The Undoing is a murder mystery set in Manhattan's elite, who have wealth and privilege. The series challenges its audience: A charming, funny, worldly man, a tremendously successful doctor who has an adorable wife.
Susanne Bier says it's crucial that when you embark on a project – in this case a gripping six-episode psychological thriller set in the wealthiest classes of New York society – you share a creative vision with your colleagues. "It was delicious and irresistible," he says of The Undoing.
When the first episode landed on Susanne Bier's desk, written by David E. Kelley (his name on the home page is itself a quality brand), with Oscar winner Nicole Kidman as producer and star, Susanne knew Of course, all the ingredients were suitable and ready to cook in this heady dish.
Kelley has an outstanding resume, including some of the best television shows, from L.A. Law to Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal to Big Little Lies, which of course had the stellar performance of Nicole Kidman.
"I admire how David writes a lot, so even before reading it, I thought: 'this is going to be very interesting.' And I really liked it and Nicole was also involved with which it all became really intriguing. "
And then Nicole and I talked and she was very charming. I kept talking to David and read the novel (You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz) and I think we quickly realized that we had shared a vision and that we definitely felt that if we worked together we would materialize. that shared vision. And that's what we did!".
The Undoing is a murder mystery set in Manhattan's elite, who have wealth and privilege. The series challenges its audience: Can a charming, funny, worldly man, a tremendously successful doctor who has an adorable wife, a charming son and a fabulous Manhattan apartment, be able to lie and cheat?
The answer is "yes", we quickly discover that Jonathan Fraser, played by Hugh Grant, is an adulterer and a master of deception. He concealed a passionate relationship from his wife (Nicole Kidman) and also makes her believe that he is keeping his job as a pediatric oncologist at a front-line hospital, when, in fact, he had to resign in disgrace a few months ago. But is he a murderer?
When Elena (Matilda De Angelis), who we later discover was Jonathan's secret lover, is violently murdered, that will be the question that has the audience in doubt until the end, while the excellent storytellers Kelley and Susanne Bier display a remarkable cast of characters, each of them played by renowned actors, and all have their dark secrets.
And there is the main issue of how much we are able to know another person. How much we can trust our own instincts. How much we can trust what we see, ”says Bier.
“All of these issues are something that all of us, at one point or another in our lives, were faced to a greater or lesser extent. We have already passed it and that will continue to happen, and I think that is very moving and interesting.
"I also feel that having a person like Grace, so determined, interesting, and beautiful at the center of something that completely falls apart is very, very irresistible and charming."
And of course it is. When we first see Grace she lives the life she always dreamed of. She is a successful therapist, married to the man she adores, Jonathan, and they both madly love their son, Henry (Noah Jupe), who attends one of Manhattan's elite private schools.
"I would say that with the first episode it was as if 'well, let's get carried away by this wonderful world of privilege and happiness, and then let's throw a bomb,' laughs Bier. "And that's more or less what we were aiming for!"
When we first meet Grace and her husband, they live the dream: They both have successful careers, a happy marriage, and love their son, Henry (Noah Jupe) madly.
Grace counsels couples whose relationships are going through a crisis, while hers seems solid and secure. Jonathan is a caring and committed physician who works with terminally ill children.
"I saw a lot of happy couples in movies and on series, and I usually don't believe it," says Bier. "Because what I think happens – and that's why this works with Grace and Jonathan – is that you feel like it's real ».
“You feel that they have a shared sense of humor, that there is an irony between them and that something very direct happens, and that is why you tend to understand them and it is true. It's a real good relationship that works.
Grace opens the doors of Henry's school fundraising committee to a newcomer, Elena, whose son also goes to school thanks to a scholarship. She also has a baby. The young woman is fascinated by Grace, and it also causes her concern.
But as the first episode progresses, the "bomb" that Susanne Bier refers to explodes. Elena is brutally murdered, which destroys Grace's perfect life, as she discovers that Jonathan had been having a romantic relationship with the young woman, and that he is the father of her daughter.
When news of Elena's death takes over the media, Jonathan is away at a medical conference and Grace desperately tries to contact him. Then detectives arrive and she discovers that he is the number one suspect in the murder investigation.
