This past weekend, An Education opened in New York and L.A. after months and months of attention and accolades following its debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
Based on an introspective memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber and set in England of the early ’60s, it tells the story of 16-year-old Jenny, played by ingénue-of-the-moment Carey Mulligan–you can read our interview with her here–and how her dalliances with a much older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard, threatens her academic career.
What makes the film particularly interesting is that it’s a collaboration between two creative individuals who one might never expect to see working together: British novelist Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “High Fidelity”), who adapted Barber’s story as only his second-produced screenplay and first not based on one of his novels, and Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, whose small locally made films Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself may have been seen by less people than An Education even before it’s released. There are many who feel that this collaboration could take this quaint little British film all the way to Oscar night next February.
Last week, ComingSoon.net finally had a chance to sit down with Scherfig and Hornby to talk to them about the making of the movie; as we spoke, a television film crew making a documentary about Hornby caught all of it on tape. It is indeed a great time for Hornby, as not only is his movie receiving a great deal of acclaim, but he’s also released the brilliant novel “Juliet, Naked,” his first book in two years, which deals with a love triangle between a married couple and their shared obsession, a rock star who disappeared over twenty years earlier. Because of the timing, it’s hard not to read the novel and not compare and contrast it to the character and setting of An Education.
ComingSoon.net: Nick, I know you got the ball rolling on this after reading Lynn’s article. I’m sure some people have told you that this movie doesn’t seem like something they might expect from you. I just watched it again after reading your latest book and I could immediately see the connection to your other work. Can you talk about reading the original piece, what you thought about it and why you wanted to pursue it?
Nick Hornby: Lynn, she’s this very interesting and quite a powerful journalist in England. She’s famous for having written the odd devastating profile of a celebrity, so when this magazine Granta came through the door, I just read it because I didn’t know anything about her and I was curious that she was writing a piece of memoir. Then when I read the story, it seemed that it had the potential to be a movie, and I showed it to my wife, who is one of the producers, and said I think we should do something with this. It wasn’t me at the time thinking that I would write it. I could just see it had potential and she might have missed it. Not the potential, the piece. Then when she started talking about writers, I was being possessive of it. I really liked it tonally, and I thought it introduced me to a world that I didn’t really know very much about, Britain in the ’60s but no Beatles or Flower Power and no Swinging London. Lots of things I recognized. I think Carey’s character in particular felt to me like something I’d grown up with, not just because I had a smart sister who probably felt similar in a lot of ways, but I was also the suburban kid who was frightened about staying in the suburbs and being locked out of the city. I think that was my point of personal identification.
CS: Did you know Lynn beforehand?
Hornby: Not really. I said “hello” to her a couple times and refused to be interviewed by her.
Lone Scherfig: Have you now? Has she interviewed you yet?
Hornby: Yeah, we did one about the movie but I felt that I was on safe territory with the movie. (chuckles)
CS: I have to assume some of this had to be added or embellished for the movie, so what was her reaction to that? Did you spend any time talking to her before writing it or not at all?
Hornby: I spent some time talking to her. She’s been enormously helpful actually, and only enthusiastic, and I guess if you write a ten-page essay for Granta, you don’t automatically expect the movie rights to sell (chuckles) so she’s mostly thought that this is all a great laugh and let’s see how far it goes. I talked to her mostly about the period and the embellishments that I wanted to make, she was fine with. I mean, she read each draft as it went along, and she understood that for it to become a movie, it had to be fictionalized in places or fabricated in places. I would ask her about names of artists and people that might have been bought at auction by this guy. I think there comes to a point where you’re writing period where you’re really insecure about more or less every word that somebody uses. Did they have the word “with” in 1961?
Scherfig: “Preggers”? (laughs)
Hornby: Well, “preggers” was a big one. I have a subscription to the online OED, which is an incredible thing as it will trace back the first usage of something, so something like “preggers,” it will cite a novel from 1947, so you’re okay there, but even things like “Sleep with me.” You think, “Oh, when did that start? When did we start saying that?” And of course, most of the time, it’s the arrogance of the modern age that you think you’ve invented everything and if you look up these things, it says “Chaucer 1421.”
CS: Lone, did they send you Nick’s finished script or the original article?
Scherfig: No, I didn’t read the article until much later. I read the script at a fairly early stage where it was slightly different and let the agent know how much I liked it and how interested I was and should they need a director, I would be more than willing to come and try to convince the producers I could do the job… or at least I wouldn’t do the script any harm. I suddenly had this thought today that there may be jokes in the script that Nick wrote and the audience gets and I still haven’t really gotten.
CS: Alfred Molina certainly gets a lot of laughs. His delivery just is great at getting people laughing.
Hornby: Yeah, I think Alfred’s got some pretty good… I meant to say that Alfred gets some laughs. I’ll just repeat what you said rather than say he got some pretty good lines.
