Following in the footsteps of fellow Danish filmmakers (the Biers, the Bornedals and the von Triers) who move between English-language film fair and projects in their native tongue, Lone Scherfig has parlayed her experiences in smaller fair meant for a more “localized” audience into a a smashing coming-of-age film set in 1960’s London where a teen girl embraces adulthood via the charm of a man twice her age. Since debuting An Education to plenty of praise at Sundance, the best known for Italian for Beginners filmmaker receives a report card that is graded by critics with A and high B’s. Lead by Carey Mulligan in one of those star making performances that is being cross referenced with big names from silver screen’s vault, and complimented by the excellent Peter Sarsgaard who finally gets his due with a perfectly fitted leading man type of role, An Education certainly has some of the facets needed in turning kudos into trophy hardware.
Yama Rahimi: This film is a far cry from the Dogme days, isn’t it?
Lone Scherfig: (Laughs) It really is. Well it does have moments of that feel but it’s totally different job and approach. What they have in common is the authenticity of the characters.
YR: How did An Education come about? How did you get involved?
LS: Nick Hornby read this 10-page memoir by Lynn Barber about her youth in London. He told his wife who’s a producer to option it which she did. Then they tried to look for writers to adapt it when she suggested that he should do it which he did. After a couple of drafts I got involved and we got the funding. Peter Sarsgaard was already attached when I started.
YR: Were you the first choice as the director?
LS: No I was not. There was another director who left the project because she had a film of her own that got financed which gave me the possibility.
YR: This is a film that could have easily misfired with the wrong acting elements. I liked the story, but its the cast that were pivotal in making this work…could you tell me about how they were assembled.
LS: Well as I mentioned Peter was already hired which wasn’t my idea but he was one of the reasons I took on the project. He’s brilliant and gave such a nuanced performance with a vulnerability that was beyond a used car salesman bragging. Also a borderline psychopath that you understand and like which is tremendous. Emma Thompson was already also very early on attached. Because of the heavyweights, we got an amazing cast which has been said to be the best cast since Gosford Park. For me it was fantastic to work with actor of that level because it made my work easier. Carey Mulligan was found by our casting director. We looked at a lot of girls but I had a good idea of who Jenny should be. Carey was the best from the beginning who went to a lot of meetings because everybody wanted to make sure we had the right person because as you said, the film is very dependent on the cast. Carey is a fantastic girl who deserves all the praise she gets.
YR: Absolutely. Even Peter Sarsgaard who’s always consistently good finally found a perfect role that establishes him as a leading man. Nobody expected him to be in a British period film.
LS: That’s right. His accent is really good and it chance for him to have a role where his complex nature and warmth shines through. If you look at his body of work which is so different from one to another. I admire him and he deserved a film that’s his.
YR: Yes, I totally agree. It was a difficult role and pulls it off brilliantly. I really loved the casting. Even the Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike were perfect and delivered their best performances.
LS: I like to cast against type. Rosamund is usually perceived as an ice queen that you wouldn’t associate with comedy. Dominic was known only for History Boys at the time of casting. What I enjoy is to have actors do something they haven’t done before and there’s some in this film.
YR: I also loved Alfred Molina. It’s not that the actors are bad but sometimes it’s hard to find the right parts for them. Everyone in this cast is talented so there’s no doubt about it. But they all have done work that wasn’t the right fit for them.
LS: Also to adjust the part for the actors so that nobody else could have played it but them. It’s not forcing the actors to fit into your dreams but also approaching their talent to fit in them. In the case of Alfred, he knew that world well and knew a lot of characters like that from his childhood that were like that that he could tap into.
YR: Even Cara Seymour was great even though she hardly had any dialogue but she didn’t get lost in the film. It’s a great, almost silent performance.
LS: It was hard because she was in a lot of scenes without any lines. When you read the script, she’s in the scenes but she’s not doing anything she’s just there. It’s because the mother commits sins of omission and that you can’t see isn’t cinematic.
YR: Exactly. Were you or she concerned about not having enough lines of dialogue?
LS: Of course, but she was the only method actor in the film and they all came from different backgrounds. So she got into the character of that era and it was no problem for her. There was enough substance for an actor like Cara Seymour to create a character and she loved it.
YR: Even Olivia Williams was great who was also playing against type in a small but crucial role.
LS: She was made off and the only character not in the original piece. I think Nick Hornby has something personal for Miss Stubbs. He’s a former school teacher and has helped some students. Sometimes a good school teacher can make a difference and that’s what Nick wanted to say.
YR: What are the more obvious differences between working on this film and perhaps some of your work in Denmark?
LS: You have more artistic liberty in Denmark but also a smaller audience. It’s more auteur oriented and the films I made in Denmark I have written or co-written them. In this case it was different because it’s less personal and also I had language handicapped. On the other hand because they hired someone non-British, it gave it some edgier element. Even though it’s the least edgy thing I have done but the subject matter, however, is controversial which is good.
YR: Was the film funded in Britain only or also Hollywood?
LS: A little bit of BBC money and the rest from Hollywood.
YR: Are you still in touch with your Dogme colleagues?
LS: Yes we are in touch but I travel a lot but if we are all there we are all in the same studio like journalist where we talk and discuss films. The deal in these interviews is that I talk but I rather listen.
YR: Would you do another one or do you think it was a nice experiment while it lasted. With over 200 plus Dogme projects, how do you see it now?
LS: Well I think it has values and some of the films are good films that are original and some directors developed their voices through that. If I had the right script, I definitely would do another film but it’s not where I want to go next. I want to do something different and move into something not as sweet but more darker.
YR: What are you working on next?
LS: I worked on a project for another director which is convenient because I can travel and work. Then I have a projects of my own but not sure which one gets financed. I’m also reading tons of scripts here which allows me to get to know Americans and their worries and how they approach problems but so far nothing that makes want to spend two years of my life on.
YR: Well it’s good to be cautious because very few European directors make a successful transition to Hollywood cause it’s a system where if you don’t know what to stand for, you could fall for anything.
LS: I don’t know if I’m strong enough for that system. My advantages as a director is my sensitivity which might not work well in that system. I don’t know. I think besides having the talent, you need to have the strategy. This film had Hollywood money and they were very protective and supportive.
YR: What’s your favorite film or films?
LS: Right now it’s The White Ribbon and I can’t stop thinking about it. I loved it. I was in Paris when I was young so a saw a lot of the films that Jenny would watch in the film. Also a lot of Italian neo-realism films which inspired me to write “Italian for Beginners”.
Sony Pictures Classics is releasing An Education wider this weekend.