Lone Scherfig is a busy woman. At the moment, she’s preparing for an evening’s reunion with the cast of her incendiary new film, The Riot Club (if you don’t know anything about this, then you’ve either been living under an Oxford-repelling rock all summer, or you’ve been tactfully avoiding reading any of my excited articles – I’ll stop soon, I promise). Following last week’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, they’re regrouping at BFI’s official London screening tonight, before the UK’s general release on Friday. Intermittently, with this project pretty much wrapped, Lone has been working in the States; meanwhile her cast members have moved on to their next films (something about the Hunger Games for one, something with the Wachowskis, of Matrix fame, for another…)
But, in the last few days, press coverage for The Riot Club has exploded, so Lone’s phone is very busy. I’m lucky enough to be one of the few people who can get on the other end of the line – she’s kindly agreed to an interview about the project, and when Universal connects us (promptly on time, making me feel bad, in retrospect, for over-enthusiastically keeping her from her next interrogation for an extra eight minutes – sorry, guys!), she’s warm, friendly, and very keen to get something straight from the off: “I hope you understand how much we [everyone working on The Riot Club] all love and admire Oxford – there’s no criticism of Oxford in the film!”
Having already seen the film at the press screening, and having personally come to the conclusion that the film makes a big point of distancing its disillusioned and disliked fictional characters from the rest of the Oxford population, I tell her not to worry about this. It shouldn’t hang over anybody’s heads – film crew, cast, or students – as to whether the Riot Boys (the vaguely Bullingdonesque gang of overprivileged hooligans keeping themselves away from, and above, the rest of the student population; and the exclusive secret dining club into which protagonist Miles [Max Irons] and antagonist Alistair [Sam Claflin] are inducted) represent us. It’s made very clear that they don’t; the film hinges on the schism between “us” and “them”. As Douglas Booth’s character Harry Villiers distinguishes, “we’re at the top university in the world; and so are twenty thousand other people – but there are only ten in the Riot Club”. The boys aren’t real, but if they were, most of us wouldn’t know them – or if we did, wouldn’t recognise the authority they think they have. And therein lies the film.
Still, with billboard and bus posters amplifying the bristly, entitled arrogance of the characters played by Claflin and Booth, and the film trailer snapping briskly to scenic shots of Broad Street, spirally college turrets, and the Bod, it generated enough speculation before it even hit the press; so Lone’s nerves are understandable. Now that the film has premiered in Toronto, what does she think about reactions to it so far – has she been pleased?
“I was quite relieved with The Guardian,” she tells me (The Guardian saw the film in Toronto, ahead of the UK press release), “because I know that some of the journalists and film critics [in the UK] will have gone to Oxford and Cambridge, and will love that world, and will want to protect it – for their own good reasons,” she adds, thoughtfully. “They’d know whether we were getting it right or not, and I knew we were running a risk of criticism. Britain can be be very critical; it’s almost an art form to do well-written criticism!”
She laughs here, benign: I get the impression Lone’s attitude towards film is an inherently discursive one – that she’d rather a film were controversial if it ignited discussion, than play it safe and remain a closed book. “I’m so relieved that they saw the nuance in the film, and the attempts at doing something that was cinematic and complex.” And what of non-UK audiences and critics? “In Toronto it had good reviews from the main trade papers – it was great to see that [even though] it was looking at class issues, it could be shown in a completely different context [abroad] and to those with a completely different perspective, and still resonate.”
Evidently, films and other art forms which look at political and social motifs resonate hugely outside of the systems they use as their backdrop; the popularity of The Riot Club abroad, before it’s even hit home shores, testifies to this. And fair play to it: it may occupy a space uneasy to stomach for the politicians whose own past seems to converge (or diverge, as some keep stressing) with the plot line, but Lone – who isn’t a British national, and didn’t grow up within the British political system, despite a body of work whose most prolific output is in English language films such as the Oscar-nominated An Education – has a seasoned outlook on the synthetic nature of filmmaking: she is hugely aware of its unreality, and wants her audience to know that too. I ask her about what she thinks of the pervading perception that the film is anti-elitist and propagandist.
“Well, no matter what, I do feel an obligation to get to know that world [where I set a film] and share it with an audience who doesn’t know it either,” she concedes; “I think because it’s not my own world, I have no false sense of security. I really need to make an effort to get things right – to know what it is when you differ from reality. You must know you are doing just that.” She continues: “It’s based on a play,” (Laura Wade’s Posh, a sensational hit at the Royal Court and the Duke of York’s), “so it’s already very much in a reality of its own. Laura created a play with its own world, with its own language, traditions from that club, names, backgrounds – it’s all a created world, but it looks like a real world, and of course you shoot it in a real world, so you have to find a way to get that balance right.”
