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One Day - Lone Scherfig interview

Lone Scherfig

Interview by Rob Carnevale

LONE Scherfig talks about some of the challenges and pleasures of directing the big screen version of David Nicholls’ beloved best-seller One Day.

She also reflects on how important it was to have Nicholls adapt his own screenplay as well as why she chose Anne Hathaway for the leading role of Emma Morley.

Q. Twenty years ago you’re first movie screened in Berlin and now you’re sitting here talking about one of the most anticipated film adaptations of a novel. Did you anticipate that 20 years ago?
Lone Scherfig: No. It’s very much what the film is about, whether there are detours that you take that you could have avoided. I’m lucky because I’ve studied film ever since I got out of school and then started working in films. And Anne [Hathaway] has been an actress ever since she could walk. But a lot of people like Emma and Dexter take so many detours and don’t know what their values are and waste a lot of time. So, a very important issue with this film is ‘how do you spend your time’? David, the writer, was an actor who couldn’t get a job, who then slowly moved into writing, and that’s where he found the thing that he could really do. In my job, I see a lot of actors where I think they may be a lot happier if they did something else. So, I haven’t planned my career as much as I might have done if I’d been young now, when you need to be much more goal-orientated than my generation was.

Q. Do you think your career has been influenced by detours and coincidences?
Lone Scherfig: Yes, very much so. Sometimes, I really think it’s a shame… you may have seen a lot of my earlier work and some of it is like ‘why did I do that’? I felt so fortunate that someone would ask me to do that strange little cheese film for television… I think it was [writing] Italian for Beginners in 2000 that helped me trust that my voice was fine, even if I’m not Sergio Leone. I still had a right to choose. But I’m so privileged. I’m privileged enough to get a script where I can actually sit and decide would I want to, does it make sense to spend a year or more of my life on a film where it’s not a big political subject matter, but rather how do you spend your time in your 20s? And Dexter learning or finding out what love is at a fairly late age. I really love my job. I don’t know anyone who laughs as much when they’re working as I do and I experience this flow while I’m shooting where I very often find myself having a fantastic time and not worrying as much as I did when I was younger.

Q. Did the script come with Anne attached?
Lone Scherfig: No, I think there was a hope that either Emma or Dexter would be someone that an American audience knew. Jim [Sturgess] is very well known in the US, more than here. Anne came to London because she had read the script and really wanted the part and she asked to meet me. So, I met her and thought I could really work with her.

Q. On your previous film [An Education], you cast the relatively unknown Carey Mulligan and it changed everything for her… And obviously it’s an English part, so was there ever a discussion to go for an English actress?
Lone Scherfig: Oh, of course there was a list and a Plan B, C and D and, of course, it’s a big decision to cast someone American for someone as English as Emma. I knew that I shouldn’t try and squeeze Anne Hathaway into a limited image of how Emma should be. But I always do that. It’s not just because it’s Anne Hathaway. I’m a director who does let the actors influence the part…

One Day, Anne Hathaway

Q. So, would an English actress have more room to expand on the role because they know the nuances of being English naturally?
Lone Scherfig: Maybe, maybe… but you have to get up very early to find someone with Anne’s range and warmth and versatility and musicality. She’s a really good actress. I know there are fantastic actresses in this country as well. The most important reason for my liking and wanting to work here is that the actors and actresses are so amazing. In this film even there are five or six beautiful girls surrounding Dexter. But I’m glad we made that choice. I think it warms up the whole film quite a lot. It’s a less shy film than if it had been less beautiful, more cautious.

Anne is very expressive and I really like that. One of the things that I didn’t know about her, and that I liked directing her, is that she has such easy access to so much emotion, which makes believable that she’s 23 and then a grown up and sort of accomplished writer later in the film. She can do both of those because she’s very childish and very mature at the same time… or very young and very mature at the same time as a person.

Q. Was that a discussion straight away – to be more open and expressive in the role?
Lone Scherfig: It’s a different tradition that she comes from. She is very technical. She’s a dancer and a singer, so that is technical and not so emotional. But in her heart, she’s a method actor who wants to find every moment within her, which is not the common thing here. Here you would access the character very often via the dialect. So, in theory had we cast a British actress she too would have gone to Leeds, found that access and through that town, found Emma. We filmed a few girls for this part and that’s what their instinct was to do. I liked that a lot because I think a technical approach that then becomes original and artistic and moving is easier for me because I’m quite a shy person, even if I’m talking like a machine gun right now.

