Q & A with Director Lone Scherfig

Director Lone Scherfig on the set of “An Education”

Director Lone Scherfig on the set of “An Education”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Lone Scherfig (“Italian For Beginners”) about her critically acclaimed drama “An Education”, a likely best picture Oscar contender that opened Oct. 9 via Sony Pictures Classics in New York and L.A., expands Oct. 16 and will add theaters throughout October and November.

“An Education”, a BBC Films and Endgame Entertainment presentation, is the story of a teenage girl coming of age. Set in Britain in the early 1960s, the film takes place on the cusp of the strait-laced, post-war period and the free-spirited decade to come. Directed by award-winning Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, its screenplay by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”, “About a Boy”) is adapted from a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber that originally appeared in the literary magazine Granta.

Starring are Peter Sarsgaard (“Boys Don’t Cry”, “Kinsey”, “Shattered Glass”), Carey Mulligan (“Pride & Prejudice”), Alfred Molina (“Spiderman 2”, “Frida”), Dominic Cooper (“Mamma Mia”, “The History Boys”), Rosamund Pike (“Fracture”, “Die Another Day”), Cara Seymour (“American Psycho”, “Gangs of New York”), Olivia Williams (“Rushmore”, “The Sixth Sense”), Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) and Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility”).

The film was shot during the spring of 2008 on location in and around London, Oxford and Paris and on sound stages at Twickenham Studios. Its behind-the-scenes team includes director of photography John de Borman (“The Full Monty”), production designer Andrew McAlpine (“The Piano”) and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux (“The Constant Gardener”).

Produced by Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, the project was developed with BBC Films and financed by Endgame Entertainment and BBC Films. It was executive produced by Endgame Entertainment’s James D. Stern, Douglas E. Hansen and Wendy Japhet, and by David M. Thompson and Jamie Laurenson for BBC Films and also by screenwriter Nick Hornby.

The Story in brief: In the post-war, pre-Beatles London suburbs, a bright 16 year old schoolgirl (Jenny played by Carey Mulligan) is torn between studying for a place at Oxford and the more exciting alternative offered to her by a charismatic older man (David played by Peter Sarsgaard).

Lone Scherfig: Director Lone Scherfig — her first name is pronounced Loan-uh — was born in Copenhagen and studied film at the University of Copenhagen and the National Film School of Denmark. She’s written and directed short films, radio dramas and television series, receiving 22 awards and 11 nominations for her work.

In 2001 Scherfig’s romantic comedy drama “Italian for Beginners” received a FIPRESCI award and a Silver Bear Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Robert Award for Best Original Screenplay from the Danish Film Academy. Among Scherfig’s other features are “The Birthday Trip” and “On Our Own”. Her first English language film “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself” received the FIPRESCI prize in 2003 along with numerous other international film awards.

“Just Like Home” Scherfig’s feature before “An Education”, screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007. “An Education” was an official selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award and the Cinematography Award in World Cinema Dramatic Competition.

After greatly enjoying an early look at “An Education”, I was happy to have an opportunity to ask Lone Scherfig about the making of the film. When we spoke by phone late in the morning following the film’s well received Los Angeles premiere Scherfig was in bed at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills.

Q: How did “An Education” originate?
A: I was talking to Jenne Casarotto, who is a distinguished British agent that Nick and I share, and I think it was her idea. I know that she, in general, does not want to combine clients on projects, but she was the one who felt that my take or tone as a director would suit Nick’s writing. And I genuinely think that Nick and I do have something in common that makes up for the fact that my nationality is not quite relevant for his very British project.
Q: At what point did she make this marriage between the two of you?
A: It was a third draft version of the script that she first gave to me. I liked it a lot and said that if they needed a director I’d be really happy to talk to them. Nick’s wife is one of the producers who originally optioned the 10 page memoir by the journalist Lynn Barber. Amanda Posey, Nick’s wife, was talking to him at the breakfast table about writers and eventually he said that he was feeling a little bit jealous and then he offered to write it, himself. And that’s how it came that he wrote his first (original) film script. His other films are adaptations of his novels.
Q: And when was that?
A: About three years ago.
Q: What attracted you to it?
A: The script definitely had his tone, which I really liked. I liked that he’s warm towards his characters, but he also shows the flaws that they have. I got completely seduced by David’s character, the Peter Sarsgaard role. When I read those scenes I really felt like I was seeing that person in flesh and blood. I think he is a really unusual character on film. Usually, you wouldn’t promote that type of person to become a main character. He would be the villain. So you get a very close look at a very complex layered man who definitely suffers from the fact that he doesn’t have an education.

