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The Weight of a Novel: One Day

As a follow-up to her brilliant An Education, Danish director Lone Scherfig tackles the adaptation of a beloved British novel. Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess star as Emma and Dexter.

One Day: Lone Scherfig
Giles Keyte / Focus Features


Millions of readers have turned David Nicholls’ romantic novel One Day into an international bestseller, published in 31 countries. Director Lone Scherfig (An Education) has taken Nicholls’ screenplay adaptation to the big screen, with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess (The Way Back, Across the Universe) in the lead roles. Rounding out the cast are Patricia Clarkson, Romala Garai, and Rafe Spall, each in memorable cameos.


One Day traces the lives of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew over the course of two decades, starting on the day of their college graduation in Edinburgh in midsummer 1988. We then check back in with the pair every July 15 (thus the title)—the date becomes the lens through which we learn about their ups, downs, careers and relationships. Will they ever find the right time to take their friendship to the next level?


From its inception, the sprawling, tender novel seemed tailor-made for a cinematic adaptation, and the result on screen is an intimate portrait of a lifelong relationship. We sat down with Scherfig last week to talk to her about the intimidating weight of such a beloved book, and her casting of an American (gasp!) in such a suddenly iconic British role. She is hopeful that audiences will take to the story in its new incarnation.


One Day: Lone Scherfig
Lone Scherfig: Giles Keyte / Focus Features

Tribeca: What do you think are the ingredients of a good love story? And did you see those elements in the story of Emma and Dex?


Lone Scherfig: I think you have to like the characters, and to want them to find each other, but you also have to be able to relate to their story. There has to be more than just a love story.


Tribeca: What attracted you to Emma and Dex’s story?


Lone Scherfig: I was very moved, and I liked the characters, humor and dialogue very much. I thought the idea of doing all the time jumps was a great technical challenge. I’ve been asked by people why I didn’t go for a full-blown tragedy—do something that was more heart-breaking. But in a way, this is one.


One Day: Lone Scherfig
Giles Keyte / Focus Features

Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about the challenges of subtly aging someone over 20 years, as opposed to a drastic flash forward?

Lone Scherfig:
There’s something really rewarding about making it happen without making it too obvious. One rule that I’ve set up for myself is that it could be a little more in-your-face when the scenes had more comedy. But if it was an emotional sequence, it had to be toned down. Also, there were so many time jumps that if you don’t tone it down, it would be too domineering, and it wouldn’t be as light as I wanted it to be.


You sort of bring in all your different tools—sometimes it’s the music that does the transition, sometimes it’s the dissolve, sometimes it’s the close-up—it has to not be too systematic or full of itself. I prefer as a director to step back and not make the craft too visible. It’s also hard to make something period when it’s only five years ago.


And of course, it’s helped a lot by the art department, and the costumes and makeup. A lot of people on this film were at a point in their career where they were experienced enough to know what they are doing—the makeup was very hard on this film—but also not old enough to not be able to, or want to, experiment. So it’s people who really know what they are capable of, but still are willing to play around.


One Day: Lone Scherfig
Giles Keyte / Focus Features

Tribeca: And you had actors willing to go there! Anne really deglams her Hollywood self, especially in the Mexican restaurant scenes. And Jim Sturgess looks bloated at times. Were they gung-ho with the whole thing?


Lone Scherfig: Yes! I don’t think there are any of these looks that they are not happy with. And I’m easy—I wouldn’t have forced them to wear something in which they did not feel comfortable, or where it becomes about the costume. It’s not the kind of film where you want to prioritize perfectionism over it feeling “alive.”


Tribeca: What do you think makes Emma and Dexter so universal? One Day has been published in 31 countries. Do you think men everywhere take longer to mature than women?

