Coming of Age in 1960s London: Interview with An Education‘s Director Lone Scherfig

by Jessica Mosby
- USA -

Post-war London is at its most enchanting in director Lone Scherfig’s new film, An Education. Nick Hornby’s clever screenplay, Scherfig’s apt direction and a talented star-studded cast that includes Emma Thompson, Alfred Molina, Peter Sarsgaard, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, and Sally Hawkins make the 95-minute feature one of the best films of 2009.

Hornby’s screenplay is based on an autobiographical article by British journalist Lynn Barber, in which she recounts her ill-fated relationship with an older mysterious man during her last year of high school. In the film adaptation, model student Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is vigorously studying for her final exams in the hopes of attending college at Oxford. Her future seems to be set until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a handsome stranger who has all the right moves.

Soon Jenny’s mundane suburban life and university aspirations are transformed as David whisks her away to attend plays in the West End, sip late night drinks at stylish clubs, and celebrate her 17th birthday in Paris. But David is a shady character whose mystique is rooted in deception. The red flags are easy to ignore as Sarsgaard is at his most dashing as David. And Mulligan, who is in almost every scene, is absolutely charming as Jenny in all of her naiveté.

Scherfig has created a film in which the audience is seduced by David and the allure of 1960s London right along with Jenny. The scenes of the lovers in Paris picnicking along the Seine are breathtaking. Though the truth is something much darker than the reality David presents, you cannot help but get caught up in the magic. For a film based on a doomed romance, An Education has a very strong feminist undertone; Jenny might be inexperienced, but her tenacity and optimism are well noted.

After seeing An Education at a special screening attended by Hornby, I sat down with Scherfig, a noted independent Danish director, to discuss the film and her experiences as a female filmmaker.

An Education is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

Listen to Jessica's interview with Lone Scherfig by clicking the play button below! - Ed.

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How did you come to direct An Education?

Nick Hornby and I have the same agent. And I had read his books. [Our mutual agent] knows that I really love his tone and enjoy reading his books immensely. She had slipped me the script. I let her know that if they should need a director at some point, I’d be more than willing to come in and talk to Nick and to the producers. There was another director involved who then had her own project financed, so she had to leave. Then I got the chance to direct it, even if I’m from the wrong country for this film.

What attracted you to the script, which is written by Nick Hornby and based on the memoir by Lynn Barber?

I liked David’s character immediately. I got seduced by him the way that Jenny is seduced, her parents are seduced, and hopefully the audience is seduced by this man who is charming, who represents the future, who will take you into the West End of early 60s London. You can feel he has secrets and there’s something about him that’s not quite right, but you try to not predict what’s happening because you’re in such good company. That’s how I felt when I first read it. I really wanted him to come alive, and to shoot those scenes with that man and that beautiful car.

The film is very lush, opulent, and glamorous but I read that it was relatively low budget ($6 million). How did you use a relatively small budget to create this tone?

I’m so happy that you think it is opulent and lush! That’s good! The music certainly helps because that adds a lot of flavor to the film. There’s a lot of music in that film – tracks from the time.

I think it’s an advantage to come from a small country. Having directed six films on small budgets, I’m just used to getting the most out of what you have and making obstacles work for the film…The performances are what you really see. It’s not a museum filmed in London. What you do see is in the background and supports the story. But probably more than anything, Jenny is London. Her character, the way she is coming of age, London was coming of age. So if you get the sense of London, it may also be that you get the feel of how it was because you get the feel of what’s inside her.

I could easily have spent at least three times as much money and as much time. I’m really relieved now that the film seems to be landing on both legs because it is harder to work on a tighter budget.

The film has a real tone of authenticity as far as capturing London in the early 1960s. I was wondering the type of research you did, with your limited budget, to really create that sense of authenticity and capture London then?

I researched a lot. I must admit that there was no false sense of security because I was in a foreign country. I’ve shot different things in Denmark that took place almost at the same time. But England is very different. It’s such an island culture. I would lean very much onto the Art Department, the Costume Department, [and] the Makeup Department because, of course, I surround myself with people who have the qualifications that I don’t.

I also knew that many of the cast members were too young to know or remember that period. I really wanted to break that barrier between the period and the audience so you don’t get a dusty BBC costume drama. But you get something that is emotional, even if it’s period.

