Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig seemed to be perfectly happy making her own lovely crowd-pleasing independent films that were mostly seen in her own country and by the more avid arthouse crowd abroad. That changed when she showed up at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival with An Education, a similarly lovely film set in ’60s England, written by Nick Hornby no less, that introduced the world to Carey Mulligan and received three Oscar nominations.
Now, she’s directing One Day, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ popular novel of the same name, adapted by Nicholls himself. It stars Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as Emma and Dexter, two college friends whose relationship is explored over the course of two decades as their lives go in separate directions and they fight against the early attraction they felt for each other. While An Education was a period piece set in the ’60s, Scherfig raises the stakes here with a period piece that revisits the same characters literally on the exact same date, July 15, every year between 1988 and 2011.
ComingSoon.net sat down with the lovely and delightful Scherfig a few weeks back to talk about the challenges of her second foray into English language and culture, the dangers of adapting such a popular and beloved novel, what she might do next and the state of Denmark cinema now that her generation (the likes of Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier and Nicolas Winding Refn) have all more or less broken into Hollywood.
ComingSoon.net: I guess “An Education” was roughly two years ago now so were you already aware of David Nicholls’ book or that it was being adapted into a movie at that time?
Lone Scherfig: No, it just went very, very fast. I don’t think the book was even out then, and Focus Features developed a script quite quickly; Nina Jacobson had bought the rights to that book at an early stage I think. They started collaborating and then I was involved and I read the script and it just took me two hours to make a decision that I really wanted to do it. That and then we knew that we had to shoot in the summer time because of the nature of the July 15th so everything just happened very quickly.
CS: Did you go back and read the book as well?
Scherfig: Oh yeah, of course, of course. I was on a family trip and (chuckles) I found it really hard to put it down and I think it was so annoying for my family that we just went on a weekend trip and I was reading all the time. But it’s a good thing that David himself adapted his own book because the nature of the July 15th device is tricky and he knew what the obstacles were. I think a different writer might have had problems with it. The way David describes it, you don’t see the day the baby’s born, but you can see the first time Dexter babysits for instance. A lot of the scenes that would normally be in a more conventional type of film, you as a viewer have to add, which is easier than adding the other scenes.
CS: I was curious about that because obviously a screenwriter adapting his own novel is always a danger because they’re precious and it often ends up being a very long screenplay, so has David actually written a screenplay before?
Scherfig: Yes, he has, but it was too long, but he’s also been flexible and knew that he had to trim here and there. Of course, there are things in the book that are not in the film, but it is also the other way around. The device itself is very cinematic because film and time are so closely related, and all the changes that you can see happening work in a different way in a film, so there are things you get from a screen that you have to add when you read a book.
CS: As a film, I’d think it would be much tougher because you are covering a long period of time and different time periods which you have to show and you can’t shoot in chronological order because that’s impossible with movies.
Scherfig: No, but it’s a big pleasure. I mean, it’s a technical challenge and you have to come up with a cinematic solution and not something that would weigh the film down, but then it makes the film fly because you have all this information that you can just load onto the screen and that will layer the film and hopefully not take over.
CS: Once you had the screenplay, how did you work with David? You’ve obviously made a lot of movies and knew exactly what would needed to be done. Were you able to make any changes?
Scherfig: David was originally an actor, so his dialogue was really good, and he knows also how to trust the audience, which is something that comes from having stood in front of an audience, I think. Sometimes, I would simply have to ask him, “What is this?” because it’s his own world that he depicts. It’s a world that he has lived and there’s a lot of David in both Emma and Dexter. There’s detailed information that during those years, if you were a student in London you would do this and that. I would have to know and surround myself with people I knew, but also hopefully I’m a guarantee that you can be moved by the film without recognizing some things. They’ll probably see a completely different film in England. (laughs)
CS: Did you come on board before the book was actually released or had the book already been taking off and already had found its audience?
Scherfig: I think the book was out. I remember reading a proper book and not just a script, but the book took off in a way that no one had expected. They kept printing and printing and then it was published here, and it was on the “New York Times” bestseller list immediately and stayed there for a long, long time and came back the following year, so of course, that adds to the pressure on the film.
