“‘Remake’ was like a bad word in my family,” Sofia Coppola confessed Saturday at the 19th Annual Provincetown Film Festival. “My dad said nobody ever remakes a movie unless it’s to make money. There’s no other reason to do it.”
And yet her distinctive reimagining of the 1971 Civil War thriller The Beguiled — directed back then by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as a Union cat amongst the Confederate pigeons in a girls’ boarding school — earned Coppola the best director prize at Cannes, making her only the second woman in the festival’s 70-year history to receive that honor. (She was on a train to Coney Island with her kids when she got the call, too late to make the trip back to France.)
Opening Friday through Focus Features, The Beguiled this time around places a wounded Colin Farrell in the captive care of a group of cloistered women that includes Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning.
Shot in New Orleans, with its ghostly oak trees draped in Spanish moss, the film’s palpably sleepy summertime heat feeds the simmering sexual tension and repressed female desire of the story. Its poetic mix of reverie, longing, darkness and violence makes it in some ways a companion piece to Coppola’s head-turning directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. Radically different in tone to Siegel’s original, the new Beguiled is unmistakably a Sofia Coppola film.
“That was sort of the fun of retelling it, as the opposite of how Don Siegel did it,” said Coppola. “This whole other side of how the story could be told. Clint’s character is obviously a bad guy in the Don Siegel film. But we wanted to make Colin a little more mysterious and charming.”
John Waters was the Provincetown festival’s inaugural Filmmaker on the Edge honoree and remains the event’s godfather 19 years on. He presented Coppola with this year’s award following a wide-ranging onstage conversation that covered her directing career, her involvement in fashion (she just shot a Calvin Klein ad with Dunst, Lauren Hutton and Rashida Jones) and her recent foray into opera, staging La Traviata in Rome.
“I would have loved this movie as a kid so much,” said Waters of Coppola’s Beguiled, likening it to Pasoloni’s Teorema. “It has everything: handsome men, repressed sex, violence — everything I yearned for as a child. It’s almost as if everybody gets the vapors in it.”
Responding to Waters’ question about how the soft-spoken Coppola developed such a strong directorial voice, she said, “I feel like I can be harsher in film. I can express my thoughts in a different way because you’re hiding behind all these characters. I think I’m just opinionated and stubborn, so I was happy to find an outlet where you’re allowed to be opinionated.”
She looked back fondly on visiting the sets of her father Francis Ford Coppola’s movies as a child, when his frequent collaborators became like uncles and aunts to her; and explained how the familiarity she acquired with the various departments served as a kind of film school, preparing her to make her first short.
Coppola traced her jump to directing features back to her love of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides, and her strong feeling that the movie needed to be done right. That prompted her to write a screenplay as an exercise in adaptation, way before she was attached to the project. “I finished the script and then somehow had the balls to meet the producers and convince them to let me direct it,” she recalled.
Coppola and Waters would seem to be entirely different species as filmmakers — one exploring the complex ways that young women experience the world, the other gleefully celebrating the way delinquent outsiders violate it, though both of them with genuine sympathy for their characters. But the Pink Flamingos auteur invariably looks for common ground with Provincetown’s Filmmaker on the Edge honorees. He asked Coppola if Dunst, with whom she has done three movies, is her Divine, referring to his own legendary muse.
“Yeah, she’s my alter ego, I’m going to tell her that,” laughed Coppola. “I met her when I was doing Virgin Suicides, she was 16. She struck me because she looks like such a perky blonde cheerleader, all-American girl. But she has something deep behind her eyes, and it was a weird contrast. She has a darker side, but she’s also really funny and not what you’d expect from the way she looks. She can be bubbly and deep at the same time, which I find unique.”
Coppola agreed with Waters’ assessment that few actresses working today take as many risks as Kidman, revealing that she wrote the script for The Beguiled with specific performers in mind to play the women. But she added that Farrell’s character was the hardest to cast.
“I spent a long time asking everybody I knew who they thought was the hottest actor,” said Coppola. “I wanted someone that women and gay men would both love. When I met him, he was so charming and charismatic.”
Coppola talked about coming from a family of famous artists, and how in particular her mother, Eleanor Coppola — whose own narrative feature debut, Paris Can Wait, was recently released — kept her grounded.
“My mother is a really genuine, down-to-earth person,” said Coppola. “My family moved to Napa Valley and my parents didn’t want us to grow up in Hollywood, so I feel like I got a normal family upbringing, part of the time.”
Waters also asked if the harsh reviews for Coppola’s first major acting role — when she stepped in at the last minute at 18 after Winona Ryder dropped out of her father’s The Godfather: Part III — had equipped her to deal with criticism.
“Maybe because it can’t get worse than that,” Coppola conceded. “It gives you a certain bravery, because you’ve been through the cold. It wasn’t devastating because I never planned to be an actress, but it definitely toughened me up to put myself out there.”
Returning later in the conversation to the subject of reviews, good and bad, Coppola added: “I try not to pay too much attention to that because if you hear a hundred great things and there’s one mean thing, that’s what stays in your mind. I feel like I have enough self-doubt that I don’t need more. I get a mix of reviews but I think it’s better that people love you and hate you; the worst is being in the middle and getting mediocre responses.”
Coppola and Waters shared views on the conservative climate for independent film right now, with the honoree revealing that it was difficult to get financing together for The Beguiled, despite it being her sixth feature: “It’s a hard time to get films made. I try to keep the budgets as low as I can so I have the freedom to do what I want.”
Having dropped out of early discussions to direct the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid for Disney, Coppola freely admitted that while initially drawn to the challenge of attempting something on a larger scale, her experience of the corporate studio process made it clear that path was not for her. “When it gets too big of a scale that just doesn’t interest me, because they’re more interested in business than art,” she said. On The Beguiled, she revealed, “I got studio notes, which I will save for the comic value.”
Asked what advice she would give to women filmmakers starting out, Coppola offered, “I think you have to make what you really love, what you want to see and share, because you never know what people are going to connect to. That’s what’s really motivated me. Just make the things that are missing.”
The Provincetown Film Festival wraps Sunday night. Other honorees at the Cape Cod event’s 19th edition included Chloe Sevigny with the Excellence in Acting Award and Aubrey Plaza with the Next Wave Award, dedicated to up-and-coming risk-takers. This year’s edition of the fest, the first under new artistic director Lisa Viola, featured programming in which more than 50 percent of the films were directed by women.
Don Siegel’s version from 1971: