Back with southern gothic epic The Beguiled, the director of her generation talks filmmaking, fashion and pushing herself with her darkest chapter to date
Sofia Coppola is sitting in a very crowded restaurant. It’s Thursday morning in New York and, after dropping off her kids at school, the director is eating breakfast with a friend. Either nobody is aware that she’s here, or everyone is good at pretending. As always, Coppola makes her own space.
“Sorry for all the noise,” she says when we eventually meet, with a tone of genuine bewilderment at the iPhone-toting brunchers that have descended. She introduces her first breakfast date (fellow mom and filmmaker, Tamara Jenkins), before strategising another spot to decamp to.
Crossing the street with Sofia Coppola feels surreal because her name has come to mean something more abstract, though acutely familiar. It’s tempting to think she dwells in the dreamlike vistas she creates, but that would do a disservice to the ways in which her vision sincerely adheres to how women and men make their way through the world. Outside, the director possesses an instant casualness, pointing out different places she is fond of, as well as the direction of the studio where she has lately been holed up finishing edits on The Beguiled, her hotly anticipated new film which premiered at Cannes in May and won her the Best Director award.
“I don’t think I was ever out of touch with reality,” Coppola explains a little later, pouring a cup of tea (there remains an urge to describe her every move as quiet, as though one could even pour tea loudly). “So much of that (adolescent) age is about daydreaming and fantasising because that’s how you figure out what you want to be, playing out different scenarios in your head... I don’t know.” Coppola’s statements have a habit of trailing off self-reflexively: she doesn’t know, or “It’s hard to say.” Yet the dreaminess is anchored by a very direct gaze, a sense that she’s taking you in even as she herself refuses definite readings. That she starts sentences without quite knowing how she is going to finish them is all part of her appeal.
From the exquisitely contained teenage tragedy of The Virgin Suicides (1999) to the courtly coming-of-age Marie Antoinette (2006), the chance Tokyo encounter of Lost in Translation (2003), and even her parable of adolescent excess in the age of flip-phones The Bling Ring (2013), Coppola has done much to define the way we see, hear and feel interiorities on screen. As a director, she intuits how our insides stick to our outsides; she understands, as the neighbourhood boys begin to grasp in The Virgin Suicides, “the imprisonment of being a girl... the way it makes your mind active and dreamy”. It’s no coincidence that the inhabitants of Coppola’s films stare through glass so much; both reflections and windows, these are films that have offered us new ways of seeing.
“So much of that (adolescent) age is about daydreaming and fantasising because that’s how you figure out what you want to be, playing out different scenarios in your head” – Sofia Coppola
This year, for her sixth feature, Coppola makes her darkest about-turn to date. Set in Virginia in 1864, The Beguiled stars Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning as residents at a secluded boarding school some three years into the American civil war. When one of the students finds an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) near their grounds, the women take him in rather than give him up to their own side’s forces, setting the scene for a study of sexual power games and twisted female obsession like no other. The story is based on Thomas P Cullinan’s pulpy book and Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, but, as Coppola emphasises, is absolutely not a remake. In fact, the decision to put her own stamp on the story at all began as somewhat of a joke.
“It started with my friend, Anne Ross, who’s the production designer and producer on the movie. I’ve worked with her a lot and we were just shooting commercials after The Bling Ring – I think we were shooting the ‘Daisy’ commercial for Marc Jacobs – and she said, ‘Oh, I’ve just watched this movie The Beguiled, I think you need to remake it,’ as a joke. Of course, shooting ‘Daisy’ all the girls were in white gowns...”
Don Siegel’s original The Beguiled is a film long established in pop-culture consciousness as a strange relic of Hollywood’s wilder, woollier years – with notable scenes including a grizzled Clint Eastwood kissing a 12-year-old girl smack on the lips. Described by the director as based on “the basic desire of women to castrate men”, one New York Times reviewer at the time went so far as to call it a “sensational, misogynist nightmare”. But, where other directors would be switched off by the taboo nature of the material, Coppola found herself hooked precisely because she was so disoriented. “It’s just such a classic, a genre classic,” she says. “But I found it so unexpected, how it turns. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s going that dark!’ It was so weird, it just stayed in my mind... and then I got the idea of how we could tell the story.”