CS: Right, because you’re basically making the movie while this book is being read by everyone.
Scherfig: I know, and the book that is much loved and very easy to identify with, very accessible. I hope they can still take pleasure in the film and enjoy to see things on the screen even if they look different than people have imagined when they read it.
CS: Well, that brings us to one of main things people who love the book have brought up and that’s casting Anne Hathaway instead of a British actress. Was that something that was discussed a lot between you and David and everyone else?
Scherfig: No, not really. We were all really happy that she wanted to do it, but the most loyal thing to do and the thing that has artistic ethic is to just do the best possible film and turn it into cinema and be respectful and be loyal, but also to the medium of film and to the people who haven’t read the book. Yeah, and then (you) hope that people don’t compare it too much because if you compare them, there’ll always be something that’s a lesser experience.
CS: Also, one of the benefits of doing “An Education” was that it was not as well known and people discovered it after seeing the movie.
Scherfig: Yeah, and then they went back and they go, “Oh my God, it’s only eight pages.” But I do think it’s a problem that there are so many adaptations being made. I think films that have original screenplays are much, much better and I think that it’s problematic that film is so risky you tend to want to produce things that have proven that they can stand on their own legs. But all the more, when you do an adaptation, you have to make sure that it’s a film.
CS: With that in mind, many of your earlier movies did come from original ideas…
Scherfig: Yeah, yeah, and some of my later movies will be, too, because I’m also a writer, I’ve written quite a few scripts and I’ve written scripts for other people, too.
CS: I was curious that because you’ve gone into this different direction with this and “An Education,” are you still writing?
Scherfig: I thought I wanted to do something different, and then I read David’s script and I thought, “No, this I really love.” (Laughs) It’s something I really wanted to do, but it’s not good because it was (originally) a book, it’s good because it’s a good script.
CS: You do have a lot more opportunities now since “An Education” did so well, so it must be hard to balance the decision on whether to do something of your own creation or jump on an opportunity for something like that.
Scherfig: Yes, it is hard, yeah, especially because “One Day” is a lot about how do you spend your time? How do you prioritize? Which detours should you not take? You can’t shoot a film like that and then move onto some superficial stupid film that will take me away from doing things that are more sincere (laughs) so yes, I am thinking a lot about that. But let’s see. If the film really flops, I won’t have that much of a choice. (laughs)
CS: When does this open in England?
Scherfig: In a couple of weeks.
CS: So roughly at the same time?
Scherfig: Yeah, all over the world this fall. Yeah, it’s exciting, but this is the first place.
CS: I wanted to go back to some of the challenges of this movie, because you can’t really shoot chronologically, but there must’ve been days when you were shooting multiple eras in the same locations. How did you approach how to shoot the film and get all the things you needed to do to be able to put it together later?
Scherfig: Well, almost all films have time jumps. I actually have shot a film in sequence, and there are things you can do, but it’s not that different because everyone is used to shooting out of sequence and the actors are used to shooting out of sequence. I think with this film, the costume and hair changes themselves are helpful because if the actors would play two different eras on the same day, they could sit down in front of a mirror for a while and that helped the transition. The locations themselves and it is what they do. I mean, the skill is to move into a different person or a different era or a different mood, so it’s not that it’s hard.
CS: This movie seems to have more because there’s so much involved. By the time you get to 2007 or 2008, you have so much history. Did you figure out that some scenes you had to shoot much later for that reason, that you had to save some stuff for later? Or was it always about locations and when you could get them?
Scherfig: It was always about logistics and weather and to make it all look at it was shot on July 15th. There’s some scenes where you think it’s better to shoot when the actors know one another better, but you’re very rarely fortunate enough to… once you’re down to scheduling things in detail, it becomes about the logistics, which is fine. I’ve done it for many years too, but the things that are hard about filmmaking are different. With this kind of film where it’s not that plot-driven, it’s a lot about reactions and moments and who knows what, where, when and when do they look up and with what kind of tiny reactions? That’s what this film is made out of and that’s probably the hard thing, to get that convincing and moving. That of course is a privilege to be able to sit here and say that, and I wouldn’t be if I hadn’t been surrounded by a crew where they just come up and say, “Would you like a blue car or a red car or a brown car?” and just point or to tell people, “You decide.”
