The female gaze: Sofia Coppola talks objectifying men and casting controversy

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Stylist Team
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Photography: Peter Hapak

She’s created some of the most iconic female-focused films of this century and now Sofia Coppola is garnering critical acclaim with her new release. But it isn’t without controversy. Stylist’s Anita Bhagwandas gives the director a friendly grilling…

What does it take to ‘make it’ these days? Six films – many, such as Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, that are seen as seminal works in modern cinematography – might be considered making it. Surely having created a historical-thriller-meets-comedy that’s one of the most anticipated releases of the summer should probably secure some serious ‘making it’ plaudits? Or perhaps having just been awarded Best Director at Cannes Film Festival – a highly prestigious accolade that’s only been awarded to one other female director in its 70-year history – for said southern gothic thriller could be worthy?

Sofia Coppola has done all of these things and yet, whenever she’s interviewed or written about, the gauntlet of praise seems to involve her famous father (director Francis Ford Coppola), her marriage to the singer of French indie-electro outfit Phoenix, or even more superficially, her style. Either way, all have underestimated her as a creative force within the film industry entirely. Because the reality is she has made it – several times over.

Her personal gusto runs throughout her new masterpiece The Beguiled – a partial remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film – which she directed, produced and wrote the screenplay for. Set in Louisiana in the midst of the bloody north-versus-south Civil War, Nicole Kidman stars as Martha, the headmistress of a semi-abandoned boarding school who works alongside introverted teacher Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst. When a wounded opposition soldier (Colin Farrell) arrives as an unwanted guest, the heightened sexual tension creates a maelstrom of events that turns the relatively dull dwellings into a hub of action. Suffice to say, these women have more guile than their Southern belle dresses and demure manners suggest.

Stylist and critics are unanimous that this is one of the must-see films of the year – and with her historic Cannes win, Coppola is now one of the most coveted directors in Hollywood. But it hasn’t come without a big dollop of controversy…

Why did you want to retell the story of The Beguiled?

The premise of the original film was told from the point of view of the soldier character; I knew I wouldn’t want to remake someone else’s film but I could make a whole other film from the female characters’ point of view. This group of women haven’t seen men in a while and then they bring this wounded enemy soldier into their home. In the original their sexuality was kind of crazy – but I thought, ‘What would it really have been like for them?’ I wanted to treat their desire as something human. I also liked the idea of casting women of different ages.

There has been some backlash over the all-white casting – were you worried about the reaction to the film at all?

No, I left some things out from the original movie and book where they felt exploitative. In the book they have an incest story which I left out, and there was a very stereotypical “sassy” slave character that I didn’t want to spotlight either. I didn’t want to talk about that aspect of the Civil War because it’s such an important story to tell. So I took those out and there’s been a reaction to it, which I understand. I thought a lot about how to treat those characters, but really I wanted to keep the focus on this group of women and not make it about the political side of that time.

I wanted to focus on the dynamics between male and female and not include racial politics – I didn’t want to treat it lightly. I didn’t want to have a token slave character without really going into the story of what that was like and there wasn’t room to tell that whole story.

You must have known it could cause controversy though?

We never wanted to have an all-white cast as such. My casting director and I talked about wanting to have some of the girls in the school to be played by black actresses but it just felt so inaccurate for the history and the time. I don’t want to represent an only-white world and it’s something we talk about and are conscious of. But I also thought it wasn’t nice for young women to see the only ethnic person in a film to be portrayed as the servant – even if that would be accurate. I wouldn’t want my daughters to see the only representation of race in the film like that, even if it’s historical – so I’m conscious of that.

I would like to do that more [in the future], have more diversity [in my films] and see more of that [elsewhere].

There’s also been speculation that you suggested Kirsten Dunst lose weight for the role, is there any truth to that?

That comment was totally taken out of context. I don’t remember how it was said but I remember we talked about the role and I maybe said, “Oh, it’s the Civil War so they all have to look like they don’t have a lot,” or something. But I didn’t tell her to lose weight. I’ve known Kirsten a long time – since she was 16. She’s like a sister to me and I trust her so much.

When Kirsten was young, you told her not to change her teeth if anyone said she should, which I love. Why was that?

There is a pressure for women to be perfect and you see so many actresses who have perfect teeth and everything is symmetrical. I love faces that look natural and imperfect, I think that’s more interesting. It feels like there is a red carpet Hollywood look that is so perfect when in the past there were different kinds of faces – like the actresses from the Seventies. Now actresses have to be like models but I’m always drawn to women who feel real.

You’ve previously filmed in Tokyo, Versailles and Milan. What was it like filming in Louisiana?

The South is very exotic to me. I grew up in northern California so the idea of a Southern ladylike etiquette that still exists fascinated me. It’s not as extreme as it was, but it’s still part of the culture there. I loved it – the people are really warm and there’s an independent film community in New Orleans too.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the film is the way female objectification is turned on its head; it becomes about the female gaze

Was it always the plan when you were creating the film to have a ‘hunk’?

One of the most enjoyable parts of the film is the way female objectification is turned on its head; it becomes about the female gaze with Colin Farrell the recipient. I always wanted the man to be objectified because it’s fun in the story. But I tried to make him the thinking-woman’s hunk.

Kirsten loved it too; she said, “I’m glad it’s them for once.” Like with the garden scene [where Farrell is sweating while toiling in the garden under the gaze of the women]. We were joking that the cinematographer took stills during that sequence for my ‘Colin Calendar’ but I never had it made. We definitely need to make it now. I’m glad the ladies like Colin, I spent so much time asking my friends, “Who’s the hottest actor?”

You’ve just won Best Director at Cannes for the film, which is an amazing achievement but also highlighted how few female directors are at your level. Why is that?

I didn’t know that [I was only the award’s second female winner] before I won and was really surprised and sad to hear that. The reasons why there are fewer women is such a big conversation, but I think there are a lot of fields outside of film that are as male-dominated. Film is run by business – it’s expensive to make movies and that’s why – but I’m optimistic it’s changing. I also feel like because movies geared towards women are becoming successful, the business is realising that’s a viable audience.

Did you ever have a back-up career? I know you interned at Chanel when you were very young…

No, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was always interested in fashion, I always thought I’d be a magazine editor like Diana Vreeland. I didn’t think I’d be a filmmaker and then once I started doing it I thought I could express more stories that way. Fashion was exotic back then though, and wasn’t as mainstream as it is now. It was kind of precocious and different that I was interested in that as a young kid whereas now it’s part of our mainstream culture.

What currently spurs you on creatively?

I’ve been in such a little bubble with this movie that I want to come back into life and start doing things. I like The XX’s recent album though, I’ve been listening to that.

You directed an opera, La Traviata, last year. Are you an opera fan?

No, my father is and I went to some operas as a kid, but I never really knew them, so it was interesting to learn about that opera. La Traviata is about party girls, which I could relate to. But it was definitely a challenge and it was scary to do, I was so relieved when it was done. I think it’s always good to push yourself to do things out of your comfort zone. I wanted to try something different.

Do you consider yourself resilient?

I guess so. You have to be strong to really fight for what you want to make and not give up easily. I feel I got that from both my parents, seeing them do it. My father had to fight to get his work made and you can’t be easily pushed off course, you have to really stick to it.

When things are really rubbish, who inspires you to keep going?

I think it’s Muhammad Ali, he was so dignified and graceful and he had the whole ‘rope-a-dope’ theory. ‘Rope-a-dope’ is when you take the punches and wear out your opponent. That’s what I always go back to when I need motivation.

The Beguiled is in cinemas on 14 July

Additional images: Rex Features