential should not be seen as synonymous with a life of sacrifice and suffering. "It is possible to get where you want to be without having to make huge sacrifices such as not having a family. I think there is still this sense that you have to abstain from certain things if you want to succeed. For me, having children has extended my life and my perspective greatly," she adds. 

Motherhood’s creative leap 

Bier believes the roles of parenthood and life experiences are vital for storytellers. She explains: "There are exceptional directors who can simply watch movies and then create movies. I want to make stories that make sense. To do that, I have to be in touch with life." 

It is a creative process with which she is still in love. "It’s the excitement of the creative process. You need to scare yourself and immerse yourself in what you are doing."

But how is it possible to truly immerse yourself in what you are doing when you are running through the myriad tiny, mundane, but nonetheless meaningful and beautiful, acts of love that constitute family life? 

"Society enables men to do this easier than women," says Bier. "Society’s expectations of women are different and as a society, we have to address that. I don’t think it’s a given that women cannot immerse themselves in work. As a woman, I am not accepting of that and as a society, I don’t think we should be either." 

Beyond balance

A director’s life is a demanding one. The logistical challenges of travelling and unpredictable hours, combined with the emotional challenge implicit in the kind of creative work that demands people give a lot of themselves, does not equate to the superficial ideal of a balanced life. Bier rails against the limitations of such an approach. "We always get asked about balance. ‘Who collects the kids?’ It is so restrictive. We would not ask these questions of a man."

For Bier, restrictive structures or a black-and-white debate on balance miss the point. "You are still a loving parent if you are on set. If there is a birthday, you do a big party when you get home. Every human being, regardless of whether they are parents, has periods in their lives when they have to navigate competing, contradictory demands on their time." 

Then there is the practical approach. Succinct and to the point, it is difficult to imagine Bier as a procrastinator. In short, having competing demands on time ensures a level of focus that can easily be lost in the creative industries, which often view efficiency as the enemy of creative pursuits, rather than the folly of being extravagant with time.

"It is about making choices," argues Bier. "If I am in a meeting with talented women who all have kids, we are efficient, we get things done, we have our eye on the ball. To an extreme degree, I have my eye on the ball. As an audience, we want to have this approach; it has a great synergy with storytelling." 

New role models

In an industry in which love of aesthetics can be suffocating for women who are pressured to fold themselves into the decreasing corners of what constitutes feminine success, Bier possesses a rare ability to view herself from outside the Hollywood bubble. 

She recounts one meeting with a producer in a café. "I had been shopping for my children and I came in with all these bags. He had never anticipated someone like me looking like a film director. At some point, I think you have to embrace the fact you are not the convention."

It is an approach she embraced early on in her career. "In film school, I would go to festivals and I would be the woman wearing colourful clothes and you would see these groups of men in their shades and I didn’t have their mannerisms or attitudes. But then I saw their films and they were rubbish and I thought my film was better," she declares. 

Evolving personality

Some creative women talk of having an "aha" moment in which they feel they have reached their creative potential: a rejection or, conversely, winning a pitch; directing their first feature; arriving on the set for their first ad. For Bier, it has been more of linear progression and the courage implicit in her work has enabled her to evolve and develop into new genres. "The key is not tormenting yourself with too many regrets," she says. There is no silver bullet for her. "It takes deciding you are talented, sincere, ambitious and diligent, and you can deliver," is her simple take on it. 

Deciding you can deliver and being courageous in your choices of work is an ongoing process. As Bier admits: "I doubt myself every single day. It is a good thing. By questioning yourself, you lessen the chance of assumptions. Arrogance is the biggest hindrance to creativity. You have to have self-doubt." This does not mean she advocates wallowing in self-doubt as a creative process in itself. "There has to be a point where you let go and forgive yourself," she adds. 

Of course, a career like Bier’s has also delivered its fair share of pure joy. As she says: "It is fun winning an Oscar. It is fun winning an Emmy and a Golden Globe. However much I fuck up, I’ve still got these things."  

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