CS: Had you been interested for a while in making a movie outside Denmark and was doing something in England a nice stopping point before going out to Hollywood and doing something bigger?
Hornby: She’s doing “Transformers 3.”
Scherfig: I just want to go where the good scripts are. I’d go to Yucatan or Bulgaria or London or Twickenham ’61, and I think most directors are like that. That you read and read and read and sometimes there’s something that has qualities where you think that not only is this something the audience will want to spend a couple of hours with but you as a director will want to spend almost two years around these characters and this little contained room that the film is.
CS: How about working with Nick on the script? He doesn’t write a lot of screenplays so I’d expect most directors familiar with his work would not want to touch anything. How did you approach it?
Scherfig: Oh, I am a little bit like that. I touched it less than I ever have anything I’ve worked with.
Hornby: But she wanted to.
Scherfig: There are still things in the film that I really can’t live with. (laughs) No, but it does make less sense than normally to come in and think you should repair things, that it was about being loyal and trusting that the story would be strong enough to carry a film. If you don’t do that or think that way, you probably shouldn’t direct something like this. Nick is extremely orderly. There are no set-ups that don’t have payoffs; everything is there for a reason, or if it’s not, it’s really entertaining. That’s quite a good reason, too. So it’s not that I just didn’t want to fix things. It’s also because I didn’t really feel I had a right to or reason to.
Hornby: I found Lone helpful on sequences and things like that. These are the things that as a novelist, you’re not so conscious of, so I’d like to think that Lone did offer advice, but in terms of the actual dialogue, I felt confident enough because it’s something I do a lot, but in terms of structure, I think I needed Lone’s help.
CS: Was there anything in your own life growing up in Denmark in the ’60s that struck you about his script? Did you ever want to go to Paris or anything like that?
Scherfig: I did love those films that she loves and read those books that she reads in the film. I’m a little bit older but I also went to Paris and studied and went into the wrong car at the wrong time, but Jenny is of a generation that had much fewer possibilities than I had. I come from a country where education is free, where the sexual liberation was much earlier than in England, and where you don’t have that kind of class system, which is one of the reasons why I thought the material was really interesting. It’s a period that’s so close and it’s a character who is very contemporary, but she’s limited in a way that I am really grateful not to have been.
Hornby: The more I think about it, the more I think it works like Jane Austen seems to work for contemporary audiences in that you understand that the boundaries were completely different then but you still identified with the female characters.
Scherfig: Yeah, and I remember in the preparation when I talked to some of the young cast members that I had to remind myself that to them it’s period, so they have to understand a little bit about the period. I also wanted to give them this information in order to show them that it’s not that long ago. This is a film where you can break the barrier between the period and the characters very easily, because a lot of it is exactly the same today. The school uniforms, for one thing.
CS: I was curious whether younger women are able to relate to Jenny despite the times being so different. You’ve probably talked with audiences after showing the movie at festivals, so how have they responded?
Hornby: Yeah, I think the young women I’ve spoken to, friends have brought daughters along, things like that, but they have responded more strongly than I could have anticipated actually.
CS: Seeing the first hour of the movie again this morning was really enlightening because what you were saying about set-ups and payoffs, there’s a lot I saw in the first ten minutes that are much more significant once you’ve seen the rest of the movie.
Scherfig: Like the odd close-up of a glove compartment… why do we have to see that now? (laughs)
CS: Exactly! Also the mother pushing the stroller, which seemed like a throwaway until you watch the rest of the movie. I also want to talk about the casting because this is very much a dream cast for your first British film. Can you talk about how you brought them together and Nick, once you finished writing the script, did you just move onto your novel and not be as involved in the production?
Hornby: Well, I just don’t know enough. I’m not such a movie buff that I would be able to have told anyone who should play Jenny, for example. I didn’t know any young actresses, so it seems absurd to start bustling around on that side of things. We have a director who knows a lot, we have producers who know a lot, and a casting director, most importantly, who has seen every girl in England over the last couple of years. I didn’t really want to start getting involved with that stuff. It’s slightly different for me because I’m married to a producer so it’s part of the job. If I’m asking her about her day, she’ll say “We saw three great girls for Jenny, today” and that perhaps wouldn’t normally have happened in the life of a writer. Beyond that, I don’t think I was very involved.
CS: Did you have any ideas of who you might want to work with when you took this on and how you approached the casting?
Scherfig: We did cast a lot of people before it was confirmed that it was going to be Carey Mulligan, but of course, you would want family members that looked like her or where it’s acceptable where those are her parents. It helped a lot that Peter Sarsgaard was on board really early, even before I was, and Emma Thompson, and of course, Nick’s name, which made people who may not have wanted to read a part that was only six or eight pages still be interested in this project. So we got these heavyweights in bit parts, which is a privilege, and they suit each other really well and they listened enough to act in a way so they all stylistically hits Carey’s level, which they will have to, because some of them never meet. Even if the film has humor and tragedy, and sometimes people are loud and sometimes it’s very low-key that they are all tonally the same.
