By Iain Blair
Writer/director Lone Scherfig is that rarest of creatives — a respected and prolific female director whose films have been both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Even more amazingly, the Danish-born Scherfig has managed to do that after making the tricky transition from her native tongue to English.
Her 2009 coming-of-age drama An Education won the Audience Award at Sundance and was nominated for three Oscars and eight BAFTAs. Scherfig has since directed another three English-language films: One Day (2011), The Riot Club (2014) and her latest film, Their Finest, which recently screened at the London Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival.
Based on Lissa Evans’ novel, “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” Their Finest is a romantic comedy set in wartime London in 1940, when the British ministry turns to propaganda films to boost morale at home. Realizing their films could use “a woman’s touch,” the ministry hires Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) as a scriptwriter in charge of writing the female dialogue. Although her artist husband looks down on her job, Catrin’s natural flair quickly gets her noticed by cynical, witty lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Dunkirk rescue starring the gloriously vain, former matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy). As bombs are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their colorful cast and crew work furiously to make a film that will warm the hearts of the nation.
I talked with Scherfig, whose credits also include a range of TV series, such as Taxa (1997), Quiet Waters (1999), Better Times (2004) and, most recently, The Astronaut Wives Club (2015), about making the film, her love of post, and her advice to women wanting to become directors in what is still essentially an all-boys club.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
I wanted to do a film where all the different layers and all the details and complexities are there, but they’re not obvious. It’s about a time when films were never more important. They really made a difference, and people making them felt a big responsibility. It’s also about how their finest hour really brought out the best in people during wartime. So finding the right tone was very important. It was a matter of life and death, but you also have humor side by side with the horror and tragedy of war, and I love that mixture and I almost always use humor as a way of getting into serious themes and vice versa.
It’s partly a love letter to wartime British cinema. Did it help to have an outsider’s POV?
I don’t know if it helped — but maybe because I don’t have the same nostalgia for the period as many people in England do, I could take a different approach. I do know that all the films of that era have aged really well and still stand up today, and I think that the realism of today’s films is rooted in those movies. The films were honest, always with a strong message, but also subtle in their dialogue and acting. And, of course, some of the best British directors, like David Lean and Carol Reed, started out then. So it was fascinating to me, and this film has a combination of real documentary, fiction from that era, mock-up documentary, real propaganda films and Technicolor within the film, so there are so many stylistic elements and linguistic elements to enjoy. The film had to look really good too.
You have an amazing cast. What did Gemma, Bill and Sam bring to their roles?
They were all so hard working and dedicated. Gemma and Sam were perfectly matched, I felt, and then Bill is this very unusual mix of being a very kind and modest person, but also a great comedian, which is quite rare, because comedy is hard. He’s very experienced and he has great taste and timing. Bill is totally different from Ambrose, the actor he plays, and the Uncle Frank Ambrose he plays in the film-within-the-film. He was a delight.
You shot this partly on location in Wales. How tough was it?
Not at all, and the landscapes are so amazing there. Of course, the sea and locations aren’t the same as the real Dunkirk, but we all felt it didn’t matter as it’s a recreation anyway for the film they’re making.
Where did you do your post, and do you like the post process?
I love post, the calm after the storm, and the whole process of actually making the film. We did the post in Soho in London, which is such a fantastic community. You can just run between editing suites and so on, whereas in Hollywood you have to drive so far between facilities. And as our film takes place in Soho, it was perfect.
Can you talk about working for the first time with editor Lucia Zucchetti, whose many credits include Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Was she on the set?
I don’t like to have any editor on the set. I was trained on film, I edited and was a script supervisor, and it’s far better for the editor to get the raw material without all the influences you get on a set.
Where did you edit? How did that work?
We had offices in Soho. We sent her dailies and I’d drop by as I was shooting, but as a director you can’t get too obsessed with what you’ve already shot. You have to live with it. But you have the security of the editor telling you if something’s wrong or that you need an extra shot and so on. That first assembly is the worst moment! All you see are the mistakes. Then it gradually gets better each day, and then at the end of the edit, it’s small fine-tunings and tiny changes, and then the torch passes to sound and other departments.
As it’s a period piece, you must have needed some VFX?
They were all done by Filmgate in Gothenberg, Sweden, and we did a lot of that work online. It’s the first time I’d worked with them, and they did a very good job. Obviously, the VFX all had to be invisible, and we had a lot of removal and clean up, adding backgrounds, buildings and so on.
How important is sound and music to you?
It’s so important, especially in a film like this, with bombs going off and battle scenes and so on. I did a lot of radio drama when I was very young, so I always loved sound. I had the same sound crew — supervising sound editors Glenn Freemantle and Ben Barker at Sound 24 at Pinewood — who did my last four films. I’m really grateful that they fit me in between all the really huge productions they do there, and I love working with them. We recorded all the music in Berlin with composer Rachel Portman.
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
At Pinewood with Adam Inglis, who’s excellent. He’s also very fast, so that gave us more time to experiment a bit with stuff and refine things. I think the Technicolor look of the film is wonderful. For instance, we had two sets of costumes, and for the girls in the pink dresses we were able to make them a much darker pink for one set through the DI in the film-within-a-film scenes.
There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. What’s your take on the situation? Is it improving or still the same?
We’ll see if all the debate changes things, but it’ll take time. Maybe it’ll be like smoking, where gradually people decided to change their behavior. But for me, it’s more about stories. There should be more stories about women.
What’s your advice to a young woman who wants to direct?
Find your own voice. What can you do that no one else can do? Keep your expenses down, and get as technically good as you can, learn film language and choose your battles!
I’m currently in pre-production on my own script, Secrets from the Russian Tea Room, a contemporary drama with some comedy. I hope to start shooting in New York soon.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.