Danish director and screenwriter Lone Scherfig was involved with the Dogme 95 film movement and experimented with different aesthetic expressions and creative constraints, always portraying with humor, intelligence and acumen the complexity of her characters. But, before that, Scherfig was a film student at the Sorbonne University in Paris and at the University of Copenhagen, graduating from Copenhagen’s Danish National Film School in 1984. Her feature debut was the comedy “The Birthday Trip” six years later. After a number of TV series and the children’s film “On Our Own” (1998), Scherfig directed in 2000 Denmark’s fifth Dogme 95 film, “Italian for Beginners,” that went on to become both a local and international theatrical success and win twenty international festival prizes, and be sold to forty countries, thus becoming the most profitable Scandinavian film to date. Two years later, came her first foreign experience with “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”, a film she co-wrote with Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, and made with a Scottish-Danish team. With the former, she developed the characters for three films within a Danish-Scottish concept called “Advance Party.” Out of these three, two were indeed made, “Red Road” by Andrea Arnold, and “Donkeys” by Morag McKinnon. Scherfig’s successful foreign foray was followed by a series of international productions: “An Education” (2009), “One Day” (2011), “The Riot Club” (2014), “Their Finest” (2016) and “The Kindness of Strangers (2019). In 2013, Scherfig was part of a group of Danish directors and producers who founded Creative Alliance in order to develop projects filmed in English for the international film market.
At this year’s Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival, Tara Karajica talks to Lone Scherfig about the Evolution Vision Award she has received at the festival, her career and way of working, and what she is up to next.
Congrats on the Evolution Vision Award you have just received at the Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival!
L.S.: It was just great that somebody far away finds me and wants to reward my work and it’s a really good festival. When I looked at the program, the whole idea of the festival made me even prouder to receive the award because it’s a serious festival with good taste in films. I’m happy with it!
What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Lone Scherfig: Oh, films! When I was a teenager, it was such a golden age for cinema. I mean, the best time in France and, a little later, the American Golden Age and really wonderful films coming out of, for instance, Poland and Hungary. And so, I began to see these films and, little by little, I found out that making them could actually be a job. I didn’t know! I thought I was going to write film criticism and short stories. So, I started as a writer.
Can you talk about how you shaped and contributed to the Dogma 95 movement?
L.S.: My other work and this spirit and lack of perfectionism and trust in the moment and in that random things can influence what you do has helped me a lot over the years. But Dogma itself helped me find a voice as a director. And, the collaboration, feeling part of a film community and really helping one another was something that I hope every young filmmaker can experience if they have a chance. I think that for young filmmakers it’s super important to find someone to hook up and work with. And, for me, even if we were not super young when we did Dogma, it helped to be in a group and, although the films are very different, there was a certain support, especially from Lars von Trier.
Do you feel that it still helps you in your current work and your way of working, writing and directing?
L.S.: It helps me when I have problems. When you stand on set and planning doesn’t work, the weather doesn’t work, something is different than you had hoped and there is this mindset that you can jump onto – the Dogma mindset –, which then allows you to sometimes see new creative solutions to a production problem or a psychological problem; that there is this way of not getting stuck, of not just looking at the wall not knowing how to move on. And, that has always that helped me a lot. It still does. I think it’s a kind of positive mindset and trust in that reality will help you.
How do you experiment with and work around creative restraints – not only with Dogma, but in general?
L.S.: I try to look at things from different angles, which in a way could be problematic. As a director, it’s also quite important to know what you want and go for it and not necessarily go for the second best or something different. But because the budgets I’ve worked with have never been huge, I’m trained in trying to find solutions that are better, simpler and more original. And, I think that because of that training, sometimes a solution to a problem is better than before you had the problem. But, of course, I prefer to do as planned and use the creativity just to make things better and not solve problems; just to make them stronger and also to get the best out of the actors I work with to see that maybe they have something that may not be in the script, but that can add to the story or the location we’re in, that there is something that was not in the script, but that could again add to the story or look at scripts and cut out things when I have to that don’t make the project stronger. In the projects I do, very little is cut out in the editing because, financially, I’m in a situation where I just have to make sure that we shoot as little as possible that doesn’t make the cut. That’s the reality even if I’ve worked for so many years; it’s much harder when you’re a first-time director.