“For all of us, there are always secrets and I think that's part of what makes this story so accessible, because it comes to you. But there are always secrets and sometimes they are benign or banal and unimportant, but sometimes they can be gigantic, "says Bier. “Part of the fun of this series and part of the fun for me doing it is that nothing is what it seems. And there is a certain quota of truth for all ».
Working closely with Nicole Kidman, as her lead character and as a producer, was bliss, says the director. "I always admired Nicole and always admired how bright and bold she is, and her relentless nature and her ability to transform into someone always different."
“It's like he has a chip implanted in his brain and he becomes another character. So yeah, I always admired her and was always intrigued by the idea of working with her and this project seemed like the right time. "
Years ago, she had hoped to work with Hugh Grant on a project for a film that later fell through. "You know, it's weird, Hugh was my first instinct, my first choice, and I had wanted to work with him for years. Many years ago we were going to do something together that then didn't materialize.
“I always thought he was super interesting, but I think he has become more and more interesting as an actor. And he's such an enigmatic character – he's got that charm and fun, and also behind all of that is depth. There is a lot of deep water, and is it nice or not? Is it scary or sad?
“There is something behind the fun and charm that is much deeper, much more dangerous and much more unnerving in some way, and that always intrigued me. And that's perfect for Jonathan. I also think Hugh created Jonathan. I think Jonathan could have been a lot of different things, but Hugh created his Jonathan.
To play Grace and Jonathan's son Henry, Susanne Bier settled on the English actor with whom she had previously worked on The Night Manager, the critically acclaimed award-winning miniseries based on the homonymous play by John le Carré.
Over the years, Noah Jupe established himself as one of the most prominent young actors active today and starred in films including A Quiet Place, Honey Boy, and Ford v Ferrari (Against the Impossible).
“He worked on The Night Manager, and even at 11 years old, he was the most brilliant actor. And it got better. I can't wait for him to become a big star, which I think he will be, and then I'll be able to joke with him, ”Bier comments amused. "He has a great sense of humor. His parents are smart and have a sense of humor, which is why I think he will be able to do whatever comes his way."
Kidman and Grant lead a stellar cast. Donald Sutherland portrays Grace's father, Franklin, a wealthy financier who never fully trusted his son-in-law. And Édgar Ramírez is detective Joe Mendoza, a policeman with a world, who is convinced that Jonathan is the murderer.
Matilda De Angelis is Elena Alves, a talented artist and young mother who was murdered in her own studio, and Ismael Cruz Córdova is Fernando, the heartbroken and jealous husband, who could also be a suspect. Noma Dumezweni plays the formidable Haley Fitzgerald, a brilliant and relentless lawyer who defends Jonathan. Lily Rabe is Sylvia Steineitz, Grace's friend, who kept her own secret about Jonathan's past.
In the director's words, they were all adorable to work with in long sessions, sometimes lasting all day, outdoors in and around New York. And she appreciated everyone's opinions.
“I look forward to it and ask it of you as well, and I would be extremely frustrated if there weren't a constant back and forth regarding the creative process, ideas and opinions. This is how it should be, ”says Bier. "It is exhausting, but very rewarding."
“I don't think there's been a single weekend where I wasn't on the phone for half the time, talking to the cast, talking to David (Kelley). And in the other part of the weekend I did the editing. Once I start filming there is no rest. It is a constant work in progress.
“I find the day to day on set incredibly exciting and I stop counting down because it is also exhausting. I think it's like running a marathon every day for 90 days. You want to do it and then when you're halfway through you think: But how am I going to survive all this?
And then there are only 20 days left and then you think: Oh, how am I going to miss all this. And then it's over. I know many directors who are always upset when filming is over but in my case I feel relieved and I want my mind to relax a bit. And then I have the editing job and that's the next marathon, less physically exhausting, but just as exhausting on the mind, ”he laughs.
Susanne Bier was born in Copenhagen and studied at the Danish National Film School. He won an Emmy for Best Directing for The Night Manager, and a Golden Globe for In a Better World. His other films include Freud Leaving Home, Letter to Jonas, Family Matters, The One and Only, Once in a Lifetime, Brothers, After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire, Love is All You Need, A Second Chance, Serena and Bird Box (Bird Box: blind).
Next, the interview:
Q: What should a great thriller give the audience?
