Bille August: “Somehow we have to learn something about people and try to understand the world”

Danish director Bille August (b.1949) is one of only eight filmmakers to win the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or twice—the first time with his epic “Pelle Erobreren” (1987, a.k.a. “Pelle the Conqueror”), and later with “Den goda viljan” (1992, a.k.a. “The Best Intentions,’ based on Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay). With a fascinating and intriguing body of work spread out over the last four decades, Mr. August has become one of the most prolific filmmakers of the European continent, and working on both sides of the Atlantic, as he did intense dramas and at the same time George Lucas asked him—and convinced him—to direct two episodes of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (1992).

With “Night Train to Lisbon” (2013) starring Jeremy Irons, Mélanie Laurent and Charlotte Rampling, as one of his latest features, Mr. August recently finished the German-Belgian drama “55 Steps” (a.k.a. “Eleanor and Colette”), based on a true event, a landmark civil rights case set in the 1980s about informed consent to medication, and the unexpected friendship between client Eleanor Riese (played by Helena Bonham Carter), a patient in the psychiatric unit of a San Francisco hospital, and her workaholic lawyer Colette Hughes (Hilary Swank). The original title “55 Steps” is named after Eleanor Riese’s phobic compulsion to count stairs.

Bille August was in Belgium to promote the release of “Eleanor and Colette,” and visited the Ostend Film Festival as one of the Festival’s guests of honor. There I sat down with him to talk about his latest screen effort.

Mr. August, what exactly do you look for when you decide to make a new film?

I try to look for a certain kind of drama in relationships because if you’re able to engage an audience to understand something about human beings and let them enter into a world that is not theirs, then they also understand a little bit more about life and relationships. So in that sense, the kind of film and the stories that I’m interested in, they’re all about humanity. Otherwise, I don’t see the drama or the need to tell a story if it’s not about that. Somehow we have to learn something about people and try to understand the world, I think. That’s how I see it.

The relationship between your two main characters in “55 Steps,” Eleanor Riese and her lawyer Colette Hughes, how they get to know each other and how they move on with their lives and how they become friends, it’s a very powerful message, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. It works on two levels. Of course, it’s a case story because it’s about their suing the hospitals and the medical industry. That’s one thing. But I think we also engage with this story through the characters and their relationship. In the beginning they are extremely different—in normal circumstances, they would never be friends, but they have this case that connects them. Eleanor is a mentally ill patient, she is like a twelve-year-old child, but she has access to her emotions, she’s very direct to people, and on the other hand, you have Colette, a lawyer and a very efficient woman who doesn’t really have any access to her emotions in life. Somehow they are missing the other half, it becomes a yin and yang relationship, and that’s how they are able to connect. That’s something I think is very beautiful. That’s really the emotional part of the story, more than the case story.

Bille August with screen actor Johan Heldenbergh on the Ostend Walk of Fame | Leo/Film Talk

You emphasize that very beautifully, like in the scene when Hilary Swank is talking about everything that she’s afraid of, while she’s in close-up the whole time. Was it an easy scene to shoot?

No, because it’s a long process to do this kind of scene, and I knew this would be a key scene in the film. First, we talked about it for a long time during the table reading with all the actors before we started shooting. When the day had come to shoot it, I had planned to do it first thing in the morning; I had also told Hilary so. We had rehearsed it very little because I wanted to keep the emotions and the feelings for the take. So when she came to the set that morning, she was prepared; she was very quiet and focused on the scene. We rehearsed it once, just to go through the lines, and then we shot it in one take. I also started with her close-up because I knew she was going to do it only once. And she was great; it was just perfect. And that’s what I like about movies: you can build up to something extraordinarily beautiful. Of course, you need a good script, great dialogue, good actors to make a scene work, but the fact that you can create moments on the screen that only can happen once as the camera is there to document it, that is really the beauty of my craft. That satisfies me the most, trying to create these moments of magic because they can only happen once—they won’t happen again—when everybody’s peaking during those few seconds, that’s the biggest reward you can get as a director. And then again, I always start with close-ups. But I knew Hilary could pull it off.

