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20 September 2018
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Lone Scherfig on building creativity out of limitations in her Dogme film Italian for Beginners

Last issue AFC News brought you an article from the New York Times (21 March 2004) on Dogme95, a school of low-budget filmmaking founded by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. As set out in that article, 'shooting must be done on location; the sound must never be produced apart from the images; the camera must be handheld; the film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc.); optical work and filters are forbidden'.

Here, the AFC's Carole Sklan talks to Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig about her Dogme film Italian for Beginners made for about US$1 million in 2000.

How did the Dogme approach influence your work?

Dogme wasn't that radical a departure from my previous work, but what was really helpful was to sign a piece of paper undertaking to be more experimental. You couldn't use the aesthetic or dramatic craft you usually use; you had to find other ways. It's like you had to cook but you couldn't cook anything you'd ever eaten before. You had to be more intuitive, to trust the story and the audience more because you were working more closely with truth and reality.

An important factor in the success of the Danish Dogme films is that they're almost all really good. I think there are 10 altogether. The directors were experienced and had reached a point in their career where they were able to use Dogme to develop a more personal voice. And of course you were so afraid of making The Bad Dogme Film or making the film that was not successful, that you worked very hard.

The success of Italian for Beginners made me feel more confident about my own taste, my treatment of characters and my own humour. It turned out other people around the world shared my sense of humour and my approach to stories. Dogme gave me the chance to find that out. It gave me the chance to make my next film, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, which is a less accessible and darker film.

The best book on the Dogme school is by Richard Kelly, called The Name of This Book Is Dogme95 (Faber & Faber 2001).

Thinking of Italian for Beginners, how did the budget affect the actual production?

The budget of Italian for Beginners was about €1million - about US$1 million at that time. You have to get the money you have onto the screen, so you don't spend money unless it'll be used on screen. You try to make it easy for yourself, and very often the easy solution is the good solution. If you trust the script and the audience, then you can be less controlling. And when you're more relaxed as a director, you actually notice whenever a gift from the actor, the DOP or the weather is offered. You get more humour; you pick up signals from the actors.

Three or four days into the shoot, I realised all obstacles could be considered gifts and you could adjust the process to work for you. Whenever there was any sort of physical hindrance we just used it. I wrote the film to take place in an actual town near the Zentropa film studio. The actors and the crew could walk to every location and we would discuss how to work things into the story. For example, there were physical problems with the hairdressing salon - how you lean into the sink - and this became part of the love story with the two actors. And the back story for why the old priest had to leave and the new priest arrived came out of the [Dogme] constraints on the soundtrack. The back story had the old priest throwing the organ player over the balcony so he ended up in the hospital where we could use his music.

Creativity within limitations is almost a theme for low-budget filmmaking, isn't it?

Not within the limitations, but because of the limitations. This was very much part of our education here at the National Film School of Denmark - the school almost all of us went to. Every time we got an assignment, there was a list of the conditions we had to work within. And if you don't have these conditions, you tend, as a director, to make them up for yourself. Sometimes you do it secretly and sometimes they are, of course, dictated by the budget. But the more challenging the limitations, the more elegant the solution for the story can be.

So it's about being inventive rather than just putting two characters in a room.

Every film done at the Zentropa studio tries to find an individual low-budget solution. One film that's just finishing now takes place in a small town in New Mexico in America - but it's shot on our studio lot because some of the buildings on the lot look like a little square. The director shot the whole film there with a group of very young actors and some small electronic cameras. Then he developed a look for it that's really beautiful and very original by forcing the material in the laboratory - it definitely doesn't look low budget, but it really suits the film.

[Lars von Trier's] Dogville is another good example. That film has no sets: they painted the houses on the floor of the studio with chalk, and that was it. The audience had to imagine the walls and the rooms and the furniture. We try with every film to invent some sort of solution that's right for that story - even helps the story - and gives a more original look to the film, so we don't end up with a lot of domestic drama.

The performances for Italian for Beginners are exceptional. How did you achieve this?

They were all good actors, but cast against type so they were searching further for their character. Also, they could act more naturally within the physical surroundings where we both rehearsed and filmed. They have a closer relation to the location, the props and the furniture because we were able to rehearse in existing rooms and adjust the script if something didn't work within the location.

Everything is more organic with Dogme than with ordinary filmmaking. And that makes it so good. There are fewer people in the crew and everyone has a closer relationship with the people they are working with.

What about the characters that you invented? Did you always want to create an ensemble of a number of people's stories and how they interconnect?

Yes, most of the Dogme films are ensemble films. and we've been asked whether this is something that logically developed out of Dogme. One Dogme rule is that you don't use traditional drama devices or genre: you can't have weapons, you can't have car chases, you can't have any sort of superficial action. So you seem to end up in a universe where things are sad and funny at the same time. And where the psychological material dominates.

The film has a level of emotional truthfulness about ordinary people's lives, even though things are nicely resolved at the end.

One reason may be that it was shot with one camera. There is more concentration on each shot and for the director it is easier to focus on one actor. This is very much a close-up film.

Another thing I think is important about maintaining quality even if the budget is low is deciding how much you want to shoot per day. In television you have to shoot maybe five or 10 pages and I sometimes like to do that, especially with comedy; otherwise it just gets too heavy for the actors. But on other occasions, I knew I needed to give the actors time to concentrate on shooting one or two scenes rather than three or four scenes. Because in Dogme when they laugh they really have to laugh and when they cry they really have to cry. So I only shot about three pages a day, which is the usual ratio for a high-budget feature film.

How many days shooting did you have for Italian for Beginners?

I think eight weeks. But it doesn't matter when the crew is so small. There is no set, no props, no make-up and no costumes, no composer, no art department. That decreases the budget immediately. But of course when films are shot under the Dogme label the audience will forgive you for things.

The shooting style gave it a documentary authenticity.

Yes, it is a rougher and more spontaneous style. If I'd shot the film in an ordinary way I would have had to tell the story more quietly; otherwise it would have been over the top - too sugar sweet and sentimental.

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, the film I did after that, has much stronger material, a much stronger conflict. If we'd shot that as a Dogme film, it would have been almost too intimidating; to study the faces of the actors with a handheld close-up would have been what is called 'emotional pornography'.

What about the visual treatment ideas that have emerged from Dogme?

The most inspiring thing, more than the cinematography, is the editing. The flexibility of the handheld camera is not as important as the stylistic impact of the editing. Editing can break the rules, change the rhythms, make more emotional cuts that work. The language of digital editing has changed film conventions.

As a director, what are the most important qualities you look for in making a film? Obviously, it changes film to film, but in general, what are you looking for in your story telling?

Something where I can contribute, a script where I feel I can really work with a good writer, good characters, a conflict important enough for me to spend two years on the story, and a combination of intelligence and humour. I'm a bit afraid of female characters - it's harder to portray women as it can get too close, too tense, too personal. I prefer making films about men. I am just fascinated by them. And if I show how much I like them, it's not self praise.

Italian for Beginners
DVD slick.

Italian for Beginners was a Dogme95 film.

Wilbur (Jamie Sives) & Alice (Shirley Henderson) in Lone Scherfig's latest film, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself.