Finding Love, Death in "Wilbur"

Lone Scherfig goes black-funny-Scots with a failed-suicide tale

TORONTO--Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is a dark romantic comedy with a distinctly Scottish accent, but it was originally supposed to be shot in Denmark. In Danish.

Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) finished the script and discovered she had a problem. "We couldn't get the actors I wanted in Denmark and there are not that many to choose from, and I thought we should go to the top shelf in another country."

Scherfig decided to take her story--about a single mother torn between two brothers--to Glasgow. She cast a mix of Scottish and Danish actors for the film, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (June 11), but the three leads are all Scottish. Adrian Rawlins, who plays Harbour, the incurable optimist, had also appeared in the 1996 Danish film Breaking the Waves. Veteran TV actor Jamie Sives is the unsuccessful suicide of the title. And Shirley Henderson, whose credits range from Trainspotting to Moaning Myrtle in the second Harry Potter movie, is single mom Alice. "Shirley is a national treasure in Scotland," Scherfig says. "She's in everything. They say now that she is in your holiday snaps."

According to Scherfig, the shift in geography made the story more powerful because Scotland doesn't enjoy the same type of social safety net as Denmark. "The characters have more at stake because they are in Scotland. They have more to lose."

Although Scherfig speaks fluent English when we meet on the patio of the InterContinental Hotel to discuss her film's North American premiere at last September's 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, she'd never worked in the language before making Wilbur. "It was not as hard as people have tried to tell me because the actors are so good and I'm not the one who has to talk," she says, punctuating her comments with the first of many laughs. "Directing is not about talking; it's about timing, it's about listening and about knowing when not to say things....So I think the actors were very tolerant, and I'd be happy to do it again. There are many good films in English that were made by foreigners."

The biggest language challenges were in the translation. Instead of hiring a Scottish writer to make it more colloquial, Scherfig and cowriter Anders Thomas Jensen (Mifune) decided to go with a fairly literal translation and give the actors free rein to make the dialogue sound more natural. But the Scottish performers were so respectful of the words that they had to be prodded to improvise. "They are very humble compared to Danish and American actors because they come from a different acting tradition; the British acting tradition is more technical and less emotional. And they trust the text much more than I'm used to, because they have the best drama ever written in English. So they would always think that if there's something in the text that sounds wrong or they can't understand it, it's because they are not good enough. But in this case it would just be bad translation or even bad writing. So it took them a while to actually do what I asked them to, which was to come up with suggestions for improvements."

After having made 2000's Italian for Beginners--a low-key romantic comedy about loneliness--Scherfig says she wanted to try something heavier next, which is how she ended up writing about love and death. "I thought it was about time to realize that I ought to dare be more serious and dare take people's worries more seriously, and also trust that if I want to be funny, I can. That I can make people laugh. And since I can make people laugh, that gives me the ticket to also try to make people cry or vice versa. And so the next logical step was just to move closer to why are we here, what is life all about, what makes life worth living. It's very, very pretentious, isn't it?"

Scherfig laughs again. "But the film is not so pretentious."

Italian for Beginners followed Denmark's Dogme school of filmmaking, a low-budget aesthetic that requires everything to be shot with a handheld camera, using real locations, natural sound, and natural light. Although Scherfig loved the challenge, she was delighted to have all of the usual tools of a director back at her disposal for her latest film. "It was nice that we could shoot Wilbur with the best possible equipment and with beautiful sets and the London Philharmonic and everything." One decidedly un-Dogmetic aspect of Wilbur is that even though it looks like everything was shot in Glasgow, a lot of the interior scenes were actually done back in Denmark.

"I did enjoy Dogme a lot, though. It made me a stronger director and gave me a lot of self-confidence. And it gave me the ability not to be a perfectionist but just relax," Scherfig says. "Things get better if you're not too stressed about them."