Her new film, An Education, is set in London in the early 60s and stars Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard. It’s about a high school student who gets swept up by a charming con man and has to way the conflicting benefits of being a brilliant student and having a playboy boyfriend. I reviewed it pretty coldly here. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but people in the theater seemed pleased by it.
I was much more pleased with Scherfig herself, who was very warm and completely lovely. We talked at length about the script (written by Nick Hornby), British humor, proper learning, and dusty classics.
Me: There was the original article. Then Nick Hornby signed on. Then you did later. How did it all come to be?
Lone: Yes. Nick Hornby wrote– … Is this the final version, what I’m saying?
Lone: Is this what goes up what I’m saying right now? If my English isn’t that good, you will fix it?
Me: Oh. Yeah, sure.
Lone: Ah. Good. Okay, the story is that Nick was reading the Lynn Barber article in the bathtub and he said to Amanda Posey, one of the producers that he thought she should option it. Then they started talking about writers and he started to feel a bit jealous and finally offered to write the script himself. Then I read it around the third draft or so, and went and met the producers a number of times until I got an offer to direct the film. That all took a couple of years and I was just involved for maybe 6 months before we started preparing. It was good because there was a long history before I was involved, which in the way was an advantage because I had more energy.
Peter Sarsgaard was already on board before me, which was a great attraction because I love David’s character and I love the portrait of that man. That and Nick’s tome was what attracted me in the first place. Jenny is all over the script but you don’t see her that much when you first read it, maybe because she’s so easy for me to identify with. She was more the tourist guide that would take you into the world that the movie takes place in. It is very much her film and I’m happy about that because what you remember when you see the film is her and that world and not the director or the designer. It’s her film and it’s that world that comes first in everybody’s mind.
Me: Did that make it difficult at all, having some things already set in place?
Lone: Just the script and Peter and most of the financing. But nothing in place in terms of my contributions. And maybe because I’m a writer as well, I didn’t find it problematic to stay pretty faithful to the script. It wouldn’t make sense to want to make major suggestions with this project. On others it would. But Nick is experienced and the structure was there and the characters definitely were there. It was about all the nuances of getting the authenticity and getting the jokes to land on both legs.
Me: I watched Italian for Beginnings yesterday, which was very funny, and I saw Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself years ago, which has a lot of the dark, dry humor that the Nordic countries are known for. But British humor’s a little different and this is a very British movie. Was the humor difficult?
Lone: Nah. It’s the same. Nick and I have a lot in common. And probably some of the best directing I’ve done in the film is when you have four people around a dinner table and you have to get all the reactions right and the timing right and the sizes of shots right. It’s very mechanic in a way. I truly enjoyed, especially with someone like Alfred Molina and Matthew Beard, the young boy, who’s very funny, to work on a film where you have such a phenomenal cast and then making it…is there a word called nivillate? nivillation?
Me: Mmm…It’s out of my range.
Lone: I should look it up. But making all of these actors tonally belong in the same film even if they don’t even meet. So it becomes a whole and they pitch things the same way. Emma Thompson, all her scenes are just with her and Carey. She just comes in and acts and goes away.
Me: But it has to be consistent.
Lone: It has to be consistent and credible. Even if you have these small jewels of performances, and that’s a great challenge. And you have to direct it and remain invisible as a director at the same time. You don’t want to see the director, you want to be worried about Jenny’s fate. So I really enjoyed that. Comedy is very much a craft.
One important element of comedy is to change genre within comedy all the time. As soon as you think you get all the humor, then you make a visual joke or a physical joke or a pause.
It’s not a comedy comedy. Sometimes you can see jokes, and you know that there would be a possibility of making a joke and you say no, no, humor is low hanging fruit and you shouldn’t pick all of it. Because it’s not about fun now, it’s also about making sure the thematic material survives the process. You don’t want to be silly all the time. Or you can be silly, but make sure the camera is not turned on.
Me: This is probably a more recognizable cast than you’re used to working with. Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Peter Sarsgaard.
Lone: Yes. It helped a lot that Peter and Emma Thompson were attached to the film very early. I think it made people want to read the script even if they knew that there weren’t going to be very big parts for anyone.
Me: It snowballed.
Lone: Yeah. I think it did.
Me: Is it hard working with actors that an audience might already have a lot of impressions about?
Lone: Not these people. Actually, I think Peter Sarsgaard set a really good example. I’ve been thinking about it because I might, in the future, not be as lucky to have an actor who comes in with his kind of experience and is as humble as he is and as flexible. He would never complain about food or temperature or the way he was treated or the costumes or anything. He’s super disciplined and happy to work. Willing to do whatever it takes. And I think that was contagious. So people were just really easy to work with and there was such a good atmosphere. Part of it is British tradition and British discipline but part of it comes from Peter’s attitude. And I tend to forget to thank him.
But this morning I was thinking about the possible next project and thinking “my God, what if we don’t have someone to set such an example?”
Me: The movie kind of puts school learning and life learning at odds. Was part of the message of the movie to dispel that notion and say, well learning is learning?
Lone: Well I think…sorry am I interrupting you?
Me: Oh no. That’s a perfect place for my rambling to stop.
Lone: Nick Hornby talks a lot about when he was a kid, the pleasure, which I can really identify with, that all of a sudden education and appetite are in sync. When you learn something because you really want to and not because you have to. You don’t know that you’re becoming educated. That’s what the film says. That there’s no detour and that the life that she wants. She can only have if she fights for it. There are no role models for her in the film. What do you want to be? A dumb blond or an evil teacher or a bored housewife? But Jenny finds a way out of that.
Me: I went to the screening a couple days ago and Nick Hornby did a quick question and answer after. He said you kind of wanted to make the movie, he used the phrase “a forgotten classic.” A lot of people have said the movie is really about a transition in England from the 50s to the 60s. I agree that that was the setting, but it seemed to me like you were trying hard not to comment heavily on that.
Lone: That’s true. And you wouldn’t have done that in the period. But it’s not like someone opening an old cabinet and finding a dusty film wasting away and oh there’s another one. But cinematically the movie is in debt to some of the films of that time. As is all my work. Because I’m a closet neo-realist, which is kind of tacky now because those films were made before I was even born. But the way those films and the French New Wave and the English Free Cinema and then Dogme, which is the film history I can identify with, the way they care for everyday human beings and share that affection is something I think suits this project.
But I think what gives it some staying power may be Carey Mulligan. And my trusting that this world, if it’s done well enough, it’s consistent and it’s strong and everything belongs in that little package and I have to believe that’s strong enough and not try too hard to influence it or make it more cinematic or flashy or contemporary. That could have killed it because then you reveal that no one gets killed in this film. There’s very little sex. The drama is really subtle. It’s about a girl sitting in a staircase crying or Alfred Molina bringing three custard cream cookies to someone. That’s supposed to be emotionally strong enough. There are other films this year that play on a much bigger instrument and you’ve just gotta trust that playing the flute is absolutely fine even though somebody else is doing symphony orchestra. … To come up with an even worse metaphor.
Me: Oh no, I thought that was good.
An Education is playing now at Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Sundance Kabuki.