When I heard that they had attached Peter Sarsgaard I thought that was a brilliant choice. Peter was on board the film before I was, but that just made it all the more attractive because I think he has this vulnerability that really suits it. David wouldn’t just be a used car salesman, but would be someone that you admire and feel sorry for and you want to be around him as an audience. And later you are deceived the way Jenny is deceived. I can see when I talk to some of your colleagues that there is an element in this film where you feel hurt in a way when you’ve seen it. I think that has to do with the fact that you are seduced the way she is.
“An Education” stars (left to right) Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard.

“An Education” stars (left to right) Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard.

Q: Without giving too much away, let’s just say that he certainly doesn’t turn out to be the person we’d like him to be.
A: We don’t want a main character who’s like that. And that’s how the film changes. On the surface it’s a romantic comedy, but it’s not at all. It’s about values and choices in life and the importance of finding the way you want to live. In Jenny’s case, finding out that she wants an education for her own sake and to quench her appetite for art and books and people who know “lots about lots”, as she says.
Q: Carey Mulligan is perfect casting as Jenny in that she seems so very young when we first meet her and then she turns into a very confident young woman who seems years older as the film progresses.
A: Yes and (it was a challenge) to find someone who you’d know could not just play Jenny but could carry a film. That is different. You have a lot of brilliant actresses at that age in England, but I was looking for somebody who had the qualities of being able to be in all scenes and that’s a different matter. Actually, Carey Mulligan does not have an acting education, but of course she’s really talented. By now she’s done so much acting that that is an education in itself. She started filming when she was really young and then she got a theatre role in “The Seagull” (as the ingénue Nina in Ian Rickson’s production of the play co-starring Kristin Scott-Thomas and Chiwetel Ejiofor at London’s Royal Court Theatre). And then she got this film. After “An Education” she’s had four or five new roles and now she’s Gordon Gekko’s daughter (Winnie) in the new “Wall Street” film (“Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps”, directed by Oliver Stone). So she’s really versatile.
Q: How did you cast her?
A: The casting director (Lucy Bevan) found her. I saw CVs of many, many girls and she was just one of them and the one I always liked the best. Whenever we narrowed it down and down, she was still the one that stood out. And then she met with Peter and did some scenes with him and then she met with me and did some scenes with me. It was a long and complicated process because you’re afraid that you are not making the right choice, but she was always the first choice.
Q: Where did you shoot the film?
A: Everything was shot in London, but the house (Jenny lives in) was built on a set in Twickenham, oddly enough because that’s where the story takes place. There is a small studio there. We finished shooting in early May. Our last shooting day was in Paris. It was my birthday and I finally got to shoot the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. For a director it was such a treat. I’d steal one of the bikes that we had and bike ride from one location to the next, completely euphoric that we had finished shooting and that everyone had survived and it looked like it was going to be a film and it was my birthday.
Q: How long did you shoot in Paris?
A: It took two days. Actually, a day and a half. It’s hand held. A very small crew. We knew that we wanted it to be the postcard Paris — almost like an old photo album Paris. Actually, you see very little. It suited the film to get that New Wave feel to the Paris that she’s dreaming about and then sees. That’s how you would look at Paris then.
Q: What season was it?
A: That was spring. May.
Q: And how long did you shoot in England?
A: Six and a half weeks (from March to May). We started (shooting) out of sequence because when you have heavyweight actors in small roles you have to adjust the schedule to their availability, which was hard on Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard. She controls her development (as a character who’s only 16 but then comes across as much more mature) and the elegance of his acting is that he is really in control of what emotional information you get about him in order for you to be seduced but be cheated and not make too predicable what it is that’s his secret. I think Peter really handled that well.
Q: I was thinking that perhaps you’d shot all of Carey’s younger scenes together to make it easier for her to be in character since she changes so much in the film.
A: No. We just shot completely depending on when the actors were available. The best thing about it is that we could get that kind of big cast. And also it’s cheaper obviously to shoot that way. That means the budget isn’t that big and that means you get to have fewer opinions and people are more willing to run risks and the film gets more integrity.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of your biggest challenges?
A: When I see the film now, (I still have) memories of very nice shooting days because the actors are so disciplined and humble in England. With the scenes in the house, it’s very mechanical some of it because it’s a comedy. It’s about reactions and who lifts what tea cup when — but that kind of mechanic work where you just get the best out of the jokes but still get the tension and the emotion out of each script page that you can and out of the actors that are there. I love that kind of work. It’s not as cinematic as some of the other scenes, but completely page by page detail emotion and humor with someone like Alfred Molina is just such a pleasure.

