In Conversation with Sofia Coppola
A member of New Hollywood’s most illustrious family, Sofia Coppola carries that weight with the ease of the understated, talented director she’s proven herself to be in films such as The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette. I had the chance to speak with her at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a location fittingly storied in Hollywood history. During our conversation, which was wild and varied, we discussed her filmography and upcoming feature, The Beguiled (a reboot of the 1971 Clint Eastwood drama) as well as our mutual adoration of the internet’s boyfriend Oscar Isaac and fascination with Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie Therese of France. We even swapped book recommendations.
Kristen Lopez: When Clint Eastwood made The Beguiled in 1971 it was his attempt to show he had range. What was the impetus for you to remake this as your next movie because I’d say you’ve shown your range already?
Sofia Coppola: When I saw the movie it was so fascinating to me that these macho filmmakers — Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood — would make a story set in a girl’s school in the South. It’s such a male point of view of a group of women that I thought “Okay, I want to tell that story from the women’s point of view.”
And the original, as much as I enjoy it, is laughable since it’s so intent on saying how wonderful Eastwood is, right down to narration from the women pining over him.
I forgot about that! I want to watch it again now. I saw it before I started working on this and didn’t watch it again, but it’s always been in the back of my mind. I felt like I had to give these women a voice, and then I thought to flip it over from their point of view and [show] women during wartime; you always see stories about men at war, but I don’t think I’ve seen what happens to the women left behind. I’ve always loved the women in the South, and the South in general; it’s so exotic and different.
Your costuming in all your films is wonderful but here the original movie’s costumes were very dark and drab.
The whole palette of the movie is very dark. I really wanted to build up those super-feminine, lacy worlds. The faded pastels as a real contrast to the man whose dark and comes into this pale, Southern delicate world.
Were you inspired by the Southern Gothic in any way? There’s an air of Faulkner to certain shots.
I was really into embracing the Southern Gothic because I’ve never done anything in the genre. It was fun to get into it.
You filmed in Louisiana. What was that like?
Luckily we shot in the fall because originally we were going to go in August. Everyone was like, “Thank God you weren’t here.” There are mosquitoes and heat, but I loved being there. It’s really a great city, unlike any other place. The atmosphere is really unique and the houses look haunted a really beautiful city, and people are so nice there. There’s a lot of history. I live in New York [and] they’re so laid-back and so slow. When I first went back to New York I was like “give me a second” to acclimate to that pace. I love the town that’s centered on music and food and drinking; they just know how to enjoy life.
You filmed on the same plantation they shot Lemonade on as well.
They have dark histories, those plantations. They’re beautiful but there’s a darkness to them. We had one house for the interiors and another for the exteriors that were put together. We filmed in town for the interior and then the exterior was at the plantation. We had a great art department [with] a lot of women. It was funny to see Colin lying around on the lacy pillows. I love the Spanish moss that’s so particular to that area, it’s beautiful and haunting. It was important to me to shoot in a real location, it’s inspiring.
I know you mentioned Picnic at Hanging Rock as an influence?
I haven’t actually seen it but I’ve seen images from it. Virgin Suicides [has] a similar aesthetic. There’s also a ’70s photography [aesthetic] too, girls in lacy dresses, in fields of hay and wheat. I like that from images of the ’70s, David Hamilton.
I saw a lot of commonalities to Virgin Suicides. Was there an eye towards creating something similar to it when you were filming?
It did have similarities when I saw [both movie’s characters] in the pale, floral dresses, and trapped in the house. And [both show] how mysterious men are — when [McBurney in The Beguiled] first comes to dinner. I felt it was connected but it goes darker in a way. Maybe it’s a development [of what’s started in The Virgin Suicides].
You have such an amazing group of talented people here: reteaming with Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. You have Nicole Kidman who’s having a banner year. Did you envision them all in your mind when you started this project?
