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Exclusive Interview: Director Lone Scherfig, “An Education”

November 17th, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

In An Education, aspiring Oxford student Jenny (Carey Mulligan) dreams of a world that’s bigger than her genteel neighborhood, set in 1961 suburban London. She longs to smoke, wear black and listen to Jacques Brel with other like-minded Francophiles, and to be free of her upwardly mobile parents. A fateful rainstorm introduces her to David (Peter Sarsgaard), a 30-something music lover who serves as her entrée to all things sophisticated: art collections, jazz clubs and fashion. His world-class charm — powerful enough to convince Jenny’s parents to send her off with him for a weekend away — sweeps the 16-year-old off her feet. The film, based on a screenplay by author Nick Hornby — it was based on a short memoir by journalist Lynn Barber — was directed by Lone Scherfig ( Italian for Beginners), who spoke to us about the film from Denmark last week. Read on to learn how she found star Cary Mulligan and where they found all the fabulous clothes from the film. An Education is in theaters now. — — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Carey Mulligan is the breakout star of your film. She was also in Pride & Prejudice (2005), but how did you discover her?
Director Lone Scherfig:
She was just in a pile of casting tapes. She had done very little, so it was chance. I knew that we probably had to find someone unknown because [her character] Jenny is so young. She was always my first choice — but we saw her again and again, and now I feel really bad that we took so long to make the decision. It’s been going so well, so maybe she doesn’t have to go through all that again.

I hope so, too! An Education is set in 1961. How did that particular time period play into the film? What did that mean for Jenny?
I think it’s really important. The way London was changing at that time is so in sync with how she’s changing. The way she’s bursting with energy for a future she can’t describe because she doesn’t know what it is yet is the way London was shaking the war off its shoulders, wanting to do things for fun and to have much more appetite for life, for art and for literature — and music in particular. That became so much more dominant straight after she [would have] entered Oxford.

I known here in the U.S. right now, that time period is really resonating with our culture — if you look at Mad Men, for example.
It’s a bit different. Maybe what is so attractive with Mad Men is that it’s a period where they, in some ways, were more liberated and also more innocent than it’s the case now. It’s a bit different in England because Jenny, she’s among the last generation of women who had that little future and so few possibilities. It’s almost as if Lynn Barber, who wrote this story, had been fighting at that. What that means is that women since Lynn could relax and take for granted that they had the right to do the things that they like to do, to try and to find individual futures for themselves and to live that future, or live that adult life, at least, if you have an education.

But my guess is about America is that it’s this combination of innocence and freedom that attracts you. Here in Denmark, as well, it was more liberated than it is now, and was definitely more innocent and less dangerous. I mean, when I was a teenager, the world was a lot safer than it is now for my daughter as a teenager, which meant that I could have a lot more fun. It wasn’t risky the way it is now.

Were you familiar with Lynn Barber’s story before you started this project?
It was just a 10-page article in a literary magazine. Later on, I think Penguin commissioned some more chapters, and she oddly became a journalist for Penthouse. She almost went too far because I know her, and I think she’s a woman who’s had a very rich, varied and happy life that is right for her. Her only regret seems to be that she now thinks that she should have been a better wife to her husband, whom she met in Oxford. But apart from that, she has fulfilled a lot of her dreams, and she’s a brilliant writer.

But no, I wasn’t familiar with her or her work, but obviously I started reading it when I got the job, to get to know her better and to portray her better. But Jenny is different. Lynn is more sarcastic, more of a fighter, and her piece has much more self-irony. Because Nick Hornby and I are not her, we could describe her with some warmth that’s not in her piece.

Speaking of Nick, what did he bring to the screenplay? Did he make any significant changes to Lynn’s story?
The story is short, so he fleshed it out. There are a couple of characters that are his, especially the teachers, but the structure and a lot of the details are actually in her original piece. I think he’s given it a tone that’s definitely Nick Hornby — and jokes, too. He’s really humorous. [Lynn] says that Alfred Molina’s role (as Jenny’s dad) is a lot more sympathetic than she had imagined. I hope we have added something as well. It’s just layer upon layer, and as long as we’re telling the same story — a group portrait of a girl and the people her surrounding her, particularly David … the more time we spent on it, the more time [it was] in this development situation, the more detail you see, the more contrast and the more integrity. But it’s the same piece that we’re all working on, and that was really important to me as a director that everyone was making the same film, that everyone contributed to the package and tried to strengthen it and get as many facets as possible but not be over-inventive, just tell the story as well as we possibly could.

I really enjoyed Alfred Molina’s performance. Can you tell us what he brought to his character?
He has really good timing. He’s very musical, and so is Nick. That means that lines are something where Alfred Molina feels immediately at ease and pitches them very well from the beginning. Also, [Alfred] felt that he knew that world very well — he grew up in Notting Hill and he thought that Jack who he portrays was definitely someone that he knows, and that Jack and England have a lot in common at the time, the xenophobia and the fear of everything: the fear of food, the fear of excess of any kind, and also the insecurity because he didn’t have an education, so that’s one of the reasons why they would let someone like David into their home. He seems worldly, and they’re afraid to be prejudiced as well. So they let him in and let him run off with their little girl.

I wanted to ask you about the clothes. I loved the costumes in this film, particularly Helen’s [a friend of David's who takes Jenny under her wing], but also Jenny’s as well. I read that you brought mood boards to your meetings with Odille Dicks-Mireaux, the costume designer…
That was about Paris, though, it wasn’t about clothes. But I did a board for each of the characters because it is a character-based film. I thought that’s a good place to start, to ensure that if I have a language problem, that’s not going to be our problem, that we’re all speaking the same language. A lot of film people, it’s helpful to have visual examples rather than to explain. So it was clothes, but it was also photos of real people at the time and props. Because a lot of people on the crew and in the cast had not experienced that period, it was also about communicating that London was not that “swinging” yet, and it wasn’t that long ago. It may be a period film, but a lot of the things are the same still.

She and I had a really good collaboration, and all of the costumes are just real clothes that have been saved. We only made one single dress, which was the nightclub singer’s dress. It was a copy of my Barbie doll’s ’60s dress. Because the singer is so small, she didn’t fit into any of the clothes that they had at the prop house. But it was so easy, and they have so much stuff in England, it’s probably the biggest place in the world for that kind of thing, and because the actresses are so beautiful, they just jump into anything, everything just fits. It was a good way for me to go and talk to the cast about the characters and to be at the costume fittings because then you get to express the character’s style and what would be in his pockets. I do the same thing with the props department, which kind of wristwatch would she have, who gave it to her, it’s a very concrete and specific way of building characters. It’s a good place to start dialogue with the actors, rather than sitting at reading tables.

Thanks, Lone, for speaking to us about the film. An Education is in theaters now.

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  • An Education says:

    [...] Last word: “The story is short, so [Hornby] fleshed it out. There are a couple of characters that are his, especially the teachers, but the structure and a lot of the details are actually in her original piece. I think he’s given it a tone that’s definitely Nick Hornby — and jokes, too. He’s really humorous. [Lynn] says that Alfred Molina’s role (as Jenny’s dad) is a lot more sympathetic than she had imagined. I hope we have added something as well. It’s just layer upon layer, and as long as we’re telling the same story — a group portrait of a girl and the people her surrounding her, particularly David … the more time we spent on it, the more time [it was] in this development situation, the more detail you see, the more contrast and the more integrity.” (Scherfig, Hulu) [...]

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