Bille August is a photographer-turned-director whose penchant for weaving deeply personal stories eventually gave way to adapting seemingly impenetrable novels into moderately successful features. His remarkable eye for period and character detail has gained him a solid reputation as one of his generation's most talented filmmakers. A native of Brede, Denmark, August graduated from the Danish Film Institute and started out working in the television industry, but it didn't take long for him to gravitate toward film work. First stepping behind the camera as cinematographer for the 1977 drama Homeward in the Night, August took the helm for Honeymoon the following year, to great critical acclaim. A middle-class Danish drama detailing the crumbling marriage of a one-time library assistant and a downbeat factory worker, Honeymoon served as an ideal showcase not only for August's abilities as a director, but his talents as a screenwriter as well.
August abandoned directorial duties for the next several years, working in television and spending time honing his skills as a cinematographer for feature films. He returned to directing with the made-for-television romantic drama Maj (1982). As the '80s progressed, August's talents behind the camera were obviously maturing, as was his skill for crafting believable, three-dimensional characters. His 1983 release Zappa, a sensitive tale of friendship and discovery, earned him a notable place in the pantheon of respected Scandinavian filmmakers. The following year, August took the helm for the television miniseries Buster's World and the popular children's film of the same name before directing Twist and Shout. A semi-sequel to the popular Zappa, Twist and Shout (1984) followed that film's lead character as he came of age during the time when the Beatles' popularity exploded worldwide. Not only did the film fare stratospherically well in August's native Denmark, but its sensitive portrayal of youthful love and loss earned the earnest film a place in numerous art-house theaters in the U.S. as well.
August's career behind the camera seemed to be reaching a high point, and in 1987, he crafted the film that many consider to be his masterpiece, Pelle the Conqueror. A sensitive tale of Swedish emigrants making a new life for themselves on the Danish island of Bornholm, Pelle the Conqueror showcased the best that August had to offer in terms of both character and period detail. In addition to taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at that year's Academy Awards, the film earned star Max von Sydow near universal praise from critics' circles. Not only was Pelle the Conqueror August's most popular international film to date, but it also marked the beginning of the director's growing interest in adapting popular works of fiction for the screen. With all of the attention August was drawing, he soon caught the eye of legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, and in 1992, the veteran director teamed with the relative newcomer for the feature The Best Intentions. Bergman penned the biographical tale of his parents lives up to the point of his birth in 1918, while August took the director's chair. Originally produced as a television miniseries, the film played well to international audiences when edited down for time and released as a feature in 1991. Not only did Best Intentions earn August the Golden Palm at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, it also brought him and star Pernilla August together romantically. They marryed soon thereafter, and had two children before their divorce in 1997.
Despite an impressive cast that included Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, and Vanessa Redgrave, August's next film, The House of the Spirits (1993), would prove his first true professional disappointment. After his 1996 drama Jerusalem was met with deadly indifference, August impressed critics with the low-key mystery Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997). Though generally praised by film lovers for its masterful use of Copenhagen's snowbound landscapes and compelling central mystery involving the death of a young boy, the film unfortunately flew under the radar of the general public and was subsequently relegated to the home-video market. By the time August spearheaded a 1998 film version of Les Miserables, many considered the director's literary adaptations to be top heavy and tiresome, resulting in poor ticket sales and lukewarm critical reception. Though August ventured outside of his comfort zone to direct episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, he soon returned to the sort of human drama that defined his early career with the release of A Song for Martin in 2001. A touching tale of an aging couple's valiant attempts to preserve their relationship in the face of Alzheimer's disease, A Song for Martin provided August's career with a much needed boost. In 2003, August once again returned to television to direct Det Kongelige Teater's production of Detaljer. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi