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Lone Scherfig

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, won twenty international festival prizes, and was 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 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) and “Their Finest” (2016). 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.

Tara Karajica caught up with her in Berlin.



Can you talk about how you shaped and contributed to the Dogme 95 movement at the beginning?

Lone Scherfig: I was the first Dogme sister and the fifth Dogme film. It was a movement that was designed to make us focus more on the stories and diss the technique and style, with very strict rules about how to shoot with very little equipment. For young filmmakers, it’s a really interesting way of shooting, and for older filmmakers, it kind of liberates them in a way. But, Italian for Beginners, which was the Dogme film that I made, was shown all over the world and it was such a small little film, but it still got all that attention. It made me find my voice as a director, in a way, and it made me find out how much fun it could be to be a filmmaker. It was much nicer for me not to be such a perfectionist and to also do comedy. It meant a lot to me. And, I had so many fantastic experiences with that film from a screening in the Himalayas to one in Los Angeles and especially here, in Berlin. It really got a lot of good reactions. I still love the film very much.

The comedy genre, especially the romantic comedy one you are often associated to, is a tricky genre to discuss and people do not always appreciate it. So, what draws you to it and how do you make it work for everyone?

L.S.: I never do any films where the comedy is the main thing. It’s always another story and the comedy is more a way to access the more serious issue. A real romantic comedy, like the hardcore American romantic comedy, is probably the strictest format of all. It’s always about someone going to marry the wrong person… They are very, very straight and formulaic; you can almost put them on top of each other and they would all be exactly the same. And, that, I have not done, because I want every film to be a new challenge. I think a love story is not enough; it has to have something more. But, I did The Riot Club a couple of years ago, which is a very political film where there’s a small love story, but it’s not at all the main thing about the film. And, it was nice to do something that was not romantic, to do something more dynamic and wild. And now, with Their Finest, I have done a more romantic story.

And, how do you experiment with creative constraints, like for instance that and the Dogme 95 ones?

L.S.: I do it with every film. I set rules for myself. Sometimes, I tell the crew, I just keep them to myself, so every film is not just about the story, but also about a cinematic way of doing it. Their Finest combines a lot of different components of Film like black and white, documentary, Technicolor… So, the concept for that film was how to combine all these different elements in a way that works.

What is your take on Their Finest, especially because of its premise?

L.S.: It is a story about a young woman who begins to write propaganda films in order to get America to join the war and she’s a young girl who finds out how much fun work can be. In the beginning, she is more ambitious about saving her marriage, but later, it becomes about saving the film. The film is very much a love letter to filmmaking, so I knew it had to be cinematic because you can’t make a film that is a tribute to filmmaking and then not come up with a proper film language. So, it’s a very, very detailed script with so many small elements, but that the audience could feel it was light and a love song to Cinema. It’s been a good experience to make that film.

 What drew you to it?

L.S.: There was a book I had read and I liked, but then I was doing The Riot Club. Then, when I had done that, I found out that in the meantime they had a script developed and I read that script and started working with the writer. I liked it a lot. I liked the characters a lot and there’s a lot of humor in it. It’s more humoristic than what I’ve done in a long time.

I can see that there are stories that are not told about women.

How was your collaboration with Pernille August on A Serious Game?

L.S.: I was asked if I wanted to make the film and I said: “No, thank you, but I would like to write it if she directs it”. I think she’s very good at doing Passion. She’s very, very good at directing actors because she’s an actress herself. But, it was completely divided. I wrote the script and she directed the film. We did not have that much of a collaboration. Also, I was shooting Their Finest when she was shooting A Serious Game. They just got the script and I went on to do my own thing. It’s nice. It’s better to stay away as a scriptwriter, and not sit at the actual shooting.

Did you like the end result?

L.S.: I think the actors are quite fantastic. I would like to work with Sverrir Gudnason who plays Arvid. I’m hoping he’ll be in the next film I shoot, but we’ll see. It’s very strange to watch it. And, I think, maybe because I’m a director, I have envisioned things differently – but I’m also not Swedish, so some of my images may have been wrong because I’m from a different country. But, it’s a very, very interesting and odd process.

The Danish film industry is really strong and popular, especially now with the Nordic Noir. At the Locarno Film Festival in 2013, Nikolaj Lie Kaas said that the Nordic melancholia should be embraced. Do you agree with that? And, how do you think the Danish film industry exploits that?

