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Getting An Education: An Interview With Lone Scherfig

Written by: Tom Hardej, Special to CC2K

ImageAbout halfway through my interview with Lone Scherfig, the director of An Education, a giant fluffy poodle walked by where were sitting. I barely noticed, but she was exuberant. She said, “That could be a souvenir. I did buy the Obama t-shirt, now I’m going to buy the giraffe-sized poodle.”

That’s what it was like talking to Scherfig. She’s a lovely, funny woman, whose personality fills up the room. An Education (which is written by Nick Hornby based on part of a memoir by Lynn Barber, a revered journalist in the UK) has been getting some serious buzz and could lead to some good news come Oscar time, especially for its young star, Carey Mulligan. It’s the story of a bright young girl growing up in a time where there weren’t many opportunities for women outside of the home, and how she came to see the world differently after a relationship with an older man who wasn’t quite who he said he was.

TH: It’s your second English language film, and certainly your biggest so far as far as the actors you’re working with. How did the film come to you?

LS: Nick Hornby and I have the same agent, and she slipped the script to me at a fairly early stage. She knew that I had read it and I liked it and I told her that “if you ever needed a director, I wouldn’t mind being asked.” It just got that point eventually.

The film is so English, and I am so not, so I was hoping that my tone and the tone in my work, and Nick Hornby’s tone would be enough to make up for the fact that I have the wrong nationality for the project. I think part of the reason why I got the job was that I liked the script as much as I did and trusted that the story itself, with its complexity and layers, would be strong enough to hold a film even if it’s not like six thousand soldiers getting killed or a nuclear catastrophe.

It’s a closer and more intimate portrait of both London and a man in particular, not just Jenny, but David. I thought that was interesting. I remember first reading it and imagining the scenes with David, and then later when I heard that Peter Sarsgaard was on board it made it even more interesting. He was the only actor who was cast when I started working on the film and he’s a blessing. He’s a great, great actor, a great technician, a great colleague. And it was about him seducing the audience the way he seduces Jenny. If you just made a fool of him or portrayed a liar or an idiot, it might get more laughs, but then the film wouldn’t have been heartbreaking. Both Peter Sarsgaard and I really liked David and wanted to show someone who wants the life you can have if you have an education. And he doesn’t—obviously, he’s a fool.

TH: As I was watching it, I kept thinking that he is either the sweetest guy ever, or he is the biggest creep, but I could never totally tell, and I think that’s one of the things that really works about the movie. You really do think about it the whole time.

LS: He doesn’t really lie to her face, but he certainly keeps a lot of secrets. It wasn’t that uncommon at that time that men did what he does. Once his secret is revealed, you can see that it is a little more complex than you think.

TH: You’re talking a lot about David. Do you find him to be a more interesting character than Jenny? Do you see it more about him?

LS: It’s a portrait of him, but of course, my main job while working on this film was to make the protagonist as faceted and as easy to identify with as possible. It was great working with Carey Mulligan. After a couple of weeks I could remember thinking, this is going to work. It’s her first big film. It’s her first leading role. I could see that she could handle the pressure, the analysis of the script, and that we could make the character consistent, and the development organic, even if you almost always shoot out of sequence. It became a challenge, and once I could see she was going to land on both legs, I got more ambitious and I thought let’s see if we can bury her more, let’s see how many aspects to her character we can have without it becoming a different girl. I’ve never had a female main character before. It’s always been men. I think now I’m old enough so I can see her with the love and the interest that you have for somebody at that age. I’m where I can do it without portraying any element of myself. It’s an act of giving somebody something and sharing something with somebody, rather than just projecting your own ideas about what it is to be a teenager.

TH: So you never had an affair with an older man?

LS: I never was a teenager. [Laughs.] But it’s not about me. It’s about Lynn Barber, of course.

ImageTH: Was Lynn involved with the film at all?