I’m not the type of director who is on the film with the actors at 4am and crying and yelling, but I do like actors who are not worried about being very emotional and can tone it down and get it up there in split seconds. Jim, too… he’s not very vain. He just does it and he doesn’t bother to defend Dexter. Dexter is a cad and Jim doesn’t mind. As a person, Jim is much nicer and much more together and considerate than Dexter.

Q. How helpful was it to you to have David Nicholls adapt his own screenplay and therefore take some of the tougher decisions about what to leave out away from you?
Lone Scherfig: Very… very. It’s really important to me that David himself was the one who made those choices of what should not be in the film because I can then focus on being loyal to [the script]. Probably the most loyal adaptation you can do is just to get the possible film that you’re able to get out of what you have instead of being accurate. You’re never going to get everybody’s idea of what this film should look like anyway, so it’s about doing your best. And it makes it easier when the writer is someone who has already made a lot of these not very pleasurable decisions. And it’s his world, it’s his youth, it’s characters that he’s not only invented but lived with for years… the book became so successful while we shot the film and now it’s back on the New York Times best-seller list. So, the more successful it is, the higher the expectations are for the film and the more worried you are about disappointing anyone. But it is a losing battle and the only thing you can do is try and make a film that is cinematic and that has values that cinema has.

One Day

Q. Did having David there also help when it came to the issue of the passage of time?
Lone Scherfig: It’s a basic cinematic problem to have time move on film. But time moves anyway. You can work really freely now compared to 20 years ago. And because you check in on the characters on the same day [in different years] so many times you had to find a device that was fairly light and didn’t take you out of the story. You could have just told the story because people accept they grow older and it’s always summer. But I think for David, the way he’s written the story he would only have written this material that way because of that device. He would have scribed Dexter’s mother funeral, for instance, or scenes that would be obvious to find in the lives of these people. But since they don’t happen on July 15 he checks in on Dexter four days later, or six months later.

I’ve seen David talk about how you don’t see the day that Dexter’s daughter is born, you see him the first time he’s babysitting alone. So, the story comes from that device. But it’s also pleasurable as a filmmaker to go to your toolbox and bring in all sorts of tools to make that refreshing and interesting and effective and not over-powering. In this kind of film you want to step back as a director. It’s about the people who see the film and the people who are in it; it’s not about proving how clever you can be. So, sometimes we’ve had more fun with it [signalling the passage of time] and sometimes it’s very simple, depending on how much emotion is at stake. It was fun and really hard but it was one of the great challenges.

One Day

Q. What do you love more about the characters?
Lone Scherfig: I like Dexter’s flaws. I think Emma is more like me and less complex. She’s like a lot of people. She has a good sense of humour and she’s a very sweet, hard working girl and has great wit. She’s over-compensating. But Dexter is a much more interesting human being for me. He has a much bigger journey and he becomes probably a more interesting person than she ever was. I think one of the secrets of why people love the book so much is because Emma is so loveable and someone you really want to spend a week by the beach with. But I’d be happy to spend 20 years with Dexter.

Q. How did you enjoy shooting in Scotland? You capture Edinburgh so beautifully, the government should pay you to make more…
Lone Scherfig: I‘d pay them to continue working there! I’m working on my own time on a script that takes place in Scotland, in Aberdeen. I do love it there. I was in the jury at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Q. What sort of film would you be making in Aberdeen?
Lone Scherfig: It’s a comedy. But it’s going to take a long time. No one has even read the script yet. It’s a father-son comedy.

Q. You said you’re enjoying working in Britain but would you consider going back to Denmark to make some more films?
Lone Scherfig: Oh sure. I’m working on a version of Rose Tremain’s book Music & Silence, which is a British novel that takes place in Copenhagen with a British lead. It’s about a young loot player who comes to the court of Christian IV. But I don’t know if it’s going to happen but that’s the plan – to cast a British film and shoot it in Copenhagen. So, I get to work with the Brits but sleep in my own bed.

Read our interview with Anne Hathaway

Read our interview with Jim Sturgess