With The Beguiled—set at a girls’ boarding school in the South during the Civil War, and adapted by Sofia Coppola from Thomas Cullinan’s novel—we were going for a pastoral look, like a fairy tale, that progresses into gothic.
The decision to shoot on film was made by Sofia and producer Youree Henley, and it made me very happy. When you’re painting with that brush, it gives your work a different texture.
I prepared for The Beguiled a full year before we began shooting. Fortunately, we didn’t film until the fall, so we had beautiful light on location in Louisiana, and were not in the heat of summer. We researched the Civil War period through paintings and photos, including daguerreotypes. The palette lacked strong colors. If you look at these images, you see that the dresses women wore had been washed so many times that the colors were disappearing.
We shot on an older film aspect ratio, 1.66:1, because with it you can see more body language. This movie is not about the landscape, it’s about the people. Colin Farrell’s character, an injured enemy soldier who arrives at the school, is like a pinned insect at first. Later he is like a spider, prowling. The women become more cloistered as the story progresses because of what they’re hiding.
Several movies inspired the look of The Beguiled: Picnic at Hanging Rock and Tess were the main ones. For the opening sequences in the forest, we had Rashomon in mind, for its focusing on the characters and not the backgrounds.
I mostly used a vintage lens, not to be nostalgic, but to avoid sharpness. For the night shoots, I used a high-speed lens. For the sequence where the patrol comes by, we shot at dusk so it would look more dangerous—as if darkness was coming. In the interiors, we would stick to natural light, making use of what was coming through the window. That is more difficult to do on film than on digital. In the lab, I pulled the film stock to get more detail on the lower part of the negative, the blacks.
Sofia trusts the DPs she hires, and gives them a lot of freedom. We didn’t create storyboards except when it was an issue of timing a shot. I operated the camera myself for every scene. Sofia does not use playback on the set, and she stands close by the camera so she can speak directly to the actors and make changes together right then and there.
We shot The Beguiled in 25 days. Everything was simplified to what needs to be seen, and heard, in the scene. That is Sofia’s métier.
Camera: Panavision Arricam LT
Film: Kodak Vision3 500T 5219
Aspect Ratio: 1:66:1
Lenses: Cooke Panchro, Panavision Super Speeds, Panavision 11:1 Primo Zoom MM
As told to Jason Simos.
The Beguiled opens in theaters June 23, 2017, courtesy of Focus Features.