Just shy of a year after winning Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for her brilliant remake of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola dropped by the Harvard Film Archive for a special screening and a wide-ranging Q&A with HFA curator Haden Guest. Some edited highlights of the conversation:
Growing up in my household the word “remake” was a bad word. My dad would say nobody remakes a film unless you want to make money, and there’s nothing artistic about it. I always thought I would never want to remake someone else’s film. But there was something about [The Beguiled] that stayed with me and I kept thinking about it. I thought I would love to tell this story, but my way.
There were things I connected to that reminded me of my first film, The Virgin Suicides. It was like The Virgin Suicides but it wasn’t just teenage girls now. There was also the teacher and the headmistress and I thought it would be so interesting to look at the power dynamics not just between men and women but between these women at different stages of their lives.
So I started researching, and I looked at a lot of journals of women living in that time. The idea that they were so isolated, so abandoned, I was intrigued by that. That was the starting point of me thinking about how I would do this film, and I found the book by Thomas Cullinan. I knew about the story from the Don Siegel film, but I didn’t want to re-tell his film. I wanted to go back to the story and approach it as a film I would make.
I didn’t forget his film, but I didn’t watch it again until after we finished. And there were things I didn’t realize I’d had in my mind. It was kind of like a foggy dream. I have regard for his film, and I love it for what it is. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful but I definitely wanted to make the women’s side.
They’re abandoned, totally on their own and they’re still holding onto this lifestyle that doesn’t exist anymore. They were raised not to do anything for themselves but just be delightful hostesses for gentlemen callers. And all that was gone now. I felt like they were ghosts, living in some other era that now was gone. They put on all this pageantry but they’re living in the past, so there’s something sort of touchingly demented about that.
When I first started thinking about this story I saw a palette that had all these very faded pastels. They’ve had to wash these same dresses over and over and they didn’t have very much. They were all kind of blended together. I thought of them as being almost like a bouquet of flowers, all kind of part of one thing. I wanted them to be this kind of Southern over-the-top idea of femininity. We’re all raised with an idea of how women should be, but this was the most extreme version of that. I wanted this faded world and these forgotten women that you don’t hear about. You hear about the much bigger stories in history at that time. But what of these forgotten flowers? What was to become of them?
What I liked about the potential of the story is that it’s so much about sexual tension and all that’s not being said. I think it’s so fun as a writer. Subtext is always the interesting part of dialogue and with this it was just so blatant. I’ve always liked the little details in life. They show up in my films because I think they say so much. When someone stands just a little too close, that’s more impactful to me than some sort of full-blown emotion, because in life I feel like those are the moments that you remember. The big moment that sounds like nothing when you describe it. I love those kinds of moments.
I was having fun because I’ve never done anything like this. I love that genre of pearls and nightgowns and blood and candelabras. I had to embrace all that Southern Gothic without being full camp. We were straddling that. So it wasn’t like a full-on spoof comedy, but we were all cracking up when we were making it. When we were shooting [the amputation scene] I said “Nicole, I really want that shot of you holding the candelabra saying, ‘Bring me the anatomy book.’ That’s our trailer moment, we have to get that!” We were running out of time, and then there was a take where she held the candelabra with a blood drop on her forehead and a tendril of hair, and just gave it to us!
I loved watching her. I always felt like that character was a little bit crazy, but I knew that Nicole would bring something relatable. It helps having great actors and actresses that can make something human. [Miss Martha] could have been a total joke. But because Nicole took her seriously and really invested some humanity, I think she gives the movie that tone I was hoping for, where it can be playful and fun but still connected to some emotional vulnerability.
I worked very closely with Phillipe Le Sourd, our cinematographer. That’s a great pleasure to me and such a big part of telling the story. We looked at a lot of photography and paintings as references. Because the story is so melodramatic, we wanted it to feel as naturalistic as possible. We wanted to feel like it’s not a big Hollywood version of the time, that it’s all natural light and even the end is lit by candles. As much as you can I always want the audience to feel like they’re with the characters and experiencing what they’re experiencing in that world. That was the goal.
The composition and the framing get closer as the story progresses, a little more claustrophobic. I also love photography and had references like Eggleston to show him for the girls sitting on the couch. There’s an Eggleston photo of two girls talking on a couch and there’s a scene where Elle and the other girl are talking, it just has the intimacy and the patterns of the dresses with the pattern of the sofa behind them. Then there’s a photograph of Steve McQueen holding a hose pouring water over his head. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that one? When Colin is working in the garden we wanted him to have that kind of heartthrob moment. So we were having fun with all that.
I’ve always used music a lot and I enjoy putting songs in my movies. But in this I really wanted the sound design to be the focal point and to feel the starkness. I wanted to make it minimal, so you felt like you were cut off from the world with them. I feel like music always relieves the tension. I wanted to hear the cannons in the distance and the sounds of nature to feel trapped and far away from the rest of the world. I asked Phoenix to do some electronic tones that underscored the tension. I wanted music that wasn’t of the period to frame this tension and have some kind of separation from the time.
I’ve always loved fashion and clothes, so that’s something I’m focused on. Even when I’m writing I think about the character and what they’re wearing because I think it expresses one more clue as to who that character is. In something like this I enjoy thinking about the colors and building this world. And I think it’s fun for the actresses to wear these kind of clothes that we don’t wear anymore.
We looked at lot of portraiture of the time for the styling of the women. I wanted them to be relatable so in choosing the clothes and the hairstyles we picked ones that looked less foreign to a modern eye, so that you’d hopefully not look at them as these weird, distant people. I like clothes and it’s fun to build a character through them. I guess it’s my girly side.