Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
Armed with an Oscar and a distinctive filmmaking sensibility, Sofia Coppola may seem like the sort of filmmaker primed to make the jump to big studio movies. Who wouldn’t want more money and a bigger stage to spend it on? Well, Coppola doesn’t — and she’s right to stay away.
A recent article in Variety questioned if Coppola “may be trapping herself in a boutique bubble of her own,” asking if “perhaps her next move should be to work on a larger scale, to mix it up in some way, to shake herself out of her comfort zone.” Yet the filmmaker has roundly rejected such demands to somehow inflate her portfolio in the name of “growth,” balking at blockbusters and sequels, and resisting the notion that her projects should primarily exist to make a lot of money.
Just last month, Coppola appeared at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a career-spanning chat in which she opened up about the loss of what would have been her biggest project to date: a Universal Pictures and Working Title live-action production of “The Little Mermaid” that she left in 2015. “For me, when a movie has a really large budget like that, it just becomes more about business, or business becomes a bigger element than art,” she said at the time. “When it’s smaller, there’s less people involved, it’s not so much at risk, business-wise.”
Coppola did, however, admit that her vision for the film was her most ambitious one yet, and that her grand vision imagined a film mostly shot underwater. It was a big dream, and a pricey one. It didn’t pan out, and while Coppola’s vision of the classic fairy tale — an existing property with the kind of name recognition she doesn’t often go for — will likely never be realized, it may have helped the filmmaker work out her biggest impulses without actually making the jump to money-driven filmmaking.
Later during that same talk, Coppola was even more pointed, sharing that she makes one movie with the hope that it will make enough money that she can justify another, and so on. Crossing arbitrary box office milestones isn’t a motivating factor for her, and Coppola seems most content when allowed to build on her own vision in steady increments. There’s likely not a blockbuster at the end of those steps, and that’s how it should remain.
She also hasn’t broken any banks to make those films (a lesson her own father had to learn the hard way), continuing to churn out features in the $10 million range. Coppola’s one venture into pricier filmmaking, the $40 million-budgeted “Marie Antoinette,” understandably benefitted from over-the-top shooting locations and eye-popping costumes (know your subject and all that), but fared poorly at the box office. The filmmaker pulled back, and her next film, 2010’s intimate drama “Somewhere,” was made for just $7 million, and only after the filmmaker spent four years away from feature-making.
A more complex distillation of the themes that motivate her, it was the rare Coppola outing that focused on a man struggling with his own Hollywood privilege. It was also Coppola’s lowest-earning outing ever — “The Beguiled” has already doubled its total domestic take, just two weeks into its own run — but it seemed to reestablish her worldview and how she wanted to put that on the big screen. It came as no surprise that she continued to turn her eye toward the more toxic side of celebrity and Los Angeles living in her follow-up, “The Bling Ring,” which sported a ripped-from-the-headlines plot and a starry cast, but remained firmly indie in both nature and budget.
“The Beguiled” is yet another continuation of Coppola’s oeuvre, one that not only doesn’t require big budget backing, but actually benefits from resisting that line of thinking. Coppola makes movies about women and girls set against feminine (and often feminist) themes, richly invested in interior life over splashy stuff — in other words, the exact opposite of the product most studios churn out on the regular. Making the jump to studio-backed filmmaking inevitably involves giving over control to others, but six features in, Coppola knows what she likes and what she wants to make.
While that’s not to say that filmmakers can’t bring their own signatures to bigger features, for many female filmmakers, holding on to their own autonomy and style remains a roadblock when it comes time to pursue larger, studio-made projects (to say nothing of the industry’s continued inequality towards female filmmakers who are ready and willing to make that jump).
Plenty of lauded, singular filmmakers who have gone the studio route have suffered creative setbacks, most recently Phil Lord and Chris Miller. It’s telling that someone like Marc Webb, who was one of the first filmmakers to go through the now-cliche process of having a Sundance hit that seemingly instantly resulted in being signed for a studio blockbuster (“500 Days of Summer,” into the truncated “Amazing Spider-Man” franchise) has returned to his smaller-scale roots.
His latest, “Gifted,” is one of the highest-grossing indies of the year, despite middling reviews. Similarly, “Jurassic World” helmer Colin Trevorrow recently scaled back to make his “The Book of Henry,” also a high-earning indie that was savaged by critics. Coming off such hot properties, it seems as if both filmmakers lost their mojo and were attempting to get it back on a much smaller (and perhaps more comfortable) scale; the underwhelming results suggest it’s no easy feat to land on sturdy ground.
Of course, Coppola benefits from a unique luxury that sets her apart from her indie brethren — there’s no question that she entered the filmmaking world with a significant amount of privilege and enough name recognition to produce just about any dream project. But she’s also earned her chops along the way, consistently elevating her style and craftsmanship, while also showing an acute desire to tell the stories that matter to her (and that’s she is fully equipped to tell, either thanks to her artistic interests or her own background). You can spot a Coppola film from a mile away, and they all fit together as a singular body of work.
Coppola announced her filmmaking aims years ago, and none of her films speak as pointedly to her cinematic obsessions than her first feature, “The Virgin Suicides,” yet she’s continued to refine her techniques with each film. She slips those ideas into new trappings at every turn, pushing forward with new discoveries and angles along the way. “The Beguiled” is clearly pulled from the DNA of “The Virgin Suicides,” while “Somewhere” could only have come straight after “Marie Antoinette,” and “The Bling Ring” would not exist without either of its predecessors. For Coppola, there’s no need to take a “next step” to some higher plane of production; she’s already written her own ticket.
“The Beguiled” is currently in limited release.