Lone Scherfig

Wilbur

Interviewed by Jen Foley

“ Sometimes the actors would tell me that something just isn't funny ”

A disciple of Lars von Trier's Dogme 95 school of filmmaking, Lone Scherfig first made an impression with Italian For Beginners. Wilbur (Wants To Kill Himself) is her first English language feature film. Shot in Glasgow and Denmark, it's the story of a pair of bookish brothers, whose lives are changed when they meet single mum Alice.

The film is a comedy with suicide as a theme. That must be a difficult pitch...

Absolutely! It is hard to explain what kind of film this is. And it's hard to communicate that you're trying to deal with something very serious and make fun of it, and still insist that you are not superficial. But I think it's a privilege to work in Europe and to work in countries as small as ours, and on budgets that are as small as ours, because you can do something like this without having to explain. You can make a film about a very sad subject, but which is still a comedy.

Initially the film was going to be made in your native Denmark, but you moved it to Scotland...

I'm very glad we moved it to Scotland. It is a better setting for that story - there are better bookshops, more humour and better actors. Part of it had to do with Breaking The Waves - Zentropa, the Danish studio where I work, had already co-produced with a Scottish producer. And part of it is because Scotland is a lot more like Denmark than England is. We feel quite at home here for some strange reason. But there is more drama, and it is much more beautiful. Had it been a Danish film it would have been more modest, plain and perhaps a bit more superficial.

You wrote the film with Anders Thomas Jensen. What's it like writing dialogue in English instead of your native language?

We can't hear if it works. Though I can tell if the acting is good, I don't have the precision in the language. I think I trusted the actors more than I would have, probably gave them more space than if they were speaking my own language. I can hear if something sounds really phoney, but I don't have the precision I have in my own language. Humour is all about timing, and sometimes the actors would tell me that something just isn't funny. It's a matter of being the kind of director where people don't pretend they like your work, to be open to criticism and even asking for it. I've been hurt but...[laughs]

When you're casting a film like this, what qualities in the actors are you looking for?

I think the older I get the less I look at people's resumes. I'm more and more willing to take risks. It's about intuition. But I'm very afraid of miscasting. One miscast actor can ruin the whole film. I learnt from when Lars von Trier cast Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves instead of Helena Bonham Carter. What I learnt from that is to let the actor not just play the role, but really to get the role, to give them enough control. That makes the acting better. So it is much more about intuition, and who do I want to be with for the two or three months of filming.