A Conversation with Lone Scherfig

By Max Gee

I caught a sneaky interview with Lone Scherfig, director of the Oscar and BAFTA nominated film An Education, just before she met Nick Hornby (the screenwriter), Amanda Posey and Finola Dwyer (the producers) in LA.  An Education is the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a teenager focused on getting into Oxford University, whose life is derailed when she meets charming older man, Daniel (Peter Sarsgaard). It is a poignant and beautiful coming of age tale set against the backdrop of 1950s Britain. 

Lone Scherfig graduated from the Danish Film School in 1984 and made her debut with Kaj's fødselsdag (The Birthday Trip) in 1990. This film was received with much acclaim and won the Grand Jury Prize at Rouen. She made her international debut in 2000 with Italian For Beginners, a Dogme95 film which won the Silver Berlin Bear. Following this she made her first English language film, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, in 2002. 

What attracted you to the script of An Education?
I liked Nick’s novels a lot. I had read some of them beforehand and that tone of his – the combination of humour and something deeper and darker – is something that both he and I like very much. And then there was David’s character and Peter Sarsgaard himself, because he was attached to the project before I was. I thought that it was a little gem. It was considered the best script that hadn’t been made by, I think, Variety; one out of ten scripts that they had named the previous year, and I agreed. I thought it was a script with an original tone and a lot of authenticity. I could see that if I could get it right, pitch it right, and get all the layers that the film might become more than the script. I thought David’s character was really interesting; someone who is that complex and that lovable at the same time.

So is it characters that attract to you projects in general?
Well, yes, it has to be somebody that I am really interested in, in order for me to want to spend so much time on it. You know, you can only do so many films in a lifetime. I sometimes do read scripts where I think this can be a good film, this is a film that I would like to see, but this doesn’t mean that I am the right or qualified director. And also it makes sense for me to take a look at it and think should this be one of the films that I will make or should I pass and hope for something better to arrive on my desk? But in this case, there was something about it, and it was the first time I had done something with a female protagonist. I have a girl who will soon be that age, my own daughter, so it made sense as something I would like to try.
From now on, because all the films I have done are character based, I would like to do something more plot-oriented. To have a strong plot that you can just lean onto and that will be there as a magic engine that will allow you to investigate details of the worlds you are in. But now I’m going to do a film, I think, called One Day which is an adaptation of a David Nicholls novel. He is writing the script himself and that, too, is totally character based. But from then on I think it would be a relief to work with something where the plot is going to be my spine. So you worry less about keeping the dramatic motor running and you can focus on the layers and on the details and on the humour.

So there’s a Lone Scherfig type of film?
Well they all are half comedy half tragedy. You know Italian For Beginners, my Dogme film, which is considered a comedy and people do laugh a lot, you have five people die in the first twenty minutes. And Wilber Wants To Kill Himself , the Scottish film I did,  is also very much about life and death. On the surface it’s quite dark, but underneath it’s a light film and an optimistic film in a way.

So what is your process of transforming the script, the blueprint, into a film?
Well, it depends, because most of the films I’ve done I’ve co-written or written the script. Normally, it will be about just filming the shots I’ve imagined in combination with trying to get as many gifts from crew and cast as I can. But in the case of An Education it was more about taking Nick’s fragile material and getting it through the film machine, without making it too visible that there was a whole crew there. It was Nick’s tone and the lightness and the effortlessness that had to survive. That’s a different way of using my craft.

Were there any difficulties with working with Nick and Finola and Amanda?
I mean it’s a given fact that it’s always harder to be the person who comes into the project last. And the combination of the writer being married to the producer, and the two producers being best friends, could be complicated for someone coming in from abroad. But I was invited and they did want a creative voice; there was space for it. I think if they hadn’t wanted that, they wouldn’t have hired a Danish director but found someone more mainstream. We were all aware that it could be a problem to have that strong a friendship and that good a marriage and then having an outsider. The nature of that working relationship is not great, but on the other hand, because we all knew that, we probably would all do our best to a degree you wouldn’t normally do about the co-working.
I have to say that the combination of Nick and the producers is really, really good because Nick has had access to an influence that writers don’t always have. He hasn’t abused it at all. He’s been supportive and he and I would really both, I think, like to work together again. It was a good work relationship, and now I’m here and we’re going to meet today and I can feel how much I’m looking forward to seeing them because we don’t see each other that often. That’s a really good sign.

