Fresh off being named Best Director at Cannes at the end of last month (making her the second woman ever to take the prize), Sofia Coppola brought her latest film, The Beguiled, to the L.A. Film Festival on Thursday night.
The Southern Gothic psychodrama stars Nicole Kidman as the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school in Confederate Virginia during the Civil War, where the schoolteacher (Kirsten Dunst) and a handful of pupils (Elle Fanning among them) live hidden, for the most part, from the violence. One day, one of the girls finds a Union soldier (Colin Farrell), badly wounded, in the woods by the house, and the women take him in until he can recover. He’s an exciting addition to the household, until his presence only aggravates the women’s feelings of repression and isolation.
In honor of the film’s upcoming June 23 release and as part of an ongoing celebration of Focus Features’ 15th anniversary, the L.A. Film Festival presented a double feature on Thursday night, screening The Beguiled followed by Coppola’s sophomore feature, 2003’s Lost in Translation. In between films, Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell moderated a conversation with the filmmaker. In the spirit of the double feature, the pair talked about The Beguiled in the context of Coppola’s previous work — and if you thought 1999’s The Virgin Suicides was her first movie, you thought wrong.
“We had movie cameras around and we’d make little horror movies and stuff as kids,” Coppola said. “My first film, as, like, a 12-year-old, was called Vino Fatale. I don’t know where it is. I can’t remember [much about it], but there was blood and wine.”
Amateurish though it may be, Vino Fatale sounds like it shares more DNA with the pulpy The Beguiled than the new film does with the rest of Coppola’s filmography. The filmmaker says she welcomed the puzzle of “how to do something that was much more plot-driven, with so much more dialogue, and in a genre that was something I never did — but how to do that in my own style.”
One trademark of her style that is absent from the psychodrama is an impeccably curated pop soundtrack. “I wanted this movie to be more naturalistic and closer to the period,” Coppola explains. “When I did Marie Antoinette, I was trying to do everything not to do a dusty period movie. It was teenage and new romantic, and that was a whole different thing. This, I wanted to feel naturalistic and more stark, with a really minimal soundtrack, so it was really focused on their heightened emotions and building tension and suspense.”
The Beguiled’s marked departure from Coppola’s most recent film before it, The Bling Ring, was intentional as well. “I knew that after that movie I wanted to do something beautiful — that’s all I knew,” Coppola recalled. “That movie was in such a tacky, ugly world, and I wanted to cleanse myself. I wanted to do something beautiful, so that was my starting point… It was so depressing shooting in those kitchens in Calabasas.”
The source material came to her when Coppola’s friend Anne Ross, the production designer on the film, told her she should see the 1971 Don Siegel version and remake it. “I thought, ‘I would never make a remake of someone else’s movie.’ And I watched it and it stayed in my mind, and I kept thinking about how weird it was, and how I could see how I would do it to be very different.”
Crafting the look for this story “reminded me a little bit of what I was thinking about when I did Virgin Suicides,” she said. “There’s a similarity, that whole kind of ‘70s, girls in white dresses in nature [aesthetic].” She knew right away, too, that she wanted her collaborator from that film (and Marie Antoinette), Kirsten Dunst to play the schoolteacher, and she wrote the script with Kidman, whom she had never worked with before, in mind. “When I was going to, for a moment, work on The Little Mermaid, I wanted her to be the sea witch, like a diva sea witch,” Coppola said. “She’s so good when she’s twisted.”
Finally, the time came for the second half of the double feature, and Mitchell concluded the Q&A by asking Coppola about her memories of Lost in Translation. “I was writing it at my dining table when I lived in Los Feliz as a lonely trophy wife,” she began, pausing while the audience erupted in laughter (she was married to Spike Jonze at the time). “I thought it was very self-indulgent, and that nobody would care about these characters. I was very surprised that anybody connected with them.”
But connect with them people did: The film was nominated for four Oscars in 2004, including Best Picture and Best Director, and Coppola took home the statuette for Best Original Screenplay.
“I haven’t watched it in a long time,” Coppola admitted before the movie began. “I hope it holds up.”