Lone Scherfig’s “Wilbur”: “Closer to Love and to Life and to Death”
by Liza Bear
It’s a bizarre, bothersome coincidence that I am writing this on the day that — after a two month disappearance — Spalding Gray‘s fate has finally been determined, because the legendary New York performer can now no longer bring his intense self-scrutiny and wonderfully obsessive, self-deprecating humor to dissect his foibles and exploits. Though he has in a sense completed his last performance, “Life Interrupted,” offstage in the East River. What would he have thought of Lone Scherfig‘s latest movie, which, like its auteur, is neither obsessive, self-deprecating, or depressing? Stark reality casts a somber shadow on the screen. The farcical nature of botched suicide attempts soon fades before the irreversibility of success.
Having made her mark with the award-winning Dogme film “Italian for Beginners,” a witty, idiosyncratic relationship comedy, Lone Scherfig moves into dicier territory with her first English-language film, “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” a Scottish-Danish coproduction set in Glasgow. It’s a sly, quirky film with richly drawn characters, full of cant-deflating notes about how and why people really do things, and how life and death, well, just take over. Deftly changing tone this comedy/drama subtly hints at questions about professed attitudes: Is Harbour’s altruism really more worthy than Wilbur’s selfishness? Doesn’t good sex trump marital loyalty or sibling respect? Jamie Sives and Adrian Rawlings star as brothers Wilbur and Harbour who run a used bookstore. Veteran character actress Shirley Henderson, now in a leading role as single parent Alice, marries Harbour but also sleeps with Wilbur, spurred on by her daughter Mary (Lisa McKinlay). Mads Mikkelsen as the deviant Dr. Horst, and Julia Davis as counselor Moira are every bit as good as the excellent leads. Lone Scherfig and I talked over breakfast at the Regency Hotel last week; ThinkFilm opens “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself” today.
indieWIRE: So even though your last film was about learning Italian and this film was a Scottish-Danish coproduction, was your upbringing Danish?
Lone Scherfig: I was born outside of Copenhagen, 44 years ago. And I still live there. But I like to write about culture clashes and culture shocks and people who are not able to express themselves very well. People who are not as talkative as I am. So that’s how I end up doing things about people from different nationalities.
iW: What prompted the script for “Wilbur”?
Scherfig: After “Italian for Beginners” — which was a Dogma film and “Wilbur,” of course, isn’t — I wanted to make a film that moved closer to love and to life and to death; the things on sailors’ tattoos. And not to be about shyness and insecurity as in “Italian for Beginners” and my previous films, but to try to do something deeper and still maintain the humor. I thought I should write about someone who doesn’t want life [in order] to write a film about life. So when the story of two brothers came up, one brother loves life very much and the other one doesn’t want it. And I placed them in an old bookshop because I love bookshops so much — my grandmother was a librarian. Then the story came about very easily when Alice enters the bookshop and the two brothers fall in love with her. That narrowed down the story a lot. They’re not rivals because Harbour was meant to be the most generous, warm, unselfish person I had ever portrayed.
iW: How did you feel about treating a subject that definitely for a lot of people would be taboo?
Scherfig: There’s a tendency when you’re young to make films that are more solemn, that have more fear of death, and fear of humor than when you get older. And at the darkest times in my life, I thought that the only answer was comedy. But “Wilbur” is different and it’s not that much a film about suicide. I really hope it isn’t because it’s going to scare away the audience and the title is so problematic. Because of course Wilbur doesn’t want to kill himself. He gets rid of that bad habit at a very early point in the film… I’ve been worried if anything would be offensive or inspiring, and I’ve done what I could to make sure that it wasn’t. But of course there’s no guarantee… I’ve also had some reactions from people very close to this [subject] who felt that the film did their feelings justice.
iW: You’re trying also to debunk some hypocrisy surrounding the subject. For instance, in the group therapy sessions in your film.
Scherfig: I try not to be sentimental. Humor is a great help for dealing with tragic subjects.
iW: Have you been to group therapy yourself?
Scherfig: No, but I’m married to a psychologist [laughter]. But the group scenes are a bad parody. In the U.S., therapy is so common people may look at those scenes with a different point of view than we do in Scandinavia, where it’s not so common.
iW: How long have you been married to a psychologist?
Scherfig: Twelve years.
iW: Did you show him the script?
Scherfig: Yes I did. He thinks that Wilbur is a political film because it deals with invisible people whom films don’t usually focus on. But he says the fantastic things you can obtain from group therapy are not shown in the film.
iW: Which are?
Scherfig: Well, he says that sometimes there are moments of total clarity in group therapy sessions. But [in the film] they show that Wilbur is out of therapeutical reach. And my husband likes the fact that the [apparently uninvolved] analyst Horst actually helps Wilbur. Wilbur gets cured. The actor [Mads Mikkelsen] is really well-known in Denmark. I used to teach him in acting school, years ago. I still see the Dogme brothers, [Lars] von Trier, [Thomas] Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobson, Susanna Bier…
iW: Do you hang out together?