SB: You have to capture your audience and you have to take them on the journey (laughs).
Q: And The Undoing does that, by the way. How did you come up with that? Did David E. Kelley bring you the scripts?
SB: I got the first draft of the first episode. I admire how David writes a lot, so even before I read it, I was thinking: “this is going to be very interesting.” And I really liked it and Nicole was also involved with which it all became really intriguing. And then Nicole and I talked, and she She was very charming. I kept talking to David and read the novel (You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz), and I think we quickly realized that we had shared a vision and that we felt that definitely if we worked together we would materialize that vision. shared. And that's what we did!
Q: So did you get any information about the rest of the scripts for the subsequent episodes?
SB: Yes. After reading the first episode I said to David: "This can unfold in two ways, it can be a thriller or it can go in the direction of a dramatic movie. I'm interested in taking it towards the thriller because I think that's where you should go". And David agreed and then we had a very fluid conversation as he began to deliver more episode scripts. We talked about them and he would check them if necessary. It was a relationship based on collaboration and without any problems. It was like, "whatever is best, that's what we'll do."
Q: What did you like about the story? It's a thriller but it also has very contemporary themes in the plot, right?
SB: Indeed. And there is the main issue of how much we are capable of knowing another person. How much we can trust our own instincts. How much we can trust what we see. All these issues are something that all of us, at one point or another in our lives, were faced to a greater or lesser extent. We have already passed it and that will continue to happen and I think that is very moving and interesting. I also feel that having a person like Grace, so determined, interesting, and beautiful at the center of something that completely falls apart is very, very irresistible and charming.
Q: When we meet Grace and Jonathan, they embody the perfect couple and seem idyllic happy, don't they?
SB: Yes, but you know that I saw a lot of happy couples in movies and on series, and I usually don't believe it. Because what I think happens – and that's why this works with Grace and Jonathan – is that you feel like it's real. You feel that they have a shared sense of humor, that there is an irony between them and that something very direct happens, and that is why you tend to understand them and it is true. It's a real good relationship that works.
Q: As the story unfolds you highlight their social status, which on the one hand is a curse due to the media attention it attracts but also a blessing because they can hire the best lawyers.
SB: You know, there's no question that there's an undercurrent of sarcastic acknowledgment of what privilege means and forgetting about that privilege. I include myself, I come from a privileged part of the world. Scandinavia is a very privileged part of the world and I think the thing about privilege is that you no longer recognize it, you take it for granted, and that's how it is. And as for Grace, who comes from this privileged background, suddenly this privilege becomes intolerant to her, but it also allows them to hire the most expensive lawyers and to cope with the threat with solvency. But it also exposes them in a way that would not have happened in other circumstances.
Q: Also interesting is the way the story highlights how the media can be used almost as part of the judicial process, isn't it? I think back to the moment when Jonathan's attorney Haley Fitzgerald (Noma Dumezweni) puts him on a news show before the trial begins. This is a real issue, right?
SB: Yes. They knowingly use the media to create an impact on whoever is going to enforce what the law says and it somehow blurs the lines between what is right and what is wrong, which I believe is the current climate, with everything that is happening. The lines are erased in a remarkable way.
Q: Grace begins to discover that the man she married has very big secrets. Are there always secrets even in apparently extremely close relationships?
SB: For all of us, there are always secrets and I think it's part of what makes this story so accessible, because it comes to you. But there are always secrets and sometimes they are benign or banal and unimportant, but sometimes they can be gigantic. Part of the fun of this series and part of the fun for me doing it is that nothing is what it seems. And there is a certain quota of truth for everyone. And, you know, it's not as serious or it doesn't necessarily cover something really bad, but there is a lot of cover-up.
Q: Jonathan is an attractive man in many ways: he is a doctor and works with sick children. And you also address the relationship between doctors and patients in the story. I think someone calls it "The God Complex". Can you tell me about this aspect of the story?
SB: You know, it's interesting because he's a really good doctor, but he's also possibly someone who's concerned about his own status. And with many people who are "doing the right thing," one can legitimately ask "Are they becoming dependent on the feedback they get? It has to do with what the reasons are that we do what we do. And it doesn't necessarily change. It does. he is still an excellent doctor even if his reasons are somewhat obscure, but at some point that darkness can invade everything else.
