‘Beginners’ class in Dogma

Collective finds star pupil in method's first femme

HOLLYWOOD — As Danish director Lone Scherfig walked down the streets of Telluride during the closing days of the city’s annual film fest Labor Day weekend, festgoers rolled down their car windows and cheered her, giving her a thumbs-up for her movie, “Italian for Beginners,” the first Dogme 95 film to be directed by a woman.

Quite a contrast to Copenhagen, where members of the tiny film community are well known to moviegoers yet rarely approached in public.

“In Denmark, people just aren’t that open,” laughs Scherfig, a tall, commanding blonde who has established herself in her country with three features, the hit TV series “Taxi” and a miniseries, “Morten Korck,” which she directed for Dogme co-founder Lars von Trier’s studio, Zentropa Entertainments.

Lounging poolside at the Mondrian Hotel back in Hollywood, dressed dramatically in a bold polka-dot tunic, she sips espresso and looks out past the drop-dead L.A. view.

“At least 100 people came up to tell me they liked my film,” she tells Variety, amused. Then she laughs again. “Well, if not 100, at least 75.”

When Ib Tardini, a producer at Zentropa, approached Scherfig last year and offered her a million-dollar budget to make a Dogme film — “any film I wanted to,” she exclaims — the director jumped at the prospect, even though that sum was half of what she was given for each of her first two features, “The Birthday Trip” (1990) and “On Our Own” (1994), comedies “about individuals in horrible situations” that were critically received yet neglected at home and abroad.

“Dogme was a brotherhood and wanted to expand to include a new generation,” Scherfig explains. “They wanted me for a sister.”

Though the Dogme 95 collective has strict filmmaking guidelines, Scherfig had absolute creative control and saw it as a learning opportunity.

Scherfig was familiar with the Dogme principles — handheld camera; location-only shooting; no props, artificial lighting, makeup or wardrobe; and a storyline containing “no superficial action” — having taught them to her students at the National Film School of Denmark, where she herself had studied in the 1970s.

“My students hated the Dogme idea. They said they didn’t want to make films like that,” she recalls. “But I played with the thought.”

A few years later, Scherfig found herself working at Zentropa — the old military barracks outside Copenhagen that von Trier had converted into a studio — writing and directing 13 episodes of a popular Danish miniseries based on the works of author Morten Korck.

She had come to know and admire von Trier, who along with Kristian Levring, Thomas Vinterberg and Soren Kragh-Jacobson, formed the original Dogme quartet. The “brotherhood” liked the way Scherfig adapted Korck’s historic and romantic tales.

Before she accepted the offer, Scherfig had to sign Dogme’s Vow of Chastity, “which basically says I will put the moment over the film as a whole,” she explains.

This was a completely different way of working for the admitted perfectionist, who usually storyboards her shoots.

But Scherfig found the go-for-it Dogme philosophy — and use of a Sony digital Betacam — liberating. It allowed her to “play it by ear and be more spontaneous.”

So spontaneous that she wrote some of the script as she filmed.

“I did it that way because I could,” she says. “It was a pretty challenging recipe. It’s hard to make something that doesn’t look totally amateur. And, in the end, it does look amateur.”

Just the Dogme point — and one that meshes well with Danish sensibilities.

Indeed, says Scherfig, more than 20% of all Danes have seen the film, which has grossed more than $5 million to date in Denmark.

“The Danes like the films of the collective, despite the fact that they are Dogme films,” Scherfig explains. “Danes prefer a more classical cinematic look.”

“Italian for Beginners” may be the most accessible Dogme film to date — no jerky camera movement, a story (about 30- and 40-year-olds whose lives intersect in a beginning Italian class) that’s easy to follow and often funny.

It has been sold in 36 countries (Miramax will release it in the U.S. in January), won several awards (see box), screened in Toronto Sept. 7 and is headed to the Boston and New York film festivals.

For the ensemble piece, Scherfig used actors she had already worked with, casting against the grain: Paul Gantzler, voted Denmark’s sexiest man two years in a row, plays a nerdy, impotent hotel clerk; Lars Kaalund, a quiet, intellectual film director, plays the hotheaded short-order cook who becomes the group’s Italian teacher.

Now Scherfig is a full-fledged member of the Dogme group.

These days, when she’s not festival hopping, she’s ensconced in “a little wooden house” at the Zentropa studio, where “all I have to do is open my door” to get advice from the close-at-hand von Trier, Levring or Kragh-Jacobson.

But there’s nothing Dogme about Scherfig’s next feature, the Zentropa-produced “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” a 35mm pic with a $2 million-$3 million budget. Scherfig is finishing a final rewrite and will shoot in February, in the snow.

“Making a Dogme film was like going on a fast,” she says. “You get a euphoric feeling, but afterwards you have a big appetite for film effects.”

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