L.S.: I think that films that travel tend to be art-house because they are subtitled, so they will only reach an audience willing to read subtitles. Except here, in Germany, where they dub films. But, there are also a lot of comedies in Denmark that never cross any borders. I think that if films are honest and original and have some sort of integrity, then, they have a chance internationally. And, very often, the smaller a world they create, the more interesting they become to foreign countries. It is dark in winter in Denmark and there is a tradition that crime is the genre that investigates society, but I think the reason why the television series have become so successful abroad is probably the fact that you also see how Danish people live… We just see everyday lives, we actually have a very big middle class in Denmark; there’s still not much difference between the rich and the poor and there’s a very liberated relationship between men and women. And, I think it’s interesting for other people to look at our lives. We don’t see it that way, but I think it’s one of the reasons. It also sells to countries like the UK and Sweden where they are really good at watching themselves. It’s like selling sand to the Sahara, but they do!

What do you think of the TV boom? Can you talk about The Astronauts Wives Club?

L.S.: I think it’s quite nice that there is this exchange now that directors and actors cross over and there are stories that are better in the longer form and it’s more epic. And, for instance, The Astronauts Wives Club, that story would not work as a feature film. There’s a big film, The Right Stuff, about the astronauts, the Mercury Seven mission group, and some of the scenes are even in both works because it’s a true story. But, I conceived The Astronauts Wives Club – I made the first and the second episodes – so, all the directors tried to do something that is stylistically seen from the same place. That was super interesting to do. You know, you start out with a long, long story, and you have to shoot really fast, and this is hard – it was an American production – but, I’d definitely do it again, with the right story. I am developing some television alongside the feature film as I have stories that I would like to tell that are just longer and with more characters.

As a screenwriter, what do you think of the writing in TV, which, some say is now better than in Film?

 L.S.: You can say that it is a little sad that some of the best writers are trying to go to television now, because we need them for Film. But, I’ve worked as a television writer too and I understand the fascination. I love working in the writers’ room where you work as a group of writers on your storyline – what’s going to happen in the next four episodes – together and then each of you go home and write your episode. It’s a great job! It’s a really wonderful job!

How do you see the situation of women in the film industry? How is it in Denmark?

L.S.: I honestly think it’s so hard to answer because I don’t know how it is to be a man… I can’t compare. And, I work with a lot of men all the time and I always have. And, I have always been treated very respectfully and loyally. My father would babysit my daughter; my husband has been there for me if I’ve had films that didn’t happen or where all of a sudden I didn’t make money for a year – he was there.  So, it’s given me some possibilities, but I can see that there are stories that are not told about women and maybe it’s much more important to see women on screen than to see them behind the camera. I’m not sure, because I come from such a privileged part of the world in terms of filmmaking – we have quite successful Danish female film directors, and so I think I’m the wrong person to ask.

Some activists argue there should be more stories told from a female point of view. Would you agree with that?

L.S.: There are definitely many stories to tell and I think there are women, especially in third world countries, where there are issues that are so big for them, that would work on the big screen. And, films help shed light on something important so, in that sense, yes, for political reasons. But, it just doesn’t mean that women get access to funding and it does not necessarily mean that they are going to tell those stories. And, you can’t say that a being a female film director makes her a politician, but it’s a start. We need the films to be good, for them to get a chance, and to be strong enough! So, people think: “Yes! Thank God that film was made”. But, in Denmark, statistically, there are many more men filmmakers. There are some prominent women, but there are many more men. Statistically, we are nowhere near 50-50. We have years where there are no female directors.

What is your favorite film that you’ve made? And, who is your inspiration?

L.S.: I did a film in Scotland, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, and I love it maybe a little more than the other films. I don’t know why. It’s very clean, it’s very simple. Maybe that’s what I like. The directors I love the most are not the ones that inspire me the most. I love Michael Haneke, but I never do what he does and what he does doesn’t even mirror what I do. But, I can’t tell you how much I look forward to seeing every new film he makes. I’m more related to Italian and French films from the 1950s and 1960s. I think I’m a Cinema fan. I like people who are dead like Truffaut, and some of the Italian neo-realists – that’s where I kind of belong.

What is your next project?

L.S.: It’s called Secrets from the Russian Tea Room. It takes place in New York and it’s a group of people who don’t know each other at the beginning of the story, but who have very, very big problems and they meet homelessness, violence…and each other, help each other and become each other’s family. It’s a tough subject matter.


This interview was conducted during the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. 

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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