Q: When you're narrating a story, do you empathize with a specific character or do you try to engage with all of them equally?
SB: Obviously Grace is the main character that you identify with, but I also identify with all the other characters. I think part of what the director needs to do is understand each character at a given moment and enter their mind, because otherwise you can't direct them. And part of the fun of being a director is being inside anyone's mind, a sociopath, a child. And being in the minds of countless different people is very exciting, and sometimes scary (laughs). Sometimes you say "Wow! I understand this person too well!" And sometimes it can be someone whom I disapprove of and at the end you say: "OK, I'm glad it's just a fiction" … (laughs).
Q: You worked with this miniseries format very successfully before when you made The Night Manager. What's your approach to filming for long-form television?
SB: I approach it as a long play, a long movie. But actually, when I make a movie, I realize that when I'm at the end of, say, the first act, I subconsciously split it in my mind. As if thinking: "at this moment is when I want the audience to focus and think such a thing." So I unconsciously play with the idea: "Right now the audience believes in this, so we have to push this button and this button." So I have a structural vision in my approach and I try to fit each part so that it integrates into the whole.
Q: You have a cast of notables. What do you expect from your actors? Do you want them to contribute ideas about their characters?
SB: Yes, of course. I look forward to it and ask it of you as well, and I would be greatly frustrated if there weren't a constant back and forth regarding the creative process, ideas and opinions. This is how it should be: it is exhausting, but very rewarding. I don't think there was a single weekend where I hadn't been on the phone for half the time, talking to the cast, talking to David. And in the other part of the weekend I did the editing. Once I start filming there is no rest. It is a constant work in progress.
Q: Do you enjoy everyday life on set? Is that your favorite part of the process?
SB: I find day-to-day on set incredibly exciting and I stop counting down because it's exhausting too. I think it's like running a marathon every day for 90 days. You want to do it and then when you're halfway there you think: "But how am I going to survive all this? And then there are only 20 days left and then you think:" Oh, how am I going to miss all this "(laughs). And then It's over now. I know many directors who are always upset when filming ends but in my case I feel relieved and I want my mind to relax a bit. And then I have the editing work and that's the next marathon, physically less exhausting, but just as exhausting on the mind (laughs).
Q: How important is the editing process for a series like this?
SB: It's really an art form and I've been working with the same director, Ben (Lester), who started as a junior editor on The Night Manager with me. I liked what he was doing and I felt that we understood each other very well, he really understood the material. And he's been editing my stuff ever since. And it's weird because it's so tiny but it's also so important. Also, structurally I play with everything: nothing is sacred. It's like when you say, "Let's put the last scene at the beginning of the episode." I like to tinker with everything, but in the end it is about getting the idea that was included in the script from the beginning to carry over to the end.
Q: Let's talk about the cast. Have you wanted to work with Nicole for a while?
SB: I always admired Nicole and I always admired how bright and fearless she is, and her relentless nature and her ability to transform into someone always different. It is as if it has a chip implanted in the brain and it becomes another character. So yeah, I always admired her and was always intrigued by the idea of working with her and this project seemed like the right time.
Q: And what was it like working together? Did it meet your expectations?
SB: Of course. It has no problem and is captivating and interesting. She does whatever and is super creative. Every shot he takes is different, and I love that. For me, filming and not knowing exactly what is happening, being in that space where you can receive surprising gifts is very satisfying. And she gives you those gifts all the time, just like Hugh. They both improvise a lot. I don't think they have done a single scene where each take was not noticeably different from the previous one.
Q: Why is Hugh so suitable for this role?
SB: You know, it's weird, Hugh was my first instinct, my first choice, and I had wanted to work with him for years. Many years ago we were going to do something together, which then did not materialize. I always thought he was super interesting but I think he has become more and more interesting as an actor. And he's such an enigmatic character – he's got that charm and fun, and also behind all of that is depth. There is a lot of deep water, is it nice or not? Is it scary or sad? There is something behind the fun and charm that is much deeper, much more dangerous, and much more unnerving in some way, and that always intrigued me. And that's perfect for Jonathan. I also think Hugh created Jonathan. I think Jonathan could have been a lot of different things, but Hugh created his Jonathan.
Q: Were you surprised by the way he carried the character?