CS: Were you able to work with any of the same crew from “An Education”?
Scherfig: Costume designer and editor and sound. That’s it.
CS: Are these people who you’d work with again, like do you generally try to work with the same people?
Scherfig: I did in Denmark for many years and even the same actors, but it’s not been like that with these films because I think one of the many things I’ve really enjoyed about Focus is that they have advised me really well on who to collaborate with. Benoît Delhomme, our director of photography, was their idea and I think he’s amazing and I just want to shoot with him again. That’s because they have a very high standard and they produce so many films, so they really know who is out there and what can they do and how to combine people.
CS: Sure, and James Schamus is a filmmaker and screenwriter himself, so he does know a lot about that…
Scherfig: And they’re interested and they have a very good post-production department. They’re technically really interested. They’re not just about the fast solutions or things that sound good but are not founded in knowledge, so that’s one of the many virtues of Focus.
CS: That’s nice because a movie like this would normally be independently-made and probably would not have had the backing with the studio. It’s interesting to have a studio making a movie like this.
Scherfig: Yeah, and I haven’t tried it before and I’ve felt really helped and supported. This film really has good parents, but it’s also very director oriented. They’re not micromanaging at all, which is great. I’m a little too old to not have space and artistic licensing because I’ve done all these Danish films and I’m not very humble. (laughs)
CS: Now that you’ve done these two movies and you have these other ideas you want to do, do you think you’ll be going to a Focus or someone like that to do them here? Do you really feel like you have more stuff you want to do in Denmark?
Scherfig: I think the next project I’d like to continue shooting in English and I have a strong relation to New York, but it depends on the script. There are such great actors and writers here and in England, and yeah, let’s see. I’d love to work with Focus, but it’s always the script. All directors would say that I’m sure, and the better the script, it’s much, much easier. I’ve directed really bad scripts and it’s so hard that you get a five-page scene and it’s like a dead giraffe and how do we ever get that to stand on four legs, you know? Hospital scenes in television series written by a writer who had never had a… (laughs rather than finishing her thought)
CS: You have to admit you’ve been a little spoiled having scripts by Nick Hornby and David Nicholls, and Nick is considered one of the best working writers.
Scherfig: He’s very good. I like that he’s so minimalist and that’s very nice.
CS: I’m curious if you’re still in touch with what is going on in Denmark, because a lot of Danish directors are making the transition. Susanne Bier has worked here before but now she’s won the Oscar, I’m sure she’ll do more, and Nicolas Refn is also very much in demand here.
Scherfig: Yeah, and we all know each other. We all went to the same school and we do stay in touch. Two days ago, I went to a party where there were maybe 10 Danish film directors at the same time. (Laughs)
CS: Is there any sort of new generation coming up?
Scherfig: Yeah, but Nicolas, what is he now? He’s actually at least 40 now. He is the biggest talent of the new generation. There’s an interesting new directors coming out soon.
CS: But he’s been making movies for a long time. I was curious if there was anyone in their 20s or 30s who has been influenced by them?
Scherfig: I am going to teach at the Danish Film School in about a month and then I can tell you. (Laughs) But Nicolas, he’s a really hardcore talent. He’s not just a good director who can make things work and make things happen. He really has a visual mind and Lars von Trier obviously. But there’s not someone that I knew who is that caliber yet, but in Sweden… I think so and Iceland. Do you go to Toronto? Steve Gravestock, he looks after Scandinavia and he really knows what’s going on.
CS: Maybe I’ll try to talk to him and of course Sweden had “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” movies, which were huge here.
Scherfig: But that’s a Danish director, at least the first one, yeah.
CS: But I guess he’s been around for a while as well.
Scherfig: Yes, he’s my age or maybe a little younger.
Our time was up, but after tape stopped, we continued to talk about some of her Danish colleagues and she had some interesting anecdotes about von Trier and what happened with the third part of his “Dogville/Manderlay” trilogy, which was going to be called “Washington.” Interesting stuff from a filmmaker who has clearly stayed in touch with her Danish roots even as she continues to thrive making films outside of Denmark.
One Day opens nationwide on Friday, August 19.