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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDanish Director Blends Comedy and Tragedy in An Education

Danish Director Blends Comedy and Tragedy in An Education

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Lone Sherfig
Lone Sherfig directed An Education

The critically acclaimed film, An Education, which garnered the Audience Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, has quietly slipped into Oscar contention. From a script by British author Nick Hornby (About a Boy), and based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, the film is more than just the story of a bright schoolgirl on the brink of womanhood. It is a gently sketched portrait of a society on the cusp of a new age with an outsider’s eye for the everyday details often missed in the day-to-day of ordinary life. Blending comedy and tragedy, award-winning Danish director, Lone Scherfig shapes this coming-of-age story set in early 1960s’ Britain with subtle performances, the understated production style of Dogme 95, and the creative talents of a crew she had never worked with before.

Below the Line: Did you read the script or the book first?

Lone Scherfig: I read the script. It had something tonal – a way of combining humor and something darker. It wasn’t just about the story and Jenny’s conflict, but also about people at a certain time in history who are very much a product of that time and the degree of education they had. I can only express some things in the way the film is shot – layering, working through all the sub-themes – so that you understand how England is coming of age, the way the main character is coming of age.

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Photos taken by Kerry Brown, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

BTL: How did you communicate your ideas to the crew?

Scherfig: Because it is a character-based piece, when I started out, I made a big board with photos that would be the color scheme for each of the characters. It showed the crew what I didn’t know, what I liked, what was relevant. It was also important to communicate what I don’t like, and what is dramatically important for the film. Not every detail about that period is relevant. It had to be details that support the story and the layers about the class society.

BTL: How did the crew support your vision?

Costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux

Scherfig: The mother [Cara Seymour] is a good example of how the crew works to help the actress. When you read the script she has few lines, but she’s in the scenes – a tiny fragile portrait of a woman of that time. This is a result of the power of performance, but also the makeup [Lizzie Yianni Georgiou] and costume design [Odile Dicks-Mireaux]. Her daughter is outgrowing her, so you get a woman who is polished, always a little bit overdressed. She actually has a little too much time. She has few close ups because she’s always in the background.

BTL: How did you convey your vision to cinematographer, John de Borman?

Cinematographer John de Borman
Cinematographer John de Borman

Scherfig: We spent a lot of time talking.  He has worked for many years on many films. This is my sixth feature, so it makes sense that less of the conversation is purely technical, and more is about the feeling you want to achieve.  Out of that comes that look and out of that comes how to get there.

We talked about innocence, about the French New Wave, which is related to the Italian Neo-Realism, which I love, and is also related to Dogme. It seemed good for this film because there were lines in the script where Jenny says she loves the French cinema. For me, there is something phony about people on film taking about film, so we omitted those lines, but it was a key to seeing things through her eyes. That is why the film has scenes where you don’t show off craft, but try to communicate what’s in the characters.

Production designer Andrew McAlpine
Production designer Andrew McAlpine
One of the things that really works for the film is that John used old Cooke lenses that are slightly soft around the edges. We worked a lot with the 40mm lens, which works for a film balancing between tragedy and comedy.

Actors are so different. Some are close-up actors. Some work better if you are further away from them. I think it was Chaplin who said, “Comedy is about what people do and tragedy is about what people are.” Comedy works better in slightly larger frames. The one tight close up of Alfred Molina is when he apologizes late in the film. Otherwise, you don’t want to lock him in a frame that’s too tight.

With Jenny [Carey Mulligan], in many scenes, it’s about her reacting to things that she sees. Someone commented about how different, varied and interesting her reaction shots are. I think that has to do with the sizes of shots and editing.

BTL: A close relationship can form between the director and the editor. What did editor, Barney Pilling bring to the film?

Scherfig: That’s true, especially working in England, where the editor was working on the film for a long time. It was a fantastic collaboration. Barney is sensitive, emotional and obviously has a good sense of timing and comedy that supports the story. He had done one feature film when I met him, but he was not insecure. He speaks his mind. I had a good dialog. He was extremely fast and musical, so I got a lot of versions quickly. I’d love to work with him again.

