Spinning Platters Interview: Lone Scherfig on “One Day”

by Jason LeRoy on August 16, 2011

Lone Scherfig on the set of ONE DAY

“Look at this city!” Lone Scherfig is staring out at the San Francisco skyline from a conference room at the Ritz Carlton, perched high atop Nob Hill. Despite being a celebrated international director with a penchant for filming in the world’s loveliest locations, the 52-year old Danish director is in San Francisco for the first time (the closest she’d come previously was an appearance at the Mill Valley Film Festival). “You have so much good architecture here,” she exclaimed, eyes scanning the cityscape before us.

Now that she’s seen it, maybe Scherfig will consider filming one of her next projects here; the warmly sophisticated, classically romantic sensibility she brings to her films could only be flattering. After spending fifteen years writing and directing for European television, Scherfig burst onto the international cinema scene with the film festival sensation Italian For Beginners (2000), which earned the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Her next film, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, won her the Film Discovery Jury Award from the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

But it wasn’t until An Education (2009) that she made Hollywood finally take notice. A bittersweet coming-of-age story about a precocious teen girl (Carey Mulligan, in a star-making performance) who begins an ill-fated affair with an urbane but dishonest older man (Peter Sarsgaard), the film won the Audience Award upon its premiere at Sundance in January 2009, and continued steadily building momentum for the next year, culminating in Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (Mulligan), Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby) and Best Picture.

And now Scherfig is back with One Day, an epic, high-concept romantic drama about the ever-changing relationship between charming pretty-boy Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and hard-working, bookish Emma (Anne Hathaway). But here’s the catch: the film only checks in with its characters on one day, July 15, each year. It  begins in 1988, when Dexter and Emma meet upon graduating from Oxford, and follows them through twenty years of euphoric ups and tragic downs.

Scherfig sat down with Spinning Platters to discuss the ambitious scope of her project, the controversy over Hathaway’s casting, and her hopes that perhaps her adaptation of One Day might not be the last. She also instantly endeared herself to us by asking what Spinning Platters means (“I thought it was about multitasking,” she mused adorably; her speaking voice sounds somewhat similar to Isabella Rossellini’s, with whom she shares an effortless continental glamour).

This was your first film after An Education. Did you feel more scrutiny on this project? Was it hard knowing that more people were watching you?

I felt more trust, actually. A better budget, more artistic license. But I’ve done films for so many years in Europe, so it doesn’t really scare me to have more of everything. I feel that I have experience enough to not waste people’s money or time. I have to trust that if I do my best, it’s good enough. Of course there are things where I think, “Oh, I should have done something different…” Every time you say goodbye to the actors, you promise them, “Next time I’ll be a better director!” But I don’t work alone. I had a phenomenal cast and a great, great crew on this film. So, it’s not dependent on the director as the only creative person, because I certainly am not. [laughs]

An Education had already been released when this project came to you, is that correct?

Yes, I was here in California with An Education when we started talking about One Day. At that point, the book had come out and was beginning to become successful, but not to the extent that it became. That put pressure on all of us, that the book is as loved as it is, that people identify so strongly with the main characters and have a very specific idea of how they are, and see themselves in them. It’s always interpretation to cast someone like Anne Hathaway or Jim Sturgess. But hopefully it feels right, even to people who have read the book.

There was a bit of an outcry that Anne, an American actress, was cast as Emma–

Yes.

–although she’s played British before.

Yes, she’s played British before and she’s extremely musical, so it’s not hard for her to move into that world. But also, it gives the film access to an American audience, where you as Americans will immediately connect with this British material in a way you might not have if it was someone who was, you know, more exotic.

What was it like collaborating with Anne and Jim on the nuances of their characters, taking them through so many changes over the 20+ years the film covers?

I think next time I see them, I want to ask them… I think the chemistry works extraordinarily well between the two, and I know that there is a lot of respect between them, and that they somehow knew how to make each other good in the scenes that they have together. They know that there is a loyalty between them. I can see it when I look through all the photos, the way they stand together, and sometimes I can see little hand-holding… It’s something I can’t control. I can invite it and I can encourage it and make sure that they have a chance to connect. But they know that if they collaborate well, the film’s going to be better.

But I really want to ask them, because it’s something that I’m not part of. It’s more than just a professional relationship, but it’s not love. [laughs] It’s just very, very good chemistry. There’s a certain musicality to it. It’s like if they were two musicians who played really well together. But they are really different. They’re from two different cultures. Anne is strong, very technical, and very emotional, as where Jim is much more laid-back, very modest. He takes acting very seriously, preparing like a madman and doing things with a dramatic skill that is unusual. But it’s something that he keeps to himself. When you meet him, you’ll meet someone who seems like, “Oh, acting, that was just something I did, it was all random.” But he’s done a very thorough portrait of someone who is not always as sympathetic as Jim himself is.

How was it directing such an ambitious project, with such a vast scope of locations, years, details…

It is so packed with details, because you check in on the characters once a year. Period changes, so much music, old cars, extras, I don’t even know how many costumes – even if it looks like the present, it definitely isn’t. The hardest part and biggest challenge is to make that all look simple and effortless and pleasurable, and never overpower the emotion or the humor with information, so it’s there but you don’t really notice it. That’s a great challenge, that the film should not be a museum of cultural history, but a sad and beautiful and funny love film, with everything else just something that’s underneath. But it is rich and full of information, so if you want to go and explore all those details, you can. But hopefully you won’t do it until you’re seeing the film for a second time. [laughs]

Your last few films have been adaptations. Would you like to return to writing original scripts?

Yes. An Education was just eight pages before it was adapted by Nick Hornby, and this is David Nicholls’ own adaptation of One Day. But yes, I would like to go back and do something that I’ve written, like the first five films I did, something that was more personal. I feel very obliged to the writer, and in this case the readers as well, because so many people have read and loved this book. It would be nice to not have that feeling! But maybe if the film turns out to be successful, I would feel that I have not done any damage to the book. In England they film their classics over and over again. The most recent, and really good, adaptation of Jane Eyre is maybe the eighth or so. Maybe in 20 years someone else is going to adapt One Day! [laughs]

After the success of An Education, you found yourself with many new opportunities. What was it about One Day that made you choose it as your follow-up?

I think the dialogue is very humorous and the characters are very lovable, and there’s a big secret to the story which makes it meaningful. Because it’s about how you spend your time. But what I really learned was when the crew started working on the film, people felt grateful that there was a project of this scale that had an ambition of being more than just a romantic comedy. It’s a real romance with the ambition of being a classical love film. There was not that much out there at that time that had the hope of doing that. It’s the first time I’ve worked on a film where the crew said they felt fortunate that they had the chance to work on it. So that made us all feel privileged.

So what’s next for you? I hear you’ve signed on for Music and Silence?

Maybe…

Maybe?

Maybe, yeah. Another love story.

And another adaptation.

Yeah, that too. And then I have a project, Mob Girl, with Jessica Biel. It’s set in New York in the early ’60s, on the Lower East Side, so there will be lots of good costumes. I’d like to do something more genre-oriented. I have had so much fun with the technical part of One Day, I’ve used a lot of the tool books to make all the time jumps work, each of the years and all those locations, to get the best out of each of the 20 little films this film is actually made up from. So I’d like to do something where I keep expanding. I’ve done so much that’s supposed to be simple, elegant and economic. And now I just want to do something that’s generous and grand.

One Day opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, August 19.

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