I also like the way you can say so much with only a few words, like when Hilary Swank is walking up the stairs in the courthouse and Jeffrey Tambor gives her an envelope, she opens it and then says, ‘We won!’

I’m happy you point it out because it wasn’t written like that. When we had found the location where we shot the scene, I thought we needed to build it up; we had to build up to this moment. She should walk up the stairs, he should walk down, and they’d meet in the middle. It wasn’t written like that, but visually I thought it could be very interesting to encourage that particular moment when she realizes that they won. Of course, Hilary is fantastic; she’s an amazing actress, but cinematically it also helps if you can capture that moment differently.

How do you see the working relationship between a director and his actors?

It has to do with trust and confidence. If the actors don’t trust their director, you can never go that far. A filmmaker has to support his actors all the time. You know, shooting a scene or making a movie, it’s like walking into a room. You’re in there together with the actors for some time, and in that particular space, no one is allowed to disturb you. It’s a psychological kind of atmosphere you’re creating with the actors, and each film has its own environment where things can happen. And so you try to create those moments when magic can happen. Therefore the worst enemy for shooting a truly beautiful scene is vanity. If an actor has a huge ego or if he’s bigger than the character he’s playing, it simply won’t work.

Film Festival Oostende, Ostend (Belgium)
September 8, 2018

“55 Steps,” a.k.a. “Eleanor and Colette” (2018, trailer)


HEMÅT I NATTEN, a.k.a. HOMEWARD IN THE NIGHT (1977) DIR – SCR Jon Lindström PROD Jörn Donner, Bo Jonsson CAM Bille August ED Irma Taina MUS Heikki Valpola CAST Lasse Hjelt, Gunvor Sandkvist, Gunnel Fred, Rita Polster, Selma Impola, Rita Holst, Stellan Skarsgård, Lennart Snickars

MÄN KAN INTE VÅLDTAS, a.k.a. MEN CAN’T BE RAPED (1978) DIR Jörn Donner PROD Jörn Donner, Anssi Mänttäri SCR Jörn Donner (novel by Märta Tikkanen) CAM Bille August ED Irma Taina MUS Heikki Valpola CAST Anna Godenius, Gösta Bredefeldt, Toni Regner, Nils Brandt, Algot Böstman, Carl-Axel Heiknert, Christina Indrenius-Zalewski

HONNING MÅNE, a.k.a. HONEYMOON (1978) DIR – SCR Bille August PROD Vibeke Windeløv CAM Dirk Brüel, Fritz Schrøder ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Fuzzy CAST Claus Strandberg, Kirsten Olesen, Jens Okking, Poul Bundgaard, Grethe Holmer, Ulla Asbjørn Andersen

KÄRLEKEN, a.k.a. LOVE (1980) DIR Theodor Kallifatides SCR Theodor Kallifatides, Jeanette Donner (novel by Theodor Kallifatides) CAM Bille August ED Sylvia Ingemarsson MUS Monica Dominique CAST Anna Godenius, Lena Olin, Per Ragnar, Mathias Henrikson, Erland Josephson, Christina Indrenius-Zalewski, Erik Tamm

GRÄSET SJUNGER, a.k.a. THE GRASS IS SINGING (1981) DIR Michael Reaburn PROD Mark Forstater SCR Michael Reaburn (novel by Doris Lessing) CAM Bille August ED Thomas Schwalm MUS Lasse Dahlberg, Björn Isfält CAST Karen Black, John Thaw, John Kani, Patrick Mynhardt, John Moulder-Brown, Margaret Heale, Björn Gedda, Jan Nygren

ZAPPA (1983) DIR Bille August PROD Per Holst SCR Bille August, Bjarne Reuter (book by Bjarne Reuter) CAM Jan Weincke ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Bo Holten CAST Adam Tønsberg, Peter Reichhardt, Morten Hoff, Lone Lindorff, Jens Okking, Arne Hansen, Solbjørg Højfeldt

