Sofia Coppola: Studio was 'afraid' of girls watching The Virgin Suicides
Much like the young women at the center of Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel The Virgin Suicides, director Sofia Coppola once sought a singular voice in a male-dominated world that wasn’t quite sure what to do with her. The daughter of esteemed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, she acted in several of her father’s projects before illuminating a space for herself that shone bright beyond the shadow of her familial legacy. But, she seemingly found her place among the world’s most beloved auteurs by stepping behind the camera for her first feature film: an assured adaptation of Eugenides’ book, which follows a quintet of suburbanite sisters in 1970s America struggling to find their identity and harness their budding sexuality under the stifling gaze of God-fearing parents and an unsympathetic society.
Now, some 20 years after the debut of Coppola’s teen movie touchstone, the mysteries of the Lisbon sisters live on as new generations connect with the film’s masterful gaze into the enigmas of femininity. Ahead of the project’s April 24 re-release via The Criterion Collection (which includes a 4K digital transfer supervised by cinematographer Ed Lachman, new interviews with the cast and crew, and a behind-the-scenes documentary filmed by Coppola’s mother, Eleanor), EW caught up with Coppola about the film that announced her arrival as a visionary of the craft, beginning her working relationship with frequent collaborator Kirsten Dunst, why Paramount Classics was “afraid” of releasing the film to theaters, and what’s on the horizon for her as both a director and producer. Read on for the full interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was there something in terms of the state of how young women were portrayed onscreen at the time that you were hoping to address or correct with this film?
SOFIA COPPOLA: When I was growing up, movies for teens were always lowbrow and not well crafted, and it was hard to relate to them. Except for John Hughes movies, which I loved. There wasn’t much poetic filmmaking that spoke to me as a girl and a young woman, and also treated [us] with respect I felt that audience deserved… I love Jeffrey’s book and I felt like he really captured the mystery of that age, so it was the book that motivated me to want to make that film, but I didn’t really see that aesthetic [in other movies]. I was also into girly snapshot photography that I saw coming out of Japan… so it was all related to what I connected with. I wanted to make something that I could relate to… that connected with what my experience was.
You’d originally taken over the project from another director and screenwriter, right?
When I first heard about it, I wasn’t planning on being a director. I loved the book, and it was a thing of [telling myself], “I love the book and I hope they don’t mess it up when they’re making a movie!” There were already a director and a script, and I can’t remember who it was, but he fell out of the deal as projects go through different directors… I heard he wasn’t doing it, so I started working on my own script as an exercise in how to adapt a book. I thought I could just do a little bit, but I never expected to do the whole script. I got so into it and wanted to make the film, so I met the producers [and] I asked them to look at my version. I heard [the other director] was doing it in a really dark way, and I wanted it to have a lighter touch, which is how I pictured it when I read the book… somehow they gave me a chance!
How did you find your cinematic way into the story?
Everyone pictures a book when they’re reading it, and I had a really specific [vision]. I saw a visual way of how to translate the images. That’s what adapting was for me: It was a puzzle of how to translate that into visual storytelling. I had an idea of how I saw it, and then I put references together that I could show the cinematographer. I was listening to Air’s first album when I was writing the script and figured that could be the soundtrack. I was just thinking about how to make it a movie.
Did you ever consider setting it in a different time period than the ‘70s?
No, because the story is told as a memory, and to me that was a big element. It’s about looking back and piecing together memories. That’s why it’s made in a collage style of piecing together these memories to try to bring back these girls.
What makes the ‘70s the ideal backdrop for this story?
I guess that’s what you strive for. I grew up in the ‘70s, so it feels like that’s what my childhood looked like, and also in the ‘90s when we made it we were having a ‘70s nostalgic moment [in culture]… [The characters] were a little bit older than me [at the time] so I didn’t have classic rock at the school prom, but there’s something that feels very classic about it. I enjoyed embracing that period.
I read an essay that you wrote earlier this year where you said something about how the male presences in your life and feelings of female isolation sort of facilitated your interest in the project.
I definitely was interested in femininity and a girly aesthetic because that is part of me that I’m connected to and enjoy, and also because I grew up in such a macho environment and I cling to that part of my identity. I think it’s something you don’t see too much in film… but, I just made what I liked.
I know you weren’t 100 percent pleased with the way the film was released initially — why do you think it didn’t find its audience at the time of release, but has since become a touchstone of films about the teenage experience?
It makes me so happy to hear, because it didn’t have much of a release. Paramount Classics didn’t really know what to do with it… They were afraid that girls were going to commit suicide if they saw it! It had a really small release… we made it for very little, so they didn’t have to do much to make it.
It made me happy when, about 10 years ago, people started telling me that their teenage daughters loved the movie. I was like, they weren’t even born then! How do they even know about it? I’m happy that it has had a second life, and it makes me glad that girls of other generations connect to it and find something in it… It didn’t have much of a life at the time it came out. And that’s why I’m so happy about the Criterion [release as well]… I’m excited to have my first Criterion!
After you spent so much time with this film fueling your legacy in many ways, is there something different you maybe hope people get out of it that maybe you wouldn’t have thought about 20 years ago?
I’m happy just to be included in [Criterion’s] collection of classic films. If anyone gets something out of it, it makes me happy. When I revisit it, I still love Ed Lachman’s beautiful photography and [Kirsten’s performance]. I put a lot of heart into it at the time. I’m glad someone connected to it…. I would never want to say what I hope people get out of it. Like any art, you just hope that someone connects to it because that connects you to other people, and I feel like that’s the point of making art.
The movie absolutely connected you to Kirsten Dunst, who’d go on to make three more films with you!
We just clicked. It was my first film and it was so great to see someone be able to interpret how I envisioned this character. Kirsten is so good at intuitively being on the same page as me, and [we have] similar tastes, so she just conveyed that character exactly how I saw it. So I know that we have that connection when we work together that she just gets it and I don’t have to explain that much… We trust each other, so I know she’s not going to do something cheesy. She just had an unusual combination, like an all-American cheerleader, but [with] this depth about her that really worked for the role.
Are you still chugging along on the adaptation of Fairyland you announced a few years back?
Yeah, I’m producing it! My friend Andrew Durham [is directing]. He’s a photographer and this is his first time directing. We’ve been working on getting it together and getting an actor, but we’re getting closer. We’re hoping to shoot this summer, but you know how the film business goes… It’s taken us a while, and I went off to make [The Beguiled], but I’m still working on it and we’re hopefully doing it soon!
Have you lined anything else up at the moment in terms of your next directorial project?
Yeah, I’m just working on that now. But I’m not sure what. I’m writing and looking for different projects, but I haven’t figured it out yet.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a Sofia Coppola horror film would look like. I’d love to see that!
[Laughs] I feel like with The Beguiled I kind of dipped my toe in that area, but I never thought about doing full-blown horror! So, I will think about that. Have you seen A Quiet Place?
No, not yet! With horror films, I want to wait until theaters aren’t packed with people so I can see the film in peace.
I think it’d be fun to see it with an audience to see how everyone’s reacting! But, I don’t have plans to do a horror film, but I’ll keep it in mind.
Anything else you want to add about The Virgin Suicides?
My mom made a behind-the-scenes documentary at the time, which is on [the disc], and we did a new interview with Kirsten, and it was fun to see Josh [in that video]… there are extras, too. I hope anyone has a DVD player to watch it. I’m not sure if anyone has DVD players anymore, but I’m glad we got to make it!