It’s taken a director of Coppola’s powers to flip the script. Subtract the puffed-up posturings of the original, and what we have at its core is a devastating portrayal of female loneliness and its consequences. “I liked that the premise was so loaded,” she explains. “I thought about what the experience for these women might have been like, to be raised to be lovely for men and then there are no men around, and how they had to survive. It talks about the power struggles between men and women, and women and women, but in such a heightened way. Retelling the story, but this time from the female point of view, turns it into their story – not the soldier, but these crazy women. It’s just more...” She searches for the right word. “...fun.”
‘Fun’ is a word that crops up a lot when Coppola discusses The Beguiled, and there is certainly a sense of the director revelling in the story’s bodice-ripping melodrama: the women, competing for the soldier’s affections, go from mad to worse, tensions rise to blood-soaked conclusions, and the dialogue drips with era-specific sass (cue Elle Fanning as seductive southern belle: “I hope you like apple pie...”). I wonder if, by moving back in time to a specific historical period, Coppola was able to help bring certain issues into focus. But she insists the appeal of the period setting was really more straightforward. “For me it’s about creating a beautiful world,” she says. “That setting, with the Spanish moss in the trees, with these girls in faded long dresses, it’s so dramatic and romantic... Southern gothic with those candelabras and nightgowns and rituals of femininity – I just love that. There’s a romance to the era which is more fun for making a movie than filming people in jeans.”
“I liked that the premise (of The Beguiled) was so loaded. (How must it have been) for these women, to be raised to be lovely for men and then there are no men around?” - Sofia Coppola
The film’s sense of loosening-up might also stem from the camaraderie of the nearly all-female cast, which brings together a formidable triple-bill of three generations of leading actress: Kidman, Dunst and Fanning respectively play the school’s headmistress, schoolteacher and eldest schoolgirl. “It was interesting to not just (have that) teen role but to have women at different ages and (wearing) all different facades, relating to this man in their own way. They’re almost like the same person at different stages of her life.”
The Beguiled also sees Dunst and Fanning, introduced to the world through their roles in The Virgin Suicides and Somewhere, united for the first time in the same Coppola-verse. It’s 19-year-old Fanning, playing the manipulative teenager who sets her crosshairs on seducing Farrell’s soldier, who gets far and away the best lines. “I thought it would be really interesting to cast her as a kind of slutty mean girl, because she’s so sweet and I don’t think of her like that at all,” says Coppola. As for Farrell, playing the hunky soldier on the receiving end of a claustrophobic female gaze, I wonder if he didn’t actually feel fearful at any point. “Colin has been supportive about being the token male and sex object,” she deadpans. “I think he indulged himself. He could lie on his lace pillows...”
Coppola filmed The Beguiled at Madewood, a real plantation house in Louisiana, consulted with a civil war expert, and researched conduct books from the period. Still, Merchant Ivory this ain’t. “It’s all based on the period, but we wanted to make it look appealing and not weird to the modern eye,” says Coppola. “I loved that they don’t wear the hoops in the skirts any more, because there’s no one around – but there’s a scene where (Farrell) first arrives and they start putting their hoop skirts back on and dressing the way they’re supposed to.” The pastel taffeta, Gunne Sax-esque florals and twinkling brooches are a far cry from the lavish, instinctively joyful take on new-romantic fashion that epitomised Coppola’s Versailles in Marie Antoinette, but the director’s respect for material details on-screen – and skill at pushing their boundaries – still shines through. For costume designer Stacey Battat, when it comes to period costumes, the trick is to “know the rules so you know how to break them”. “All of the silhouettes are historically accurate, so small deviations like Elle wearing her hair down or evening dresses being less embellished still feel authentic,” she describes of her approach, adding that, for her, Coppola’s “greatest gift as a director is the ability to create a world”.
