Sofia Coppola on The Beguiled: \"I've always been intrigued by how women interact\"

Sofia Coppola on The Beguiled: "I've always been intrigued by how women interact"

Women in charge

Text: Buro. Singapore

Image: United International Pictures

The Beguiled: Director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola talks about casting Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning

There's a lot of eye candy in Sofia Coppola's latest feature The Beguiled, and we're not pointing fingers to Colin Firth specifically. Instead, we're blown by the leading ladies on this film adaptation of the 1966 Southern Gothic novel written by Thomas P. Cullinan. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning are at the top of their game in their own respective generations — even without singling out their age box (God forbid if we ever use the phrase "for her age"), the actresses have stunned us in their wealth of range.

In fact, we've seen former child actors Dunst and Fanning grow up alongside Coppola. Dunst was 16 when she filmed The Virgin Suicides, while Fanning was 11 when she starred in Somewhere. The dramatic actresses return under Coppola's guidance for this thriller, set in 1864 at a Southern girls' boarding school as they take in an injured Union soldier from the Civil War. As the trailers suggest, what started out as an innocent — if not coy — story will take a turn for something sinister. While film buffs might recall the Clint Eastwood-starring feature of the same name in 1971, Coppola's take on the thriller focuses on the perspectives of the women in the boarding school: Headmistresses Martha (Kidman), teacher Edwina (Dunst) and student Alicia (Fanning), with four other actresses fill in the minor roles as students.

It hasn't always been an easy journey for Coppola at Cannes Film Festival. She was famously booed during the screening of Marie Antoinette in 2006. The Beguiled came out triumphant in competition, earning Coppola the award for best director. She's also the first woman to win in 50 years, which is a big high-five to other female directors making it big this year — think: Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman and Reed Morano in The Handmaid's Tale. In this interview, Coppola talks about her signature aesthetic, why she wrote the screenplay with Kidman in mind and scoring the film's unique sound.

Sofia Coppola and the cast of The Beguiled on set

You have said that you try to make personal films. What is personal about The Beguiled for you?
I've always been intrigued by how women interact, and I've seen how they can sometimes change when there's a man around.

Did you consider changing the book's setting?
People said to me, "Oh, you could set it somewhere else." But I was fascinated by the Civil War-era South, and at how women were raised at that time to be in relation to men to be delicate and attractive and to be good hostesses — their whole roles revolved around men, but then the men were gone...what was it like for them, left on their own to survive and to sustain?

Is The Beguiled your return to a theme of female collectives, or communities, that have evolved or are evolving? In The Virgin Suicides, there are sisters in a community; in Marie Antoinette, there is a court that is its own world; and in The Bling Ring, there is a clique that ends up breaking laws.
Yes, I've always been interested in observing the dynamics of a group, especially females. I feel that the dynamics between women can be very under-the-surface and subtle whereas men are more overt. I was drawn to this story because it was about a group of women — and it did remind me a little bit of The Virgin Suicides, with girls cut off from the world — and because I'd never really done a movie about women at varying ages at different points in their lives and how they all relate to each other.

When and how did you come across the source material of Thomas Cullinan's novel The Beguiled?
My friend and production designer, Anne Ross, had first told me about the movie The Beguiled, which I had never seen but which I knew was highly regarded. I watched it, and the story just kept staying in my mind — how it was weird and the turns were unexpected. I would never think to remake a movie, but I was curious so I got the book it was based on. I thought, "What about retelling the story from the women's point of view?"

You have made other films set in times past. Since you wanted to keep the Civil War setting that the book had, what surprised you about that era which you learned about during research?
I was surprised at how they lived when things were so scarce. We had a Civil War re-enactor teaching us how to do the medical applications of that time — Nicole Kidman learned about bandaging. One example was that a woman is not supposed to take a compliment because that would encourage vanity. The role of the ladylike woman had to be played and accentuated. But these women grow tired of being messed with.

A scene from The Beguiled
What were some of your visual inspirations?
It's always a mix of things, from all over. We looked at Civil War portraits, but also William Eggleston's photos from the 1970s of girls together. The film, Tess. Hitchcock's movies, for suspense. The look of this movie had to be soft and gauzy, but also sun-drenched in a hot locale and with a lot of smoke. The characters are being stifled, with sexual repression.

What made Nicole Kidman uniquely qualified to play Miss Martha as you had reconceived the character?
I've loved Nicole's performances — especially when she plays a little bit twisted, like in To Die For. When I was writing the screenplay I pictured her and that helped me. I knew she would bring a lot to Miss Martha, including humour and emotion. Nicole can play it so commanding that you know she's in charge of the whole group.

Kirsten Dunst as school teacher Edwina

Kirsten Dunst was your Marie Antoinette. How is she so well-suited to portray women from different times and at different places?
Kirsten has a quality that makes her believable as being from another time. That's not to say she can't be contemporary, too. But when she is in a period costume I can believe that she is someone of the era. I wanted her to play Edwina, the vulnerable schoolteacher, because she's so not like that; the character is repressed and fragile, and that's not Kirsten at all.

It was the same with having Elle Fanning, who is so sweet and big-hearted, playing a "bad girl." I thought that would be fun. I like seeing actresses playing against what you would expect from them.

How is Elle even more capable now as an actress than when you last worked with her, seven years ago, on Somewhere?
She was 11 when we did Somewhere, and it was wild that she was 18 making The Beguiled. She has the same personality, and is the same person — but a grown-up version. She still has all her childlike sparkle, and she's so natural. I was impressed with her as an actress then, and now even more so.

Elle brings so much to playing Alicia, showing the character as vain and into herself. Alicia is aware of how she's presenting herself, like when she spreads her skirt out as they all sit down with McBurney and she looks at him. In the book, the character has really been raised to catch a man.

Colin Farrell and Elle Fanning in The Beguiled
How did you cultivate a closeness among the younger members of the cast?
They took dancing lessons and etiquette classes and sewing instructions — what girls of that time would be doing. Spending time together on all these activities, they formed a bond. During filming — especially when we were out at Madewood — they would all hang out and they became friends. They went out trick-or-treating together for Halloween in the town we were in.

The insects are part of the sound design of The Beguiled. There is very little music; it's as if the score is the drumbeat of explosions sounding miles in the distance yet really not that far away.
These lives are so stripped-down that it wouldn't have made sense to have a big music score. I wanted to keep that minimal. I thought it would be more tense for the audience, feeling how they were all stuck with the sound of the cicadas almost non-stop and those cannons in the distance. The War's been going on a long time and it's in the background; the women have come to be used to that.

The Beguiled opens in theatres on 27 July.