Tonight the Film Society at Lincoln Center was graced with the company of Sofia Coppola to discuss her influences and her newest film. A new interpretation of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film and Thomas Cullinan novel, The Beguiled is set at a girls school in the South where Nicole Kidman plays a Headmistress whose students have found a wounded Union soldier played by Colin Farrell. While nursing him back to health a struggle ensues between Farrell and the women in the school that Coppola described as a story of romantic tension and “the power shifts between relationships in men and women.” In nearly every preview of the film it certainly seems to be an unconventional thriller that looks beautifully lensed and composed.
In the talk this evening she spoke about what influenced her to get into filmmaking and gave many great anecdotes about everything from meeting Bill Murray for the first time to how her mom is friends with John Waters.
Her First Film
She started off by giving some insights into how she became the director of The Virgin Suicides and began her filmmaking career. Originally she was focused on fashion and fashion photography but she first dabbled in film because she had read the novel The Virgin Suicides and was completely taken by it. She then found out that there was a film version in production and after learning more she felt that the interpretation that was being tried by the writer and director was too dark and didn’t convey the way she saw the novel so she started to write her own version. After finishing the script she started talking to producers and eventually “talked them into” directing it as she put it with a laugh. We’ll be left guessing exactly what that conversation was like but I would love to have been a fly on the wall for that meeting.
Her father visiting the set of Virgin Suicides
When asked about whether she stuck to any particular scholars or scholarship on film she mentioned a few books she had read and lessons learned from her experience in the Coppola family. However, she said it’s important to do things your own way and referenced that her father Francis Ford Coppola visited her on set for The Virgin Suicides and starting giving her a ton of lessons about how she needed to say “action!” louder and things of that nature and she said she had to stop him and make it clear, ‘This is how I’m going to do it Dad,’ which got a great laugh from the audience.
Streaming vs. the theater
On the currently raging debate about the effect of streaming services on the film industry she struck a delicate balance between both sides that I think is more reflective of most thoughts than the black and white views that were controversially expressed by some at Cannes. She recognized that Netflix, Amazon and others have democratized the industry in some ways because it’s easier to fund unconventional films like shorts and those that don’t stick to an hour and a half run time and even referenced a friend who had received funding from Netflix for a project that she didn’t think could have happened in years past. She mentioned how it’s great that budding filmmakers can also find copies of rare films more easily than in the past and often with better quality. She remarked about how lucky she is to live in New York and be able to see high quality prints of old films but not everyone has that privilege. She said that there is no way that you can ever replace the theater experience and described how you can get truly lost in the moment in a theater and push away all of the distractions so it’s a unique and priceless experience in and of itself.
Her children’s taste in movies
She joked that she worries that she hasn’t done a good job of showing them the classics because they only seem to like the big budget high grossing films (some of which she genuinely likes). She said when they asked to see La La Land she was more than willing but only if they agreed to watch Singing in the Rain and the Umbrellas of Cherbourg beforehand. She also mentioned that as far as any new music she hasn’t been too up to date with the exception of the XX and of course her husband’s band Phoenix. She did say that her kid’s taste has been her main exposure to new music and she went with her 10 year old to a Meghan Trainor concert recently.
A good portion of the talk was focused around photography that influenced her and images were shown on the screen behind her while she described their influence. In one instance she showed an amazing black and white photo of the actor Steve McQueen holding a garden hose over his head with water flowing down as if he was cleaning himself up. She said she used this image to influence how she portrayed Colin Farrell doing tasks around the farm to further add to the sexual tension shown throughout the film. As she described it there are scenes where Colin Farrell is doing basic chores in the garden and you just have to keep in mind that the women at this school haven’t seen a man in years so it really added to the effect. She also used a photograph from Notorious by Alfred Hitchcock of the infamous mug of poison and how prominently it is framed in the shot. Although not a spoiler, any reference to Hitchcock being an influence is sure to lead to some thrilling moments.
Films being reaction to the one before
She talked about how she feels like each film she has made has been a reaction to the film before. After spending so much time in the world of the The Bling Ring with the glamour, excess, greed and hyper-commercialism she felt like she need to travel as far away from there mentally as possible while conceiving her vision of The Beguiled. She described The Beguiled as being more “beautiful and elegant” and she even read old journals and etiquette books from women of the period to ensure mood and atmosphere at the school was realistic.
How She Met Bill Murray
Well it looks like we can all collectively thank Mitch Glazer for fateful union between Coppola and Bill Murray for Lost in Translation. She had written the script with him, and only him, in mind but he’s notoriously difficult to get in touch with despite calling and even writing letters over the course of a year. She confirmed the infamous rumors that instead of an agent he actually has an 800 number with a voicemail which couldn’t be more Bill Murray. Finally after waiting for so long she got a call one night from Mitch Glazer who she had given the script with to look over. He said he was at dinner with Bill Murray and that she should come by. Naturally she dropped everything she was doing and made her way straight to the restaurant. She said, “There was Bill Murray in a blue seersucker suit” looking like the classic actor we all know and love. True to his style he wouldn’t give a straight answer and danced around accepting but she finally just took his ‘I’m really considering it’ as a yes and started to make the film on the advice of her father to just start and worry about the rest later. Luckily he ‘showed up’ in Japan just in time and we are all better off for it.
She gave a few more anecdotes like how her mother is friends with John Waters (they met through an artist friend) and how she was obsessed with Joe Strummer (growing up a huge fan of the Clash thanks to her older brother). She said she doesn’t think her mother has actually see Waters’ films so she may need to have a screening at their house and also said that she got to meet Joe Strummer when she was a teenager by chance because of a collaboration her father was working on and was completely starstruck. Overall it was a wonderful talk and the biggest takeaway was how incredibly down to earth she is. She was so warm and open with the audience and it was an incredibly informative talk.
The Beguiled is in theaters this Friday the 23rd.