“I thought it would be really interesting to cast (Elle) as a kind of slutty mean girl, because she’s so sweet and I don’t think of her like that at all” - Sofia Coppola
Where the world of Somewhere was LA sun-bleached, and The Bling Ring neon-lit, the best way to describe The Beguiled might be dusty. For her moodboard, Coppola cites “Tess by Roman Polanski, and even some Hitchcock for the way he creates suspense.” (For recent markers, the women on the porch in Beyoncé’s Lemonade spring to mind; in fact, portions were filmed at the same location.) That the film possesses Coppola’s usual enclosed atmosphere makes the accelerating plot all the more shocking in relief. “It was fun to do something with a bit of violence and dark sexuality, (and) I had to push myself with a bit of gore,” says Coppola. “But the movie still has lots of space to it. I think the trailer makes it look more scandalous than it really is.” In the age of Netflix, Coppola is a passionate advocate for theatres – because what else are movies for but “to escape for a moment into this other world... and then hopefully connect on some level besides through the escapism”?
But, as Coppola describes it, The Beguiled did come to mean something beyond a totally new direction – it was more like a coming full-circle. “When I first saw all the girls in pale dresses, and then a man comes into their world... to me, it related to The Virgin Suicides. But (the women in the film) flip it, as they’re the stronger characters.”
A story about the disillusionment of experience and the memories that locate it in time, Coppola’s debut has endured across generations of lonely girls on the brink of womanhood, who seem to feel its mystique like the Lisbon sisters were their neighbours. For Rookie founder and actress Tavi Gevinson, the film crystallises “how much of adolescence – or of love at any age – is lived in one’s own head”. “I think when I first watched it, I was 13, and expected that by my millionth rewatch, I’d finally feel like a Lisbon sister,” she recounts. “Of course, I never did, because I worshipped them instead of relating to them. I experienced it as one of the boys.”
For Coppola, that The Virgin Suicides has experienced another life after its release means more than people may realise. “It made me so happy that it was rediscovered by teenagers,” she enthuses. “No one saw it at the time! It came out for, like, two minutes because the studio didn’t think it was anything worthwhile. I remember someone telling me her daughter looked up to me and I was like, ‘She wasn’t even born, how does she know about that?’ It’s nice to feel like it has another life and can still connect.”
“I didn’t feel like teenage girls were represented in an authentic way when I was growing up... I love young women and wanted to make work for them that I wanted to see” - Sofia Coppola
That the film continues to resonate with young viewers rings true to Coppola’s experience of reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ source novel. She has previously stated that her vision for The Virgin Suicides was tied up with the tragic death of her older brother Gian-Carlo in a boating accident when she was a teenager, but speaks more generally today. “I feel like there’s a universal experience of being that age so whatever I related to about it, someone of the same age would also be able to relate. I think the book is a classic because it captures the emotion of that age in a respectful way.”
It’s different for girls, and perhaps no other director has understood this better than Coppola, whose camera has committed to exploring tropes of girlhood she seemed to invent. For her, filmmaking simply came from a place of wanting to fill a gap she herself felt strongly. “I didn’t feel like teenage girls were represented very much in an authentic way when I was growing up,” she explains. “I love young women and wanted to make work for them that I wanted to see, to treat them with respect and make something of quality and sensitivity that spoke to them. Like, why can’t it be artful?”
Coppola also cites growing up among the alpha-male Coppola clan as partly responsible for her desire to create her own girl-world. The young Sofia grew up on the sets of whichever movie her dad, Francis Ford Coppola, was filming at the time, from appearing as the baby in the christening at the end of The Godfather to running around the Philippines during the making of Apocalypse Now. “I’m the only girl in my generation, so I had to express that,” she says. “I grew up with a load of men around me – all my cousins, brothers. I just wanted to make something really feminine.” In terms of female role models (other than mum Eleanor, a documentary filmmaker in her own right), another figure in Hollywood lore who has worked to redefine what her last name means is Anjelica Huston. At the mention of her name, Coppola lights up. “I love Anjelica! I just saw her last night. I feel like she’s an aunt to me, she has always been kind – and when I was an awkward teenager, she told me I’d grow into my nose!”