We made a lot of boards on the wall so the cast could take a guided tour into the period that they were going to be in, partly to show them that it was not that long ago. They didn’t have to pretend that this was three generations back because it’s not. It’s something that I remember, not very clearly, but still. I also knew that the film would benefit from authenticity - not all films do. But it’s such a time pocket and there are so many people from that time who are still alive and like to go to the cinema. You owe it to them, if to no one else, to take it seriously.

As a female filmmaker who has done a number of independent and low-budget films, what attracted you to the story of a girl, Jenny, coming of age? I really felt the film has some inspiring feminist undertones – not to give any of the plot away, but how the relationship with David develops and how Jenny’s character reacts.

I haven’t made a film with a female lead before. I did a teleplay many years ago. I think it’s maybe because I’m older now that I can look at Jenny with warmth and affection and think, “This is definitely not myself.” Normally I’m too shy to portray someone who is like me, I wouldn’t want it. And I’m always more interested in making films about men because I’m simply more curious [about] and interested in getting into their minds.

It’s good that I did it though because I have a daughter, and I feel that this film has something to offer her that few films that are made for - or with, or about girls - have. I’m glad that it seems that she likes it. She hasn’t been that generous with my other films. I made a children’s film once that she just totally ignored. But this time, the poster is in her room. That’s always a good sign.

Speaking to the way the film portrays women, I thought what was interesting is that Jenny has no female role models who are educated who are not teachers. And so the life that she wants, it isn’t as if she has anyone to look to.

That’s true. And that I can identify with. I’m still quite insecure about who pays the price for my having such a great job. Maybe that is the curse for the generation that I’m in. You feel guilty about having as much fun as I have, and actually about having so many of my dreams come true. Whenever I’m asked about how to make the private and the professional life [work], I always answer, “Well, I can’t. It doesn’t. You compromise. There is no [other] way.” I’m not going to play heroine or role model here because it’s not ideal.

We’re doing alright - maybe it is possible. I’m beginning to be a little more optimistic about it.

A very interesting part of the film is this very subtle conflict between choosing life experience – the life that David offers – or a life of education, one that Jenny wanted for herself and that her parents really pushed her into. This conflict, that as a woman, it is difficult to have both: You have to choose education, or marriage and this exciting life.

Thank god things have changed since then. When you see the film, you can even warm to the fact that life is not as tough for the women of our generation as it was for the women of Jenny’s generation. Someone said to me, the best career choice you can make is to marry the right person. I never saw marriage as a way to pursue a career. Actually, for some women directors what really works is to be divorced because then you get time to work. But I’ve never wanted to do that; I’d rather not work.

These are discussions that [are] privileged to even have in your own mind. And you can only have them because people of Jenny’s generation fought so hard in order for me to just sit here and be a film director. A mother first, then a wife, then a sister, then a daughter, then a film director. That is a privilege. The fewer questions I’m asked about that issue the more I’ll know that the problem is decreasing. In my own country the journalists don’t ask me anymore.

An Education has gotten great reviews, a lot of very deserved critical praise, and is opening all over. So, what is next for the film? Are you traveling across the country promoting it?

I’m enjoying talking to people about it now because it’s a way to figure out what film it was that they saw. In a way, when I work with actors, I represent the audience’s view of them. I tell them if they communicate what they think they communicated in the take. Talking about it, going to Q&As, and reading about it, is a way to figure out if I did what I wanted to do. And to learn about the viewers, seeing which of the sub-themes people warm to or are provoked by, and in what ways the film is actually more controversial than I thought it would be. That I’m really enjoying.

Then at night in the hotel rooms or at home, I write. I’m working on a couple of new things. I just want to shoot soon. I also get energetic. I want to do more. I want to make another film, and shake this film off my shoulders. I have the same appetite as Jenny in our film for the future and for getting better and wiser and using my skills.

- Audio by Jacob Winik. Photographs by Kerry Brown, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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2 comments on “Coming of Age in 1960s London: Interview with An Education‘s Director Lone Scherfig
  1. Vera says:

    Great interview Jessica! Very interesting topic as well.

  2. Alexandra Daniels says:

    Thank you Jessica. Fantastic interview for one my favorite films of this year.

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