Italian for Beginners

Lone Scherfig

In 1995 Danish moviemakers Thomas Vinterberg (The
) and Lars von Trier (Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark) took a break from the technical and story
conventions of modern cinema. Feeling uninspired by conventional
moviemaking, with its emphasis on personal style and technical razzmatazz,
they decided to play a new game. Enlisting the help of fellow directors
Kristian Levring and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, they agreed to break
all the rules, and then create some new ones. And so was born their
now famous Vow of Chastity, known as Dogme 95.

Italian For Beginners, the fourth Danish Dogme
film, this time from director Lone Scherfig, brings us a slightly
more comedic bent to the Dogme school of realism. The film follows
a group of singles in a small, wintry Danish town who come together
for an introductory Italian class once a week, and almost despite
themselves, manage to create something in each other’s lives.

Like its predecessors, the picture emphasizes character
and the integrity of the moment over traditional narrative, while
still managing to weave an engaging story that ties together rather
tightly. Scherfig used experienced professionals as well as a few
amateur actors in the piece, yet all the performances ring true.
In a conversation with MM, Lone talks about beer commercials, Danish
insecurities and staying true to that prickly Vow of Chastity.

Phillip Williams (MM): Did you plan to make
Italian for Beginners as a comedy?

Lone Scherfig (LS): Not as much as we
ended up with (laughs). There were quite a few comedic moments that
showed up either because we improvised them or I made them up as
we stood there. Some that sound improvised are exactly what’s in
the script. It’s very hard to say when it’s improvised and when
it’s not. Humor should be always surprising and there are many channels
within comedy. Sometimes you can do something very slapstick or
farce-like or something quite sophisticated, and there are many
levels in between. But in this film I think you laugh not because
people crack jokes, it’s more because you are relieved that they’re
not so miserable anymore. (laughs)

MM: Or something unexpected in the
characters pops out…

LS: I think so, too. If you read the script,
it doesn’t read as funny as it looks on screen. There were moments
when we said, ‘okay, let’s shoot it, though we’ll probably cut it
out when we get embarrassed in the theater.’ In fact, we invited
about 250 people to a screening-they didn’t know we were there-and
they laughed a lot more than we expected. So there were jokes I
was completely ready to cut out that are still in the film.

MM: What elements of humor did you think
were necessary?

LS: I never thought that humor was necessary.
I felt that the story should be able to stand on its own; you could
have probably told the same story without humor, it just would have
been a much sadder and much more boring film. So I did it not so
much out of necessity but what you might call excess energy.

MM: Was your approach to this film typical
of the way you work?

LS: No. They asked me to do a Dogme film, so
I wrote the film for locations that are right around the film studio.
The hairdresser’s location is right down the street, the place where
they study Italian is a room across from my office and the hospital
location is just down the street. The story was written for the
locations as they were. You wouldn’t work that way for an ordinary

MM: When you started to write and conceive
the film, did you look around and say ‘Well, there is a hair salon
down the street; I’ll have a hair dresser as a character’?

LS: It’s a combination, but the characters
came first. I knew that there would be a priest and then I went
down to the church and since the church had a balcony I wrote a
scene that takes advantage of that: someone is thrown from the balcony
in the film. Also, I wrote as we shot and kept changing the script
to suit the locations and the weather, and in response to the material
we already shot. It’s a strange way of working. You can’t do that
in an ordinary film because the risk is much too high; you have
to plan things more thoroughly in an ordinary picture, obviously.

MM: Why does it work with Dogme?

LS: Luck! (laughing) My assistant said to me,
‘You must have ice in your stomach.’ You have to very courageous.
Balls of steel. You must have that to dare and make a feature film
without a finished script. It takes a lot of courage; it involves
a high level of risk to work that way, but the budget was low and
my career could stand a failure. Everyone might say, ‘Well, we’ve
had four successful Dogme films, so it’s time for a flop.’ But the
audiences and critics received the film very well in Denmark, in
spite of the fact that it’s a Dogme film-people or so sick of it
there. (laughs)

MM: Your picture starts out feeling like
it’s going to be very heavy, but it’s not, ultimately. The humor
actually comes out of the characters; out of who they are.

LS: I hope people don’t walk out because if
you stay in the theater you are rewarded. It starts with a few heavy
scenes, and there’s no conventional title sequence or music. You
are suddenly in the middle of this very sad film (laughs).

MM: How rough was the script when you began
to shoot? Did you have your ending written?

LS: No, I didn’t write the ending until
we were in Venice, actually. And I would change the script all the
time. Sometimes a scene would be written in great detail and sometimes
the script would only indicate the gist of what happens and we would
improvise. Sometimes I rewrote a scene the evening before we shot
it-but that I’ve always done. People accept that, as long as what
you come up with is better that what you had; it can make the process
very lively and they respect it. But it’s not an ideal way to work
at all. The ideal way is to have a completed, excellent script and
just shoot. When I have good material I don’t change it at all;
then the thing is much bigger than I am.

MM: Going in with an incomplete script wasn’t
a prerequisite for Dogme, though.

LS: No, it was partly bad discipline, partly
just wanting to improvise and part of it is the Dogme way of not
planning too much-working in a sort of freehand, like a fresco painter.
The script is still full of all sorts of set-ups and details that
pay off; everything happens for a reason. If you look at it closely
you can see that there is still a very structured system at work.

MM: What did you learn from making a Dogme
picture? When you go back to television or making a film with a
larger budget, in a more conventional way, do you think your approach
will be different?

LS: I trust myself a lot more than I did. I
hope so, anyway, and when I actually start shooting my next picture,
that will be true. What happened to me as a director is the same
thing that happens to some of these characters in the film: I am
changing my own psychological bent in a much more positive direction.