“I'm the director, I'm not their mom,” Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig dryly notes, regarding her first English language effort, An Education, and directing a cast that includes the spry, young newcomer Carey Mulligan. “It is probably a good thing [that I am a mom] because it makes me less hysterical—listening to people who may want to make cuts on the film. I know [the film] is not my child; [the editors] are not literally cutting my daughter's toes off when cutting a scene. It's almost the other way around—because I'm a mother, I'm more pragmatic.” Scherfig, a director of darkly pensive yet warm contributions to the Dogme 95 canon, has cultivated a strong following as an art-house stalwart with Italian for Beginners and Wilber Wants to Kill Himself. Now, sitting poolside at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in L.A. and basking in the gleaming sunny weather (and the surmounting buzz encapsulating An Education), Scherfig reflects on the film industry in Denmark, her love of Peter Sarsgaard, and working with the lauded, hip English novelist Nick Hornby, who adapted Lynn Barber's evocative memoir for the screen.
What do you think of Hollywood?
I've only been here a day and a half. Someone showed me a lot of old photography from Los Angeles [before I arrived], and from then on, I understood what it's about. When you can see this place—all the old buildings, the neon signs, things of historic interest—then you start to understand the city much better. There is so much warmth here; people are really kind. Like in Europe, you can feel that you've gone south: People just warm up, they become friendlier. Maybe it's the same thing here.
How would you compare the Danish people to the American folk?
We are much more shy, protestant, ironic.
I think so, that's tradition. It has a lot in common with the English humor.
Now that you've made your first major leap into Hollywood filmmaking, how would you compare the Danish film community/industry with tinsel town?
In the tradition that I come from, one of the reasons you make film is to maintain the language. That's a whole different attitude, which means you have state support, the director has much more influence, the budgets are much smaller, and you need to access a much larger percentage of the population in order for the film to break even. You really can't compare it, but the craft is the same and the way you communicate on set is the same, and the Danish actors are out of the same tradition as the American ones, whereas the English is a different tradition all together. That was a good thing about An Education: I got to work with British actors. It was a treat, especially with this type of cast. They are so disciplined, and they are humble and professional. They always leave their emotions out of the room, unless they want to access them for artistic reasons.
You mentioned there is a profound difference with English actors. Is it mainly the theater background?
No, it's that they're very text-oriented. In the American tradition, you find the material within yourself, whereas the English would find it outside of themselves—it's more technical. It's not better, just different. And this film is an example of [those two styles of acting converging]. Emma Thompson, a truly old-school actress, and Peter Sarsgaard, who is a much more experimental American—to make them belong to the same film, even if they didn't have any scenes together, [proved] a good, great challenge. My system would be to always try and adjust, and see how I could get that individual actor to find a way through this film, and through—obviously—the text and the character.
When you say working with actors coming from different places and with different skill sets—as in the scenes shared by Emma and Carey, who had only done a few films, and doesn't have the background as, say, Emma…
Well, Carey hadn't done very much. She had only done [a bit part] in two films and a little bit of television. She doesn't have an [acting] education.
How do you approach the disparity from a directorial standpoint?
It is always different. If there is a method to the way I work, it is that it is different. It also depends on the scene, but once you've cast people, you believe they are good and they can contribute, and it is also a matter of creating an ambiance where they have the courage to add something. I mean, for some directors that I really admire, everything is planned like a bank robbery and all they have to do is fill in the blanks. It's like acting by numbers, and that works really well for some. But this kind of material, I was looking for something that only happens once, to get the life out of the scene, the authenticity. Whereas in a thriller, you would be working completely differently, and plan it much more carefully.
Since the lead character, Jenny, is such a pivotal, central role, and carries the film, what was the casting process like?
Well, I did look for someone who could carry it, because it is very different to find someone who could play the part and [hold the audience's attention] for 100 minutes, and someone who had the ability to move you. Carey's main virtue is that everything she does rings true; there is no phoniness about her, and that is the advantage of not having an education: She has no bad habits. And she is lovely—but that's secondary. Once we started shooting, she just got better and had a wider range, and did not throw fits, and showed up on time and came up with really good ideas. She is a good co-actor, which is really important. Also, speaking of co-actors, you can't overestimate Peter Sarsgaard and his work in this film. One film after another, he illuminates a [character]. You look at how [Sarsgaard's character] David controls the drama and how Peter plays his cards in this film. Even if we shot out of sequence, [the performance] is refined and elegant work. He seduces you, cheats you, but you don't feel appalled. He does a fantastic job. It's just that it is Carey's film; he's the engine.