Chatting with The Beguiled director Sofia Coppola

By Iain Blair

Sofia Coppola may belong to one of Hollywood’s most successful movie dynasties (see our recent interview with her mother, Eleanor), but she’s always marched to the beat of her own drum.

After making her acting debut in her dad’s iconic Godfather trilogy, and appearing in a number of his other films, Sofia gradually moved into writing and directing. She made her directorial debut with the 1999 feature The Virgin Suicides, which earned her an MTV Movie Award for Best New Filmmaker and marked her first collaboration with Kirsten Dunst.

Her next film, Lost in Translation, won her the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, as well as nominations for Best Director and Best Picture (as producer).

Since then she’s made an eclectic group of films, including the sumptuous and playful Marie Antoinette, which starred Dunst in the title role, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring. Her hour-long holiday special, A Very Murray Christmas, received Emmy Award noms for Outstanding Television Movie and Outstanding Music Direction and a DGA nom for its director.

Her latest film is The Beguiled, an atmospheric thriller that won its writer/director the Best Director award at Cannes recently. With an all-star cast that includes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Dunst and Elle Fanning, the story unfolds during the Civil War at a Southern girls’ boarding school where its sheltered young women take in an injured enemy soldier. As they provide refuge and tend to his wounds, the house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries. Taboos are broken in an unexpected turn of events.

A Focus Features presentation of an American Zoetrope production, the film also features a behind-the-camera team that included Academy Award-nominated DP Philippe Le Sourd, editor Sarah Flack, production designer Anne Ross and executive producers Fred Roos, Ross, Roman Coppola and Robert Ortiz.

I recently met with Coppola to talk about making the film.

This is your first remake. What was the appeal of redoing the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film?
I didn’t know the Clint film. My production designer, Ann Ross, told me about it and said, “I think you need to remake it.” I was like, “I’ll never do a remake — what are you talking about?” But after I saw it, it just stayed in my mind, and I thought it so weird and full of twists and all from a man’s point of view. So, I got the book it was based on and began thinking about writing it from the women’s point of view, and I loved that it had all these women, ranging from age 12 to their 40s. So it’s more like a reinterpretation.

What sort of film did you set out to make? It seems like you really embraced the whole Southern Gothic genre.
I did, completely, and that was so much fun since I’ve never done that before. But I also wanted to keep it in my style, with my voice, and also make it very entertaining and also, hopefully, artful.

You assembled a great female-heavy cast. Poor Colin, surrounded by all those women.
I know, and it took a real man to be able to handle it and also be an object for them — and Colin was definitely up to the task.

Any surprises?
All of them surprised me in some way or other. Nicole was exactly how I imagined she’d be as I was writing it, but then she brought so much more to the role — and it was the same with Kirsten and Elle. It could easily have become a female camp-fest, but they all hit just the right notes and tone.

Is it true you shot at the same historic plantation Beyonce used for Lemonade?
Yes, Madewood, which is a two-hour drive outside of New Orleans. We did a lot of location work there and also at another plantation.

How long was the shoot?
Just 26 days, as we were pretty low-budget, so it was a mad dash. That was very challenging, especially as we had so many young actresses playing schoolgirls. We’d be in the middle of a scene and half the cast would have to leave. But Nicole’s such a pro we would shoot her alone, then fill in stuff later.

Where did you do the post?
All in New York. My editor, Sarah Flack, lives there, and so do I. My great sound designer Richard Beggs, who’s done all my films, also came to New York for post. He did most of his work in Northern California, but came over for the mix.

Do you like post?
I do, very much. For me it’s a real relief to get there after the craziness of the shoot. You’re under so much time and money pressure on the set, and then you can finally sit down and try things out and actually start putting the film together. I really enjoy that part. I feel post is very manageable.

You worked with your longtime editor Sarah Flack. What did she bring to the project, and was she on set?
She stays in New York and cuts while we shoot. I always love working with her and sharing her feedback. She loved this project and all the humor, and she helped me from early on. I showed her the Don Siegel film, and we put together a short reel to show the studio, so they knew what we wanted to do. While I shoot, she lets me know if I have everything covered or if we need any pick-ups.

What were the main editing challenges?
Finding the right pacing and rhythm, because we wanted it to feel very slow at the start, like those long, hot days, but then things start to pick up. So the pacing in the second half is much faster. Then finding the right tone is crucial. But Sarah and I are on the same page, so I feel we kept all the humor without it going full-camp.

There’s a great score by the French group Phoenix. Talk about the importance of sound and music in this.
As they say, it’s half the film, and after working with Richard Beggs for so long, I think far more about the sound and music than I did when I first began. I wanted this to have a lot of tension, so I wanted a very minimal approach. There are these electronic tones underlining that, and not taking away from the very rich visuals. I also wanted to really establish a sense of time and place, so you hear all the cannons in the distance, as the war is still happening all around them. Then you have that continual sound of the cicadas and nature around the school. All the sound design was very important in helping to tell the story.

Sound can be really challenging when it’s a period piece like this.
You’re right, and this was especially challenging as we shot some stuff in a home in New Orleans and the sound guys had to take out all the modern sounds like traffic, which wouldn’t even be noticeable in a contemporary piece.

This is obviously a performance-driven piece, but there must have been a fair amount of VFX?
Yes, mostly for Colin’s leg and the amputation stuff, and then the scene with the chandelier, and with the sound — taking out a lot of modern visual stuff and clean up. We had a great VFX supervisor, Joe Oberle, who worked with Darren Aronofsky, and he did it all.

What about the DI?
We did it at Technicolor Postworks in New York, and the colorist was Damien Van Der Cruyssen. He did a great job. We shot in 35mm, and I wanted to keep that great film look through the DI, and I’m very happy with the look we got. I’m very happy with the way the whole thing turned out. It’s like I imagined it while I was writing it – only more so, as the actors and then all the post people bring so much more to it.
What’s next?
I don’t know. I don’t have anything lined up. It’s nice, but a little scary too.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. What’s your advice to a woman who wants to direct?
The good news is that there are so many young women going to film school now, so that’s changing. And with Wonder Woman being such a big hit, hopefully people will be more open to women directing and telling stories. I’d say, don’t take “no” for an answer. Just keep going. It’s always a struggle. The majority of executives are straight white older men who aren’t always interested in the sort of stories I’m interested in. I’m thrilled I was able to make this.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


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