The Final Scene

Writer-director Lone Scherfig spotlights the closing moment of her latest film, The Kindness of Strangers, and the two special actors in it.

Outside festival screening rooms, in corridors that are sometimes at a rundown school, or an art house cinema, or sometimes even at a former opera house, I often stand and wait for the ending of the film I’ve directed. I can hear the film and the audience behind the door. I am about to give the As in the Q&A.

The final scene of my latest movie, The Kindness of Strangers, is a low-key comedic interaction between Bill Nighy and Caleb Landry Jones, two of the world’s finest actors. Bill is very British, shy and elegant, modest and underplayed. Caleb is from Texas, a method actor who is completely absorbed in his role, wild and unpredictable, religious. I still don’t know if I’ve ever truly met Caleb, or just a hybrid of him and his character, but I was overwhelmed with emotion and respect the second he walked in the door. The only time he and Bill acted alone together in The Kindness of Strangers was for that last scene. I looked forward to shooting it for weeks. The experience of watching them try out the dialogue, begin to trust one another, fall for each other’s sense of humor, and together add substance and detail to the scene, was as blissful as I had hoped it would be. I asked Caleb and Bill to do just one or two rehearsals and interfered very little, as I did not want to complicate things or leave a sticky director’s fingerprint on their filigree work.

The last time I was in one of those corridors, it was in Gothenburg, Sweden, and I was listening to Caleb in the scene. His character, Jeff, is carefully carrying the film’s most expensive prop – a Bulgarian bass balalaika the size of a giant stingray – through the entrance to the restaurant where he’s the new doorman. The balalaika has Bill Nighy’s birth year hand-painted on it: 1949. I remembered that, unlike his character Jeff, Caleb could actually play the balalaika. Caleb’s mother is a music teacher and he seemingly can pick up any instrument, claiming he can’t play, then somehow be able to play it 10 minutes later. Fairies stumbled over his Texan crib when he was born, spilling many talents all over him. When Caleb and Bill met, Bill sensed this – and Caleb’s fragile, sensitive kindness – after two minutes.

Bill’s lines in this last scene are dry and disengaged, but in my corridor, I hear people laughing at the exact moments I’d hoped they would. Bill’s character, the restaurant owner, doesn’t interact with other human beings if he can avoid it. He just wants to get back to his book. Like Bill, the character almost always carries a novel with him, even while waiting tables in the restaurant. He has either William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties or Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum. The Gibson book was Bill’s idea, and The Tin Drum was in my handbag the day someone forgot to bring All Tomorrow’s Parties to the set. Though almost imperceptible, the book waiting on the chair behind Bill creates a nice distance between him and Caleb in the scene. Still, there’s a sense that we’re watching what could perhaps be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I love odd couples in films, and endings which point forward.

These days, when every not so low-budget, not so high-profile film takes financing from many soft and hard money sources who all should rightfully be thanked, the credits in movies seem endless. I try to convince myself that the audience needs a moment to themselves and may even be drying their eyes, rather than simply being bored. Five minutes of the film’s music plays under the credits. Finally the score gets to fill the room without having to compete with any other sound.

Music recording sessions are probably the best, happiest days of my work life. I always miss the composers when I’m standing there waiting to do my Q&A. While I listen, trying not to be nervous, and reminding myself that the film can’t be reedited now – that it’s the audience’s, not mine – I passive aggressively watch the smokers hurry out. Those who are running to a different festival screening sneak out too, along with those who have babysitters. Also leaving are those who don’t like Q&As, because it’s the film they care about. Not actors who may be very different from their characters. Not directors who should have stayed behind the camera sharing anecdotes or regrets.

In the car back to the hotel, I sometimes forget to be grateful to the audience, the curators, to film festivals in general. Because I’m just sitting there, trying to figure out how I can get to work with Bill and Caleb again.

Featured image by Per Arnesen.

Lone Scherfig is a Danish writer and director. Her many acclaimed films include Italian for Beginners, the fifth official “Dogma” film, which won three awards at the Berlin International Film Festival; her first English-language film, Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself; and the 2010 movie An Education, which won Sundance’s audience award and received nine BAFTA nominations and three Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby) and Best Actress (Carey Mulligan). Her latest film, The Kindness of Strangers, starring Zoe Kazan, Tahar Rahim, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Nighy, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jay Baruchel, is in select theaters through Vertical Entertainment from February 14.