BTL: What about composer, Paul Englishby?

Scherfig: Music is another example of trying to communicate the atmosphere and information so that everyone is making the same film. Whether you are the composer, editor, sync sound or music editor, everyone is on the same page. Communication was essential, because English wasn’t my language or culture.

BTL: Tell me about your production designer, Andrew McAlpine, and costume designer, Odile Dicks-Mireaux.

Scherfig: They knew and liked each other, and wanted to work together, so that was an easy thing, but it’s also about making sure that we could meet before they officially started on the film so I could put thoughts in their heads. They then have a chance of influencing each other’s work at an earlier stage. You get more ideas if you have time to walk around with the project before you are actually doing it.

We omitted the color yellow, which is a color that was used a lot at that time. In old photographs, it is everywhere, but in order to focus on Jenny’s reactions, I didn’t want something that was disturbing in the shots. I wanted a bit of an aged feel, but not yellow.

The lights could be warm, but you won’t see anything yellow until you get to Miss Stubbs’ flat, which is the second to last scene. It’s interesting that people think the film is so correct and so much about the time, because we actually manipulated it a lot.

BTL: Did you attend the wardrobe fittings?

Scherfig: I always do, if I can. I’m shy. It’s a good chance to talk to actors when you’re doing something together. You talk about the character, get to know each other while focusing on something else.

I also like to have the makeup and costume department coordinate the colors with the production designer. I’m sure in Hollywood, all that comes naturally, but because almost everything in Europe is low budget, you have to fight for that sort of thing. The more you communicate early on, the less you have to discuss later on. Everyone makes the right decisions. You can focus on the actors, where the camera is and how everything looks.

BTL: Did you depend on anyone else on the crew?

Scherfig: Ben Munro, the stand-by art director. I like props – few props, but precise props. I don’t stage a rehearsed scene in a set. I use the particular location. That’s a Dogma thing, to really work with the location where you are shooting. It is also a budget thing. Often you find locations that are the only possible place to shoot. You “script” to the location.

The film was shot in six-and-a-half weeks – not a lot of time for a period film.  Having an art director who is actually standing by, helping tell the story, looking at everything that’s in the frame… I really didn’t know what that crew position was about, because we don’t have it in Denmark. But after a couple of weeks, I was thinking, “This man is doing a brilliant job.” I became more and more dependent on him. I’d definitely work with Ben again.

BTL: You’re the first director I’ve interviewed who talked about the property master.

Scherfig: Normally crew heads choose their assistants, but I work very closely with the property master on set. In the morning, I like to come in and talk about props. I have a room where I rehearse without anyone except the property master or stand-by art director so I can adjust the props and furniture to the cast. If they have a sense, not just of esthetics, but also of physicality, it is a wonderful collaboration. I was asked by a Danish publication to write about a crewmember. I wrote two pages on the property master.

On film, a cup can be as big as an airplane. It really is important. It shows culture, history, but primarily, helps the actors. Still, you can’t really see that in my films because I believe you shouldn’t see all that. You should look at the actors.

There is a scene where Alfred gives Jenny a cup of tea with three little dry, disgusting cookies. It is so British. Alfred, the property master, and I would stand with that saucer and those three cookies and discuss if Jack would organize them on the plate or just put them there. That’s the back-story of that moment. Somehow that was a way to talk about the scene and not get overly emotional, but actually have a good time, (and a lot of cookies).

BTL: You never worked with anyone on your crew before.

Scherfig: Most of the crew was British. It’s hard to work with an entire crew where you don’t bring in one single person. It’s a risk whenever you work with someone you don’t know. You may not get along. I like other people and collaborating. It is important to define your strengths so you can cast your team the way you cast your actors, with people who will work well together and contribute. The more synergy you get, the quicker people start suggesting things that are better than you could have imagined.

What I’ve discovered with An Education is everybody’s work really blends together well. I also think it’s a good sign that people talk about the actors and the story, not about anyone in particular. I like that because with this kind of film, you should end up talking about what you felt and saw and thought about, not any particular technical achievement.

View the Trailer

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