On Sofia Coppola’s first morning in Provincetown, all she wanted was a lobster roll. “I’ve got to get a lobster roll while I’m here,” she said, sitting on the porch of the Land’s End Inn, overlooking the town that Tennessee Williams called “the edge of the earth.” It was her first time in Cape Cod’s premier gay travel destination, and she was there at the behest of John Waters, who would present her with the Provincetown International Film Festival’s Filmmaker on the Edge Award later that night. “I just got here last night in the rain and the darkness. It’s so pretty,” she said.
Coppola made history earlier this year when she won the coveted best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, making her only the second woman in the history of the festival ever to do so. (The first was Yuliya Solntseva, a Russian director who won in 1961). The film is “The Beguiled,” a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier taken in by the women and girls of a Southern girls’ boarding school at the height of the Civil War. True to form, Coppola’s version focuses more on the women and their individual relationships to Corporal John McBurney, played by Colin Farrell.
Coppola being Coppola, she landed a dream cast with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning as the three female leads. Casting McBurney, (or “Corporal,” as the women call him in the film) was more difficult. “It was hard to cast that part. The women were obvious to me, but who’s going to be the guy that can be mysterious, and so charismatic, and he had to be sexy?” she said. “I asked a lot of gay men and a lot of women what kind of guy they would be into and they all said he would be a hunk. I asked moms at school — I just went around town asking everybody. It was funny, my survey, everyone had a different opinion.”
She added, “I wanted a guy that women and men would be attracted to.”
The three women – Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning – each have their own complicated relationships to the Corporal, and his unexpected appearance unearths different aspects of female sexuality. “I thought a lot about them each being at different stages of maturity in their lives, almost like the same woman at different moments of her life,” said Coppola. “Because I’m close to Nicole’s age, I can say I’ve been at each stage. I’m not like those characters, but it occurred to me that Kirsten’s character is repressed and Elle is just starting to discover the power of her sexuality. I wanted to explore each woman at each stage of maturity.”
Coppola worked with Fanning on “Somewhere,” which is one of the director’s most personal films. Fanning was 11 years old when she played a girl spending a week with her Hollywood father at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. In “The Beguiled,” she suffuses her scenes with all of the brazen cunning of a teen discovering desire. It’s a very different role from the sweet and pensive Cleo in “Somewhere.” “It’s funny cause she’s still the same kid, but now a young woman,” Coppola said. “It’s really fun to see the combination of that. But I still see the same laugh, and she was always really smart and sophisticated. She always had a playfulness so I knew that she would bring something fun to that character.”
“The Beguiled” is a single-location film, relying only on the overgrown vistas of its sagging Southern manor house for its gorgeous imagery. With such adornments, and the subject matter, Coppola was careful not to heighten the drama so much as to become over the top. “The premise was so ripe for humor… [I wanted] to be playful about all the sexual repression and hierarchy and submission, but still have it be emotionally dramatic. To try not to go full camp was a struggle,” she said.
Still, there is one iconic cinematic figure beloved by gay men that did inspire Coppola: Scarlett O’Hara. “When I saw ‘Gone With the Wind’ as a kid, Scarlett O’Hara was my first impression of the South. Even though it’s a totally different style, I definitely think there’s a little Scarlett O’Hara,” she said. “I looked at etiquette books at the time and it’s all about being attractive to men…They didn’t know how to take care of themselves — they weren’t supposed to — and then all of a sudden everyone’s gone and there’s no party. It’s just these ghosts.”
“The Beguiled” opens in theaters nationwide on June 23rd.