A graduate of the Danish Film Institute, Bille August began his career in television and entered film production as a cinematographer on "Hemat i Natten/Homeward in the Night" (1977). The following year saw his first work as a director; he made both a short film, "Kim G.", and the feature "Honning Maane", which he also wrote. The latter was a generally well-received if small-scale study of a young couple which suggested a way with actors and an attention to character detail. August did not direct another feature, though, for five years, during which he worked in television and shot such features as "Man kan inte Valdtas/Manrape/Men Can't Be Raped" (1978), directed by Jorn Donner, and "The Grass Is Singing" (1981), a British-Swedish co-production about a woman having problems adjusting to Africa's bush country.
August's work suggested a honing of his visual sense, but he was eager get back to directing. He returned to the helm with the first of two successful films (which he also wrote) about teen life, "Zappa" (1983), and followed up with one of Scandinavia's most popular films ever, "Twist and Shout" (1985), which also received a modest US release. Both films again reflected a bittersweet approach to character study and, in capturing the rock `n' roll era of the 60s, suggested August's penchant for historical recreation. These qualities came to the fore in what has generally been regarded as his most successful film to date, "Pelle the Conqueror" (1987). The first of August's literary adaptations of epic novels, "Pelle" explored a father-son relationship through the grueling journey of Swedish emigrants trying to find a better life in Denmark at the turn of the century. Splendidly acted, especially by Max von Sydow, and filled with strikingly dramatic vignettes, the film was acclaimed internationally, winning an Oscar as Best Foreign Film.
August continued in this successful vein when Swedish film legend Ingmar Bergman chose August to direct the screenplay for Bergman's biographical study of his parents in the decade before he was born in 1918, "The Best Intentions" (1991). Originally made as a miniseries for Swedish TV, the film also played well in a re-edited version for the international art-house audience, who primarily read the film as reflective of Bergman's downbeat but nostalgic and moving sensibilities. Perhaps the most important aspect of the film for August, though, may have been the sterling performance of the actress Bergman chose to play his mother, for Pernilla August soon became the director's wife.
Despite the acclaim for his intense, well-acted and visually rendered historical character studies, some critics began to complain that August seemed to be leaning toward lengthy epics whose many subplots were just on the edge of sapping his films' narrative energies. These criticisms came to the fore when August directed his first English-language film, a disastrous adaptation of Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits" (1993). Critics found the famed cast, including Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, generally at sea and the director ill at ease with this would-be study of political and emotional turmoil in Latin America. After helming a few installments of the US adventure series, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" in 1992-93, August retreated to what would seem to be his terra firma, the Scandinavian miniseries, for his subsequent time and locale-spanning saga, "Jerusalem" (1996). Again August's effort featured an international cast in an epic marked more by highlights than by any one story. Hollywood talent again beckoned him, though, to helm a US-Scandinavian co-production, an adaptation of Peter Hoeg's acclaimed mystery "Smilla's Sense of Snow" (1997).