BUSTERS VERDEN, a.k.a. BUSTER’S WORLD (1984) DIR Bille August PROD Tove Berg, Nina Crone, Mads Egmont Christensen SCR Bjarne Reuter (also book) CAM Søren Berthelin, Birger Bohm, Fritz Schrøder ED Jacob Gislason, Tómas Gislason MUS Bo Holten CAST Mads Bugge Andersen, Katarina Stenbeck, Peter Schrøder, Katja Miehe-Renard, Signe Dahl Madsen, Jannie Faurschou

TRO, HÅB OG KÆRLIGHED, a.k.a. TWIST + SHOUT (1984) DIR Bille August PROD Per Holst SCR Bille August, Bjarne Reuter CAM Jan Weincke ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Bo Holten CAST Adam Tønsberg, Lars Simonsen, Camilla Søeberg, Ulrikke Bondo, Bent Mejding, Aase Hansen

PELLE EROBREREN, a.k.a. PELLE THE CONQUEROR (1987) DIR Bille August PROD Per Holst SCR Bille August, Bjarne Reuter, Per Olov Enquist (novel by Martin Andersen Nexø) CAM Jörgen Persson ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Stefan Nilsson CAST Pelle Hvenegaard, Max von Sydow, Erik Paaske, Björn Granath, Astrid Villaume, Axel Strøbye, Troels Asmussen, Kristina Törnqvist

DEN GODA VILJAN, a.k.a. THE BEST INTENTIONS (1992) DIR Bille August PROD Ingrid Dahlberg SCR Ingmar Bergman CAM Jörgen Persson ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Björn Linnman, Stefan Nilsson CAST Samuel Fröler, Pernilla August, Max von Sydow, Ghita Nørby, Lennart Hjulström, Mona Halm, Lena Endre

THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS (1993) DIR Bille August PROD Bernd Eichinger SCR Bille August (novel by Isabel Allende) CAM Jörgen Persson ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Hans Zimmer CAST Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas, Maria Conchita Alonso, Vincent Gallo, Joaquín Martínez, Sarita Choudhury, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vanessa Redgrave

JERUSALEM (1996) DIR Bille August PROD Ingrid Dahlberg, Marko Röhr SCR Bille August (adaptation by Klas Östregren, Charlotte Lesche; novel by Selma Lagerlöf) CAM Jörgen Persson ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Stefan Nilsson CAST Maria Bonnevieve, Ulf Friberg, Pernilla August, Lene Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Reine Brynolfsson, Max von Sydow, Olympia Dukakis

SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW (1997) DIR Bille August PROD Bernd Eichinger, Martin Moszkowicz SCR Ann Biberman (novel by Peter Høeg) CAM Jörgen Persson ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams CAST Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Jim Broadbent, Tom Wilkinson, Robert Loggia, Agga Olsen, Matthew Marsh, Mario Adorf

LES MISÉRABLES (1998) DIR Bille August PROD James Gorman, Sarah Radclyffe SCR Raphael Yglesias (novel by Victor Hugo) CAM Jörgen Persson ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Basil Poledouris CAST Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes, Christopher Adamson, Reine Brynolfsson, Peter Vaughan

EN SÅNG FÖR MARTIN, a.k.a. A SONG FOR MARTIN (2001) DIR Bille August PROD Bille August, Lars Kolvig, Michael Obel, Michael Lundberg SCR Bille August (novel by Ulla Isaksson) CAM Jörgen Persson ED Janus Billeskov Jansen MUS Stefan Nilsson CAST Viveka Seldahl, Sven Wollter, Reine Brynolfsson, Linda Källgren, Lisa Werlinder, Peter Engman, Klas Dahlstedt

RETURN TO SENDER (2004) DIR Bille August PROD Michael Lunderskov SCR Robert Wade, Neal Purvis CAM Dirk Brüel ED John Scott MUS Harry Gregson-Williams CAST Connie Nielsen, Aidan Quinn, Kelly Preston, Tim Daly, Mark Ryan, Mark Holton, Sara-Marie Maltha