That real world she’s talking about, at least regarding The Riot Club, is, of course, Oxford University. Anticipating some sensitivities Oxford students might have about the way the film represents them, Lone’s immediate gesture is to assure me that the film has never been about damning the university. And, when you watch it, you realise that it really isn’t; in fact, there’s a celebration in there of the odd, uniquely cerebral culture we’re so accustomed to, simmering away under the surface of her strange cast of characters, whose self-imposed exile from their more ordinary student counterparts is written into their comic in-group discussion. “We are all in complete awe of Oxford, for very good reasons!” she chimes, speaking for herself and the rest of the film’s cast and team. “The more you research that place, the more you understand how incredibly valuable it is. And we also hope to show it; when you see a glimpse of a tutorial – we hope to show that these boys are very isolated from the Oxford world.”
I mention the way she’s caught the unique dynamic of freshers’ week and that first Michaelmas at Oxford, when people from all kinds of backgrounds are melted together for the first time; how the dialogue seems a very exclusive (but entirely authentic) representation of the uncertain way new Oxford students communicate with one another. “Well, we have a character who has both feet on the ground, who shows the audience that the rest of Oxford just isn’t like that,” she explains. She means Lauren (played by Holliday Grainger), the “bootstrappy northerner” whose meritocratic attendance at the university is unfathomable to some of the more pretentious members of the club, including Claflin’s Alistair. “She helps to show how the boys isolate themselves,” Lone tells me. “And I think Miles [Max Irons’s character, who initially falls for Lauren] shows that dilemma very well. He’s seduced by the club, and all that fun that they have, that’s on one side; and then, on the other, he hears Lauren saying, “these people are not your friends, are you sure you want to do this?”, and he’s saying, “it’s an honour to be asked.” He’s young, he’s naive, he’s not sure what he thinks and feels, and I think that’s quite common. It goes for if you were a member of a street gang as well; so in that sense, I hope the film is about more than what you see – but not about Oxford.” She pauses, before musing, “And that’s the thing – no matter what group or tribe you’re in, you can always leave.”
The tribe she’s talking about build themselves into their own exclusive world the way any group does – via a shared style of communication. A side-note to freshers here, too: ignore the film reviewers ranting about how the language is unrepresentative of the way “Oxford people” talk – of course it is, because Laura Wade (who adapted her own play for the screen) has invented the discourse herself, but I promise that you likely will here some wonderfully wacky coinages when you first get here. At first, the tongue-twisty, verbose nature of the Riot Boys’ dialogue might seem hilarious, parodic even (“oh my wow” should be on t-shirt fronts); but crafting an endearingly exclusive speech pattern is one of the hardest tasks a writer can give themselves, particularly because it invites the audience’s ears to expect harmony – harmony then shattered by the disturbingly violent turn that the group’s behaviour takes. I ask Lone how difficult it was to translate that onto the screen. “I’m thinking it’s a good thing if people see how Oxford isn’t really like that,” she laughs. “But as a film director, you do what you can to make sure that the tone and the heart, and the original thinking of the script, survive the film machine, because I really loved the original script – if I didn’t like the script, I wouldn’t have directed it! So I wanted to add a cinematic layer: to get the best out of the actors, and make it visual, and make the soundtrack work – but the core is basically the script.” And she is full of high praise for Wade: “Laura knows the script and her own characters better than anyone, so I always trusted that she knew best. And maybe it’s because I’m a writer myself that I can appreciate her writing so much. I don’t feel the need to take over.”
The conversation turns to the way The Riot Club fits within the rest of Lone’s body of work; specifically, to how it situates itself next to her last film, 2011’s One Day, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. Initially, the films couldn’t seem more different on the surface: The Riot Club with its core cast of ten unruly young, privileged men, and One Day‘s heartbreaking twenty years’ will-they-won’t-they romantic friendship. But actually, One Day plays with our expectations: having led us to believe it’s a two-person show, a tragic twist reveals it has, in fact, been a bildungsroman for Dexter (Jim Sturgess’s character) all along. Manipulating our perception of who is in charge of the screen is something The Riot Club also does, but on a larger – and considerably more sinister – scale. Does Lone draw many parallels between the films?
“It’s tricky, because sometimes if you want the audience to feel more fulfilled, you come up with an ending that is more predictable; in the case of One Day – which also has a class conflict – in turning it into Dexter’s story, it became more acceptable that he loses Emma. He is posh, too – but also insensitive, spoilt, immature in the beginning, and then over time, because he meets Emma at university, he becomes a really wonderful man twenty years later. Tracking that development through the film, it was more shocking but it made more sense – the audience can understand that Emma died for a reason. But in The Riot Club, I think if the film had finished more in harmony, saying “ok, there are problems but we know what the solution is”, then it would have treated the audience at a different level. It is more important to ask questions than pretend everything is going to be ok. It’s a choice: do we have a Hollywood ending – where the good guy wins and the villains are punished – or go for something more complex? We discussed it a lot, and we went for the more surprising version.”
