Halle Berry and director Susanne Bier discuss Things We Lost In the Fire

This is about two rival English schools vying to outdo each other in the annual Christmas nativity play.

After the untimely death of her husband Brian, Audrey (Halle Berry) invites his recovering drug-addict best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) to stay with her family. Struggling to cope, both must rely on each other to rebuild their fractured lives.  ‘Things We Lost In the Fire’ represents Danish director Susanne Bier’s first venture into English language cinema. Movies.ie caught up the director (Bier) and leading lady (Berry) to discuss the film.

Q: It’s an emotionally draining film to watch, was it equally emotionally exhausting to shoot?

HB: It was freeing and liberating, not exhausting. I loved going to work everyday because it was such great material with a great director and crew. I loved it; making the movie was a completely cathartic experience.

SB: It was fun. Everyday was surprising and the actors were really innovative and creative. They brought their own vision to the set. Any shooting, in my opinion, is physically exhausting. It is not really glamorous shooting movies. Sure, it can be glamorous going to premiers but not shooting. It’s exciting and that’s why we do it.

Q: Halle, I understand you fought hard to get the part. Why was that?

HB: Well it’s a great role to play.  For one thing, as a woman, we don’t have that opportunity very often and for another I thought it was a great movie to be a part of: well written, complex characters, very life-like. They were dealing with situations that we will be probably forced to face at some point. Someone we know will deal with addiction of some sort and every one of us will deal with death.  

Q: Did you do much research for the role?

HB: I read books. One in particular by Joan Didion called The Magical Year of Thinking which was really helpful; it gave me a good basis to start preparing.  I also talked to a grief counsellor and people that had lost family or friends close to them. I had to learn the different stages of grief. I realised that anger is a big part of it- displaced anger. I really wanted to make sure that this anger and the other stages were evident in my character throughout the film.

SB:  When you create a character you don’t just do one prevalent emotion. You have to consider other qualities: what does this person like to eat, how do they dress, who are her friends, what side of the bed does she sleep on; these things are all part of being human. Working with a character is about getting all of these things and that is partly imagination and partly an actor’s talent more than any research.

Q: The children were wonderful in this film. What were they like to work with?

HB: The children were great and it’s fun. They weren’t precocious little kids who acted like 30 year olds. They said what kids say and they acted how kids act.  You got a true sense that they were as engaged as children their age would be.

Q: How were they on set?

HB: Well their mothers were usually on set if needed but we also tried not to have them around all the time. It gave me a chance to interact with them alone and for us to engage as the family we were trying to create on set.  We were also at this beautiful house for most of time with the children. There were beautiful swings and animals on the property that made it fun to be with children and experience these things with them.

SB: Halle reacted very naturally and maternally with them and in a very down to earth way, not in a sort of movie-like-mum.

HB: Sometimes they would just make you crazy!

SB: You’d have to tell them, “okay go over there and sit down and come back when you’re quiet again”, and they were fine.  

HB: There was one scene at the table and my character Audrey is grieving deeply. She is just trying to maintain her sanity. The children were playing at the table and in the scene I sort of snap at them and tell them to be quiet.  There is a point I turned to Dory (Micha Berry) and grabbed him. I was just so sick of him laughing in the scene. I had had it! I remember just thinking I’ll get through this scene if it kills me. So I just did what a mother would do and it got us through the scene because he kept breaking character. He thought it was so funny, after the take he said, “Ha ha, you didn’t scare me”.

Q: What was it like to shoot the film in Hollywood and working with Oscar winning actors?”

HB: We’re high maintenance, all of us!

SB: It was funny because David Duchovny told me that one of the questions he is asked all the time: Were you scared of working with Oscar winning actors and he just would go “no”.  You know all parties are really interested in getting the right expression for each scene so you’re not really concerned with anything else.

Q: Do you think a female director was a necessary choice for this film?

HB: I think a man could have done it but it would have been different

SB: I don’t think there is a difference between the genders. I’m often asked who my favourite female director is and then I really have to think.  If I had to say my 20 favourite directors probably none of them are women. That’s because there’s not very many but also each director is pretty different. It’s not about being a man or a woman it’s about what your personal obsessions are as a director.

HB:  I do think she brought a feminine sensibility to the movie. A man could have done it and done it well but it just would have been different- different sensitivities and sensibilities.

Q: Did you enjoy working with her?

HB: I really did.

Q: What was your first meeting like then?

SB: You know it’s almost boring. I’m going to make up a story!

HB:  We got into a cat fight and I pulled a clump of her hair out (laughs).

SB: I think Halle and I read the script in pretty much the same way.  Our first meeting was brief, only 20 minutes. We had a coffee together and discussed the script. We both read it in pretty much the same way. We had a clear and mutual understanding of the script and the character in general.  

HB: She did say there will be no make-up and there will be no working out at the gym if you get this part.

Q: Why no gym?

SB: Well you know the way that sometimes actors have that toned arms, they don’t look real. I wanted her to look like a real mother and not like somebody who spends four hours in a gym everyday.

HB: It was important not to wear make up and be real. When you are grieving people don’t put on make-up and make themselves look pretty.  It was really important to be true to all those elements of this character.

Q: How did you feel about the close up then?

HB:  You know scared at first not because I didn’t have make-up on but I’d never had a camera that close to my face and then be asked to emote some emotion. After a week, it became something that all of us, myself, Benicio and David, really looked forward to. It was a challenge to create the same emotion of the scene and not move. To show it all that became the real challenge.

SB: But can I reveal something?  Halle looks just as gorgeous without make-up.  She does at four o’clock in the morning when everybody else comes on set looking like it is four o’clock in the morning; she comes on set looking insultingly beautiful.

Q: If the two of you worked together again what genre of movie would it be?

SB: Maybe we’ll do Cat Woman 3 (laughs).

HB: It might be a better movie.

SB: Halle what would you suggest?

HB: A comedy; somewhere I can work out!