I was really lucky I got my dream cast. When I first thought about the movie I said, “I can have Kirsten as the teacher and Elle as the student” because they’re my favorite girls, and Elle’s old enough to play the slutty, vain…it’s a funny character [for her to play] because it’s so different from her. Kirsten, I love her playing a repressed character because it’s the opposite of her. I’ve never seen her play this buttoned-up person. I’ve always loved Nicole so I pictured her when I was writing because I thought she’d be so great and funny. I love her twisted humor. I met a bunch of guys and then met Colin Farrell. He stood out as so charismatic and masculine. He’d be the thinking woman’s hunk.
The original film was meant to reconfigure Clint Eastwood’s persona and separate him from the reputation he had. Colin Farrell has a somewhat similar past reputation. Was that an intentional choice?
I didn’t think of that! He is sexy and charismatic; women like him. I asked so many different women, my friends, all the moms at [her children’s] schools, “Who do you think is hot?” It was so interesting what people would say. He has that bad boy persona. He’s really charming. He can’t be a dumb hunk because he has to be complicated enough to beguile them all. He knows how to turn it on for [each of the characters]. I believe him in that period. I asked him to tell me stories [about his past], but he’s a gentleman.
Your movies have such an eye towards the female gaze, emphasizing the freedom — whether it be literal or in terms of sexuality.
Because it’s made from my point of view and what I want to see. Or maybe how I feel about how women are being portrayed. It was great that [Farrell] was our token hunk. When we did the garden sequence we were cracking up [as if] we were shooting a calendar at the same time. He was a really good sport. It was fun to make him the object.
Do you consider yourself a feminist director?
I never thought about that. I never thought about labeling myself. I just make what I’m interested in and I really embrace my female point-of-view. I always felt I wanted to make movies that treated women with respect because I didn’t feel when I was growing up, that there were a lot of movies. John Hughes, I loved, but the characters were so unrelatable. They were 35-year-old women playing teenagers. I also felt teen movies never looked good. Why shouldn’t teenagers have a good aesthetic or good photography?
The Beguiled and The Virgin Suicides feel like two halves of a whole to me. How would you say you’ve changed as a director?
Beguiled seems grown-up and darker. I guess I’m less shy and care less about what my parents will think. I have more of a perspective of the different ages and maturity of the women [since] I’ve been the age of each of them. I’ve been that age when you’re discovering how you affect men, and I know what it’s like to be the prospective mother.
This movie is coming out at a great time, politically speaking.
When women get fed up they’re fed up! They take matters into their own hands! It’s very rare that the guy is the victim of these women who take charge and it was fun to take that story and flip it on its head. Too bad Don Siegel’s not around to hear. I wonder how much Clint was just doing it for him[self]? I don’t really like remakes. Why remake something that somebody’s already made? But this one I felt I could do a totally different version of the same story.
Who do you consider the villain of the movie? Or is there one?
I was worried about [Colin Farrell] being too sympathetic because I want you to be rooting for them [the girls]. I feel like it’s so much about the power plays between the women and him. I love in the beginning that it’s like heaven, a fantasy. He’s like “I’ve made it. I’m in a house with all these women, I can do what I want.” And then it turns into a nightmare. It was fun to play with.
I saw Nicole’s character as a villain, in terms of how stifling she is.
She’s dominating them all. I like characters when it’s not black or white because she is sympathetic and protective of them. To Kirsten’s character [though] she’s this villain of oppression. I like she has both and it’s not clear-cut. Colin’s the bad guy but he’s sympathetic, too.
What I enjoyed about Elle’s character is that there’s some sympathy for her unlike in the original where she’s is just a sexpot.
When I looked at the book there was a thing about the character where her mother is trying to get her a wealthy husband and raising her daughter to be attractive to men. I thought that was interesting…because there are girls that are raised that way, thankfully I wasn’t. You do see those women though who think being attractive to men is [integral] to their identity. She’s not just like “the slut,” there’s a story behind it.
