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.