THE AIR THAT I BREATHE
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, but I knew I wanted to do something that was really beautiful.”
Sofia Coppola’s movies reveal her contradictions. She is a director whose Hollywood inauguration was a birthright, thanks to an illustrious family tree and a luckless child-acting stint she never wanted. Fleeting youthfulness lies at the center of her stories: the troubled teens in “The Virgin Suicides” and “The Bling Ring,” the aging actors adrift in “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere,” the callow duchess thrust into notoriety in “Marie Antoinette,” and now the repressed boarding-school denizens in “The Beguiled.” Her characters seek better horizons, but Coppola is nothing if not resolute, sophisticated, singular.
In the words of “Bling Ring” star Israel Broussard, Coppola has a “motherly essence and gracefulness.” According to “Virgin Suicides” matriarch Kathleen Turner, who also co-starred with Coppola in the 1986 comedy “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “She gives you a lot of freedom, but you feel she knows what she wants.” Stephen Dorff, the “Somewhere” headliner in whom Coppola spotted a “vulnerability” that no other director saw, waxes about her observant and “confident” disposition. Bill Murray, who netted his only Oscar nomination to date for “Lost in Translation,” has been known to call her the Velvet Hammer.
Not many filmmakers can claim palettes ― or personas ― as idiosyncratic as Coppola’s. She is known for getting the performances she wants from her actors and the sun-splashed aesthetics she wants from her cinematographers. She can take on the gravity of the French Revolution or the Civil War, imbuing a contemporary milieu that might make you forget you’re watching a period piece. She has tackled the insularity of suburbia and the disconnectedness of a metropolis, ensuring you relate to both. Every time you think you know Sofia Coppola, she challenges your assumptions, while still maintaining a fixation on adolescence’s ephemerality and the inhibitions that accompany maturity.
“The Beguiled,” which opens in limited release June 23, is more contained than her previous features, taking place entirely at the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. The institution’s resources have grown scarce as the Civil War roars on, invoking a malaise that defines the Coppola catalog.
″‘Somewhere’ was an exercise in how minimal we could make that movie and still have it be a movie,” she said during our recent interview in New York. “The script was not even a script — it was like 30 pages and it was just very, very simple. After ‘Marie Antoinette’ was so decorative and so many people, I wanted just to strip down how simply you could make a movie. That was the thinking. And then after ‘Bling Ring’ was such an ugly world, I wanted to do something beautiful. That was the starting point for ‘The Beguiled.’”
AGE OF CONSENT
“Sometimes I can’t just relax and enjoy a book without looking at it as something to adapt, which is annoying because I enjoy just reading books.”
Across her six movies ― seven if you count the hourlong Netflix holiday special “A Very Murray Christmas” ― Coppola has adapted novels fixated on young women, told poignant original stories of self-rumination and depicted larger-than-life episodes from history.
Coppola, 46, never wanted to do a remake, but she gravitated toward “The Beguiled” after her production designer recommended the vampy 1971 original directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as an injured Union soldier being nursed to health at the New Orleans boarding school. The few girls and women who remain there are transfixed by the mystifying man’s presence.
Siegel’s version, derived from a Thomas P. Cullinan novel that Coppola dismisses as “pulpy,” portrays the headmistress Miss Farnsworth (played by Geraldine Page) and her students as erratic and feral ― “crazy,” as Coppola puts it. While watching them plant seeds of flirtation and seduction, Coppola pondered what a less masculine perspective would entail, though she swears she’s not the type to consider what she would have done had she directed whatever movie she’s experiencing.
“I just wanted to connect with each character on a human level, so I just tried to think about what it was like for her,” Coppola said, referring to Farnsworth, brought to life in this rendition by Nicole Kidman’s commanding subtlety. “I wanted her to have dignity and be attractive. Just because she’s older doesn’t mean she needs to be crazy. And also just because they have desire, that shouldn’t be something crazy either — that should be something human and natural. In the other one, they had to become perverted. She had an incest story, and there’s a lesbian dream montage. Maybe it’s just the style of that time and that point of view, but I wanted to make her more human and relatable.”
These are, after all, women who have been subjected to a sort of finishing academy. They’ve read manuals on how to behave like a proper lady, what men expect from them, where their places in society lie. Played by Coppola veterans Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, along with a handful of lesser-known young actresses, the characters engage in a battle royal, each pining for the affection of the interloping soldier (Colin Farrell, more strapping than ever).
