Sofia Coppola on How She Turned Clint Eastwood’s Macho ‘The Beguiled’ Into a Woman’s Movie

“It was a way to look at things that still affect us today through the filter of a dramatic story in a world very far away from our modern life,” the writer-director tells TheWrap

Sofia Coppola’s version of “The Beguiled,” which premiered in Cannes in May and then screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival before its release on Friday, is a delicious rarity. It’s an understated potboiler, if that combination is possible, about a wounded Union soldier during the Civil War (Colin Farrell) who’s nursed back to health in a girls’ boarding school in the South, where he disrupts the orderly existence of a handful of women who include headmistress Martha, teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and headstrong student Alicia (Elle Fanning).

The film is based on a Thomas Cullinan book that was also turned into a lurid 1971 Clint Eastwood movie directed by Don Siegel — but where that film embraced the material’s pulpy nature, Coppola has downplayed the hysteria and focused on the shifting dynamics in this house of women who’ve spent their lives being told that their purpose is to be decorative.

At Cannes, TheWrap called the film “a richly satisfying piece of subtle reinvention,” and added, “It’s a hoot, to be sure, but it doesn’t try too hard to be a hoot; instead, it’s an austere and moody bit of Southern Gothic-ish suspense, never trying to oversell pulpy material that all but begs to be oversold and amped up.”

Coppola, whose other films include “The Virgin Suicides,” “Lost in Translation” and “The Bling Ring,” spoke to TheWrap about why she chose to do a remake, how she changed the Don Siegel version and why she ended up accepting her Cannes best-director award from an amusement park.

TheWrap: When did you first see the original film of “The Beguiled?”
Sofia Coppola: Probably around four or five years ago, after “The Bling Ring.” My friend Anne Ross, the production designer, said, “You should redo this movie,” but I didn’t know about it and I could never imagine remaking somebody else’s movie.

What did it take you to get from “I can’t imagine remaking somebody else’s movie” to “I want to do this?”
The idea of a remake is a turnoff to me — why would you remake someone else’s work? But I don’t consider it a remake. More a reinterpretation using the same material and doing it in a different way. Then it becomes a different thing, almost a companion to the other one.

When I saw it, it stayed in my mind, and it had things that reminded me of “The Virgin Suicides” that I connected with. I was curious, because it’s a story about a group of women but the movie is the guy’s point of view of them. I wanted to imagine the story from the other side, so I went back to the book.

It was written by a man, wasn’t it?
It was, but each chapter is a different character telling what happened. So I went back to that, and I thought that it was fun to imagine how I would do it. The story is such a loaded premise, and you could talk about power dynamics the role of women at that time through this story of women through taking in an enemy soldier to this girls’ school in the South.

Everything was heightened. It was a way to look at things that still affect us today, but through the filter of a dramatic story in another era, in a world very far away from our modern life.

You could never call the Don Siegel version subtle. But yours really is, in certain ways.
Oh, cool. Thank you.

Was that a goal?
I think it just came from shifting the point of view, which makes things less black and white. I wanted to tell it from the women characters’ point of view, through their eyes — what should they do, and should they trust him? They hope that they can trust him, and the audience is going through what they’re going through.

There’s a really disturbing moment in the Siegel version where right after we meet him, the Clint Eastwood character asks a little girl, “How old are you?” And when she says she’s 12, he says, “Old enough for kissing,” and then he kisses her.
Oh, yeah.

That’s a significant thing for you to remove.
I just thought that was creepy. And we want to be open to him at the beginning, and not form an opinion right away.

There were things about that movie that I definitely wanted to change. So I went back to the book and tried to forget the movie. Sometimes while I was working on a scene, I’d have an image in my mind and I’d think, “Is this my imagination, or is this from the Don Siegel movie?” I really tried to forget that one and approach it new.

Even the presence of the Southern army feels played down — we know they’re out there, but we don’t see them the way we did in the earlier film. It feels like we’re trapped inside this house, and we only have a vague sense of what’s out there.
I wanted it to feel really isolated and claustrophobic, and really cut off from the world. They didn’t see people for months at a time, so I wanted to try to have that feeling.

Years ago, I spent a lot of time on the set of the Rob Reiner movie “Misery” …
Oh really? I love that movie.

Almost all the movie takes place in one house, and James Caan spent most of his time in bed because his character is injured. Caan’s a physical guy, and he was going completely stir crazy during that shoot. How did Colin handle his time stuck in bed wounded?
I think he enjoyed lying on his little lace pillow, napping. [Laughs] I think he’s had harder shoots.

Even when the movie gets wilder and steamier, things often happen quietly. Was it tricky to find the right tone?
It was tricky to balance the tone. I wanted it to be funny, but I didn’t want it to be camp. I wanted you to relate to the characters, but the story is so over the top — how do you keep that naturalistic but still entertaining and funny? We definitely had to find a balance.

And also the pacing, the rhythm of it – I wanted it to feel very slow, like the days are long and nothing happens, and then he comes and it starts to pick up. In the last act, the pacing of the editing is really ramped up. It was fun to focus on that. I’ve never done anything so plot-driven, too. I had to think a lot about suspense and tension.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I assume you knew you had a moment that would register with audiences when you shot the scene near the end where Nicole delivers the priceless line, “Edwina, get me the anatomy book!”
I knew that would be a moment, especially since we don’t show what happens. I thought of it as, like, a trailer moment. I said to Nicole, “I just want to see you lift the candelabra and say that line.”

There was so much going on in that take, but then in one take she did that line with the candelabra, and I was like, “Yes!” I was so happy, and that’s the one we put in the movie.

You weren’t in Cannes when the awards were given out, were you?
No. I left Cannes on Friday, and the awards ceremony was Sunday. Someone said, “Would you come back if your movie got a prize?” And I said, “Yes, I’d come back.” But I hadn’t heard anything the night before, so I figured we were out of the running. I didn’t hear until Sunday morning, so I couldn’t get there in time.

How did you find out that you’d won the best director award?
I was about to get on the subway to Coney Island with my kids, and I got a call saying we were getting something, but they didn’t know what it was. And then I got a call from the festival at Coney Island, and they said it was the director prize. They said, “Can you send a video?” But I was in the middle of Coney Island, music blasting, my kids on rides. It was really fun that I got to celebrate with my kids there.

You’re probably the only person who’s ever celebrated a Cannes win at Coney Island.
I know. The first Cannes director’s prize to be won at Coney Island.

I assume you saw the jury’s press conference afterwards.
No, I didn’t see that.

Maren Ade, the director of “Toni Erdmann” and one of the jurors, felt compelled to point out that the fact that you are a woman did not factor into their decision to give you the award.
Oh, that was nice. I didn’t know that.

In a way, it’s nice – but should it even need to be pointed out? Is it problematic that she felt the need to say that?
I guess right now she wanted to say it, because it is such a rarity. Hopefully it won’t even be a conversation in the future. But I guess they were saying it wasn’t political, that it was for the work.

Also in that press conference, Jessica Chastain said she was disturbed by lack of strong female roles in the films she saw there, and by the way women were depicted in the films she saw there.
I didn’t see any of the other films, so I don’t know.

Do you see that as a problem in film in general?
That’s hard to say. You always want to see characters that you can relate to, and I’m sure that an actress will look at it differently. I just think about the stories that I want to tell and the stories that I want to see, and of course you want more and more characters you can identify with. But I just think about that in my work.