It’s interesting to mention the “Hollywood ending”, because Lone’s film, like so many of her others, avoids the high-gloss Hollywood veneer across multiple dimensions. I’ve always thought Lone’s filmmaking style is beautiful, if decidedly anti-L.A. School, and in the case of The Riot Club (helped immensely, no doubt, by the diffusive cinematography of collaborating Director of Photography, Sebastian Blenkov) it is aesthetically meticulous: particularly with regards to tiny details, especially in the case of the film’s costume department, helmed by Steven Noble. I reference a few key moments: two near-identical fine grey jumpers on Miles and Alistair in the closing sequence, the final shot where Sam Claflin replaces his glove, and perhaps most effectively, the gradual disintegration of the costumes throughout the dining room sequence. How much work goes into creating shots like that?
“They are amazingly good at what they do!” Lone enthuses warmly. “We talk a lot in the beginning, but from then on in, you let people do their work, because they can do it so much better than I can! There were a lot of actors to direct, so I surrounded myself with a lot of people I trust, who know what they’re doing. It was incredibly helpful the way the costumes deteriorated, because when actors come in, they don’t shoot things in script order, so having the makeup and costume [specifically altered every time] helps the actors find the character’s stage in their dramatic life at that point – Steven and his team did a really great job.”
And speaking of actors – the cast is huge, yet the roles are still well-developed: did they work into their roles having already been supplied with how to act them, or did they construct them as they went? “The latter,” Lone confirms at once. “They all came from different backgrounds – different acting schools, some had no background in education, one is American, one is Australian… So I would help them find the characters in different ways, because that’s my job as director; but they were fantastic – when it came to creating the atmosphere, they enjoyed each other and they trusted each other, and they let each other take the lead. It gives you a chance to see things for the first time, things that you would only see in that one take, and I think that makes it convincing: you see that they’re not copying anything – you see that it’s original.”
One of the film’s biggest achievements is the way that the soundtrack aligns with some of the key moments in the film; I ask Lone whether the percussive edge, which really drives some of the scenes, was intentionally so powerful. “Well, the composer was originally a drummer,” she tells me. “He started out as a drummer before he completed his classical conservatoire education. We felt that these drums had a very tribal element to them, it really suited the film – primarily it’s in the initiation scenes, where it kind of adds to the suspense and fun and energy of it.”
Without giving too much away, the film is hilarious and gut-wrenching in equal measures: there’s a pivotal moment so sickeningly brutal, everyone at the professional press screening winced in tandem. Was it difficult for Lone, who has never tackled violence in her films before, to direct it – and bring that side out of actor Sam Claflin, who also hadn’t taken on anything quite so violent before this? “Well, it is choreographed of course, because you can’t really do that to a person – but I wanted it to be violent; because otherwise, it would have lost its politics,” she tells me. “They don’t do anything you don’t see in a lot of other films, but they do it in a different genre. And that’s why people are shocked. I’ve had to see that scene more times than anybody, and I still think it’s frightening. But you hear things that are as bad, and it had to be something as bad or worse than something happening in every second pub in Belfast on a Saturday night.”
Which, oddly enough, echoes my first piece of coverage for The Oxford Student regarding this film – the reinterpretation of the gang film genre, taking a time-tried mainstay of cinema and refreshing it from the perspective of a new social world. Obviously people are quite shocked, decrying the film – which begins, seductively, with humour – for its turn to violence as though it’s some kind of political move. But does Lone think that people should start readdressing the way that they look at films – not fearing them, or inflecting them out exclusively into politics, but taking a more all-encompassing approach instead? She thinks about this for a moment.
“I mean, for me it’s just a privilege to be able to make films that you can’t label more easily,” she decides. “If you work on a bigger scale, in the American studio system, you have to do something that sticks to the genre you’re shooting in. But in Britain, you can do something different, which I really appreciate.”
On that note, we have to wrap – some unfortunate interviewer has been left waiting thanks to my overeager questioning, and poor Lucy from Universal has to gently remind me to look at the clock. But, unsurprisingly, Lone is incredibly kind about my enthusiasm, and we finish with a light discussion about my time at Oxford. It’s clear Lone holds the university in high regard, just as it’s clear her considered, self-deprecating way of talking masks the meticulous, anthropological filmmaking gaze that makes her a modern-day cinematic maestro. Having been privileged with her conversation, I thank her for her time, and wish her a nice evening with her Riot Boys. After all, they ought to know how to party by now; and having worked on such an ambitious project together, I can think of nothing more fitting for them than spending it with the real leader of their pack.
The Riot Club is released Friday 19th September.
All images courtesy of UMI.