LS: Very little. She came to see the house, which was fun. Both her parents are still alive and she’s now in her sixties. I heard her laughing out loud at an early screening of the film, which was a relief, because she’s a feared woman. She’s a journalist. Everyone is really flattered if they get interviewed by [her], but they get scared that she will reveal something that is behind the façade. Part of her point in writing this piece was to tell the story of how she came to never trust what she sees as a journalist. But our Jenny in the film is slightly softer, I think, than Lynn is, and she is more lyrical. It’s as if Lynn Barber is more of a product of the time she grew up in than our Jenny. I think our Jenny probably resembles girls more now. I’m looking forward to meeting her again and reading her book—she’s coming out with a new autobiography.

TH: Hopefully she’ll have good things to see about the movie!

LS: She wrote very kind e-mails.

TH: I was only joking!

LS: Maybe you’re right. She does write in the Guardian regularly. She’s written a little bit about the film, but she’s fine. She’s a pro. She knows that it’s a film. It’s not going to be a correct portrait of her. But we’re hoping to make a fairly correct portrait of the elements of London that you see, especially the atmosphere and the music in particular. The music, I thought was a great way of getting the flavor of the period right—the innocence of the period. It’s the feeling of the London, which becomes “Swinging London” right after the film has ended, but isn’t there yet. It’s about London’s coming of age.

TH: The music was one my favorite parts of the film, right from the opening credits on.

LS: We had so much fun finding the music. It was a safari on iTunes, and some of the songs have great, great YouTube videos. Like Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothings,” and the Mel Torme’s “Coming Home Baby.” You should look those up and see those early 16mm black and white pop videos. They are unforgettable. They also have that innocence, I hope, that characterizes the film, from Jenny’s character, to London, to the way we shot it. It’s something unpretentious, something that doesn’t try too hard, that feels light, and you get this underlying feeling that they don’t know the future that is ahead of them.

TH: And this was the first film that Nick Hornby has written. Was he around a lot while you were making it?

LS: He was an executive producer. He came up with some really good music suggestions. He was a good listener when I suggested changes in the last couple of drafts. And he was a nice teacher when there were things I wasn’t sure of because of the language. He was quite patient when I said, “Nick, this was supposed to be a joke, isn’t it?” [Laughs] Because it’s so ethnic almost—England in that time—and I wanted to make sure that I found all the details that were there was to find. The film is, to a certain extent, made up of details, and if I didn’t get those right, then there would be no film. So, yes, I really enjoyed working with him. He’s been incredibly loyal, and good at not being around when he wasn’t needed.

TH: I wanted to talk a little more about Carey Mulligan’s Jenny. She really carries the movie and there’s been a lot of Oscar talk about the film. How do you feel about that stuff?

LS: It’s flattering! It’s exciting! As Nick puts it, the pile of books that he wrote at some point won’t matter, because he was the man who wrote the script that was Carrie Mulligan’s first film. I think she can carry it. She’s not just promising. She will keep that promise. But she’s also surrounded by great actors. It’s a good cast in general. It was a joy as we went on and I knew that on Monday Alfred Molina was coming and then I’d have four days with him, and then Emma Thompson was coming and I was going to work with her. It’s like playing tennis with pros—it makes you get very good, very quickly. But they also got surprised at how good she was. It wasn’t just, “let’s support this young girl.” She also gives a lot in return which is a great qualification for an actor.

TH: What are you’re working on now? What is your next project?

LS: I’m writing two different scripts. One is for myself and is an English film, and the other one is for Billie August and is a Danish-German film. I’m just writing as a writer for the moment, and then I hope to get….a thriller. [Laughs.] I’d love to do something darker now.

TH: So we will get to see that nuclear catastrophe movie after all?

LS: No, no. Well, there was an element in this film with the slick cars and men in shiny suits. Sometimes I would see Peter Sarsgaard and Dominic Cooper in their suits and hats, looking like a French 60s Jean-Pierre Melville thriller or gangster film. But I’d like to go that way. We’ll see.

TH: Which films or filmmakers inspire you?

LS: Ang Lee has been a good inspiration the last couple of years. The way he dares to be intimate. It’s not the kinds of films I make. Bergman is a hero. The Italian and French directors of the 50s and 60s feel more like family. That’s the cinematic heritage to which I feel I belong and that An Education has the strongest relation to.