Lone Scherfig Talks Lars von Trier, Precision Versus Grandeur, Next Projects

The first woman to deliver BAFTA's David Lean Lecture, the Danish director in London also discusses the role of seduction in filmmaking

Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners) during an event organized by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in London on Monday discussed Dogme 95 colleague Lars von Trier, her next projects and her approach to filmmaking.

The event made her the first woman to deliver the organization's David Lean Lecture. Speaking at BAFTA's London headquarters, Scherfig said she was "hopefully" going to direct a movie about propaganda films and the people who made them. She mentioned the film is from producers Amanda Posey and Stephen Woolley. The name of the project was previously announced as Their Finest Hour And A Half, based on a Lissa Evans novel.

"I'm also writing a film for myself," Scherfig said. Citing social-realism roots, she said it would have "big images" of snow over New York and is entitled The Backdoor to the Russian Tea Room. She didn't share other details.

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She also recalled von Trier during their film school years. Back then, he "still thought he was Jewish," but dressed in "a Nazi-inspired" outfit and made films full of new cinematic language and ideas, Scherfig said.

During film school, "we all tried" to be as inventive as van Trier, she recalled. "None of the films were worth anything, except for maybe my last one," she said, "We were so vain, so ambitious."

"We shook off our film school perfectionism‎," Scherfig said about the Dogme 95 school of film later on. "Emotion had to be real ... It made us all feel who we were as directors." And it helped her understand what she could gain when giving actors space, she added.

She called von Trier "the most constructive" and helpful critic she ever had, but said they don't see each other as much anymore. Describing her current focus as using "simpler, wider" film language "where I don't need to disguise something," she said von Trier and her have been doing different work. "Right now we're going different directions," she said.

At some point during her appearance, she also described her approach this way: "I really like simplicity, precision ...‎ precision is better than grandeur." And Scherfig said: "Generosity is what drives me. ... I'm always afraid to be pompous." David Lean's films all had the same drivers, she said. "The films didn't point at themselves."

The David Lean Lecture "aims to provide an insight into the experiences and outstanding creative achievements of some of the world’s most compelling filmmakers," according to the organization. The lecture carries on the legacy of director David Lean, one of the founders of the British Film Academy as it was then known in 1947. Previous speakers have included Paul Greengrass, Robert Altman, John Boorman, Oliver Stone, David Lynch and Pedro Almodovar.

"Lone Scherfig is one of the original Danish directors — with Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg — to be part of the Dogme 95 movement," said Nik Powell, chair of the BAFTA Film Committee, when the lecture was announced. 

Scherfig began her career directing commercials and TV dramas in her native Denmark. Her first feature as director was The Birthday Trip, which screened at the 1991 Berlin International Film Festival. Her movie Italian for Beginners in 2001 won the Berlin International Film Festival's Silver Bear Jury Prize for best director.

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An Education earned BAFTA nominations in the best director and outstanding British film categories and a BAFTA win for lead actress Carey Mulligan, as well as Oscar nominations in the best picture, actress and writing categories.

Her most recent feature film, The Riot Club, premiered at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Scherfig has most recently been directing Astronaut Wives Club, a 10-episode drama series for ABC Studios, which tells the story of the women behind some of the biggest events in American history.

Scherfig called Doctor Zhivago her favorite Lean film, saying "the dacha was probably the most important thing he gave me." She showed a clip from the film at that stage.

Scherfig also shared advice for younger filmmakers. "Find your voice as a director," she said, adding creatives must find what it is that only they can do.

And she said: "Seduction is a really important element of all filmmaking." She recommended Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation as a movie every film student should watch.

Discussing things she doesn't enjoy or finds challenging, she said: "I'm always too shy to direct."  And she said: "I hate casting sessions," and feel "so sorry" for disappointing some actors, for example. "We had to work so fast," Scherfig also said about working in U.S. TV recently, which she said led to some difficult moments. And asked about film music, she said: "I do not like a score that tries to control too much."

Asked about her approach to humor, she said: "I like humor, but mainly I am so [worried] about being pretentious."

‎She also recalled her time at Sorbonne University in Paris, saying she saw many movies. "I got to see the classics," she said. In Denmark, one could only see "very little art-house" at the time, she quipped, saying films had to be from Lean or star Charlton Heston.

Remembering her political years in university, she said she learned Russian and wrote a feminist thesis on pornography, saying "we were way left-wing." ‎When Scherfig started writing, she said she made up a pseudonym, including first name Else, and sent her stories to magazines.


At the end of her appearance, she mentioned that her daughter, unlike her, prefers films "that do not take place before she was born."

Does it make difference that she is a female filmmaker? "I don't know," she said.

Email: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai

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