There’s no Hallie in your version in comparison to the original, which some people have brought up because she’s the lone person of color in the original film. What went into the decision to not include her?
I felt [slavery] was such an important topic I didn’t want to treat it lightly. I felt I should focus on these women who are so cut off from the world.
In this movie, you have characters literally isolated by their surroundings which continue the trend of your movies focused on how people can feel alone.
People ask me why I do that but I think there’s an element of the female experience that you have certain boundaries that might relate to that.
Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and now The Beguiled have looked at the near supernatural power of community and the cabal of women. What are your thoughts about the communities of women in your films and how groups of women are portrayed in film in general?
I think there’s a mysterious and powerful effect and dynamic of a group of girls or women. These women are so cut off from the world [that] they’re almost a coven. I grew up around so many men, I guessed miss having sisters, but female friendships have always been important to me; girls boarding school always sounded glamorous to me.
How do you feel about Cannes coming up?
I’m excited. There’s always that moment that’s a little scary when you put something out into the world. We’re scrambling to get the movie done in time. I’m excited to see it on that big screen with Kirsten and Elle for the first time. The press conference [is also scary], some journalists try to be provocative because it’s more interesting.
You’ve dabbled in both adapting existing works and writing original scripts. Do you have a preference?
Writing original is always harder for me. I have to put myself into it, but it’s daunting. Adapting you have something to work from. It’s like a puzzle. I enjoyed working on this because [I got to] pull the book apart.
When Somewhere came out there was criticism that it was just writing what you knew. What’s your response to that?
I feel that’s really all you can do. I want to make something authentic so I feel more comfortable. I worry sometimes that [my characters] are too privileged, but that’s the world I know about. I feel I can only write what I know and hopefully, there are some universal, human aspects that everyone can relate to. I think you have to write about what interests you, what you want to express. It doesn’t have to define your whole identity. Somewhere was after Marie Antoinette [and] I wanted to see how minimally can you make a movie. How simple can it be and still be a movie? That was the mood of that one which was a total palate cleanse after Marie Antoinette.
Is there a genre you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?
I never thought about it. I’ve always appreciated genre movies but I was never drawn to want to make one.
I’m urging for a Sofia Coppola musical!
That seems terrifying. I’ve never thought of a genre I haven’t done, but it was fun with this to put my toe in the genre world.
My fingers are crossed that you’ll one day make a movie with Oscar Isaac. Do you have a bucket list of actors or actresses that you’d love to work with at some point?
I don’t, but I’ve always wanted to think of something for Eddie Murphy. I think he’s so great. I’d like to see him doing something interesting. When I start to work on a project I picture the actors because it helps me write. I’m so focused on finishing this movie that it’s hard to imagine getting out of it.
Dare I ask what’s next after all this?
You know, I don’t know. I want to take a break and then try to regroup and figure out what I want to do next. I always feel like after I finish a project the next one is a reaction to what I just worked on, so when I feel happy I clear my head and figure it out.
What would The Beguiled be a reaction to since your previous film was The Bling Ring?
I think after The Bling Ring, which, to me, was so ugly, I wanted to do something beautiful and soft. It’s dark but there was something harsh about The Bling Ring that I wanted to do something gentle and pretty.
What movies do you enjoy in your free time?
I love going to movies, especially in the theater. I hope people see [The Beguiled] in the theater. I’ve been in a bubble getting the movie done but there’s a documentary by Frederick Wiseman, he made documentaries in the ’60s and ’70s. He made one called Model that was made in the late ’70s. I like him because there’s no plot; it’s just being a fly on these different walls. They were showing it at Film Forum, a series of his movies that was really cool. I like all kinds of movies, guilty pleasures, comedies and such. Atomic Blonde looks fun!
The Beguiled arrives in theaters June 23rd.
Originally published at filmschoolrejects.com on May 19, 2017.