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The women of Sofia Coppola's 'The Beguiled' are not hysterical — they're human

Actor Nicole Kidman in Sofia Coppola's
Actor Nicole Kidman in Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled."
Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

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When Sofia Coppola was working on “The Beguiled,” she got an email from Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the novel, “The Virgin Suicides.” The book was the basis for Coppola’s 1999 feature film of the same name, and carries many similarities with her new feature.

“[Jeff] said, ‘Oh you're making a film of “The Beguiled.” I always remember loving that movie,’” said Coppola in an interview with The Frame. “It sounded like it was in his mind because there are connections.”Coppola, who with "The Beguiled" became the first American woman to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, says the first thing that attracted her to the project was that it reminded her of  “The Virgin Suicides.” Both films feature a group of women cut off from the world.

“There [were] definitely some commonalities,” Coppola said. “And then I thought, Oh, I’d be interested to kind of go back into that world and then explore it in a different way.”

Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell, “The Beguiled” is about what happens at a Southern girls’ boarding school when they take in a wounded Civil War soldier, who also happens to be a Yankee.

It’s actually the second time Thomas Cullinan’s novel has been made into a movie: Don Siegel directed a 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood.But unlike the book and Coppola’s film, the first version of “The Beguiled” was told from the point of view of the soldier. And it was about how his presence generates so much lust and passion that the women can’t control themselves.

The Beguiled Teaser Trailer

At first, Coppola was hesitant about remaking a film, but after seeing the original, she knew she could reimagine the story through the womens’ lens:

It’s such a great premise to talk about male and female mystery and power shifts. That intrigued me. But [in the 1971 Don Siegel film], the women are depicted as so deranged and crazy and it's hard to relate to them. So I just thought it was just an interesting story to look at from their point of view and what it was like for them. And of course they have desire, 'cause that's part of the human experience, and not make that something kind of perverted and crazy. 

The fact that it's a story about a group of women and it was told from a man's point of view, I just thought it was material that I could really get into. And to have girls and women from age 12-to-40, there was such a range of women at different stages, which interested me.

Coppola acknowledges the power dynamics among women are common themes in her films:

When I was doing the scene [in “The Beguiled”], when all the girls were on the table encountering a man — there's a scene in "Virgin Suicides" where a boy comes and has a similar feeling, so it did remind me of that. Yeah, I'm always interested in the stories about the dynamics between girls and women.

My first short film [“Lick the Star”] — which I forgot about, but Quentin Tarantino found a print to show at the New Beverly — it's about power shifts with the kind of queen bee in a group of girls in middle school ... I wrote from that experience and I guess I've always been interested in the dynamics between a group of girls.

Coppola’s mother, Eleanor, spoke on The Frame last month about directing her first film “Paris Can Wait,” a surprise project to many – including Sofia – because she had often worked on art projects and helped with films by her father, legendary director Francis Ford Coppola. Sofia was surprised that her mother wanted to make a feature.

She's always done interesting art projects but I was surprised that she was doing [a] narrative film in that way. But, yeah, it was cool. She was so into it and worked a long time to get it made. But, no, I never [expected it] — I don't think she ever planned to do something like that.

Coppola’s parents were supporters of her directing career early on. Her mother, in particular, was constantly encouraging her from a young age:

She always encouraged me. There's ... an audio clip of my dad interviewing me as a five-year-old and he's asking me to talk to my grown-up self. And my mom walks through the room and says, “You're Wonder Woman!" And I just feel like that that says so much about how she always encouraged me and my brother.

Art was always so important. [She] took us to museums and always encouraged us to be creative and always loved what we made … It’s always nice that she's so encouraging to be an artist — not to be successful, but to be an artist.

Her father’s influence was equally important on her work as director:

I learned about filmmaking from my dad, but also about his love of why he does it … He always had such integrity and passion about what he was doing and always talked about being an artist and the excitement of the medium, so I feel lucky to have grown up around that.

Coppola, who grew up around the sets of her father’s films, including “The Godfather,” encourages her two young children to learn about art and filmmaking in the same way her parents did with her and her siblings:

I think my dad was always talking about filmmaking, and I don't think I do as much with my daughters. But I think what was cool about my parents was they always brought the kids to their world. They always brought us to film sets and they would bring us … [to] dinner with all these interesting grown-ups. The kids’ world wasn't separate and I think I try to do that too.

Coppola's children visited the set of “The Beguiled,” which she hopes has a good impact on them:

It’s cute to see them, you know, sitting on apple boxes the way I did when I was little. And my first grader was really interested in looking through the viewfinder and saying, Action! It was sweet to have them visiting. And I think to see their mom working and in charge of a crew, it must have some kind of impact, I hope.

Despite the film’s adult themes, Coppola is glad she can share her movies with her children:

I brought my 10-year-old to the crew screening and she's very into gore and special effects so she was into it. But I said she had to close her eyes during the sex scene, and then afterward she said, “That wasn't a sex scene!”

And Sofia Coppola wasn't the only mom on set.

Anne Ross, the production designer, she has a daughter, a first grader, the same age as my younger one. And so she asked if [editor Sarah Flack] could cut a kid's version. So Sarah has made a 30- or 40-minute cut of “The Beguiled,” which we haven't watched yet, so that they could see what we were working on when they were visiting the set. Sarah made the story work somehow, but in an appropriate way for first graders.

Coppola’s sets, which are known for their calm atmosphere, include many women — from the actors to the crew. Coppola acknowledges she loves working with women, but doesn't make an intentional point of hiring them.

When I met editors, I just really connected with Sarah. We've worked together since “Lost in Translation.” And I didn't think, like, Oh I want to hire a woman editor. But we just click. And she has just an intuitive way ... we're on the same page about our sense of humor and what we like and everything. And then Anne Ross is an old friend that we met when we were in our 20s.

I guess I never thought about it, but I love working with women. And I know Anne made a big effort to hire as many women as she could for the art department. So our set had more women than usual, but we had guys too.

To hear John Horn's conversation with Sofia Coppola, click on the player above.

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