But Coppola “didn’t just wake up one day as a director”. Connections aside, she spent her late teens and 20s much like the rest of us – in a permanent state of inbetween-ness, “figuring things out”. These are the years of that widely derided Godfather III performance, and occasional tabloid appearances (remember when a poker-haired Coppola dated Keanu Reeves?). The film Coppola cites as most representative of this period is Lost in Translation. The story of an ageing American actor (Bill Murray) in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey ad and the shiftless college graduate (Scarlett Johansson) who meets him in a hotel bar one night, the nuanced drama earned Coppola a best screenplay Oscar and established her as a rare new voice in film. Having founded a fashion label called Milk Fed in 1994 with her friend Stephanie Hayman that would take her back and forth from the city, Coppola saw the character of Charlotte, played by Johansson, as a stand-in for herself – as well as for so many aimless, educated millennials with the world supposedly at their feet. (When Murray’s character asks Charlotte what she plans to do with her philosophy degree, she responds ruefully, “I don’t know, but I can think about it, a lot.”)
Milk Fed wasn’t a one-off – before she took the plunge into filmmaking, Coppola was drawn to fashion. As a child she was always drawing clothes, as a teenager she interned at Chanel, and, before long, she was gatecrashing fashion weeks. “It wasn’t like today where people outside the industry would go,” she recalls, “so it was fun to sneak into this world which was kind of exotic to me.” But it was the world of photography that proved the breeding ground for her aesthetic. “Fashion photography was very feminine, but it was just what I liked,” she says, namechecking photographers like Juergen Teller and Corinne Day as inspirations. “They had a naturalistic and intimate feeling I appreciate. It makes you feel connected to the world and other people when you connect with their work.”
Still, Coppola felt self-conscious about being taken seriously. “(Fashion) was something outside my family business so it was my separate thing, but there was always the thing of, like, ‘Oh, I have to be a serious independent filmmaker so I have to hide my interest in fashion.’ I was taking pictures with Steven (Meisel) recently and the stylist was holding up really glamorous clothes and I was still (hesitant), like there’s something about me being a director – and he was like, ‘You don’t have to worry, you can do whatever you want.’ It’s nice to be at that point.”
Of all the fashion figures that Coppola has encountered, it’s clear that Marc Jacobs is one of the most important. She first caught wind of the young designer after reading about his hellraising, short-lived tenure at Perry Ellis (his SS93 grunge tribute collection had him immediately fired from the American brand). “I loved what Marc was doing, it spoke to me,” she says. “On a trip to New York, my mom took me to see the first collection, and we started talking. He’s fun and interesting and sophisticated – I’ve always enjoyed his friendship.” After that first meeting, a lasting collaborative relationship was sparked, as captured most intimately by Juergen Teller in off-the-cuff shots like the pair cuddling in bed, or a long-haired Jacobs pretending to spank her. For Jacobs, it’s clear the feeling is mutual. “Sofia represents everything I am drawn to: talent, style, creativity, a unique vision,” he says.
Fast-forward to now, and Coppola’s vision has chimed with Raf Simons’ new era at Calvin Klein. The collaboration was first hinted at in February, when Simons’ debut, a consideration of the codes of Americana, was part-scored by Air’s achingly familiar Virgin Suicides soundtrack. Then, in April, Calvin Klein unveiled its new, female-first underwear campaign – as directed and cast by Coppola. Starring figures from Dunst to Chase Sui Wonders (niece of Anna Sui) and, magnificently, a 73-year-old Lauren Hutton, the intimate black-and-white clip made mantras of ‘sex sells’ feel like happily distant memories. “I hadn’t met (Simons) before,” says Coppola. “(When) they were like, ‘Do you want to do a Calvin Klein underwear commercial?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, I would love to!’ Kate Moss, that was such an iconic campaign to me,” she enthuses, calling to mind the time she actually did cast a pole-dancing Moss in her video for The White Stripes’ “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”. For Coppola, the campaign was a riposte to the overt sexualisation of the female body. “Being able to do the female gaze was amazing for me because it meant the opposite of Victoria’s Secret – not to diss them – but there’s such an idea of that kind of woman. It was so cool to have the chance to do it with women that I think are interesting but still sexy and cute.” Having just wrapped on The Beguiled, Coppola simply brought the same team to work on the commercial – and, besides, she and Simons had lots to talk about. “Raf is, like, a total horror movie fan! You’d never guess.”
