Director Lone Scherfig reflects upon ‘One Day’

Laerke Posselt/Courtesy

Bestselling novels with dedicated fan bases can be notoriously difficult to adapt into films and runaway British hit “One Day” by David Nicholls is no exception. Months ago, when the details of its film adaptation were released, the blogosphere lit up with the impassioned criticism of diehard British fans who balked at the selection of Danish director Lone Scherfig and the casting of Anne Hathaway as working-class British darling Emma Morley.

But you wouldn’t be able to tell that there’s any backlash by talking to the charming and warm Scherfig. A fellow fan of the novel herself, Scherfig signed onto the film after falling in love with the story.  “I had to go on a trip, and I took the book along, and just stayed up all night until I finished it. It’s a very lovely and a very loved book now, particularly in the UK,” she said.

Dexter Mayhew (Jim Sturgess) and Emma Morley (Hathaway) meet on July 15, 1988, the night of their graduation from university.  They are complete opposites — Dexter, a wealthy playboy and Emma, an intelligent idealist. The two initially decide to become friends instead of getting romantically involved, and decide to keep in touch.

Hathaway immediately felt a connection to the sarcastic and witty Morley and campaigned heavily for the role. Despite her initial skepticism about casting an American in a distinctly British role, Scherfig was ultimately persuaded by Hathaway’s passion. “Anne’s a sensual, intelligent actress who warms the whole film up in a way that I can’t imagine someone else having done,” she said. Also, Scherfig was comforted by the fact that Hathaway had played Jane Austen in “Becoming Jane” and already had experience playing a classically British role.

Scherfig urges purists to remain open-minded, drawing comparisons to Renee Zellweger’s brilliant portrayal of the hapless and unmistakably British Bridget Jones. “We talked about Bridget Jones one time after another. People couldn’t see that, but once they saw the film, it was good,“ said Scherfig.

Scherfig might be Danish by birth, but she’s certainly no stranger to British cinema. “One Day” marks her third film to be set in Britain. Thus for Scherfig, the challenge with “One Day” was not in fact capturing British life, as many suspected, but instead accommodating the unusual stylistic constraints of the novel. As its title would suggest, “One Day” only features one day each year, creating a sort of amalgamation of different events over the course of twenty years. “The hard part was to make all of this work become one organism. We had to make sure that the film is not just one big mess, but that you actually can feel that there is sort of a cinematic voice that controls all of it,” she said. In order to make  it flow as a film, Scherfig claims that she really had to step up and take over as a director, admittedly at times straying from the novel.

Subtlety was key to Scherfig, who didn’t want to let the style overpower what she considers to be a true love story. “One Day” puts Dexter and Emma’s love story center stage, avoiding the usual distractions of embarrassing ’80s trends and tacky clichés. Comedies might be allowed to ham up the theatrics, but love stories, or at least good ones, have an obligation to stay honest. “When you see a romantic comedy, love is sort of the reason to have a lot of fun with the plot and the characters, but here the love is not a dramatic engine. It’s the soul of the film. It’s treated in a different way — I hope.”