SB: I was excited. It made me happy. And it was fun, it was really, really fun interacting with a character like him. And you know, with all these characters, they all have their secrets, and that makes it very interesting because with each scene you say, "Wow!" There's so much more that he doesn't tell you, so why don't we do something different with the next scene?
Q: Let's talk about Donald Sutherland in his role as Franklin. He brings a hint of threat to that character, doesn't he?
SB: Donald is fantastic. You know, it's interesting even before I started making my own movies, when you watch a movie and you find yourself watching someone who might not be the main character, but you see that other person in the scene and it's always Donald. You put him in a room and you only have eyes for him (laughs). He's the epitome of lineage money and yet he's not an evil human being, he just lived his life without question and did the things he did. And then everything turns around a bit for him too.
Q: Henry, the son of Jonathan and Grace, plays a big part in this, doesn't he? And you chose Noah Jupe, who you had worked with on The Night Manager, to fill this role, why?
SB: Yes, it is a very important role and Noah (Jupe), who plays Henry, is a fantastic actor. He worked on The Night Manager, and even at 11 years old, he was the brightest actor. And it got better. I can't wait for him to become a huge star, which I think he will be, and then I can joke around with him (laughs). Has a great sense humor. His parents are smart and with a sense of humor, which is why I think he will be able to do whatever comes his way.
Q: And you also have Matilda De Angelis as Elena Alves, the woman who is at the center of the story. She had worked in Europe, but it is her first big role in English. Why was Matilda suitable to play Elena?
SB: Yes, Elena is in the center of everything. Matilda is a great European actress: she has that seduction, that sexy quality and at the same time a very direct attitude. But it can also be self-destructive. I think that she is an extremely fascinating and irresistible presence on screen and not only because she is sexy, but because her eyes have a compelling soul. You look into her eyes and you don't want to look away.
Q: It's not an easy role because she has to convince us why Jonathan would cheat on his wife with her …
SB: Yes, the point is that we have this man, who is married to one of the most beautiful women in the world, therefore it was very difficult to select her because you needed to have someone from whom you could understand how the attraction would take place. And also because it must be someone very different from Grace.
Q: There is also a very sexually charged scene between Elena and Grace, and you hint to the audience that there might be an attraction between them as well. How does that play out in the story?
SB: Yes, it is consciously intriguing, but let's see what happens (laughs).
Q: You need a formidable actress to play Jonathan's attorney, Haley Fitzgerald. Tell us what it's like to work with Noma Dumezweni…
SB: The casting was also difficult for that role because you had to ask yourself: "How do you find someone who is formidable and also moving?" I didn't want the typical cold and cynical lawyer and Noma is anything but. Noma has a special warmth and, at the same time, she is very disciplined and always attentive to what she has to do. But she's not someone who's not emotional, and I think that's why it works. She does everything and there is a lot that underlies the surface, where you know that she understands much more than what you see.
Q: Édgar Ramírez plays Detective Joe Mendoza. We, the audience, learned a lot about the investigation from this character, didn't we?
SB: He's very important and a lot more fun as a character because you can't quite understand if he's a jerk or if he's actually a nice guy. Clearly Grace doesn't like it. But he also understands that he is not necessarily his enemy. And I think it's funny when you have someone so handsome and almost so arrogant, and at the same time you can't help but like him somehow. Well, it happens to me!
Q: What is your approach to the jail scenes, when Jonathan is arrested and awaiting trial?
SB: You know, it was interesting to put privilege and wealth in a world where they naturally don't go hand in hand, and suddenly we find ourselves feeling sorry for Jonathan. It's like saying, "maybe he shouldn't be there …" and I thought it was interesting. And I also liked doing some jail scenes, which aren't necessarily like all the other jail scenes, even if it's difficult.
Q: Privilege is a big part of the story. There's a cool scene at the fundraising event where the auction for a glass of water starts at a $ 1,000 base. Tell us about that scene and what you wanted to convey.
SB: Yeah, that says so much, I love that scene. At some point I thought: "maybe we have to cut it in the edit", and then I said: "Not at all! Because it represents that world in such a specific way and is so funny. And I also like when the actress who presents the event says "to ensure we have a diverse school" and we pan and there is no diversity in the people in the room (laughs).
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