There’s a general impression of the British film industry that if we’re not producing cockney gangster flicks or sweeping romantic period pieces then we’re working on a yet another quirky rom-com. In the affluent suburb of Acton in London, RT has come to the set of An Education, a film that dares to be different. While the script bursts with humour, this is a film that’s decidedly deeper than the usual Richard Curtis fare, daring to explore topics as controversial today as they’ve ever been and to challenge preconceptions about the journey out of adolescence.
It’s no surprise to learn that it comes from the pen of one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary novelists, Nick Hornby. Like High Fidelity, About a Boy and Fever Pitch, An Education sings with a certain tone unique to Hornby’s material and is populated with interesting, real and engaging characters. It’s no wonder Variety had it on their list of the best unproduced British screenplays in 2007.
Set in the early 60s, the film tells the tale of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a sharp 16-year-old with sights set on entry to Oxford at the encouragement of her father Jack (Alfred Molina). She meets a handsome older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard), whose position on the social ladder and passion for high-class enjoyment enraptures both her and her parents and is the catalyst for a budding romance.
The story is based on a piece of memoir written by Observer journalist Lynn Barber about her experiences growing up. “I was fascinated to read the story initially just because Lynn Barber usually writes about other people, not autobiographically,” Hornby explains. “I finished it and said to Amanda, ‘I think there’s a film in this.'”
Producer Amanda Posey, Hornby’s wife, brought the story to Finola Dwyer, and the pair started to seek writers for the project. Ultimately they came back to Hornby, who signed on to write his first screenplay not adapted from his own work. With Danish director Lone Scherfig at the helm, and with Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper and Emma Thompson rounding off the cast list, An Education began production in mid-March.
For the film’s Jenny, 22 year-old Carey Mulligan, whose previous experience includes roles as Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright‘s 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, and Ada Clare in the BBC’s adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House, An Education is an opportunity to showcase her talent and clear propensity for strong material. “The script is brilliant and so funny,” she tells RT, “I hadn’t realised how funny until the read-through, because there are bits that come out in the reading of it. Nick writes such wonderful female characters. Jenny is so well written and so specifically 16 in the 60s and it’s so much fun to play.”
Today, as the production films a variety of shots outside a period school building that’ll be slotted throughout the film, the crew are battling against the British weather, as film crews are wont to do in this country. But rather than waiting for gaps in the rain, they’re waiting for clouds to move over the sun and have watered down everything in shot. Just when you want rain, and dull, grey skies, Britain decides to let the sun shine.
It’s a far cry from the Dogme ’95 roots of director Scherfig who’s used to strict rules against artificiality in filmmaking, but she’s clearly enjoying herself and seems to have set a standard on set for calm that’s making our visit a much more pleasurable one than we’re used to from the usual bustle of a film set. Faith in the material seems to have inspired everyone here to relax and enjoy their work.
“It’s much easier to shoot a good script than a not-so-good script,” says Scherfig when she takes a break to speak to RT. “It makes my work a lot easier, that Nick has been so thorough and detailed and psychologically sensitive. It has much depth and much detail and humour and it’s quite moving. I feel comfortable in this kind of genre, even if I’m not English and it’s a very English world the film takes place in.”
Sarsgaard, who’s tackling an impressive and specifically dated British accent for the film and sticks with it as he sits down with RT, was won over by the secrets David keeps. “It’s the oldest cheat in the world,” he laughs, “especially if the audience learns that I have a secret. It makes me seem rather deep even if I’m rather shallow! It at least gives me two dimensions! Being an American playing a British person who is pretending to be another person, I mean, I’m already doing it. I’m doing it the moment I start speaking. It’s such an easy role, in the greatest sense of that word. Sometimes I go home and I wonder if I’m doing a good job because it doesn’t feel difficult.”
Like the rest of the script, the period setting strives to set itself apart from most depictions of life in 60s Britain. This is not the primary-coloured pop-art age of partying as parodied in the likes of Austin Powers. “It’s a clash of two eras,” explains Scherfig, “It’s more the very early elements that we sneak in here and there of a period that is going to explode the way Jenny’s adult life will develop.”
David, and his two friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike), represent what’s to come. “They represent the fun and freedom Jenny will experience. It’s pre-Beatles first album and pre-psychedelia, but there’s a little touch of those things here and there. In the music as well – as you know Nick Hornby is very music-conscious and there are a lot of musical cues in the script.”
“Come 1964, 1965,” adds Sarsgaard, “I think they’ll find they’ll fit right in! You can picture them on the Isle of Wight listening to Jimi Hendrix a few years after the film is set.”
From schoolgirl to woman, the time Jenny spends with David, Danny and Helen shapes her path into adulthood and towards that environment. Of course, on set they’ve been shooting out of order. “In the last two weeks we’ve been shooting everything with Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper, all the stuff in which Jenny goes through her transformation,” says Mulligan. “And now we’re back shooting the school days stuff. I’m back in school uniform and weirdly the crew have started talking to me differently! I’m 22, but I feel 16!”
As passionate as everyone is about the material – even if they are treating Mulligan like a teenager in the process – for Hornby, simply getting as far as assembling of a crew of people to make the film is a pleasure. “Everything’s a long shot when you’re writing a screenplay,” he says. “At this stage of my career, if I write a novel to the best of my ability I would say there’s a 100% chance of it being published. But if I write a screenplay to the best of my ability I would say there’s a 10% chance of the film being made. That’s an enormous difference in terms of your own psychology and your ability to get yourself up for each draft!”
Still, Hornby’s novels usually arrive mostly fully-formed after the first draft, he says, and the extra time to refine the screenplay has proved invaluable. Mulligan has followed the changes. “I read the first draft in November 2006 and it has changed so much since then,” she says. “And I got the part in September last year and it’s changed even from then. It’s been such a long time coming that it feels surreal we’re doing it!”
An Education is released next year and we’ll have more on the film, including full interviews with Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina, Nick Hornby and more closer to the time. You can find more exclusive images from the set of An Education right here.