Every year, the Istanbul Film Festival organizes a Masterclass on the serene campus of Boğaziçi University. In an auditorium surrounded by leafy trees, with a balcony overlooking the magnificent Bosphorus, an acclaimed filmmaker delves into his or her career and shares lessons learned along the way.
In 2014, Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian auteur who’s been feted by everyone from the Oscars to the Berlinale, spoke about the guiding principle of his career: being “unbiased and just.”
This year, Lone Scherfig took his place. The Danish filmmaker is most famous for the Oscar-nominated “An Education,” but was already renowned in the international film fraternity for her association with the Dogme 95 movement and the Silver Bear-winning film “Italian for Beginners.” Her latest film is “The Riot Club,” which screened at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival.
As can be expected from a career spanning the Danish film school, writing characters for Lars von Trier, success on the festival circuit and rom-coms such as “One Day,” Scherfig had a lot to reflect upon.
1. You need to be in it for the long haul.
“Career-wise, I feel it’s been a very, very slow ride for me,” said Scherfig at the start of her talk. She started out as a short story writer before going to the Danish Film School. After graduating, she worked as a script supervisor and assistant director. She directed short films as well; television and feature films finally followed.
“My career has had no short cuts,” Scherfig said. “If I had known it would take this long, maybe I would have done some things differently.”
2. The Dogme 95 Collective and the importance of going back to basics.
Scherfig was part of the group of filmmakers who subscribed to the avant-garde movement initiated by her more famous Danish brethren: Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. “If you see Lars’ early work, it’s extremely stylized,” she pointed out. “Thus, Dogme 95 was a stimulus for all of us to go back to the basics and be more character-oriented. It forced the artists to think of stories closer to their world, and shoot in their own surroundings.”
The movement, which began with Vinterberg’s “Festen” (“The Celebration”) and von Trier’s “Idioten” (“The Idiots”), imposed restrictions upon the filmmaker which mandated all the sound be produced naturally along with the image. All sets, costumes and makeup had to be naturally sourced. Not even artificial lighting was allowed.
3. The impact of Italian Neorealism
“I’m still committed to old Italian films. Those were the films that I loved when I went to university,” Scherfig said after describing the Dogme movement. In Italy, following WWII, many sets and studios were destroyed. Simultaneously, the 16mm camera became small and light enough that filmmakers could go into the streets and shoot what they saw. France witnessed a similar wave in the ’60s — with icons like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut — that Scherfig found comparable.
“These movements encouraged an urge to liberate yourselves and focus on real people,” she said. “It changed my film language completely and was more attuned to my interests.”
4. “It’s educational to work with new people.”
“There are people in Denmark I like working with and would love to work with again,” Scherfig said. Yet, the director said she was glad she moved to England for projects such as “An Education” because it helped her realize she could get by on her own.
“In Denmark, I had been pretty spoiled with assistants and cars helping me,” she said. “However, the first day I arrived in the UK, I was handed a bus pass. I was stunned. I asked the producers if they thought it best that I should be traveling in buses when I could be directing. But that culture clash was beneficial and I’m happy I went through it. It ensured I did not have a false sense of security.”
5. “You will make stupid mistakes. Get used to it.”
Anyone who’s seen Scherfig’s films will realize, as with most films, they’re far from flawless. “I make mistakes always,” she admitted. “But at least they are new mistakes, so I learn from them. There’s a big difference between knowing what makes a good film and making a good film every single time. It’s not like you don’t come to each job with the best intentions, but somehow you don’t always succeed.”
6. Be adaptable.
Scherfig dove into her own career for anecdotes that taught her valuable lessons. “I have a film shooting right now that I wrote the script for,” she began. “It’s a Swedish love story, and I found out recently that the crew was facing some simple technical and mechanical problems with one plot point. So I quickly changed two or three scenes to accommodate their concerns.”
Such things happen often over a production, and one just has to get used to them. “I feel happy knowing that now, I possess the craft and expertise to change things on the fly and not have it be unoriginal or plain,” she stated.
7. On working with actors across languages and nationalities
Artists like Scherfig have to work with a cast and crew of different nationalities, perhaps even in an alien environment. “The first movie I shot was in Poland. I was able to have professional actors, and they added so much to the material. Whether a performance rings true you can find out even if you don’t know the language,” she said.
When prodded by the moderator, she indulged in some stereotyping to help the audience understand what sorts of differences characterize performers from different countries. “I find American actors tend to take things from within. They work from inner feelings and psychology,” she explained. “British actors are technical. They’ll first pay attention to things like the character’s dialect. Then, they’ll use this information to sketch out a background and social class.”
8. The director should be a communicator.
“As a storyteller, you are being a communicator. You have to know about speech, music, art and other things,” Scherfig said. “Many filmmakers know a bit of everything.”
However, she qualified this statement by adding: “A lot of directors can notice a flaw with a musical instrument but not identify what’s causing it, or how to amend it. When they don’t know much about something, they hire someone who is good at it. I have plenty of limitations. As a director, you may fall prey to insecurity. But you must surround yourself with people who are better than you.”
9. “You can judge a chef by her omelette.” The same goes for a filmmaker.
For the Dogme movement, Scherfig’s submission was “Italian For Beginners,” a light romantic comedy that was a stark contrast to films from other members of the canon, such as Vinterberg’s sexual abuse-themed drama “The Celebration.” It won her the Silver Bear at the 2000 Berlin film festival, and ranks as the most profitable Scandinavian film ever made. She has fond memories of working on it, and said it improved her as a filmmaker.
“Working on ‘Beginners’ gave me a lot of confidence,” she said. “If I were playing a piano it was like only being allowed the middle octave. So when I came back to the full spectrum, I could work faster and cheaper. I also knew the value of the tools I hadn’t been allowed to use. All of us who were part of the movement later made films that were faster, freer, and more spontaneous. We knew what we could do.”
10. “Obstacles can sometimes be blessings.”
Scherfig ended her talk with a feel-good takeaway for the numerous budding directors and writers in the audience. “As a filmmaker, you are under immense pressure on the sets every day. You are looking at the clock and time constraints,” she said. “But I have now learned to be okay with it, because some of the best things come to the project from unexpected corners. If it rains you just shoot in the rain. Then you find out that the scene works better if the characters are shivering and using newspapers to cover themselves.”
You need to work with what you have. “You may not be able to get what you wanted,” said Scherfig, “but you’ll get a better scene because you let the real world guide your actions.”