Scherfig: Not in the evening because we all have small children. But during the day we exchange experiences and help each other. Denmark is such a small country so if we don’t help one another, we probably won’t improve. But you need the vitamins of working with people from other countries.
iW: You started out as a writer. What was your family background, teachers?
Scherfig: Yes. Teachers and writers and business. I haven’t made any kind of Social move. And since I’m a girl there was no pressure to do a more serious career, which of course it turned out to be. It’s been going very well since the very beginning. I’ve been working like an idiot for 20 years now. I’ve directed commercials, television, short films, radio, and then the four feature films, which are what I really love to do.
iW: So you built a set for the bookstore on a soundstage in Copenhagen and The exteriors you shot in Glasgow. Have you ever worked in a hospital?
Scherfig: No, but I’ve been a patient and I’ve visited. There’s been a lot of sorrow in my life, but hopefully in my films you feel more of the fun I’ve experienced. I really try not to be too overly personal… The real development in the film is that Wilbur starts listening to other people and gets rid of his bad habits. And perhaps that Harbour doesn’t have the energy to control [Wilbur] with all his love and help. It’s about an adult becoming an adult. And that is more important than the love story. Thomas [Anders Jensen] the co-writer and I kept asking each other, “What is it that makes Wilbur stop wanting to kill himself?” And it’s that someone needs him.
iW: OK. So then you’ve got a double irony, which makes the film extremely symmetrical. Again, the reaction is going to differ…
Scherfig: How do you know that the reaction is going to differ?
iW: Of course the reaction’s going to differ according to what baggage People bring to this film.
Scherfig: We shouldn’t talk about the ending, but there is a reason for this superficial story, which is that the first act of the film is Wilbur’s, the second act is Alice’s and the third act is Harbour’s. And all the characters are built on their approach to life. Alice doesn’t have a life. She hardly has a home, almost no furniture, no father for her child, no family, no friends, no past, you never hear what she’s about, and she works cleaning up after operations in this hospital. This is a person with no life who gets a life during the film.
iW: In a nutshell, the single parent survival story.
Scherfig: Yeah… She gets everything: a husband, a lover, a bookshop, a home. Moira, the counselor, thinks that she is God’s gift to life. Harbour thinks that he lives to help other people. Wilbur hates life, he wants to get rid of it. Horst thinks that he’s not worthy of life. He’s so tired and sick of everything. We even painted him paler and more dead-looking than he really is.
iW: Horst looks like a corpse.
Scherfig: I know, but Mads Mikkelsen is the handsomest actor in Denmark. Since we are two writers, we really had to be almost mechanical about how these people’s view of life drove their development in the story. And it works quite well because Moira says the wrong things at the wrong times when the drama needs it. Because Harbour is such a generous person living for other people. Everybody knows his name, even in the supermarket. And that’s why he ends up giving his wife to his brother.
iW: In writing it with Thomas, did you have to make adjustments?
Scherfig: No, but we worked very closely. We just sit almost on top of each other at the same computer and yell and fight like kids. He’s much younger than I am. We were laughing a lot. So it’s easy to work with him, less painful or boring.
iW: Jamie Sives, who played Wilbur, had never done a leading role before.
Scherfig: The casting director knew him because they played football together. Jamie had just played one small role in a Scottish football film. So I took a chance, and I couldn’t have been luckier. He’s a very very good actor without bad acting habits, because he hasn’t done very much. He has humor and sex and sensitivity and physicality at the same time. [British actors] are much easier to work with than Scandinavian and probably American actors. The actors trust the text a lot because they come from a country of great drama and great literature. They read and read and read and try to find out what I meant when I was writing, much more than I’m used to [actors doing that]. Which is one of the reasons I want to go back, the sooner the better.
iW: One of the most powerful characters is Mary, Alice’s little girl. In single parent families, it’s quite common that the child takes the role of the absent parent. She seems like the instigator for her mother’s actions.
Scherfig: Mary is a perfectly healthy, goal-oriented, even rich person in the story. She’s uncomplicated, happy, has strong integrity. She’s a real hero. She’s a lot like my own daughter, who’s 9. First of all I wanted Alice to have someone to talk to. And also because Wilbur hates children, though he works as a nursery nurse, I thought it would be interesting to force him to have a child. He says he doesn’t like children…
iW: But they love him. Mary in a subtle way advances the plot.
Scherfig: She’s the bellows fanning the flames…
iW: What’s your next film about?
Scherfig: A group of men in Scottish kilts who work at a wool mill in Scotland. It’s a love comedy — a summer film.