With her sixth feature, “The Beguiled,” Sofia Coppola returns to Cannes in the main Competition. It’s her first time since 2006, when the reception for royal costume drama “Marie Antoinette” evolved from a scattering of boos to become a reported misfire. That’s the power of the Cannes echo chamber. Her visually sumptuous and witty $40 million studio movie earned a standing ovation at the public screening and a range of reviews, but only made $60.8 million worldwide — not nearly enough to make it profitable.
Coppola had better Cannes luck with her smaller-scaled first feature, the dreamy literary adaptation “The Virgin Suicides” ($10.6 million worldwide). It starred Kirsten Dunst and broke out of Director’s Fortnight with critics’ raves. Her Tokyo-set Bill Murray-Scarlett Johansson two-hander “Lost in Translation” ($117 million worldwide) debuted in Venice on its way to Coppola’s Original Screenplay Oscar.
Back on the indie side were Chateau Marmont Hollywood-slice “Somewhere” ($17 million worldwide), which also premiered in Venice, and “Bling Ring” ($12.4 million worldwide), which Cannes director Thierry Fremaux loyally slotted in the less-scrutinized Un Certain Regard. It was the right thing to do for this glimpse at shallow Beverly Hills shopaholics starring Emma Watson.
Now Coppola finds herself back in the spotlight with a high-profile adaptation of Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood Civil War drama, based on the 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel. About two years ago, Coppola’s production designer Anne Ross urged her to remake the movie, a well-reviewed flop when released. Audiences weren’t ready for Eastwood’s tall, dark, and handsome soldier to be manhandled by a school full of vengeful women. We’ll soon find out if they’re any more accepting now.
Coppola told Ross she’d never remake a movie, but when she watched “The Beguiled,” she saw a connection to “The Virgin Suicides,” she said in a phone interview as she finished the movie’s final mix before Cannes, “something about the aesthetic and the girls in faded dresses all trapped in a house. It’s very different, too. I didn’t feel like I was reading the same material, just looking at it from a different side. That’s about teenage girls. This feels more complex with women in different stages, from young girls like Elle Fanning to Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman.”
Why she made it
That’s how Coppola found her way in. “The movie stayed in my mind,” she said. “It’s about a man going into a woman’s world. I liked the dynamics of a group, the idea of a girls’ school was intriguing. I was interested to go into their point of view and tell the same story from their perspective.”
So Coppola combed through the Cullinan novel. “I went back to the different characters and tried to forget the movie, put it in the back of my mind, and approach it in my own way. There’s actually a plot and dialogue, which is unusual for me. It was fun when I wrote the script to get into writing dialogue. Using the story as the driving force was different for me. It was more planned out.”
And the writer-director took a dive into the southern gothic genre, she said. “I love the period, the Civil War South is very exotic, a romantic and dark setting with trees hanging with Spanish moss.”
How she made it
Coppola went to Universal, which owned the rights to the original movie, pitched them on an archive remake, and set up a deal with specialty label Focus Features, which released “Lost in Translation.” They agreed to produce her movie for about $10 million.
Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
As Coppola set about adapting the book, she wrote the role of the tough schoolmistress (played by Geraldine Page in the original) with Nicole Kidman in mind. “I’ve always loved her,” she said. “In ‘To Die For,’ she had a very sly, twisted humor that I thought she would bring to this part. It helped me to write the script imagining her. I was happy she was up for it.”
Kidman is more than the villain of the piece. “She was exactly how I imagined her, but I was also surprised that she brought something more to it,” Coppola said. “In the original, that character was all kind of crazy. I imagined what women were like when they were cut off from the world during wartime. She brought humanity to the role. She makes her sympathetic and human. There’s a lot going on. Things don’t go together. She’s very much the mother hen of these girls.”
Coppola cast Colin Farrell as the wounded Union soldier who collapses on the doorstep of the Virginia girls’ school in 1864. “He’s so charming and charismatic,” said Coppola. “The character is Irish. When I met him, his accent makes him even more exotic and charming and manly and masculine, in a classic way. You believe him in the period. And we had to find someone who would appeal to all ages. He’s a thinking-woman’s hunk. He had to be sexy and complicated enough to be intriguing.”
Gender dynamics are central to this drama. “To me the story is about power between women and men,” said Coppola. “The core of the premise is so loaded. Women in the repressed south were raised to be entertainment. They haven’t been around a man in a long time. This dirty, masculine soldier comes in. They take matters into their own hands, which is fun to watch.”
The film was shot on location in Louisiana on the same set that Beyonce used for “Lemonade.” But they were on an indie budget. “It was a hustle,” said Coppola. “We shot in 26 days and we were always worrying, with limited time for the kids. It was a jam-packed sprint.”
The director enjoyed turning toward a more naturalistic 35mm look, collaborating for the first time with Wong Kar Wai cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. “He has this dusty pale feminine look at the beginning to emphasize [the soldier] coming to this female world,” she said. “As the story progresses, it shifts to take a more southern gothic style. Shooting in those locations gave so much to the feeling — this abandoned landscape, overgrown and wild. There’s a shift in the beginning from long, slow days, when I was trying to show what it’s like when nothing is happening, and time is passing slowly as the story ramps up. The pacing reflects that.”
While Coppola has favored hip musical soundtracks in the past, in this case the score by French alt-pop band Phoenix is low key. “It’s very minimal and delicate,” she said.
Worried about reaction
With the movie finished and ready to play on the Cannes world stage on Wednesday, Coppola is feeling some jitters. “I got to make exactly what I wanted,” she said. “I’m excited, but I’m worried that the trailer is so titillating and well done. Don’t expect the whole movie to be so amped up; there are more quiet moments also. I expect a mix of reactions.”
Returning to Cannes, Coppola is looking forward to seeing her old jury mate Jane Campion — “I’m glad there will be some other ladies there” — along with filmmakers and talent assembling for the glitzy 70th anniversary reunion. “I remember when I was there at Director’s Fortnight with my first film, ‘Virgin Suicides,'” she said. “I saw ‘Rat Catcher,’ but didn’t meet Lynne Ramsay. I want to meet her this time.”
Oddly this season, Sofia Coppola finds herself on the festival circuit along with her 81-year-old mother Eleanor, who just wrote and directed her first feature, the road movie “Paris Can Wait” (Sony Pictures Classics). They won’t meet up in Cannes, but will reconnoiter at June’s Munich International Film Festival. While Coppola saw an early cut, she didn’t help her mother much beyond letting her crash in her St. Germain apartment in Paris. “I’m excited for her,” she said. “She worked a long time to get it made.”