And scenes like the one in the petrol station where you have the parents in the backseat doing a little comedy double act and then Jenny in the front seat playing out a tragedy where she’s completely heartbroken — to handle that combination is such a great challenge. You don’t often find material where you have a chance to play at so many emotional keys at the same time as with a script like this.
“An Education” stars (left to right) Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Carey Mulligan, and Peter Sarsgaard.

“An Education” stars (left to right) Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Carey Mulligan, and Peter Sarsgaard.

Q: How did you work with your actors? Did you rehearse?
A: A little bit, but not much. You shouldn’t over-rehearse and there wasn’t that much time. I like to just keep a very open mind when you shoot for ideas that come up from the cast and give them space. But on the other hand, we shot the film very quickly so sometimes they just had to do what is planned and you can’t allow them to come up with too much because there simply isn’t time to try things out. But they’re not as keen on doing that as you think. They don’t like improvisation that much. Peter Sarsgaard is definitely the most experimental actor in the group because he comes out of an American tradition, which is a different way of approaching the craft.
Q: Are English actors more inclined to want to do things as planned?
A: I think that’s the tradition, but I can’t speak for all of them. My job would be to make sure that (they all fit well together) even if they come from different schools of acting. To make all these people pitch things the same way and tonally play the same way is part of the (director’s) job. They play out the scenes without ever seeing what each other do (in terms of acting styles).
Q: Do you shoot a lot of material?
A: I always tell the producers, “You don’t need to buy a lot of stock because I don’t use it and I know what I’m doing.” But I end up shooting just as much as everybody else. It’s so funny because in this country (the U.S.), from what I understand, you have a criterion that if you shoot a lot it means that you’re working a lot and that’s good. But in Denmark you can’t really waste stock so you are used to having an enormous focus that when you actually start the camera you mean it and that a rehearsal is a rehearsal and you shouldn’t shoot rehearsals. You should only shoot when you’re sure that now is the take that is going to end up in the film. So it’s a different approach. I like the moments where the actors do something that you couldn’t completely predict like small reactions — things that only happen once. And you can only get enough of that if you shoot a couple of takes at least of each set-up.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: $8 million. Something like that.
Q: That’s really not a lot of money these days.
A: No, but it’s not that big a film and it’s all shot on location. A lot of the scenes are just two people in a bed or three people at a table. You could, of course, have had many more prop cars. I think you see the same six cars all the time. Or (we could have tried) to show more of what London looked like at that time. But a lot of the flavor of the period comes with the music and with small props. You get a feeling of what London looked like, but you don’t actually see very much. The school (used in the film actually) exists. They maintain their buildings so well that the old school and school uniforms are all pretty much the same 40 or 50 years later. They’re so conservative that you can just shoot everything on location and nothing has been changed. The petrol station was just there. They paint things, but they just paint them exactly the same way so things basically don’t change.
Q: There’s a very good early buzz about your movie being a likely best picture Oscar nominee, especially this year with there now being 10 nominees instead of five. How do you feel about that?
A: From what I understand, the reason they’re doing 10 instead of five films was an attempt to approach the audience so that there’s space for the blockbusters. Wasn’t that the plan?
Q: Well, they haven’t said so specifically, but it certainly seems that the kind of big well regarded commercial hits like “The Dark Knight” that couldn’t really get nominated in the past might have a better chance now.
A: Yes, the films people actually see and the films that the television audience will see. They want to make sure that the Oscars are interesting to everyone. But if it means that this film has just the remotest chance, that would be absolutely fantastic. I just should enjoy things the way they are now. I’m in this big bed at this wonderful hotel (the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills) and everything went well last night when we had the premiere and that’s more than enough.