Director Sofia Coppola discusses tackling a remake with her new movie ‘The Beguiled’, reuniting with her muse Kirsten Dunst, writes Laura Harding
Sofia Coppola is a rare creature — a female director who has also crossed the line into celebrity.
While Patty Jenkins may have made Wonder Woman into a global box office hit, few could pick her out of a crowd.
But Coppola is different, a member of a Hollywood dynasty who has forged a path in a career unwelcoming to women, while also sustaining an aura of ‘cool girl’ Parisian chic.
The six feature films to her name are singular in their visual style. The wistful, dreamy melancholy that swirled around cult hit The Virgin Suicides meandered through the vaguely autobiographical chaste romance Lost In Translation.
This style emerges again in her southern gothic The Beguiled, which made her the second woman ever to win the best director prize at Cannes.
Born into film royalty as the daughter of genre-defining director Francis Ford Coppola, who controversially cast her as the daughter of Mafia Don Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III when she was a teenager, she has defied sceptics who cried nepotism by directing a string of distinctive pieces of work.
Now 46, she is also achingly cool — as a muse of the designer Marc Jacobs, she has starred in and directed his ad campaigns and is no stranger to the front row at fashion shows.
She is also married to a French rock star, Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars, and they live between New York and Paris with children Romy and Cosima.
But seated in a London hotel room in a perfectly pressed crisp blue shirt — “the perk of staying in a hotel” — she speaks quickly and earnestly rather than with the slow drawl one might have expected.
Her new film is an adaptation of a 1966 novel by Thomas P Cullinan set in 1864 in Virginia, about a group of women who resentfully take in a wounded Union solider while sheltered in a ladies’ seminary during the Civil War.
It is a remake of a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel, with Colin Farrell now starring in the role originally occupied by Clint Eastwood, and Coppola says she immediately saw comparisons between the group of isolated women at Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies and the sisters cut off from the world by their strict parents in The Virgin Suicides.
She says: “When I first saw the Don Siegel film, I thought there were elements that reminded me of The Virgin Suicides and I was kind of curious to go back to that aesthetic and those themes about the mystery between male and female, but do it in this setting.
“I felt it also had a new direction that I haven’t done, it’s more plot-driven and there is a different, darker turn in the story and more in genre, the southern gothic genre.
“It had elements that did remind me, I feel like it’s a sibling or something to that movie.”
It’s been 18 years since The Virgin Suicides came out, but Coppola says things have not changed much for female directors, who are still a tiny minority in Hollywood.
“They haven’t changed as much as I would expect from when I started,” she says.
“But it does feel like it’s really in the air and people are talking a lot about it... because of Patty Jenkins and my award at Cannes and hopefully there will be more and more opportunity for that point of view, as half the population.”
She says almost two decades working as a director have provided her with some valuable lessons, adding: “I can’t believe it’s been that long. I think I’ve learned to really trust my intuition.
“You never know, you could be making something you think is only personal to you and indulgent and then I found it connects to an audience.
“I encourage other filmmakers to make what you love and what you want to see and what you feel is missing from films that you wish you could see.”
The comparisons between her 1999 film and the 2017 one are made even more stark because the film once again reunites her with Kirsten Dunst, who played Lux Lisbon in her first feature and starred in the title role of her film about Marie Antoinette.
This time she plays the junior school teacher to Nicole Kidman’s steely headmistress, as both the staff and pupils, including Elle Fanning’s Alicia, are captivated by the wounded soldier.
She says of Dunst: “I think of her as one of my favourite actresses and I feel like she can convey the characteristics that I’m drawn to.
“I’m glad I have an actress that I trust so much, that is so good, that really understands my sensibility.”
Now Dunst herself is turning to directing, preparing to make her debut with an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Coppola reveals: “We talked about it, she’s spent so much time on film set I’m sure she’s going to do a great job, but I was encouraging her and talking about it and trying to share any insights I have.”
Coppola herself has always had a preference for smaller films and more intimate sets, often working with the same actors over and over again.
“I love a shoot that isn’t very long and can be really intensive,” she says.
“One of the things I love about this story is that it is all set in one house with this group of characters, almost like a play where it’s very intensive and focused on the characters and the acting and this very specific enclosed environment that they are trapped in.”
This preference caused her to step away from a live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid, which she describes as “a really ambitious project”.
She adds: “I’m glad to make something smaller which is really focused on the characters and cast and no visual effects. That would have been an interesting challenge, but I do like working on a scale where I can really make every decision and make it exactly what I want.”
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