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'One Day' interview with director Lone Scherfig

Lone Scherfig, the Oscar-nominated director of 2009's An Education, follows up with her international success with the love story One Day, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. The film, adapted from a famous novel of the same name, tells the story of two friends who move in and out of each other’s lives over the course of almost twenty years. We check in on Emma (Hathaway) and Dexter (Sturgess) every July 15th. I sat down with Scherfig at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel in a roundtable interview to discuss her passion for the subject, her ideas concerning timing in film, and just how long it took for Anne Hathaway to say "Yes" to the role.

In An Education you were working with original material that was extremely short. This time you’re working from something very long, and trying to compress it into something short. It’s the opposite approach of an adaptation. What factors concerned you when you were doing this adaptation?

The person who wrote the book also wrote the script. So some of the decisions were his choosing, but I had to do more because it was too big. Sometimes you can compress things, sometimes you can trust that cinematic solutions will make up for whatever is lost.

Was there one particular thing that you were determined to capture in the adaptation?

No, but I knew that I needed to make the time jumps work as cinema because it’s a literary device and literary game that you are checking in on the characters once a year whether they are together or not. It makes him tell a story that is a little net to the obvious story, which I really like. It’s a chance to make the passage of time that you see and hear, and something that’s happening right in front of you, but hopefully don’t notice too much because you’re emotionally involved and hopefully entertained by the dialogue. In order to be loyal to the script, or the most loyal, I felt I could do my best by turning it into cinema. It was helpful that David himself had done a few things. He would describe a world, for instance, the restaurant where they meet in the mid 90’s, is a posh place as described in the book, but on film you can create it. There are other places that are completely different.

And light was a fantastic tool that we could really use, and have used, especially in the beginning of the film when the sun rises through the first scene from shot to shot, and the last scene when it sets, it’s evening when she walks away, even though the scene is only a minute long. This was something we could do that makes up for it no longer being a book. Or, it’s still a book, but it’s different now.

Talking about size and having limitations, you’ve worked with both original or adapted screenplays, do you feel that adaptations have more limitations than original scripts?

It’s so much easier to work with something you’ve written, because you can cut things or add things on the spot. You can be much more at home and at ease with what you do. You don’t feel unfaithful to the writer because there is no writer. Most of the other films I’ve done I’ve co-written, and I prefer it. But having said that, when you work with someone else’s characters, you get a lot of gifts. You get an entire world, you get to portray people that you couldn’t have made up, and you entire worlds that are fascinating because they are not yours. It’s much harder, I really think it’s much harder. I’m not a big fan of the obligation you have with the writer. With the actors, when you’ve written it, they’ve sometimes read something that you did not write, and they say, “Well that’s not what you said!” but [you’re like] “Well, that’s what I wrote.” And it’s much harder to have that dialogue when you work with someone else’s scripts. But it can get better results. But I think it’s demanding, I really do.

Was Anne Hathaway your first choice?

Yes, she was. There had been some discussion because she’s an American, and Emma is so quintessentially English. It’s not an obvious casting decision. And we did have a couple of other people in mind in case it didn’t work out with her. And, it was her idea. She came to London because she had read the script, and had started to identify with Emma. I felt fortunate because she is very experienced. She’s the kind of actress I like to work with because she’s hardworking and insists on being behind everything. She’s very musical, motivated and disciplined. She’s confident in her own skin. I was happy that she wanted to do it. The decision was made in like twenty minutes, fifteen of which I had tea with Anne.

Then we filmed her with quite a few different possibilities for Dexter. It’s harder to cast, and it’s a much harder part. There’s a class issue, there’s an aging issue. The fact that he goes on a bigger development and longer development, it had to be someone who suited her. You wouldn’t lock the casting unless you had the two of them. But they had good chemistry immediately and you felt like they belonged together, and the musicality was important because timing is good. And part of the good chemistry between the two has to do with being musical. And he’s so relaxed, he’s so modest. He hides how hard he works, which I think is very sympathetic and makes everyone’s job easy. I’m hoping that this project will send many piles of scripts this way.

