Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig has been directing films and TV shows for 25 years. But after work on such acclaimed efforts as Italian for Beginners and Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself), she moved into the limelight with 2009’s An Education, the critically applauded dramedy set in the 1950s about a working class British teen’s decision to forgo studying at Oxford in order to carry on a relationship with a wealthy older man. Unknown Carey Mulligan’s tour-de-force lead performance helped the film to become an international hit and also catapulted the actress onto the list of much-coveted young leads.
As a follow-up, Scherfig, 52, headed back to Great Britain for One Day. The film is based on a best-selling book by David Nicholls, who also adapted it for the big screen. It centers on the ongoing relationship between Emma and Dexter, who meet while attending college in Edinburgh and find their lives intertwined over the decades. She grows out of her awkwardness, gets a job as a waitress and aspires to write a book; he uses his outgoing personality (and busy sex life) to take him to TV success, then faces tough times. One Day centers on what goes on during a given particular day throughout their young lives.
The film’s stars are Anne Hathaway, Oscar-nominated for Rachel Getting Married and the future Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, and Jim Sturgess, best known for his turns in Across the Universe, 21 and The Way Back. Before its national release on August 19, One Day has been coined by some as “The Movie with Anne Hathaway Doing a British Accent.”
MovieFanFare recently sat down with Ms. Scherfig, who was making a stop in Philadelphia to discuss working with Anne Hathaway and the challenges of bringing One Day to the big screen.
MovieFanFare: What sold you on Anne Hathaway for this part?
Lone Scherfig: Anne Hathaway! She flew to London to talk to me about the character and I could see the experience. She was very warm, very devoted and a very proud actress. She has good craftsmanship and I admire that—I could see in her body of work that she has a wide range. This part is hard, but I could see some of it could come easy to her because that is the way she is. The dialect thing is secondary. The most important thing is getting the right actress. It’s all a matter of interpretation.
MFF: Is she how you pictured the character in the book?
LS: In the book, she’s not nearly as beautiful or sensual as Anne, but I felt that finding someone with more drama and gravitas helps when the film becomes more tragic. Maybe this will be more acceptable—think having someone like Katherine Hepburn, fast talking, someone who is a more obvious choice.
MFF: Was there ever the discussion of moving the action of the film to America?
LS: The script is not Americanized. Nina Jacobson, an American producer, did not want to take things here. That would have been another solution to the story, to take the characters here to New York, to a university here in Boston. But she thought the ethnicity of the piece—like the Mexican restaurant in London—was something tacky in a funny way.
MFF: Did a lot of thought go into Hathaway’s popularity and box-office draw?
LS: Of course, I thought it was a positive thing to have an actress who would help the film access an American audience. Commercial decisions are secondary but it is important. I was surprised. I remember thinking this is the way she became Annie. It’s not that she just has an interesting face. She is a great actress. And that’s the most important part. I’ve done films where you do something you really like for a small audience. In Denmark, you will be lucky to find 80 percent of the population but that’s just 4 million people. So you do something where you can shoot in a language that can find a bigger audience. So it’s great to have an American ambassador in a film.
MFF: With An Education, you worked with Carey Mulligan, who didn’t have the experience of Anne Hathaway. Do you use a different approach in directing?
LS: I always adjust the way I direct to the particular actor. Then I make it look like they are all playing in the same style, but they get there different ways. British actors are more technical and American method acting is more psychological. Physically, Annie is in control of what she is doing, being an insecure nerd that becomes a more and more poised, adult woman. To control that when you shoot out of sequence is part of the challenge.
I’ve read interviews that talked to Carey Mulligan. She didn’t know there was responsibility (in acting) because I took that away from her. But with Anne there is so much pressure with every move she does. She has so much attention. So many people love her and want her to do well. So she has huge pressure on her. Strangely, you’d think it was the other way around, that a new actress would have more pressure. Also, Anne is American, she is a method actress—she has to find the emotions within her and deal with some of the dramatic things in the film. She needs and wants to be behind everything in the film and puts high expectations on herself. I’ve said, “We don’t need to shoot ten more takes. We have good takes now.” But Anne says she just wants to continue, “Can we just go on?” You think that if you work that hard, you dance until your feet are bleeding and you become Anne Hathaway.
I’m hoping she learned you can lean onto other actors now. I’m sure when you do action, you’re just standing in front of a green screen like when she is doing Catwoman. You don’t really interact or rely on your colleagues like she did with Jim Sturgess (in One Day).
MFF: What was the biggest challenge of One Day to you in terms of moving it from the page to the screen?
LS: Moving from text to film is big with this film because of the time device. It’s such a detailed project, not a simple period film. It’s like a Jackson Pollock painting, where it’s messy and disorganized, but when you look at it for a while there is order and layers and a system to it. To get that right is hard. The book can take more detours and doesn’t have to be as condensed like a film. I am doing the best to make the right choices by way and some way that they relate to my previous work. The things I’ve shot that look like things I’ve done before are related visually.
MFF: Even though you’ve now made some films in English, you have not worked in America. Do you have an interest in working for a studio here or are you fearful of the idea?
LS: It scares me less now. I thought it was tricky to have an auteur background and coming from a European low budget tradition. I have different solutions to offer and I know I can live without them. But I am not sure I want to live without them. You don’t mind other people making decisions if they know what they are doing. I’ve made commercials, which has been helpful. You shoot with a whole bunch of people sitting behind you who have paid money to have the film look like they have imagined. And you want to shoot not just that film, but also make it better than they imagined. So I know how it is to have one looking over your shoulder when you are working. I don’t like it very much, but I do like being surrounded by people who are like a safety belt when you can’t swim any more and they can throw more resources at you if you are underbudgeted or the schedule is too tight.