Goteborg: ‘An Education’s’ Lone Scherfig on ‘Their Finest,’ the U.K. Film Industry, Entering Other Worlds

Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig, who received an Honorary Nordic Dragon Award at the 2017 Göteborg Festival, has finally had time to script a film of her own

Lone Scherfig
Photo: Yu Tsai, Getty Images.

GOTEBORG, Sweden — “Lone Scherfig is one of the very best Nordic filmmakers of her generation. Skillfully, with curiosity, she has experimented with different aesthetic expressions, but it is always with wit and sharpness she portrays the complexity, passion and darkness in people’s lives,” said Goteborg Fest artistic director Jonas Holmberg, presenting the 207 Nordic Honorary Dragon Award to the Danish writer-director.

The prize-winner was honored with a three-film howcase of three films: 2000 Danish breakthrough, “Italian for Beginners”; her 2014 U.K. drama-thriller “The Riot Club”; and the Swedish premiere of her latest U.K. romantic dramedy, “Their Finest,” starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, opening this spring.

A film student from Paris’ Sorbonne University and the University of Copenhagen, Scherfig graduated from Copenhagen’s Danish National Film School in 1984; her feature debut was the comedy, “The Birthday Trip” (1990). After several TV series and the children’s film “On Our Own” (1998), she directed Denmark’s fifth Dogme film, “Italian for Beginners,” It became a local success in the theatres, won 20 international festival prizes (four at the Berlinale, including the Silver Bear for best director), and was sold to 40 countries to become the most profitable Nordic film ever.

Her first foreign experience was “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself” (2002), which she scripted with Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, and made with a Danish-Scottish team. With Thomas Jensen, she developed the characters for three films in a Danish-Scottish project, “Advance Party”; two were made, Andrea Arnold’s ”Red Road” and Morag McKinnon’s ”Donkeys.”

Now followed a series of international productions: ”An Education” (2009), a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in surburban London, with Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina; “One Day” (2011),” written by David Nicholls, with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess; and ”The Riot Club,” starring Sam Claflin and Max Irons. In 2013, she was among a group of Danish directors and producers which founded Creative Alliance, to develop projects to film in English for the international market. Variety caught up with Scherfig at Sweden’s Goteborg Fest.

So yet another festival prize – what does it mean to you?

Scherfig: “The Göteborg Dragon is really is an honour, especially since the last four films I have directed have not been Nordic. It encourages me to keep trusting my tone and decisions. The films I make often balance comedy and depth, so they can be hard to label in terms of genre. I feel the award acknowledges that.”

You have not made a film in Danish since 2007. Why are you attracted by U.K. productions?

The writers, the actors, the architecture, the humor, the audience. U.K. crews can switch from huge concept films to kitchen sink drama from one day to the next, which is admirable. We have this in Denmark as well, but all the U.K. films I have been offered have been too good to turn down, although it meant that it took me some time before I could finish a script my own.

Your latest feature, “Their Finest,” is included in your showcase here. Also U.K.?

Yes, it is based on U.K. author Lisa Evans’ very witty and moving novel about propaganda filmmakers during the London Blitz in World War II. I read and fell for it a long time ago, then received Gaby Chiappe’s adaptation and was immediately  involved. It’s a declaration of love for film, a beautiful love story and a wonderful part for Bill Nighy, whom I have wanted to work with for a long time. Technically, it was a great challenge. – the film is complicated and packed with details, but had to seem effortless and elegant.

Most of your films have been contemporary; now you are also going back in time – most recently by scripting Hjalmar Söderberg’s 1912 love story ”A Serious Game” for Swedish director Pernilla August?

I have also been back to the early 1960s a couple of times. I like to move away from my own life either in terms of geography or time, or sometimes both. To enter a different time and world completely, and then share with the audience is what fascinates me. I need and get a lot of help from the art department in particular during research.”


When you look back, which of your films do you personally like best and why?

I think and hope my next film, ”Secrets from the Russian Tea Room,” will have the warmth of ”Italian for Beginners,” the beauty of ”Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” the innocence of ”An Education,” the temper of ”The Riot Club” and the technical excesses of “Their Finest.” But I like the other half of the films I have directed as well and try to forgive myself for the things I could have done better, so I stop re-editing old films in my sleep.

What sort of characters have you most often portrayed?

“The people in my stories often have the same problems as myself, therefore I let them act carefully and shy, and never get out of their depth. They represent everything I learned from home home: Don’t poke your nose into something, blue is always nice, he who lives quietly, lives well. Others have a temper, I sometimes can’t keep myself under control. But I love to portray other writers’ gallery of persons, who are not like me, and find the place where the actor meets the character and creates a really original figure. U.K. actor Sam Claflin’s roles in “The Riot Club” and “Their Finest” are two examples – totally different in class, age, will, emotional life and destiny.”