Jan Chats with Director Lone Scherfig

Jan Chats with Director Lone Scherfig

(First Posted in 2009)

Danish director Lone Scherfig spent the weekend of October 10th in Chicago, screening her new film AN EDUCATION at our 45th annual Chicago International Film Festival. On Sunday, October 11, she came to a private reception in her honor hosted by WITASWAN, then we all joined her for the screening plus Q&A. Next day, I met with her one-on-one at the Park Hyatt Hotel for follow-up on some specific details.

Jan: In the first scene of AN EDUCATION, we meet a teenager named “Jenny” (Carey Mulligan) in a classroom filled with girls. The subject is Charlotte Brontë’s novel JANE EYRE, and Jenny’s teacher, “Miss Stubbs” (Olivia Williams) has just asked a question. Jenny’s very first line of dialogue is: “Isn’t it because Mr. Rochester’s blind?” What was Miss Stubbs’ question? 

Lone: Jane is an amateur painter, and the thing that she can do is something that Mr. Rochester, the man she marries, can’t appreciate because he can’t see. So I think it was about that. I remember asking Nick [screenwriter Nick Hornby] about this thing about blindness, if that was an ongoing theme in the film, that people don’t… that they refuse to see what’s happening?

Nick doesn’t come up with metaphors, and I don’t either, but you want the first line in the film to belong, to be organic. And JANE EYRE is about an invisible woman.

Jan: So, a perfect introduction to the themes of your film! And at the end, approximately two hours later, Jenny has another scene with Miss Stubbs, but this time they’re alone together, a classroom of two, and I can tell you, Olivia Williams’ final line… tears started pouring from my eyes!

Caption: Olivia Williams as “Miss Stubbs.”

Lone: Nick was a school teacher, and so the portrayal of Miss Stubbs is probably something that he can really identify with. Nick knows that good teachers can really mean the world to some people. 

Jan: So the title AN EDUCATION clearly has multiple meanings. I’m sure everyone else will ask you about the relationship Jenny has with “David” (Peter Sarsgaard)—in context, David is Jenny’s Mr. Rochester. But doesn’t your film begin and end with Jenny’s relationship with Miss Stubbs?

Lone: Yes, Miss Stubbs is the best role model that there is for Jenny, but it’s still a compromise. We talked a lot about her—whether there should be a boyfriend in the background, or whether Miss Stubbs should be more of a hippie representing the future (like having her bed on the floor or something), but the important point is the fact that Jenny can’t find the recipe of who she should become within the range of women that she’s surrounded by, so Miss Stubbs is not a good solution for her either.

Jan: Right! I knew nothing about Lynn Barber before seeing your film: “Based on a Memoir by Lynn Barber.” But I would say now, having seen AN EDUCATION twice and read up on her in the interim, that it’s the Lynn Barbers of the world—the women who created new paths for women in the 60s—that she’s one of the women who made my own life possible…

Lone: Yes, I agree. The actor should never play the ending, and in a way, with this film, the ending is after the film is finished. So, of course, Carey Mulligan should play “Jenny” so you get the innocence, someone who, first of all, has not been to the West End and all of that.

Caption: Carey Mulligan as “Jenny.”

I think maybe Lynn Barber has also fought the battle to get the life that she wanted because she’s a very strong woman. She’s a “Daddy’s Girl.” Power women are often “Daddy’s Girls,” and what you can see in AN EDUCATION is that Jenny’s mother “Marjorie” (Cara Seymour) is not capable of mothering Jenny anymore. Jenny is also quite cold to her mom; what she can offer Jenny is not good enough.

Even if Jenny and her father “Jack” (Alfred Molina) are fighting, and he’s being unbelievably domineering, it enables Jenny to have someone who is domineering in a way that she probably could’ve been later. When you meet her now, Lynn Barber is really sweet and modest and she’s laughing, but I’m sure that she can be very tough. And I’m sure that it came from her father, and that she has his temper. 

Jan: So Miss Stubbs is at one end of Jenny’s “Not Like My Mother” options, and at the opposite end she has “Helen” (Rosamund Pike)—is Helen as dumb as she seems, or is she just putting it on?

Lone: Helen? She’s actually dumb, I think. If you look at each of the characters and say that this is a story about “education,” I think Helen is an example of someone who is fragile because she doesn’t have an education. But she has a really good life, if she doesn’t make any trouble. And when she loses her looks, she’ll probably be all by herself.

Caption: Rosamund Pike as “Helen.”

Jan: So talk about yourself now, Lone, how did this opportunity came to you?

Lone: I’d read the script because Nick and I have the same agent, so I just let them know that if they were a need in of a director, I’d be happy to do it. So they called me and then we had some talks and I got the job. 

Jan: The first film of yours that I saw, several years ago, was ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS, which is a fabulous ensemble piece, and I think the triumph of this film is that you also created it as an ensemble piece…

Lone: No, it’s Jenny’s film—you’re supposed to see things with her eyes! Nick says it’s like a band: Jenny is the soloist, and then you have the flutist coming in, then the guitar player, and so on. It’s Jenny’s film and I’m completely satisfied with that, but if you only told that story, it wouldn’t be strong enough. If it didn’t have all the layers, then the film would not be “epic” as opposed to “dramatic.”

Jan: Epic?

Lone: You would think of BEN-HUR or something like that when I say “epic,” but when saying “epic,” I mean things that are related to the time that you’re in. It’s almost the time, and not Jenny, that’s the main character in AN EDUCATION. And it’s the fleshing out of this specific time that makes the film work I think. We don’t have 6,000 extras in sandals, but it’s about the time. I wish I had a more precise way of saying that.

Jan: So AN EDUCATION is a historical epic and not a narrative drama, meaning Jenny sees all the possible futures for women in her world—teachers, mothers, mistresses—but none of these options are acceptable to her? And the other thing that’s implicit in your “epic” sensibility is that England is just coming out of World War II?

Lone: Exactly, and I don’t think her parents are ever going to come out of World War II.

Jan: Last question: why doesn’t the headmistress (Emma Thompson) make a stronger case for education? Why no rejoinder when Jenny asks what’s the purpose of it all anyway?

Lone: You want Jenny to find out herself. It’s a revelation that she should have; no one should tell her. 

© Jan Lisa Huttner (10/24/09) SPECIAL FOR FILMS FOR TWO. Reposted with permission. 

October 12th interview at Chicago’s Park Hyatt Hotel conducted, condensed & edited by Jan Lisa Huttner.

All Film Photos: Kerry Brown – © Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. 


Top photo from left to right: Heather Ross, Anne Hawk, Lone Scherfig, Jan Lisa Huttner, & Preeti Gupta.
Photo Credits: Sai Kumar Kannekanti. (All additional photos by Jan.)

NOTE: Heather Ross (“the lady in green”) is the director of GIRLS ON THE WALL which screened right before the reception. She brought several of her collaborators straight from their Q&A!


Sincere thanks to Heather Hames (Catering Manager, Embassy Suites) & Vivian Teng (Manager Director, Cinema/Chicago), as well as Molly Klapp of Allied Integrated Marketing for helping to make this special event possible!

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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