Lone Scherfig’s An Education opened just two weeks ago, but was generating Oscar buzz as early as January when its young star, Carey Mulligan, made a splash at Sundance. The Nick Hornby–scripted film — about a schoolgirl (Mulligan) swept off her feet by a charming, older man-about-town (Peter Sarsgaard) who seems to offer her everything her ho-hum existence lacks — is only the Danish director’s second-ever English-language feature. Vulture spoke with Scherfig over the phone last week from her native Denmark.
How much did you interact with Nick Hornby during the making of the film?
He didn’t interfere very much, primarily because I think because he was working on his book. But I did a couple of times call him up, sometimes about the songs on the soundtrack, which were ideas of his. Also, there could be specific words, like “preggers,” that he would go back and look up, because it’s his mother tongue and not mine.
The film is based on an essay by journalist Lynn Barber. How much of the original story is kept?
Most of it is there. The timing is a bit different. Her memoir takes place over three years, and it’s much more a flashback, whereas we just wanted it to be set where it belongs, and not to help the audience along. And her story was so short, only ten pages — normally it’s the opposite, and you need to cut things out. But Nick added some characters, and some congruence between London’s coming-of-age and Jenny’s coming-of-age.
In the film, David’s Jewishness is only briefly mentioned. How much does it affect his character?
That is part of his original character in Lynn’s memoir, otherwise we would not have included it. And we discussed whether we should omit it, because it is quite controversial and disturbing to have a character who is flawed and Jewish. Nick thought it added to the character, to his feeling as an outsider, and that the racism and xenophobia of the period was really typical — the way the headmistress who is supposed to be so proper and educated, she is the most racist of all the characters! The real David lives in Israel now, and he calls Lynn every year on her birthday.
You have a light touch behind the camera on this film …
A lot of my work is trying to make a light film out of deeper subjects instead of the other way around: keeping a light touch and a certain integrity so the film has some authority, that you trust it’s a world you want to enter and these are people you want to be with, as if you were almost reading a book. When you’re used to working on a small budget — and for me, this budget wasn’t even that small — you have to make fast decisions and get the most out of what you have. If it had been an American studio film, it might have looked differently.
Carey Mulligan has emerged as the star of the film and probably the season. How did you cast her?
We knew because Jenny is that young, there was quite a chance we would cast someone who wasn’t well known, so you start fishing with a really big net, for people who haven’t yet shown what they can do or what they’re not good at. Which is why we wanted to see Carey with Peter. There were concerns as to whether she was too young, because initially we did not know her true age. But she wasn’t, she was just doing a really good acting job, such that she seemed like a schoolgirl, and everyone bought it.
Do you think Jenny comes out of the movie as a sympathetic character overall?
Oh yes, absolutely. She’s lost her innocence, so there is a loss, but she gets what she wants in the first place — in the beginning, she does want to go to Oxford. But of course she’s deceived, and her parents are seduced, hopefully the audience is seduced … everyone is deceived. The film does have that romance of the French films Jenny likes, but it’s itchier and rougher underneath, and about how much she has to fight for a future she can’t even define. It’s almost as if, if she had known how London would change, she could have pointed at the swinging sixties and said, “That’s where I want to go.” But it’s not there yet, the explosion that she’s awaiting.