GOODBYE BAFANA (2007) DIR Bille August PROD Roberto Cipullo, Kwesi Dickson, Ilann Gerard, Gherardo Pagliei, Andro Steinborn, Jean-Luc Van Damme, David Wicht SCR Bille August, Greg Latter (adaptation by Greg Latter; book by Bob Graham, James Gregory) CAM Robert Fraisse ED Hervé Schneid MUS Dario Marianelli CAST Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert, Diane Kruger, Patrick Lyster, Shiloh Henderson, Tyrone Keogh, Megan Smith, Jessica Manuel, Faith Ndukwana

CHACUN SON CINÉMA OU CE PETIT COUP AU COEUR QUAND LA LUMIÈRE S’ÉTEINT ET QUE LE FILM COMMENCE, a.k.a. TO EACH HIS OWN CINEMA (2007) DIR only segment The Last Dating Show; DIR other segments Theodoros Angelopoulos, Olivier Assayas, Jane Campion, Youssef Chahine, Kaige Chen, Michael Cimino, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, David Cronenberg, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Manoel de Oliviera, Raymond Depardon, Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Aki Kaurismäki, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Andrey Konchalovskiy, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Nanni Moretti, Roman Polanski, Raoul Ruiz, Walter Salles, Elia Suleiman, Ming-liang Tsai, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders, Kar-Wai Wong, Yimou Zhang PROD Denis Carot, Robert Benmussa, Sandrine Brauer, Laura Briand, Rachel Curl, Gilles Ciment, Sergei Davidoff, Gilles Jacob, Aki Kaurismäki, Takeshi Kitano, Serge Lalou, Marie Masmonteil, Masayuki Mori, Rebecca O’Brien, Jacky Yee Wah Pang, Roman Polanski, Katrine Sahlstrøm, Alain Sarde, Vincent Wang, Corinne Golden Weber, Kar-Wai Wong, Takio Yoshida SCR Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Manoel de Oliviera, Atom Egoyan, Olivier Assayas, William Chang, Amos Gitai, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Aki Kaurismäki, Andrey Konchalovskiy, Nanni Moretti, War-Wai Wong, Yimou Zhang, Jingzhi Zou CAM Marc-André Batigne, Jacques Bouquin, Inti Briones, Dirk Brüel, Nick de Pencier, Eric Alan Edwards, Greig Fraser, Francis Grumman, Pung-Leung Kwan, Steven Lubensky, Emmanuel Lubezki, Alain Marcoen, Ramses Marzouk, Francisco Olivera, Alessandro Pesci, Mauro Pinheiro Jr., Andreas Sinanos, Masha Solovyova, Shinzi Suzuki, Alberto Venzago, Xiaoding Zhao, Xiaoshi Zhao ED Luc Barnier, William Chang, Long Cheng, Alexandre de Franceschi, Marie-Hélène Dozo, Olga Grinshpun, François Gédigier, Takeshi Kitano, Bodil Kjærhauge, Véronique Lange, Giuseppe Leonetti, Valérie Loiseleux, Stephen Mirrione, Gabriel Reed, Susan Shipton, Yannis Tsitopoulos MUS Mark Bradshaw, Howard Shore, Mychael Danna, Eleni Karaindrou CAST (segment The Last Dating Show) Casper Christensen, Anne-Marie Louise Curry, Frank Hvam, Kristian Ibler, Joachim Knop, Sara-Marie Maltha, Peter Reichhardt

MARIE KRØYER (2012) DIR Bille August PROD Signe Leick Jensen, Karin Trolle SCR Peter Asmussen (book by Anastassia Arnold) CAM Dirk Brüel ED Gerd Tjur MUS Stefan Nilsson CAST Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Søren Sætter-Lassen, Sverrir Gudnason, Lene Maria Christensen, Tommy Kenter, Nanna Buhl Andresen, Vera Torpp Larsson

NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON (2013) DIR Bille August PROD Kerstin Ramcke, Peter Reichenbach, Günther Russ SCR Greg Latter, Ulrich Herrmann (novel by Pascal Mercier) CAM Filip Zumbrunn ED Hansjörg Weissbrich MUS Annette Focks CAST Jeremy Irons, Mélanie Laurent, Jack Huston, Martina Gedeck, Tom Courtenay, August Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin, Christopher Lee, Charlotte Rampling