“The Beguiled” harks back to Coppola’s 1999 debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” in which five 1970s teenage sisters shelter their sexuality inside a suburban Michigan home run by parents who implement similar Victorian confinements. The frilly white frocks adorning “The Beguiled” resemble the pale floral gowns the Lisbon sisters don on prom night, not long before collectively ending their lives. Josh Hartnett’s cool Trip Fontaine, who turns heads as he glides down the school’s halls like a true magic man, is to “The Virgin Suicides” what Farrell’s Corporal John McBurney is to “The Beguiled.”
Jeffrey Eugenides, the Pulitzer winner who wrote the novel on which “Virgin Suicides” is based, emailed Coppola to say he was “excited” she was adapting “The Beguiled,” a movie he loves. “I feel like there must have been something that he had in the back of his mind — there’s some relation” between the two stories, she said.
Despite our conversation about the threads that travel throughout her work, Coppola has no idea what anyone says about her online and in magazines. Her stories, largely centered on privileged white people, have inspired a derby of think pieces and Twitter debates, but Coppola is “too sensitive” to engage with those who accuse her films of, say, favoring style over substance. In fact, when I mentioned the passionate debates surrounding her work and its relation to her life as the daughter of the Hollywood legend who directed the “Godfather” trilogy (and the cousin of Jason Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage), she responds with her typical “Oh!” Your opinions about Coppola, whatever they may be, are likely to take her by surprise. It’s almost as if ― imagine! ― she is not here to substantiate critics. Her characters are always searching, just as she sought an identity independent of the biography that so many of us scrutinize. (She once started a fashion line and studied painting at the California Institute of the Arts. She has since helmed music videos, commercials and an opera.)
“I’m flattered that anyone’s thinking about that,” she said, indicating no desire to elaborate.
JUST LIKE HONEY
“I think about a young audience. I want them to have something. I never understood why movies for teenagers didn’t look good or weren’t good quality.”
On and off movie sets, Coppola is known for her gentle hand. She can come across as aloof, but during our time together earlier this week, her eye contact was warm and she seemed game to discuss whatever topic arose, even if she doesn’t necessarily enjoy annotating her own work.
“She appears almost passive,” Kathleen Turner told me. “She kind of lets things happen and then says, ‘Hmm, nah, that’s not quite how I saw it’ or ‘That’s not quite what I was thinking.’ There’s no outright criticism, per se, or it’s so seldom that it’s very surprising if there is.”
With that temperament, actors want to give her what she’s looking for. It’s why Dunst has returned to Coppola’s charge time and again, and why the elusive Bill Murray became an unlikely muse for her as a screenwriter, and why the image-conscious Emma Watson went total Valley Girl sleaze in a what felt like a left turn after “Harry Potter” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
Working with her costume designers and art directors, Coppola gives her casts photographs and films to study. For “The Bling Ring,” a story about real Los Angeles teens who preyed on opulent celebrity homes, she asked Watson and the other actors to watch heist capers like “Ocean’s Eleven.” For “The Beguiled,” Coppola looked to Roman Polanski’s “Tess” and David Hamilton’s ethereal photos of girls.
To create a Southern Gothic mood, smoke machines cast a fog over the Louisiana plantation’s oak trees. Coppola imagined a rich backstory for the manor that houses the Martha Farnsworth Seminary, once the site of antebellum balls. “It had its grand days,” she said. “The party’s over.”
Therein lies a key theme coursing through Coppola’s work: The party is over. It was over for Murray’s and Dorff’s fame-fatigued slouches in “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere,” respectively. It came to a fatal end in “Marie Antoinette,” and a legally and spiritually fraught stopgap in “The Bling Ring.” In the case of “The Virgin Suicides,” the party could never begin. In a bold move that’s rare for a mainstream Hollywood debut, teen girls were ascribed a sort of ennui and restraint that regularly haunts adults.
“When I was starting with ‘Virgin Suicides,’ I wanted to make something about young women because I felt they weren’t always depicted in a way that I could relate to,” she said. “Besides [John Hughes movies like ‘The Breakfast Club’ and ‘Sixteen Candles’], there were always 35-year-olds playing teenage girls.”
