There are many promising films on the release calendar for 2017, and one of the most hotly-anticipated of these is The Beguiled – the latest feature from director Sofia Coppola, playing in-competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and set for general release in June.
Shot on Kodak 35mm film by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd AFC, the movie focusses on a group of women cloistered in a dilapidated boarding school – The Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary For Young Ladies – in Virginia at the peak of the American Civil War. Coppola’s movie is based on Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name, previously adapted for film in 1971 by director Don Siegel, with Clint Eastwood in the leading role.
In Coppola’s remake, Nicole Kidman stars as the headmistress, Kirsten Dunst plays Edwina, a teacher, and Elle Fanning, a teenage student named Alicia. The school has remained largely untouched by the conflict, and the women’s seclusion is disturbed by the discovery of a wounded soldier from the Union Army (Colin Farrell) in the deep woods outside the school grounds. His arrival, and subsequent shelter, within the school kick-off a twisting tale of seduction, jealousy and bloody revenge, as he begins to con his way into their hearts.
The production shot for 26 days during November and December 2016, entirely on-location at the historic Madewood Plantation House, in Napoleonville, Louisiana, which was suitably-dressed for a neglected appearance.
“Sofia knew of Don Siegel’s earlier film adaptation, but she wanted to shift the focus from the male protagonist and to tell the story from the point-of-view of the female characters instead,” Le Sourd explains. “This film explores the dynamics between the women in this isolated place, their sexual desires for the soldier and their desires for escape. It had quite an exotic setting, in the sweltering Deep South, and we discussed a shifting visual aesthetic – starting-out like a fairy tale and gradually becoming more Gothic, more sinister as the story progressed.”
For the opening of the movie, Le Sourd says his visual inspirations came from Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979, DPs Ghislain Cloquet/Geoffrey Unsworth BSC) and Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975, DP Russell Boyd), “where the light, desaturated looks and pastel colours evoked a certain sentimental happiness that I felt would be appropriate for the Southern gentility of our story.”
With the brief “to go darker than she had ever gone before”, Le Sourd also referenced Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975, DP John Alcott BSC), particularly its use of atmospheric interiors scenes in candlelight, with Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946, DP Ted Tetzlaff) as an influence to ratchet-up the more malevolent and suspenseful moments in the story.
“There was no discussion about what format to shoot on,” the cinematographer admits. “As soon as Sofia handed me the script, she said The Beguiled was to be filmed on film.”
Le Sourd, who was first introduced to Coppola by the late and highly-esteemed cinematographer Harris Savides ASC, has only ever shot film on long form narratives, and counts Ridley Scott’s A Good Year (2006), Gabriele Muccino’s Seven Pounds (2008) and Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) amongst his string of credits.
“Sofia and I both love the texture of film,” he says “In terms of the pastel colours, dark shadows and skin tones she wanted for this story, my feeling was that film was a really good fit.”
Le Sourd opted to shoot the entire production – interiors, exteriors and nightime sequences – using KODAK VISION3 500T 5219, reasoning that, “I like the grain, texture and lower contrast you can achieve with the 500T.”
Working closely with Fotokem in Los Angeles, Le Sourd decided to pull-process all of the footage – a technique favoured by his friend Savides – in which the exposed negative for The Beguiled was pulled by one stop via underdevelopment in the bath.
“Pull-processing has the effect of reducing the overall grain and contrast, protecting details in the highlights and blacks, and enhancing the range of pastel colours in the visual palette,” Le Sourd explains. “The result is a soft, elegant image with lots of image detail in the shadows, even in our darker candle-lit scenes.”
To emphasise the confinement of the protagonists within the seminary, and to capture the body language of the performers, Le Sourd framed The Beguiled in 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
“When you shoot in a wider format, you necessarily have to frame wider to see the body language,” he explains. “The narrower, taller 1.66:1 aspect ratio meant I could keep the image tighter on the characters, to convey a sense of imprisonment, but also capture their all-important physical gestures and movements.”
Le Sourd operated on the production, using Cooke S2 lenses for daylight scenes and exteriors, and faster Zeiss Ultra Speeds for nightime interiors and exteriors in the dark forest. Both sets of lenses were adjusted by Panavision Los Angeles, to align visual characteristics such as colour, bokeh and lens flares. Specific magnetic lens fittings were also made to yield a subtle vignetting of the image, emulating Tintype portraits of the 1860s and 1870s, which Le Sourd describes as “very simple, but very smart-looking.”
A vital component in the visual storytelling involved a near static camera, as he explains: “Sofia does not like the camera to move for the sake of it. She prefers to keep things simple: to let the performances and the mise en scèneto get straight to the emotion of a scene. We didn’t have any playback on-set, no video tap, which meant she put faith and trust in all of us, especially in my composition and framing, and particularly in film.”
Looking back on the decision to shoot The Beguiled on Kodak 35mm, Le Sourd remarks, “Film is still so beautiful, and delivers great-looking results. For Sofia and me, 35mm was without doubt the best approach for the dynamic looks of this production.”