Hornby: It feels to me like a band now actually.
Scherfig: But it’s a band where you have the people coming in and playing and they never see each other’s work or hear each other.
CS: Which you do have when bands go on tour and have guest soloists like B.B. King.
Scherfig: I think because it’s based on somebody else’s work, I think Nick could describe Jenny with a warmth that Lynn Barber wouldn’t be able to, because naturally, she would be more self-ironic because it’s about her. Then Nick could add that sweetness and so could Cary to Jenny’s character that makes it more accessible and that truly makes her lovable. In terms of Peter Sarsgaard, I was so in favor of David and liked him immediately that it could add something that Peter was really good at, the ability that we don’t just get a used car salesman, but you get a portrait of someone who is complex and in certain ways excusable and very likeable.
CS: Every time I’ve seen the movie I’ve found their relationship somewhat creepy, but David does have a charm to him where I can see why he can have Jenny’s parents fooled. I’m sure you’re getting asked this question a lot, but the whole Oscar thing, which people have been bandying about since Sundance. How much are you anxious or dreading being involved in that process and doing the rounds?
Scherfig: I’ve heard that question so many times, I’d like to hear what Nick answers. Do you mind?
Hornby: I did a phone interview a couple weeks ago and they said, “I know you won’t want to talk about this but…”
CS: That’s how we always start the question… and you have to at this point, because if you don’t say that, it’s somewhat presumptuous.
Hornby: I think at the time I was looking at all these websites and going, “Oh, My God! Look at this! Look at this!” so it would have been completely disingenuous to say “Oh no, we don’t think about that sort of thing.” I was thinking about it and one of the things I was enjoying was that this might be as close as I ever get in my life to an Oscar nomination… buzz on the internet sites in August. So I think I even printed something off at once so I could say to my kids, “Look, in the summer of 2009, some guy on a website thought we were going to win an Oscar. Isn’t that hilarious?”
Scherfig: That’s exactly what I did! (laughs)
Hornby: But it’s getting less funny, I suppose, as it goes along. (laughs)
Scherfig: I did the same thing. This we have to celebrate.
Hornby: Yes, exactly!
Scherfig: And then I start talking about “The White Ribbon”… it’s a masterpiece. That or I start talking about Nick’s new book or anything that can get me off that (topic).
CS: I do want to talk a little about your book, “Juliet, Naked,” which I feel is absolutely brilliant.
Hornby: Oh, thank you.
(I then tell Hornby the story of how I forgot the comp copy of the book at a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana and had to buy another one to read on the flight back home, because I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t wait to get another freebie.)
CS: I want to ask about the connection between your book and the movie. People tend to see your work as being very male-driven since you write a lot of male leads. With this movie, you prove you can work with a strong woman lead and I think it might have carried over to Annie in the book. It’s also interesting because “An Education” is in the ’60s with no iPods or computers and the new book deals with technology a lot.
Hornby: Yes. I think once something is finished, maybe I can start to draw subterranean connections between them. I can see I was thinking a lot about that at the time. I wrote this young adult novel “Slam” that came out a couple of years ago, so for a while, I was writing only about teenagers having sex, between drafts of “An Education” and the kid in “Slam” who is impregnating his girlfriend. One of the connections between “Juliet, Naked” and those two things is that I did not want to write about young people anymore. I really wanted to write about people in their ’40s and ’50s, so indirectly, “Juliet, Naked” was affected by “An Education” and “Slam,” but also, “An Education” is a lot about Jenny’s relationship with culture, and that’s what makes her live. That’s partly what “Juliet, Naked” is about as well, about how people relate to things that they love, and I think I was in a groove with that stuff that made me go from one to the other.
CS: Has “Juliet, Naked” been optioned yet? Has anyone come after you to make it into a movie?
Hornby: There’s been a bit of “coming after” but I haven’t done anything with it yet.
CS: Do you think you’re ready to adapt one of your own books again?
Hornby: No, I’ll never do that again. Maybe if somebody asked me in 15 years, “Do you want to try and adapt ‘Juliet, Naked’?” I might think about it, but that’s not how book adaptations tend to work with new fiction. They want to buy the book and then they want to try and get going with it straightaway. I just spent 18 months shoving all this stuff into the book and I don’t want to spend another three years taking it all out again.
CS: That’s a good way of putting it. Lone, do you have anything else lined up yet?
Scherfig: Yes, but I still don’t know what’s going to be financed. I’d love to work in England and most of the projects I’m looking at all take place there, but that’s just a coincidence.
CS: Interesting. I wondered if Hollywood has started calling trying to get “the director of ‘An Education” on something out there… like maybe “Transformers 3”?
Scherfig: No, no, no, no. I think England is a good place with great, great actors and there’s so much of England I still don’t know.
An Education is now playing in New York and L.A. and should open in other cities very soon.