The first half of the movie, I thought it was a love story about two people. But when I left, I realized it was one person’s story. I was wondering how that affects how you’re going to tell people what the story is? There’s a way in which it might be perceived to be equal, but I thought it was much more Dexter’s story.

I agree. If you wanted to be a perfectionist, there’s something structurally off-balanced by starting the film with her on the bicycle, it should in a way be him. He’s the one who has the big drama and has the most to learn. But it’s not math, so somehow I don’t mind that it is disorderly. I think if you communicate that the film is emotional, and that not only humorous because it has romantic comedy elements too, but then people will maybe be prepared for it. But I’ve been thinking that when I talk to your colleagues, people say the ending is shocking. The ending of how he gets back on his feet.

It’s also the casting that balances. If it had been Jude Law, it might have been perceived differently. I’ve sometimes thought that it’s Emma’s book, and Dexter’s film. I love him the most, and she’s much closer to me. She’s not that interesting. But another thing that’s good about casting Anne is that Anne as a person, at least on the surface is very different from me, so it’s much easier for me to find someone who was more like me. Later, we’d become great friends. I really trust her. But that’s not because of the film.

Were you conscious when you were putting the architecture of the film together that it’s more from Dexter’s POV? Were you ever tempted to try to balance it off and show her family?

We did have a scene with her family, but it was cut out. There was more with Emma that was trimmed because you could live without that with the details from Dexter’s life. And in the book there is simply too much. But there’s a total chapter from his life in the book that we cut out. Also, his life is much more entertaining, and much more typical of the time. You wouldn’t have a scene of Anne in front of a typewriter.

As the movie spans over two decades, you’re working with a lot of periods and fads. The movie doesn’t seem to make gags out of its nostalgic elements. When Hootie and the Blowfish plays, it’s not a joke. I was wondering if you could talk about that.

I’m so old that to me it’s not a joke. I think when scenes are more humorous; you can have more fun with those details. But it’s so tempting to go all the way all the time. Because sometimes it looks so ridiculous. Other times you have problems that things look old, like used cars and period cars. Or clothes that were ten years old. Btu we wanted it to be effortless and subtle, and not in your face. Except for the TV studio and certain elements when the Tracy Chapman track plays, we had to suppress the idea of having too much fun with it, because it would overpower the emotion. Dexter’s world we’ve especially toned down. When he enters that Joystick job, he has that pony tail, he hasn’t showered for weeks, and that was the look. The producer saw that and said, “We’re not going to put him in the trailer if he looks like that,” and then she saw what people looked like. Whenever it was comedy, we could push the gas pedal, but when it wasn’t we had to pull back. Otherwise it also gets monotonous. It becomes a scrapbook. And the characters that you don’t see that really change, Ian and Tilly, you don’t really notice. Her hair just gets longer and longer, because she gets interested in yoga and becomes a person of the 90’s. I hope you don’t notice, but they really do age. They’re made to look younger in the beginning.

You hope we don’t notice?

I hope you react the way you do in real life, when all of the sudden and it was all that time. We do flag it all the time because you see the years, and every film is full of time jumps. But this thing of doing something on the same day all of the time ... it’s better than in movies when the screen says, “December 8th,” and the audience is thinking, “When was the last scene … 11pm?”

If you want a film to not just be about love but also time, it’s when you turn it around nad you think, “Oh, were they that young?” when you see them again. Maybe when people see it they will be aware to the unnecessary things that we do in our lives because we are insecure or self-destructive; wasting some of their lives.

I really loved the way Jim Sturgess aged. He goes through so many phases, and he goes from a boy to a real man. Someone who has learned from his experiences.

Maybe I’m being imprecise. I just don’t want people to think, “Oh, he got a haircut.” But of course when Emma goes to Paris, there’s a really big change.

So you don’t want people concerned with the externals of their appearance?

You shouldn’t feel that you get information when you see a film. You should just feel like you’re in good company, and be interested in the story and not feel like someone is trying to tell you something. But this kind of film has a feel for light. And to be involved in your own life. Not be like, “Oh, Doc Martens.” It will be interesting to see if this film ages well. In ten years, it will look more like a period [piece], or we'll possibly see the periods with even more distance.

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