You haven’t made a Danish film since Just Like Home, which was a long time ago. Can you elaborate on these choices?
L.S.: Last year, I made a TV series in Denmark after a long, long time. And, the film I did that takes place in America, The Kindness of Strangers, is legally a Danish film. It’s financed out of Denmark and Denmark has the festival rights and the actors are Danish and the locations are Danish. But I’d much prefer to film something that I don’t know, where I see a new world, or show the audience a world that’s different from the one that I live in. That’s essential to me. I’ve never done anything where I portray myself or the world that’s around me. But, in this series, I see that the characters are a bit like me because they’re also Danish and some are my age and the main character is a woman. But, for me, filming and seeing films is about entering a world that’s not your own.
Can you talk about the characters you like to create when you make your films and how you juggle different genres?
L.S.: The characters look more like me than the world they are in – the geography, the design, the period… A lot of what I’ve done is period – in the ‘60s, actually, in my early childhood –, but they look like me even if they are dressed completely differently or cast with somebody else or whether they’re men or women. They are all facets obviously because they are in my brain or my computer somewhere. But I don’t want it to be that way. I feel that I have something in common with the characters, but not all of all of them are inside me and that’s also one of the reasons why I give actors space to shape the characters and in order for it not to be a narcissistic project, but to be a variety of people who react differently. I find that when I’m directing scripts written by other people the women are often less different than the men. In television, for instance, they have different hairstyles or different cars or lives, but when they are confronted with something, they often react the same way and that’s something I try to change on the script level and by giving the actresses space for improvement or for them to add to the package.
Do you have a favorite among the films you’ve made?
L.S.: I’ve just made a new film in Chile. I’m not done with it yet. It’s not necessarily my favorite. It’s the one that I’m very obsessed with at the moment because we’re not finished. It’s a Chilean novel, La contadora de películas, which is about a little girl who grows up in a mining town in the 1960s and who loves cinema. And, we see her age and become a young woman during the dictatorship. So, it’s a portrait of a very brave, unusual girl who loves film. And, right now, I’m so involved in it. I’m very attached to it at the moment. It’s finished very soon and it’ll be hard to say goodbye – the same way I waved at my daughter when she went off the first day of school.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
L.S.: One of my students from film school, who is a really great and accomplished director now said: “But you can’t not be a feminist. There’s no way you can say you’re not a feminist!” But having said that, it’s not really in my films. I think the only way it is in my films is that the female characters are very varied. A woman trying to find her identity also comes back in my films. But the women in the films I’ve done are often not super strong. I’m interested in people that are timid and less empowered than those you would see in more feminist films. So, it’s not my main project, feminism. And, during the first years I was directing, I was primarily interested in portraying men. It’s been a bit different recently because the last few films have had female leads, but up until I was forty, it was men that were at the forefront of my films.
Do you have a favorite film by a female filmmaker and a favorite female filmmaker?
L.S.: The German director Margarethe von Trotta. I also think Jane Campion is masterful. And then, there are some new ones coming out of Scandinavia now. That’s a generation that’s much more feminist than my generation; they are wilder and braver and technically at the top of their game and that’s wonderful to see. I also like the Spanish director Isabel Coixet and the British director Clio Barnard.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past few years. What’s your take on it? How is in Denmark? You’ve mentioned now that there’s a new wave of female filmmaking wave coming out of Denmark. Can you expand on that?
L.S.: I get to see some talent now that gets access to filming and it means that they quickly get to their third or fourth film. It’s not just about movies, but getting to a level where you are in control of the craft. There are just a lot of interesting new voices and new conflicts coming in because it’s women who call the shots. So, I think there’s enough hope for us because you have more directors, more stories, a bigger variation of characters, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. And, that just makes the world richer for the audience. I’m glad that the world at the cinema depicts the real world better because you go to the cinema not just to see something, but to be seen. And, I feel that more people are seen now.
You have just talked about The Movie Teller, but do you have anything else in the pipeline?
L.S.: I’m not sure, but maybe a second season of The Shift. That’s the immediate thing that I’ll be working on as soon as I’ve delivered The Movie Teller. But I haven’t thought of it. You never know what ends up being the project when you dive into it full on.
This interview was conducted remotely at the 2022 Evolution! Mallorca International Film Festival.
Photo credits: @Yu Tsai – Getty Images