Rein­vent­ing Clint East­wood’s weird­est movie

Ac­claimed di­rec­tor Sofia Cop­pola never had any in­ter­est in do­ing a re­make. But then she saw ‘The Beguiled.’

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY GE­OFF EDGERS ge­off.edgers@wash­post.com

The orig­i­nal “Beguiled” might be one of the creepi­est films in the Clint East­wood cat­a­logue. He plays a badly in­jured Union soldier named John McBur­ney, who is taken in by the re­main­ing res­i­dents of an iso­lated all-girls board­ing school. As they nurse McBur­ney back to health — turn­ing him in would not be Chris­tian — he in­spires a se­ries of con­flicts.

“Beguiled” bombed in 1971. To­day, it’s a clunky time cap­sule, sad­dled with corny voice-overs and a dis­turb­ing kiss be­tween East­wood’s char­ac­ter and an ac­tress play­ing a 12-year-old girl. Sofia Cop­pola’s rein­ven­tion of the film, which opens Fri­day, be­gins with moody pans of moss-cov­ered trees, be­fore fo­cus­ing on the ten­sions cre­ated by the claus­tro­pho­bic set­ting and the mélange of re­pres­sion, youth, sex­u­al­ity and gen­der. It’s a hor­ror story, a com­edy and a com­ing-of-age tale all in one, which shouldn’t sur­prise any­one who has seen Cop­pola’s “Lost in Trans­la­tion,” The Vir­gin Sui­cides” or “Some­where.” Cop­pola, 46, spoke to The Wash­ing­ton Post af­ter show­ing “The Beguiled,” which stars Nicole Kid­man, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fan­ning, and Colin Far­rell as McBur­ney, at the Province­town Film Fes­ti­val, where she was honored as “Film­maker on the Edge.” Q: You don’t strike me as some­one dy­ing to do a re­make.

A: No, not at all. I al­ways re­mem­ber my dad [Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola] say­ing, “No one makes a re­make un­less they are try­ing to make money; there is no rea­son for it.” It was not an hon­or­able thing to do . . . . Anne Ross, my friend the pro­duc­tion de­signer, she saw it and she was the one who said, “I think you need to make a new ver­sion of that.” Then I watched it, and it stayed in my mind. It was so weird. Q: So you didn’t see this movie as a child. What did you think when you saw it?

A: It’s such a prod­uct of the ’70s, with the zooms and the flash­backs, and I re­spect it for be­ing so of that genre. It’s a clas­sic kind of B movie for peo­ple who re­ally know films, like film buffs, I think. So peo­ple who re­ally know films love it. Yeah, I ap­pre­ci­ated it, but it was so odd to me to watch a movie about a group of women from this re­ally, like, ma­cho guy’s POV. Q: As soon he kisses the girl in the be­gin­ning, I’m creeped out. And all that voice-over stuff. “Now I know what it’s like to feel like a woman again.”

A: There’s not any way I would make that movie, ob­vi­ously. And the way they dealt with their de­sire and sex­u­al­ity is this weird thing — there is like an in­cest story. And there is a slave char­ac­ter [Hal­lie], whose char­ac­ter was so stereo­typ­i­cal in a cringy way. I just thought, “Okay, I am go­ing to take out all the things I don’t like or con­nect with and just fo­cus on the char­ac­ters.” I like that it was about th­ese women at dif­fer­ent stages of their life, and I saw po­ten­tial that I could make it into some­thing else, or some­thing that I could make. I like the chal­lenge of do­ing some­thing that was sort of in a genre that I had never done. Q: So of the things you took out, I’ve heard no­body grum­bling about the in­cest. But I have heard peo­ple com­plain about tak­ing out Hal­lie, the fact you cut a black char­ac­ter.

A: Yeah, some peo­ple asked me about that, and it didn’t seem re­spect­ful, such a big topic to just kind of brush over it lightly, and the char­ac­ter is writ­ten in a way that is just not re­spect­ful or, you know . . . a lot of slaves had left at that time, so I re­ally wanted to em­pha­size the idea of [the women] be­ing iso­lated and aban­doned . . . and they weren’t raised to take care of them­selves, so they had to learn to sur­vive. Q: Martha, in the orig­i­nal, is much more Nurse Ratched. Nicole Kid­man gives that char­ac­ter a range.

A: And I wanted that char­ac­ter to be dig­ni­fied, and they are all dif­fer­ent women at those stages, but they can all be at­trac­tive . . . and even though she is scary, she is also hu­man. So that she can have some dig­nity and also, yes, the idea that she can have de­sire, and it is not some­thing grotesque and de­mented. Q: From your first stu­dent short, “Lick the Star,” you’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in the dy­namic be­tween women in groups.

