Lone Scherfig is a household name in Denmark, most celebrated for writing and directing the Dogme film "Italian For Beginners", the most profitable Scandinavian film to date. She broke from her independent filmmaking roots to direct "An Education", her second English-language film.
Written by Nick Hornby and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, the film is an entertaining yet poignant coming-of-age story set in 1962. Jenny (Carey Mulligan), an intelligent and naïve schoolgirl, jeopardises her chances of going to Oxford when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a 30-something playboy who rescues her from dreary post-war Twickenham and shows her the glamorous world of the West End and Paris.
With her talent for depicting the nuances of relationships and her sensitive eye for detail, Scherfig succeeds in portraying Jenny's sitting room as a microcosm of Britain on the cusp of change. We spoke with Scherfig while she was in London for the London Film Festival. She has an effervescent passion for England and beams with appreciation when she talks of Britain’s acting talent. As she gazes over Hyde Park in autumn, it’s clear that her work here is not yet done.
More Intelligent Life: Do you think films based on real-life stories hold more meaning?
Lone Scherfig: Lynn Barber told that story to explain why she works the way she does....how that experience changed her view on other people and why she is the kind of journalist that she is. Nick and I really emphasised how the characters are typical for their time and how the time influences their life choices. That group portrait that you see around Jenny is a portrait of characters that are what they are because of when they are.
MIL: When recreating post-war pre-swinging sixties London, do you think you had a clearer eye because you're an outsider?
LS: Yes, the same thing happens to anyone when they travel; they notice the people. I think it makes it easier as a director to work somewhere that you don't know that well. Even in Denmark, I've never described where I grew up or where I live, or had a main character that is like I am. It's much easier to step back.
MIL: David is the villain with a dark secret, but he comes across as vulnerable too. It's an interesting mix...
LS: He believes each moment that he's in, and he's in love. You are seduced a bit too–you want her to get into that car even if you know it's bad news, but you're not cheated because you saw everything coming. She's not the first woman who compromises when it comes to ignoring the flaws in men.
MIL: Did you feel some responsibility for Jenny?
LS: Nick Hornby is a moralist. All of his works are about values. I feel a responsibility towards the audience. I'm showing that a 16-year-old can have a relationship with a 35-year-old, but I'm also showing a girl who makes good choices and who is not just an object. They do many immoral things in the film but I don't think it makes the film immoral or irresponsible.
MIL: There's talk of Oscar nominations. What are your chances?
LS: I have no idea. My reaction was the same as Nick Hornby's...”Oh my god, we're on the Oscar prediction list!” That in itself is worth celebrating, I was really flattered and happy. I think Alfred Molina is extraordinary. Or for Carey [Mulligan] it would be really great.
MIL: She's definitely a star in the making...
LS: Yes, she's in every scene and you can see so many of the facets of her talent. I really hope that the attention and the quality of her work continues. So few people get a ticket into that world.
MIL: How did you find working principally with British actors?
LS: I just want to do it again! I really do. They're the best and they are my main reason to want to work here.
MIL: How are they different?
LS: They are disciplined. It's about the script, the material, the part, never the ego. They are tolerant, they are good co-workers, they never complain. They have very high standards, they make good choices. You just have the world champions.
MIL: So you enjoy being in London?
LS: It's England! It's your scripts, your architecture, your actors, your nature.
MIL: And will you be doing more films in England?
LS: I hope so, I'd rather work here than in America. I would tell the Americans that too!
MIL: You're mainly an independent filmmaker. Did you feel restricted by Hollywood conventions when making this film?
LS: Well, it is in my contract that you have to be able to edit your way out of things that could be controversial. If you have a dialogue that someone only says in the nude you have to make sure that you also do a close up. The good thing about the size of this film is that the budget is big enough to give you a sense of what things looked like but small enough to have integrity.
MIL: Is it different directing a film that you haven't written?
LS: Completely. It's much harder to get to know the script, and you can't fix things. But this time I decided to just trust the material and make sure that Nick's dialogue and tone wasn't overpowered. My job was about getting the humour, delivering all the layers getting the most out of every moment. Just to tell the story but not write the story, it's a different job.
MIL: Do you miss making Dogme films, or do you prefer working with a bigger budget?
LS: For certain kinds of story and script, Dogme does wonders. You have a freedom that is unbelievable and that is not matched by anything. It's about artistic liberation. When you do a film with a bigger budget it's not liberating because you can't just point the camera in any direction. But you do have more control and the film looks more like you imagined than a Dogme film. Somehow this film ended up being really glamorous.
MIL: What are you doing now?
LS: I'm writing a couple of scripts and doing a lot of writing and reading in the hope that a good project will land on my desk. Not just good but where I have a chance of turning it into a good film too. It has to be the right combination of something where it’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that I can live up to.
"An Education" is in cinemas now. The London Film Festival ends on October 29th