Even with commercial opportunities, Coppola admits the situation for female directors has not improved as much as she would have liked. “I was talking to Tamara (Jenkins) when we were taking the movie to Cannes, and she was like, ‘Are there only three women? I thought there were four in the competition.’ Which is small. But I feel like I’m happy to make my work and hopefully that’ll encourage others. Jane Campion inspired me when I was a kid, surrounded by all these strong men making strong movies. She was really doing her thing, from a female point of view, not trying to be one of the guys. I hope that the more points of view there are out there, the more people will think their point of view is worthwhile also.”
“Sofia represents everything I am drawn to: talent, style, creativity, a unique vision” – Marc Jacobs
From Campion to Hayao Miyazaki (“I love those movies”), one of the refreshing things about Coppola has been how she wears her references on her sleeves – something that is, in itself, encouraging. She’s a true fan, someone who gets most enthused when recommending other people’s work, not discussing her own. Today, it’s documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, a topic we get on to when she is discussing what the best movies are where people do nothing and it’s still interesting (apart from her own). For her, plotless documentaries like Wiseman’s High School, The Store and Model are where the magic happens.
“I was watching (Model) recently and it reminded me of Somewhere. I realised it’s the same thing, like you’re just with someone. Getting into that mode of just being with them. I can see how it could be boring, but I like the feeling that you’re with the character and they’re alive. (It’s about) trying to make it as unlike a movie as you can.”
It’s perhaps because of Coppola’s commitment to making movies that are unlike other movies that they have proved, for some, so easy to dismiss. They are, according to naysayers, ‘too aesthetic’, a criticism which is somehow tied up with the idea that they have a feminine perspective (even though, as in Lost in Translation and Somewhere, masculine anxieties have also anchored her stories). That the movies value space and place, then, becomes a somehow feminine quality; but for Coppola, it has always been necessary to create one’s own mental environment, something vital to thinking, and dreaming, and becoming oneself. “My daughter is ten and she wants a phone so badly,” she says. “I was saying (to her) you really need the time to daydream and space out, because that’s when you get ideas. When I was a kid there was a lot of time to just be in your thoughts and read magazines and figure out what you want to do, and who you admire.”
“The aesthetic always serves the story for me,” she continues. “I think beauty and substance can coexist.” When critics find fault with Coppola’s enclosed worlds, what they’re missing is that locations, and objects, do help to define our lives, and, more than this, that our own pathways are made of self-contained, occasionally triumphant, often beautiful, mostly banal moments – not epic, outsized narratives from which we glean some greater truth. That no one understands this better than 13-year-old girls is beside the point (and besides, doctor, you’ve never been one). It is simply the uncertain magic of how we live.
“The aesthetic always serves the story for me. I think beauty and substance can coexist” - Sofia Coppola
In one of The Beguiled’s most darkly memorable moments, five schoolgirls, a teacher and their headmistress neatly stitch up a body bag, much like they have been carefully cross-stitching floral embroidery in their needlework lessons. It’s no coincidence that the title font of the film, elegant and swirling, is pink with red shadows; this is blushing girlhood edged with darkness, a vision given its fullness by that enduring communion between how Coppola sees and how being a young woman in any given reality feels. In that sense, The Beguiled is a departure that also feels like a homecoming, a return to the motivations that have always drawn Coppola to expressing herself on film – and through film alone. “It’s something mysterious, what you’re into,” she muses. “(But) I have a really strong view of what I want.”
“This is why I like doing this,” she continues. “Because I was always opinionated but my opinion didn’t really matter until I was, like...” Her hesitation conjures a steely-eyed Coppola, on-set on The Virgin Suicides in her late 20s, taking charge in her own, quietly determined way rather than raising her voice like the figures in her life hitherto. “And now I get to do this role, and truly express my point of view in its entirety... Just for that little moment, anyway.”
Stills from The Beguiled courtesy of Focus Features
The Beguiled is in UK cinemas from July 14