Lone Scherfig:
Some do. But in a way, Dexter undergoes a much bigger drama[tic arc], and he has much more to fight against. You just take for granted that because he’s more financially privileged that his life is so much easier than hers, but it isn’t. Because Dexter is not talented. Emma is; she knows what she wants. It’s a little bit like when Carson McCullers writes about the lover and the beloved: she knows what she wants, and she just has to fight for it. And of course, it’s a big thing to fight, especially in the British classes, for Emma to get where she goes. Dexter is just the apple of everyone’s eye, but he does not have many skills. So he’s a much more tragic character, in a way. I don’t know if people see that.


The reason why you love these characters is probably because they are flawed, and that David’s writing is very witty and very specific—you’re just in good company, with David and Emma and Dexter.


One Day: Lone Scherfig
Giles Keyte / Focus Features

Tribeca: Did you read the book first?


Lone Scherfig: No, I read the script first. But they are quite alike. I think when a film is different than the book, it then becomes about imagery. When you read the book and the script side by side—of course, there is more in the book, and there’s a little bit in the script that’s not in the book—but generally, that’s when you decide that [gestures] this sofa is red. And when you read it, it was blue, and when someone else read it, it was green. Film is so specific, but film also has a strong relation to time that literature doesn’t, and that makes the material itself very fit for film.


One Day: Lone Scherfig
Giles Keyte / Focus Features

Tribeca: Did you have any input into what was added and left out? Or did it come fully formed from David in the script?


Lone Scherfig: No, he did a couple of drafts. He kept working on it during the shoot—for practical, logistic reasons, but also, sometimes, there would be one or two lines from the book that we missed, or that one of the actors asked, “Can I please bring that back in?” There were also things where it was obvious, when we started shooting, that it wasn’t necessary, or that there just wasn’t room for it.


Tribeca: Did you feel the weight of such a beloved book?


Lone Scherfig: Yes! I still do. And the more successful the book was, and is, the higher the expectations are. And the [bigger the possibility] you will ruin people’s personal experience with the book! [smiles] And I just hope that people will forgive, and then hopefully take pleasure in the things that are different, and I hope that they are different in a good way.


One Day: Lone Scherfig One Day: Lone Scherfig
Giles Keyte / Focus Features

Tribeca: Did you have any reservations about having an American, Anne Hathaway, tackle such a now-iconic British role? (And Patricia Clarkson too.)


Lone Scherfig: Well, I think Anne being the very special actress that she is—she is very, very warm, and very smart, and very experienced for her age—it’s hard to find someone of that caliber. There are very few. I think we could have easily found a very good British actress who could have played Emma, and maybe interpreted her more accurately, but I think Anne lends something to the film that I really liked: it’s definitely Anne Hathaway’s Emma, and not just Emma Morley that you see. Anne’s Emma is darker; she’s more erotic. And she’s also probably more together than Emma ever was—more like a fully grown woman than Emma [in the book].


But probably that decision is different for me, because I’m not English. I think the best person should get the part—they are actors. Someone who plays Ivanhoe may not ever been on a horse before. It’s acting! And all the other people are acting too—putting on dialects, or putting on weight, or putting on costumes, doing different things to approach the character. But dialects are just a very sensitive thing.


One Day: Lone Scherfig
Giles Keyte / Focus Features

Tribeca: What can you tell us about Jim Sturgess as Dexter?


Lone Scherfig: What I really like is that Jim didn’t defend Dexter all the time. He wasn’t afraid of just going all the way with Dexter’s arrogance and superficiality. Jim, obviously, knows more about being a drop-dead, gorgeous, sexy star than any of us! [laughs] And I like that he didn’t play it safe, and that he knew that he could take big detours with Dexter, because he was going to land on both legs. I thought that was brave. He’s so modest; he always pretends like he almost wasn’t there at all, that acting is just something he does because someone says, “Action!” but he’s always so prepared.

Tribeca: Do you know any real-life Emma-and-Dexter stories?


Lone Scherfig: Yes. [laughs]


Tribeca: Do you have your own Dexter?


Lone Scherfig: Well, I’m married to someone I have known since I was 14. And I also had my young years, and my year in Paris… I think Emma is very easy to identify with for a lot of women, and I’m one of them.


One Day opens Friday, August 19. Find tickets.


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