Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig has always considered herself something of a cultural tourist, preferring to tackle worlds removed from her own. Still, she knew she was a long shot to direct An Education, 2009’s smart drama about a teenage girl’s coming-of-age in early-Sixties England. Schooled in Lars von Trier’s stripped-down Dogme 95 film movement, Scherfig had made only one English-language film—Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself) (2002), about a suicidal loner—and though a star auteur in her native Denmark, she was not well known elsewhere. But Scherfig shares an agent with British novelist Nick Hornby, who penned the script, and when the original director, Beeban Kidron, dropped An Education to pursue another project, Scherfig got the call.
“I think it’s easier to film something that you don’t know,” says Scherfig, 50, affable and buoyant as she settles into a sofa at New York’s Soho Grand Hotel. “All my films take place somewhere that’s not where I live and in a space in society that I don’t belong to.” The story of a schoolgirl seduced by an older man, An Education is rooted in postwar, preswinging London, and to win the job, Scherfig had to describe in detail how she’d approach it. “I wanted to break that wall between the period and the audience by making sure that the characters and the sets didn’t compete,” says Scherfig, who adopted a minimalist approach to the interiors and shied away from that era’s bright hues. “I wanted to turn it down a bit so you see the characters more. You should feel things, not see things.”
“Her Danishness really worked to our advantage,” says Hornby, noting Scherfig’s ability to “wring things out of a scene” that even he didn’t know were there. “She could see better than people who’d grown up within the culture what was strange about it, funny about it, the details that spoke volumes.” In the mock-Tudor house in which much of the action is set, she found “a striving for beauty,” says Hornby, where most Brits would see only “suburban tedium.”
Scherfig’s quiet acuity for the quirks of human nature—and the drama of class in England—lies at the heart of An Education, which has been generating Oscar buzz since it won an audience award at Sundance. Much of the attention has centered on British newcomer Carey Mulligan, whom Scherfig cast as the bright, inquisitive Jenny after auditioning about a hundred actresses for the role. But it was the deftly drawn David, the sly charmer who promises Jenny a way out of her dreary suburban life, that drew Scherfig to the film. As played by Peter Sarsgaard, who was cast before Scherfig signed on, he seems thrillingly raffish and worldly as he takes 16-year-old Jenny on jaunts to Paris, the dog track and London nightclubs.