Interview: Lone Scherfig Reflects on “The Kindness of Strangers”

“I start missing them when I talk about them, but they are so far away,” Lone Scherfig says wistfully, after recalling the time she spent on set with the gifted ensemble of actors she assembled for her latest film “The Kindness of Strangers.”

Of course, a filmmaker has no control over the whims of the outside world once a production wraps, with the cast and crew that becomes so close-knit over the course of a month or two scattering to the wind, but Scherfig has long subscribed to that most romantic notion of moviemaking that a group of people with no prior connection can come together to create something special. With a sprawling drama set in New York, the director of “An Education” and “Their Finest” extends that idea into everyday life in her latest film, revolving around a Russian Tea Room-esque banquet hall in Manhattan run by the refined emigre Timofey (Bill Nighy), but just as the restaurant has its upstairs where expensive silverware and balalaika renditions of “House of the Rising Sun” creates a place to leave your troubles behind, you need only to venture downstairs to see a hard-working staff laboring to keep the illusion above intact, with an ex-con named Marc (Tahar Rahim) grateful for a gig in the kitchen after serving a similar role in prison.

In a metropolis where such dualities of culture and class can live side-by-side, Scherfig lets the common humanity of her characters, no matter their social standing, shine as brightly as the street lights in the city that never sleeps, doing for one another what they sometimes cannot do for themselves, whether it be Clara (Zoe Kazan), a mother of two who rifles through the restaurant’s coat rack to get her kids through a cold evening likely spent sleeping in her car while she tries to figure out how to get away from an abusive husband upstate, or Alice (Andrea Riseborough), a nurse who spends her time catering to everyone but herself, shuttling between the emergency room and hosting forgiveness meetings at a local church, or Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), who can’t seem to find the right fit at any number of odd jobs he holds. The film conspicuously reminds of the director’s international breakthrough “Italian for Beginners,” which subverted the naturalistic tenets of Dogme 95 movement that burst out of her native Denmark to suggest that raw emotional situations could give way to real magic, and while Scherfig has clearly grown in stature as a filmmaker, employing more sophisticated camerawork to connect the different worlds of experience that collide in “The Kindness or Strangers,” her ongoing belief in the ultimate goodness of people continues to be the strongest mark of distinction.

With the film recently arriving on American shores after traveling the festival circuit internationally, Scherfig took the time to talk about taking inspiration from New York to create a film she made to resonate the world over, working with such a large and impressive cast, and finding the silver linings in even the most trying of circumstances.

How did this come about? I know this is your first in a while to come from a script you wrote.

It took a while to write it. It was just this feeling that there were different things that seemed to be going in the wrong direction and [I wrote it] as a tribute to a lot of things I really like and would like to share, so in a way it’s a film about how things should be or could’ve been. It’s a bit of a fairy tale in a way. I spent a lot of time in New York in the late ‘70s and little by little, I wrote the scenes and the portraits of these people and I found that the restaurant should be really where they all run into one another.

Did Clara’s story emerge as the central throughline for this?

That came in parallel [between] her and Alice, Andrea Riseborough’s [character], and Jeff, Caleb Landry Jones’ [character]. She probably [can be seen] as the lead because her conflict is probably the biggest, and the rest of the main characters she meets change because they meet her and she’s helped by every one of them in different ways. Zoe is also just so lovely and as she has the opening scene, I think you fall in love with her immediately. She talks a lot to her children – the other characters are people who don’t talk much, so that gives you more of a window into her inner life that she explains more.

You can’t help but notice that it’s a cop who’s the main antagonist in the film and in general, the characters find strength in each other rather than societal institutions…

And they find each other in public spaces. You never go to their home, except the one time where you come home with [Alice] and it’s an empty house. But it’s deliberate that you’re never in anybody’s house. It’s not a chamber play or a family story, but about strangers and how if you have no one, you have the strangers.

One of the interesting ideas that seems to be inherent to the camerawork is this idea of communicating layers in society visually – you’ll often swoop from high to low and back again in the same shot. How did you figure out how to shoot this?

One of the reasons why the film is set in New York and not a European city is that you had such scale and you juxtapose the most elegant places and the soup kitchens next door almost. I never wanted the film to comment on that, or the characters to be political, but I wanted the images to be sometimes gritty and sometimes glamorous. Also in New York, you sense there is so much wear, which is something I really loved — whenever you enter a space, it used to be something else and then something different. You have a huge turnaround of people wearing out the spaces, and it suits the film that you understand that these are just characters that are picked out of millions. The architecture and the color scheme and the whole rhythm of that city… I just want to go back and shoot there again. The crew was sensational. A lot of the film was shot in Toronto and a bit in Copenhagen [too], so I hope it feels like New York City, but like many other films it’s a co-production.

Was a multinational shoot like that a challenge to pull off?

It is, but because of this Dogme background [I have from] “Italian for Beginners,” I have to always believe that sometimes plan B has its blessings and that there is beauty to just finding things that you find because of obstacles, be they financial or geographical or because of your lack of talent and that whole mindset. It doesn’t frustrate me because for many, many years I worked that way. But I was just looking through lots of photos of initial ideas for how the film was going to look and it does look like those. [laughs] When we did some storyboards before actually finding the locations, it has a very strong likeness.

Was it a challenge when you’ve got this great ensemble to give all of them their due once you get back to the edit?

No, they know it’s an ensemble film and they are such good actors so you don’t prioritize because of how they act. You prioritize to make the story as dramatic or fun as you can. None of them were surprised when they saw the film. What you always hope is they love each other’s acting, so you can go and say if everybody else is so good in that film, you must be too. [laughs] They seemed really happy when they saw it and tonally they are in the same area between comedy and drama.

And because I’m not an American, I needed help from those of the actors who are to rephrase things. Zoe’s quite young to play that part and I think that gives the part an innocence that it might not have had, because Zoe’s also really smart and well-educated, so sometimes she’ll come up with a more analytical point of view that was useful. And Andrea I have wanted to work with for years and years. She’s such a chameleon and so soulful that you hardly meet Andrea. You just meet the characters that she plays. She gets completely absorbed in the part and I liked that character as a person, so it was fantastic to be not just with Andrea, but that fictional person that lives inside my laptop – to get to meet her in 3D.

Then Tahar, who plays Marc, has more of a funny bone than I expected and I really liked that because I’ve only seen him play drama and you see every once in a while, if he has a little bit of space, he opens up for a bit more spark than there was on the page. And Caleb was just fantastic — I think every director walks off a set being completely in awe of him. He’s worked with fantastic directors already and he has a huge career ahead of him because he’s such an extraordinary actor and he has this look you can’t forget. He has something nobody else has.

Was there something that was unanticipated, but it made it into the film and you really like it?

I always knew it would have the happy ending because I wanted the film to have a lot of hope and I thought that’s one of the ways you can address things that are worrying or sad or problematic is to have some humor. At some point in the script, the script was much darker. Now, the version that’s the film is a milder version of the story, so I don’t know what would’ve been better, but I saw the film recently with an audience and I think that is always a joy to come to the theater and have some moments of hope and fun, especially when you make a film that has such built-in emotions. We were just in the Goteberg Film Festival and all the screenings sold out, and people were really moved and laughed in all the right places, so it’s great the film is finally going to meet a [global] audience now.

“The Kindness of Strangers” will be available on demand and on iTunes on February 14th.

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