"In the Saddest Moments, I Want to Do Comedy:" Lone Scherfig on Her Sparkling New Film, Their Finest

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Danish director Lone Scherfig’s new romantic dramedy, Their Finest, continues her love affair with British wit and sensibility.

Their Finest stars Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, along with an assembly of A-list actors in terrific character roles, including Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Jeremy Irons.

Like Scherfig’s An Education (2009), Their Finest is primarily the story of a young woman’s awakening: romantically, creatively and in her quest for independence. Set during the worst of Blitz-ravaged London, the story focuses on Catrin Cole (Arterton), an advertising copywriter hired by the British Ministry of Information to write female dialogue—or “slop,” as her condescending male co-writers call it—for propaganda feature films. The snarkiest of her co-screenwriters (Claflin), comes to grudgingly respect Catrin’s talent and smarts, and after much bantering and repartee the pair fall for each other, Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy style.

Adapted by first-time feature film screenwriter Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ prize-winning novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, the film shines a light on a part of British film history that was little known but essential in boosting Brit morale. Their Finest is also a loving tribute to film and its transformative and magical powers to delight and entertain during the darkest times.

Lone Scherfig graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 1984. Along with fellow Danes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Scherfig was involved in the Dogme 95 movement which stressed the basics, including shooting in a small location in natural light and with a handheld camera.

After several critically acclaimed and prize-winning early films, what really put Scherfig on film lovers’ radars was Italian for Beginners (2000), about six singles looking for love and finding it while learning Italian. (If you haven’t seen it, download this beguiling film ASAP.) What followed were the director’s Anglophile productions, beginning with Scherfig’s first English-language feature, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002). Her next film was the hit coming-of-age story An Education, which earned three Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actress for Carey Mulligan and Best Adapted Screenplay for Nick Hornby.

The director’s follow-up films were One Day (2011), with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess; and The Riot Club, about the soulless elite at Oxford, which starred Sam Claflin and Max Irons. Neither reached the popularity of An Education. Yet Their Finest is a witty, elegant satire with heart that has all the cheekiness and high-tone smirking of the best English films of the period Scherfig so lovingly references. Special credit should go to the comic spark of Bill Nighy who lights up every scene as a pompous, washed-up actor trying for a comeback, begrudgingly, in character roles. (Nighy also has a beautiful singing voice which he gets to showcase.)

Their Finest director Lone Scherfig

Last week Scherfig promoted Their Finest in Manhattan at the snazzy, just-opened Whitby Hotel on West 56th Street. The paint was so fresh, Scherfig cheerfully noted that she could smell it. She gave a wide-ranging interview that included her thoughts on British wit (especially under adversity), the common thread in her films, Arterton’s hoarse laugh—and the fact that her next film, her first in this country, will be shot right around the corner.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You shot at Pinewood Studios, which is so full of cinema history. It’s where the James Bond franchise was shot, but also many 1940s classic wartime films. What was shooting there like?

Lone Scherfig (LS): It was a very old stage. You can see the original walls—they’re the walls you see in the film—so we didn’t have to change very much, because it had to look like a 1940s studio. Alongside the original walls, there are super-modern studios. I love that place. I really feel like I’m a proper film director when I’m there because it is full of history, it’s so big, and the people there can do smaller films but can also do very, very big concept films. American productions fly into England. For the four films I’m shot in England, back to back, the sound was also done at Pinewood, so I’ve worked there a lot… [When we shot,] one day there were extras dressed up in ancient Egyptian costumes and, you know, a pharaoh walking down the corridor [laughs].

MM: Your star Gemma Arterton has such a distinctive voice. Her voice reminds me of that great British actress Joan Greenwood, who appeared in so many Alec Guiness movies, including The Lady Killers and Kind Hearts and Coronets, from the 1940s and ’50s. How much did her voice influence casting her?

LS: Her voice is a little hoarse. I woke up this morning at the hotel and I could hear her laugh. I think she walked down the corridor in the hotel and I heard that hoarse laughter she has, a genuine belly laugh at 7 a.m. Also, she can talk very, very fast, which is an American screwball tradition. They did it in England too; the actresses spoke fearlessly fast. They sort of surfed on the lines. You don’t go into each line and you don’t make any of the dialogue precious. You just talk very fast and if the jokes land, it’s fine, and if they don’t, it shouldn’t be a problem. I had wanted to work with Gemma for a long time. One of the things I like about her is that she’s very gentle. And so is Catrin, whom she plays.

MM: Are you comfortable describing Catrin as proto-feminist? Did you envision her as that kind of character?

