Tenderness for the Characters

Why doesn't Marjorie, Jenny's mother in "An Education", have a sewing machine? And why does Olympia from "Italian for Beginners" drop so many scones? There is always a story behind the story when Lone Scherfig creates her characters.

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Photo: Jan Buus

There's Jenny's flinty yet gracious father in the Oscar-nominated An Education. There's the butter-fingered baker girl in "Italian for Beginners" who's always sending baking sheets clattering to the floor, and the hotel clerk in the same film who is in love with the local Italian belladonna, though he barely knows enough to order a Coke in her native language.

And there's all the rest. If there's one thing that endears Lone Scherfig to audiences and critics alike, it's the ability of even the most minor of her characters to instantly get under the audience's skin, where they linger long after the credits have rolled.

-Italian for Beginners is a comedy where you don't just laugh at the characters but live and feel with them. (Reviewer)

Never black and white

"Italian for Beginners is a comedy where you don't just laugh at the characters but live and feel with them", is how one reviewer described Scherfig's breakthrough film in 2000.

Personally, Scherfig thinks she picked up that ability early in her career, when she was a writer on a Danish drama series about a taxi company.

"It trained me to tell stories with a large cast, while making sure to give everyone their own story that furthers the main plot," Scherfig explains.

"What often makes a lot of mainstream films rather boring," says Ebbe Iversen, film critic and keen admirer of Scherfig's ability to build credible characters, "is that they divide the world into black and white, bad people and good people. That's not how it works with Lone Scherfig. There are all sorts of nuances, and nobody is either one thing or the other. We're all human for better or for worse, and that's also how it works with her characters."

If Ebbe Iversen were to describe Lone Scherfig with one single word, it would be "generous". "She's always incredibly generous and tender toward her characters. And she's always on their side – she's never mean and never makes cheap jokes on their behalf."

Ann Eleonara Jørgensen, who has worked with Lone Scherfig on several films and who played the sensuous hairdresser Karen in "Italian for Beginners", says that one of Scherfig's strongest points as director is that she's extremely skilled at sensing what goes on around her.

"That's why her characters always have this extra layer compared to ordinary comedies. Lone has an offbeat way of thinking and sees the world askew. And she's an extremely good listener. She can listen to your inner 'tune', so to speak, and then let it simmer and marinate, until she ends up with a concentrated flavour that she uses to create the character."

"Finally a Gangster Film"

Today, Scherfig is known the world over for her ability to make films about people. But for a while now, she has actually wanted to make a film that was governed by the plot instead of the characters. "I've been putting that out there for so long now that I finally managed to get a gangster film," she laughs, referring to the upcoming Mob Girl, set in New York's criminal underworld.

Scherfig is also involved in four other projects, including a musical, a romantic comedy and the adaptation of Nick Hornby's "Juliet, Naked". Potentially very different films. But, she says, all the projects she's juggling have one thing in common, "They all have a singular tenderness for their characters".

Three Favourite Scherfig Characters

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Marjorie in "An Education" (Cara Seymour ):

She's a good example of a supporting character that, in her own special way, helps to tell the big story. The script hardly had any lines for the character, so Lone Scherfig and Cara Seymour had to create the role together. "We know a lot of things about Marjorie that no one else
knows. Down to the pearl necklace she's wearing and why. That' not something you need to know when you go to the cinema, but it makes the character consistent. You see the tip of a greater context." "Everybody asked all the time, 'Shouldn't she have a sewing machine, nitting wear, or a cat she can cuddle with?'. No, she shouldn't, because we wanted her to expose the emptiness that makes it possible for David to enter the family's life. She has loads of time on her hands. And maybe a 'mother's little helper' in the medicine cabinet."

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Alice in "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" (Shirley Henderson ):

She leads a quiet, invisible life as a cleaning lady of hospital operating rooms. Her fortunes turn when she discovers a pile of old books.
"Like Olympia, Alice is a loser who ends up winning. She has no friends, no family, no father for her child, and she works nights mopping up after surgery." "But over the course of the film, she gets everything: a wonderful man, a big bookstore, a happy life. She's almost like
something out of an old girls' adventure book."

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Olympia in "Italian for Beginners" (Anette Støvelbæk):

She drops one sheet of baked goods after another on the floor. When she slices a cucumber, the slices are as thick as a Bible. She has the handwriting of a five-year-old. "The whole character is built around dropping or losing. Olympia drops everything because she is so clumsy and she loses first her mother, then her father. She's an invisible person who ends up being seen. I was clumsy as a child myself and I
can't count the number of times I got a concussion." "So there are autobiographical elements in Olympia, and that’s probably why the character seems believable – because I used something I know."

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DFI-FILM Issue 

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