Lone Scherfig on the Timely Themes of 'The Kindness of Strangers'

Rob Kim/Getty Images
"It's nice to come back to Berlin with something that I've painted with a bigger brush," says Scherfig, who made her Berlinale debut with the low-budget 'Italian for Beginners' in 2000.

The Danish auteur talks returning to the Berlinale with her New York-set festival opener, which stars Zoe Kazan, Jay Baruchel, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim and Bill Nighy.

Few directors have done more than Lone Scherfig to rehabilitate the disparaged genre of the romantic comedy. Since her international breakthrough with the low-budget feature Italian for Beginners — which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2000 — the Danish director has combined the sweet with the sour, the laughs with the tears, to create authentic love stories that feed both head and heart.

After the success of Italian for Beginners and its follow-up, 2002’s dark comedy Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, Scherfig became somewhat of a go-to director for British rom-coms and literary adaptations — An Education, One Day, Riot Club and Their Finest — all written by other people. But for The Kindness of Strangers, which opens the 69th Berlin Festival on Feb. 7, Scherfig is again playing the auteur, directing from her own script a story of lonely people connecting under the bright lights of New York City. “It’s a story I’ve been thinking about, and characters I’ve wanted to bring to the screen, for a long time,” she says of the ensemble drama, starring Zoe Kazan, Jay Baruchel, Andrea Riseborough, Tahar Rahim and Bill Nighy. “The film is made of things I think about and love.”

What was the genesis of The Kindness of Strangers?

It was bits and pieces and moments and characters, and then I started writing scenes so those characters could find each other. A man who gets so hurt that he takes an office chair and throws it out of the window. A woman who stands at an elegant business reception and suddenly starts taking all the canapes and stashing them in her handbag. An emergency nurse who suddenly can’t stand it anymore and runs into a linen closet to cry in the middle of an emergency operation. Those are the initial moments of people that I then begin to get to know as I write and they get to know each other. The underlying thing is the film is made of elements that I have been fascinated by since I was young: the luxury of New York and the “New York under New York”: the subways, the soup kitchens. The people who sit in a soup kitchen still wearing a Prada coat because it’s only six months ago since they fell off the hamster wheel and lost everything.

How difficult was it to write for an American setting and American characters?

It is a different mindset, but it helped that my characters are not very good at things. They are quite insecure, so if they say things that are just not very smart or have a touch of nonsense, it is a nice way for me to hide. And of course I have the actors help me fine-tune the dialogue if it doesn’t ring true. They are free to come up with improvements.

Was it refreshing to do a film set in the modern day and not a period film like much of your recent work?

You have less control over the aesthetics when you don’t do period, but both the DP [Sebastian Blenkov] and I — it’s the third film we shot together — again and again while we were working we were saying to each other how wonderful it was to do something contemporary and to create a style — to make aesthetic choices even if you shoot on location. It doesn’t mean you don’t create a version of New York. It’s not just any New York, it’s an image of it.

What feeling did you want to evoke with those aesthetic choices?

An image of the many, many people of the city. At every location you sense you are somewhere where many, many others have been before. You are in an apartment and you can sense that many people have lived there. That’s part of the fascination — coming from a small world like I do in Denmark — that it is such a massive machine. The beauty of it is how wonderful and magnificent a city is the result of the visions and labor of millions and millions of people. But also the characters then feel more fragile, because they are chosen, almost randomly chosen, from millions and millions of people. And, by coincidence, get to know each other — and become each other’s most important helpers.

Do you think there is something particularly timely about the theme of loneliness and isolation?

It’s not a political film, but because it deals with charity and homelessness — or people falling out of the system — it eventually has to do with the present-day situation in the United States. The stories in that sense are related to present-day America and living in a big city. But the underlying, more humanistic scenes, I hope are timeless. I hope the film will age well.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 7 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.