LS: In the film Catrin has an awakening. She has an innocence in the first act of the film; she’s fighting for her marriage, and I think that is more true to the period than if she had been more outspoken as a feminist. The character is loosely based on a woman called Diana Morgan, who wrote scripts and slop then but was never credited and never got equal pay or anything. And I like that Gemma’s take on it is not that bold. It’s just someone, little by little, tasting blood and finding out how much fun writing can be and work can be and finding that the most sexist man that she runs into turns out to really respect her and love her.

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton as romantic and professional partners in Their Finest

MM: Your movies are all different in subject matter, but what would say is the common thread?

LS: Every time I try to do something that’s a little too hard, but not so hard that it’s not going to work. I can see that the films are related. Ever since film school, they have something very emotional and something humorous, and I like the combination of those two. And if it’s not there I try to add it, because I write too. In a way, I wish I had known when I was really young that I could do that. I’m a bit like Catrin; I could have gone for it earlier. Because when I went to film school we were inspired by the big European auteurs and endless camera tricks and, you know, stone under water and lonely hotel rooms, and all this iconography that all directors go through: phone poles in a windy landscape, 35mm black and white, all of that. And it’s actually not where I belong. I’m much more confident doing something that is livelier and looser and more al fresco, so I’m going to stick with that. Hopefully I have many films ahead of me. I want to try and also live up to the filmmaker’s responsibility and obligation to do something that’s more serious. But I love shooting humor and working with comedians so I think I’ll stick with that too.

MM: You have such a terrific array of character actors in this film, beginning with Bill Nighy, who’s a known scene-stealer. But Eddie Marsan is a favorite of mine. I had no idea he could do so much with just raising his eyebrows. How did you assemble them?

LS: It was such a joy to work with Bill Nighy. And Helen McCrory who plays Sophie, and Jeremy Irons, Richard E. Grant and Jake Lacy—the American. Excellent actors in very small parts in this film. I think it’s an English thing—they really are humble. And if you go, “Would you like to just come stop by and play, and do a portrait of a person in two days?,” they will do it if they like the script. No one considers how big their part will be, so that’s how you can get that kind of cast, which of course makes directing a lot easier. The ideas that they come in with, you immediately go, “Oh, so that’s how they got so famous!” Because they’re so intelligent and their ideas and questions and criticisms are so useful and meaningful. That’s been one of the big privileges about this film, to get a cast of that caliber. But also some of the young actors are really, really good.

MM: It sounds, then, that these actors were able to do some improv?

LS: Yes, a little bit, because they have to. Because when there are so many people in scenes, they have to say something. On stage you can have just one person talking at a time. Really, if you have 20 people in the scene [not talking], it wouldn’t feel organic, so they are improvising here and there, not that much.

MM: According to the production notes, you rehearse. Is that accurate?

LS: Not that much. We just didn’t have the possibility. Also, humor is actually good to do without too much rehearsal, though some of the fast-talking dialogue you have to rehearse because otherwise you can’t give it the lightness it should have, with the mechanics of it. Like, “On that line you close the door and on that line you stumble and on that line you put your hat on the hook,” and that kind of thing—you need to rehearse the choreography, but I wouldn’t want to over-rehearse Bill Nighy for instance. It just makes people insecure to have to crack the same joke too many times.

Bill Nighy at a screening of Their Finest at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, February 2017. Photograph by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF

MM: The mandate of the propaganda films repeated often to Catrin is that they should have“authenticity informed with optimism.” In the U.S., we’re in such a dark place, especially politically. How do you think this motto is relevant today?

LS: I heard Gemma say to people that this film has so much hope and that you need that. I didn’t want to make a film that was darker than this one. You have to do justice too that this film is about war, but whenever in my personal life I have the saddest moments, I want to do comedy. It’s almost reverse: In the better times you get more intellectual and more interested in more complex matters, and when times are worse you just need to do something that’s generous and has strong moral values and creates a loving atmosphere.

Having said that, the films I really like to watch are by directors like Michael Haneke, Paul Verhoeven. The older I get the more obsessed I become with people who are high-class artists with their complicated questions on screen. But it’s not what I do.

MM: Their Finest might be the first film since John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical film Hope and Glory in 1987 that portrays how terrifying and horrific the Blitz was. How challenging was that to portray on screen?

PS: I’m glad you think so, because you don’t see so much of the Blitz in the movie. Some of the photography from London at the time showed entire segments of London with homes disappearing into a hole in the ground. I’m glad that you sensed a dark undertone, because that is one of the reasons why people were [going out] and having fun.

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