Despite numerous childhood and young-adult screen credits ― including her infamously derided turn as Michael Corleone’s daughter in “The Godfather Part III” and an appearance in Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper” video at age 21 ― Coppola blanches at the notion that she herself was something of a child starlet. Regardless, she clearly has a kinship with young actors and actresses that feeds into her recurring themes surrounding the power of youth.
Israel Broussard, for example, said she’d make the “Bling Ring” cast run and jump up and down before a scene to “get the heart racing.” Coppola said she employed the same tactic on “The Beguiled,” ordering the actresses to dash around in their characters’ nightgowns to prepare for a scene in which they’re hysterical.
Such anecdotes speak to the essence of a Coppola set. Kidman may be one of the few older actresses with whom Coppola has collaborated, but the idea of her sprinting though a New Orleans mansion ― which, by the way, belongs to actress Jennifer Coolidge ― conjures up an image of girlhood, fleetingly recaptured just as Sofia would want it.
CROWN ON THE GROUND
“I just want my movies to do well enough so I can keep making movies.”
In Hollywood, Coppola has been given what some might call a blank check. Few directors can make virtually any movie they want without interference from the studio backing the project. Coppola, who maintains final-cut approval, has said that securing the necessary financing for “The Beguiled” ― a reported $10 million ― wasn’t easy. Nonetheless, she has avoided the box-office litmus test that plagues many women, whose misfires are not granted the free pass their male counterparts enjoy.
Coppola’s highest-grossing film is easily “Lost in Translation,” which opened in 2003 and collected $119.7 million worldwide (in addition to Oscar nods for Best Picture and Best Director; she was the first American woman nominated for the latter). Despite 2010′s “Somewhere” petering out at $13.9 million and 2013′s “The Bling Ring” stalling at $19.1 million, she’s continued her track record, making a movie every three or four years.
Some of that goodwill was inevitably aided by her father’s legacy, even though Coppola’s work stands on its own. But Coppola only cares about ticket revenue insofar as she wants assurance that she can continue to work with the same freedom. (In 2015, she exited Disney’s live-action “Little Mermaid” reboot, which she would have filmed underwater, because the studio wouldn’t grant her creative license.) This time, however, she’s more invested in the profits.
“It would be fun if [‘The Beguiled’] is successful, just because there’s such a feeling right now with ‘Wonder Woman’ being a hit,” she said. “Ours is not on that scale, but it would just be nice for female-driven stories. The studios don’t always think that’s a valid audience, which it is. […] So in that way, I hope it does well.”
Understanding that the marketing of films is a commercial art unto itself, and that any project’s success is dependent on it opening at the right time and reaching the right demographics, Coppola was disappointed that the “Beguiled” trailer gave away so much of the plot. It’s advertised as a standard thriller, featuring an “over-the-top” score that doesn’t appear in the film, a nearly music-free production that’s striking for someone associated with eclectic soundtracks. She does, however, love the posters and T-shirts with “vengeful bitches” scrawled in cursive, a reference to one of Farrell’s lines of dialogue. In an odd moment of cross-brand synergy, “Real Housewives of New York” cast members posted Instagram photos wearing the shirts and promoting the film’s release date.
Setting aside her family name and the strain of being a woman in a male-monopolized industry, Coppola’s distinctive visual flair and languid pacing are key to the creative immunity she has attained.
“Sofia also has an uncanny ability to communicate her vision in a few incredibly evocative and well-chosen words,” Sarah Flack, who has edited Coppola’s movies since “Lost in Translation,” wrote in an email. “I often tell directors that I can get them from A to Z (from the dailies to a cut scene, or from one version of a scene to another version, or a new version of the film) if they just tell me what Z is. They don’t have to figure out how to get to Z with the footage we have ― that’s my job ― as long as they know what Z is. Sofia not only knows what Z is at all times, but she can describe Z in the most perfect way.”
Coppola is the rare woman who invites few, if any, comparisons to her male predecessors and equivalents. Having long ignored her father’s advice to “say ‘action’ louder so they know you’re in charge” (and survived just fine, thank you very much), Coppola doesn’t need a penetrating presence in Hollywood’s macho auteur club or dazzling box-office returns to make the movies of her choosing. She simply needs her own biography, displaced and refracted upon each endeavor.
We faithful peasants will continue to eat her cake.
“The Beguiled” opens in limited release June 23 and expands nationwide June 30.