How do you feel about working on a film that is based on real events? Does that affect your cinematic choices?
No, I think it should be the other way around. I do think biopics can be a big problem because you know what the ending is. You know that she’s [Jenny’s] not going to die and if you’ve read something about her she will land on both legs and one day become the journalist Lynn Barber. That is a basic problem. Of course it’s a bigger problem if it’s a more well-known person. The film is about putting a microscope on one spring in her [Jenny’s] life, rather than describing her entire life. I think I avoid biopics for that reason and I very rarely think they are truly interesting or truly emotional. They can be interesting, but if I had to name the top twenty five films I’ve ever seen I’m not sure there’s a biopic among them...
I felt that because it’s a strong media I felt a certain obligation to Lynn Barber and her parents and to the real character. But on the other hand I do that to fictional characters as well. You have to like your characters and care for them.

There are some wonderful moments of quiet emotion in this film, especially towards the end when the father (Alfred Molina’s character) is on the other side of the bedroom door from Jenny (Carey Mulligan’s character). Can you talk a little about how you convey feeling through the camera lens?
Actually the lens itself is an important tool. What kind of lens you use, wide angle or telephoto. That’s an aesthetic choice and it’s a good story telling device. But it’s much more about what you decide to film where. All of the shots are more or less in the film, there are a couple of scenes that have been cut out. But within the scene... I decided that the cup and the cookies look emotional when he places them and that could be the final shot of the film. This odd little act of love. This man who takes these three Custard creams [cookies] and puts them on the saucer for his little daughter. Especially with that character, with other characters it wouldn’t be as big a contrast... Of course the tea is in the script, he says something like “I’ve got a cup of tea for you here,” but using that cup of tea as an emotional device is a storytelling decision.
All directors do that. You just find the details that are relevant. If you shoot a scene where six-thousand men get killed, the director will choose that man with a spear in his breast, falling off his horse, yelling as he falls to the ground. That will very often not be scripted. It’s a parallel, whether it’s a cup of tea being placed on a floorboard or a man in armour with a spear through his temples falling to the ground it’s the same directorial decision. You just weigh those scenes on two different scales. If you don’t, you can’t fall asleep as a director in the evening, not if you do the type of films I do.  You know that cup of tea is not at all as glamorous and visual as men in armour. This is another reason why I want to lean onto a strong plot because I’ve done a lot of bed scenes and dinner tables and kitchen tables now. It would be fantastic to paint with a bigger brush.

In the published script of An Education there is an alternate ending. Why did you choose the particular ending you did for the film?
I didn’t. It was a combination of test screenings and producers. The ending that we’ve chosen is the ending that tested best. I think the original ending is probably stronger and my favourite version... ended at a medium shot of Peter Skasgaard at his car just looking after her [Jenny]. I thought that was the more interesting, the more nuanced and the more intelligent ending in a way. But I was also really keen on making a film that would find an audience so I thought it did make sense to make a more upbeat, sweeter ending that had more empowerment for Jenny. It’s become more her film now and that makes a lot sense. The film gets such praise at the moment, and she does, so it probably was the right decision.

Which moment are you most proud of in the film?
What I’m really proud of is the fact that there’s very little emphasis to everybody’s work. When people talk about the film they talk about the era and the characters. They don’t talk about the cinematography or the music; the film as a whole works. You can’t tell when the production design ends and the costume design starts, or when the cinematography ends and then the editing begin. All the different crafts that are involved blend together well enough for people not to notice any of them at first hand and I think that’s a good sign.

How did you get started in directing, because it seems like a male-dominated field?
Very much like our Jenny I went to Paris when I was seventeen. I studied film there for two thirds of a year and then I went back to Copenhagen University and studied there. Then I went to film school when I was old enough; you had to be twenty-one to get in. Then I just started working. It’s a different system in Denmark where we have more of a tradition for female filmmakers. It did make a big difference that the Dogme Brothers invited me to be the first sister, so I did my Dogme film Italian For Beginners that I both wrote and directed. From then on, because that film was seen by a lot of people and received well by the press, I got more and better chances and people understood what kind of director I was. That was very nice.

When you begin writing a script where do you start?
Conflict. Yes, conflict comes first... and it could be conflict not in the sense of “who wants what and why can’t he,” the traditional Anglo Saxon dramatic premise, but conflict in terms of theme. Italian For Beginners was about how to conquer loneliness, or how to overcome sorrow, and Wilber Wants to Kill Himself was about why should we at all want to be in this world. They are very depressing. I mean you can’t hear that these are comedies, but they are [a nervous chuckle]. And I actually think there’s not much difference between how you attack comedy material and something darker. The work is the same; it’s just a tonal difference.

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