In the latest installment of The Art Of…, director Sofia Coppola takes us behind the scenes of her 19th-century Gothic thriller, The Beguiled. The lustful, revenge story is beautifully told through Coppola’s unique vision as she takes us through the gates of the Farnsworth School for Young Ladies in Civil War Virginia.
I caught up with Coppola to talk about the opening minutes of the film, the oak tree, and setting up the theme for what we are about see. Coppola also talks about her influences and how the soundscape was important to the film as she didn’t have a big score to accompany the film.
Read the latest in The Art Of… with Sofia Coppola and The Beguiled.
Sofia Coppola’s intention was clear to her from the outset. “It was important to have the audience, as with any film, immerse themselves in the setting of the world. It was important for me to shoot on location in New Orleans where the plantations were, with old oak trees, with moss. Those trees were particular to that region and had a Gothic darkness to them.” And so, we enter into the world of The Beguiled. Coppola reinvents Don Siegel’s 1971 classic about a wounded Union soldier, John, played by Colin Farrell. Young Amelia is wandering through the woods picking mushrooms when she stumbles across John. Unable to walk, he is brought into the house, formerly a boarding school but now only occupied by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her girls Edwina and Alicia (Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning).
Coppola describes this crucial opening as she sets the tone between the outside world of the forest and the Civil War in the distance against the deceptively peaceful realm of the remote house and residence. “We were shooting it like Little Red Riding Hood, but it wasn’t meant to be that way. This innocent girl going into the dark forest and she stumbles upon a wounded soldier. The canons were important to set up to show she’s near the battlefield.” As John is brought into their midst, Coppola says, “He goes into their world, a soft, non-threatening world. In contrast, the forest is more masculine.”
Listen as Coppola discusses the opening and how sound played an important part in setting the atmosphere, whether it was the sound of the cicadas or the cannons booming in the background in order to help us feel the isolation of the women. “It was important to hear the canons and the whole film is meant to be stark in a naturalistic way and you feel the battle in the distance. The sound design became a big focal point because we don’t have a big score. The sound of the cicadas, nature and the isolation. I wanted you to feel it.” Coppola says.
The Dinner scenes
“I wanted to really feel the difference. This idea that they were Southern ladies raised to entertain men and there were no men around. When you first meet them, they’re not wearing hoops. He comes and they’re wearing their finest. The youngest girls haven’t been around men in a long time. Nicole’s character uses it as education for these girls.” Coppola says describing the pivotal dinner scenes in the film. “I wanted to show the contrast and mystery between the rugged man and the delicate ladies. We focused it on filming it on whose point of view. The exchanges between different characters, to show rivalry and hierarchy. I’ve always been interested in the non-verbal communication between women.”
We were thoughtful at each dinner scene. The first time, they’re all dressed up with candles and doilies. In the final scene, there are fewer candles and flowers, visual clues. I love the contrast in the final scene, they’re ladylike but it’s violent.” Listen as Coppola talks about the power dynamics of how the dinner scenes change as the tension builds between John and the no longer adoring girls from when we first see them sitting down to dinner.
As for the cinematography, Coppola says, “We spent a lot of time before filming going through the script looking at paintings and photography and focusing on the shift in the story and how to tell it visually. The opening shots are soft, feminine and non-threatening. You see the shift, the shots are tense, tighter and claustrophobic. The art department changes, the shutters changes and we broke down sections of the story. You want the camera work to underline where you are in the story and to emphasize that with the camera. The look was important to have a gauzy look of the camera.”
Listen to the clip below as Coppola discusses her shots, her influences, and research to take us into the Gothic, thriller that is The Beguiled. Consider The Beguiled in your Oscar voting for Best Costume Design, Best Director, and Best Picture.