STILLE HJERTE, a.k.a. SILENT HEART (2014) DIR Bille August PROD Jesper Morthorst SCR Christian Torpe CAM Dirk Brüel ED Janus Billeskov Jansen, Anne Østerud MUS Annette Focks CAST Ghita Nørby, Morten Grunwald, Paprika Steen, Jens Albinus, Danica Curcic, Pilou Asbæk, Danina Curcis, Vigga Bro

FENG HUO FANG FEI, a.k.a. THE CHINESE WIDOW and IN HARM’S WAY (2017) DIR Bille August SCR Greg Latter CAM Filip Zumbrunn ED Gerd Tjur MUS Annette Focks CAST Emile Hirsch, Yifei Liu, Fangcong Li, Hanlin Gong, Tiankuo Gong, Tsukagoshi Hirotaka, Lambert Houston, Zhu Jin, Gallen Lo

55 STEPS, a.k.a. ELEANOR & COLETTE (2017) DIR Bille August PROD Lesley Bruce-Neary, Anita Elsani, Sara Risher, Laurie Shearing SCR Mark Bruce Rosin CAM Filip Zumbrunn ED Hansjörg Weissbrich MUS Annette Focks CAST Hilary Swank, Helena Bonham Carter, Cynthia Hoppenfeld, Johan Heldenbergh, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Culkin, Jonathan Kerrigan, Tim Pletser, Vincent Riotta

LYKKE-PER, a.k.a. A FORTUNATE MAN (2018) DIR Bille August PROD Thomas Heinesen, Karin Trolle SCR Bille August, Anders Frithiof August (novel by Henrik Pontoppidan) CAM Dirk Brüel ED Janus Billeskov Jansen, Anne Østerud MUS Lorenz Dangel CAST Esben Smed, Katrine Greis-Rosenthal, Jens Albinus, Rasmus Bjerg, Anders Hove, Tommy Kenter, Ole Lemmeke, Benjamin Kitter, Julie Christiansen


MÖRDARE! MÖRDARE! (1980) DIR Jon Lindström PROD Bert Sundberg SCR Jon Lindström (novel by Uno Lindström) CAM Bille August CAST Lennart Hjulström, Mathias Henrikson, Palle Granditsky, Torsten Wahlund, Harriet Andersson, Irma Christenson, Carl-Olof Alm

VERDEN ER SÅ STOR, SÅ STOR (1980) DIR – SCR Bille August CAM Henrik Heger MUS Gunner Møller Pedersen CAST Mikkel Koch, Peter Schrøder, Helle Merete Sørensen, Ole Borg, Axel Christensen, Ulla De Frey, Annie Detlefsen

SOVA RÄV (1982) DIR Gun Jonsson PROD  SCR Ragnar Strömberg CAM Bille August CAST Niels Jensen, Peter Sjöquist, Monica Alhohen, Andreas Höghede, Marika Lindström, Jonas Bergström

MAJ (1982) DIR Bille August CAM Henrik Herbert MUS Fuzzy CAST Mette Munk Plum, Søren Pilmark, Kirsten Koefoed, Buster Larsen, Axel Strøbye, Ole Thestrup, Ole Borg

THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG INDIANA JONES: THE PERILS OF CUPID (2000) DIR Bille August (segment Vienna), Mike Newell (segment Florence) PROD Rick McCallum SCR George Lucas, Matthew Jacobs, Jule Selbo CAM Jörgen Persson, David Tattersall ED Edgar Burcksen, Louise Rubacky MUS Laurence Rosenthal CAST Corey Carrier, Margaret Tyzack, Ruth de Sosa, Lloyd Owen, Georges Corraface, Lennart Hjulström, Ernst-Hugo Järegård

DETALJER (2003) DIR Bille August PROD Ole Reim SCR (adaptation by Bille August; plays by Lars Norén) CAM Dirk Brüel ED Gerd Tjur MUS Stefan Nilsson CAST Benedekte Hansen, Ole Lemmeke, Helle Fagralid, Nicolai Dahl Hamilton