Scherfig is a Berlinale habitué, having attended the A festival at five previous occasions, including in 2001 with her breakthrough Dogme film Italian for Beginners, Silver Bear winner. 

Her new English language ensemble drama The Kindness of Strangers is a modern tale focusing on a group of individuals who struggle in the Big Apple and long for comfort and love. We see a young mother Clara (Zoe Kazan) fleeing with her two kids from her abusing cop husband and who has to face life in the streets, the lonely ex-con Marc (Tahar Rahim), getting a fresh start at a Russian restaurant in the hands of the eccentric Timofey (Bill Nighy); Alice (Andrea Riseborough), an ER nurse an amateur therapist, and Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones) a young guy struggling to get a job and somewhere to belong. Their lives intertwine and loneliness and despair turn into friendship and even love. 

The Kindness of Strangers is produced by Malene Blenkov for Denmark’s Creative Alliance and Canada’s Strada Films, in co-production with Sweden’s Unlimited Stories, Germany’s Nadcon, France’s D’Artagnan, Film i Väst, Arte, with support among others from Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Hanway Films handles world sales. 

How does it feel to be back in Berlin where Italian for Beginners won a Silver Bear and to open the festival?
Lone Scherfig: I’m really happy because the film is serious enough to go to Berlin and entertaining enough to open Berlin. It couldn’t be better. When I looked at the other films that had opened the festival, I was even more proud. 

Would you say that The Kindness of Strangers has the most in common with Italian for Beginners, as a collage of individual stories that intertwine, with one central theme at the core….
Yes. The construction and emotion in both films are quite similar. Little by little, you get involved in people’s lives, dramas, but the synergy is a feeling of hope and warmth towards the characters. Each personal story as it develops turns into one bigger story. It’s really about the kindness of strangers, how people you don’t know can become your most important ally. 

I liked the idea of watching people and letting the characters find each other and getting to know each other when you, as an audience, get to know them. It’s not only about falling in love, how it feels to fall in love, but also how you fall into friendship, like the characters Clara [Zoe Kazan] and Alice [Andrea Riseborough] who become friends, or Bill Nighy’s character Timofey who is the boss to Marc [Tahar Rahim] and develops a father-son and boss/employee relationship with him. You get closer to how people find each other and fall for each other. The form and the content complement each other. 

The film deals with homelessness, mental and physical isolation, some of the major problems in New York and in the global metropolis. What enticed you to tackle this particular subject?
Yes I’m trying to tackle these major themes that we find not only in the US but in most countries. The characters are all pretty much alone with major problems. For instance, we see people who lose everything, or have to escape an abusing husband, or in Clara’s case, a woman who cannot cope with her job anymore. But the feeling I hope you get is one of warmth, hope in people who are there for each other, the feeling that caring does exist and is part of us. 

Many of your films have a light touch and humour although they deal with urgent topics. Do you feel humour is one of the best ways to reach people’s hearts and minds?
It’s not necessarily the best way, but it is a way. Some of the films I love have no humour at all! But for me, it’s a way to come closer to serious material without feeling too pretentious, plus I simply love to laugh. If there is humour in the air in the script or on the set, I often go with it. It’s a lovely tonality. 

Did you have the actors in mind when writing the script, and how much space did you give them to build their characters?
The only actor I kind of tailor-made a scene for was Bill Nighy. When I knew he was interested in doing a film again with me [after Their Finest], he influenced the way I developed his part without being in the room!

With the other actors, I did listen to them a lot. They are younger than I had initially imagined. The male actors of course know things that I had no chance of knowing. Tahar has a very masculine approach to his role and he contributed a lot to removing some of the sentimentality out of the script and his background, different than mine, brought enormously to the script. 

Caleb Landry Jones and Jay Baruchel have a knowledge of the USA that I obviously don’t have. Caleb for instance is originally a country boy, au authentic cowboy. Instead of having them adjust to my script, I just let them build their characters and wanted more variety than I could bring. I let them own their part in a certain way. It’s easier doing that when I’m the only writer. When I share the writing credit, I feel I have to defend my co-writer and I’m therefore less open to changes to the script. 

Do you have Scandi actors in the cast?
Yes I have Esben Smed, David Dencik and Nikolaj Kopernikus among others. I intentionally created a very international cast with French, Canadian, British, Danish, American, Swedish actors, but in terms of voice and tonality, they all belong to the same film. This is what I should do as a director: make sure they shine individually but that they all play in the same voice so to speak. 

How does it feel to be back to your roots, with a film partly produced in Denmark, with support from Nordic partners?
Yes, it’s a Danish/Canadian film, a hybrid European/North American production. It’s fantastic to have all the Nordic film institutes as a back-up. It allows me to use the European film language, my tradition as background. That’s the only difference. 

What’s next?
I do have a new project but can’t mention it until we have the contracts in place.