A: Be­cause I al­ways trav­eled with my par­ents. I went on lo­ca­tion with my dad, and my par­ents put me in the lo­cal schools, al­ways. So I was like an Army brat. I was al­ways the new kid, and I had to fig­ure out who was in charge, who had the power. I had to read peo­ple re­ally quickly in, like, Tulsa, Oklahoma, or New York City. Q: You had to im­me­di­ately un­der­stand the cliques.

A: I had to move into it quickly, so I was su­per aware of the codes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and who’s who. . . . I have al­ways been an ob­server. My mom [artist and film­maker Eleanor Cop­pola] is, too. She is very ob­ser­vant and doesn’t like be­ing the cen­ter of at­ten­tion. She is al­ways watch­ing. I prob­a­bly got some of that from her . . . . But I think there is some­thing about be­ing able to read peo­ple that in­ter­ests me, and in a group dy­namic. Q: “Lick the Star,” which you can see on YouTube, is sort of based on a true story.

A: In my ju­nior high, there was this real thing that hap­pened, where the queen bee had this plan to poi­son the boys, and then she was de­throned and . . . kind of never got over it, she never got her con­fi­dence back af­ter be­ing de­moted from the queen bee. So I wanted to make a story about that. That kind of dy­namic be­tween a group of girls is so spe­cific to the way women com­mu­ni­cate in a non­ver­bal way, with a tone or a glance that can say so much . . . . Very dif­fer­ent from men, who are more ver­bal and phys­i­cal. Q: This is your sixth film, which is in­ter­est­ing be­cause I feel like I am con­stantly read­ing about you talk­ing about the strug­gle to get some­thing off the ground. Is it al­ways hard?

A: It al­ways is. What in­ter­ests me is to make some­thing I have not seen be­fore, but I think, as far as from busi­ness peo­ple, it is eas­ier to make some­thing that they can rec­og­nize as like, “Oh, yeah that is like that, that was suc­cess­ful.” Q: But af­ter “Lost in Trans­la­tion,” don’t you just get peo­ple knock­ing down your door?

A: I feel like you get a free pass af­ter you make a re­ally suc­cess­ful movie, and af­ter that I made “Marie An­toinette,” and be­cause “Lost in Trans­la­tion” was so suc­cess­ful I was like, ‘Yes, we will make Marie An­toinette,’ but . . . Q: “The Beguiled” ob­vi­ously cost a lot less than “Marie An­toinette.” I mean $10 mil­lion or what­ever.

A: Less than that. Q: How much?

A: $7.9. I feel like, if I can make a movie that only has to make its bud­get back to keep mak­ing movies. But also, when you get into a bigger bud­get, it be­comes more about the busi­ness than the art of it, and you have more peo­ple in­volved and you don’t have the same free­dom as a low-bud­get movie. Q: I know you show your fa­ther your films some­times be­fore you’re locked. Has he ever given you ad­vice you’ve used?

A: I re­mem­ber “Marie An­toinette,” there were three big opera scenes that we shot and he said, “Take one of them out,” and I was like, “What? It was so much work to shoot that se­quence,” like I would have never had the heart to kill your dar­lings kind of thing. Yeah, and we did, and it played much bet­ter. Q: There is a sense of your fa­ther as larger than life, that he’ll op­er­ate with an at­ti­tude of “Let’s get what­ever we can get to make this hap­pen, even if ev­ery­thing col­lapses.” Is that one thing you’ve taken from him, be­cause you two seem dif­fer­ent, per­son­al­ity-wise.

A: He al­ways told me, “Don’t wait for any­one. Just start mak­ing it.” Even on this, we were on va­ca­tion, and I am wait­ing to get a green light on Fo­cus based on the ac­tor. He said, “Green light? In my day, there wasn’t such a thing as a green light. We just started.” And I was like, “Okay.” I get that from him, that kind of, “F--- ev­ery­thing, just do it . . . . I learned that from him.

Beguiled (R, 93 min­utes). Opens Fri­day at area the­aters.

BEN ROTH­STEIN/FO­CUS FEA­TURES

Nicole Kid­man as Miss Martha and Colin Far­rell as John McBur­ney in “The Beguiled,” writ­ten and di­rected by Sofia Cop­pola. The 1971 ver­sion starred Clint East­wood and was a box of­fice fail­ure.

Sofia Cop­pola

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