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‘The Beguiled’ Brings Civil War to Life With Celluloid

Philippe Le Sourd didn’t have to lobby for “The Beguiled” to be shot on film. Producer Youree Henley and Sofia Coppola, writer and director of the Civil War-era thriller, set to be released June 23 by Focus Features, had chosen film over digital before the French cinematographer joined the project.

Le Sourd was pleased. “I think everything should be shot on film,” he says.

Not that there weren’t challenges. The DP, Oscar nominated for Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” which he also shot on film, acknowledges the difficulty in finding the right lab and the right process for celluloid. “But to bring [‘The Beguiled’] alive on film was a good fight,” he says.

Le Sourd used an Arricam Lite camera outfitted with vintage Cooke S2 and Panavision Ultra Speed lenses to shoot the movie, which revolves around a group of young women and their headmistress at a Southern girls’ boarding school who secretly shelter a wounded Union soldier. He pull-processed the Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 stock, allowing for a tonality he says he would not have been able to capture with digital. “I was reaching for something almost like a gray light, trying to awaken the soul of the darkness that you would feel in the middle of the Civil War,” he says.

Shot on location in Louisiana, the opening sequence of the film depicts a young girl gathering mushrooms in a forest that feels foreboding even in daylight when she encounters an injured enemy soldier. “One of our references was Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon,’” Le Sourd says. “We tried to make this forest mysterious, almost like a cemetery. We go with her into the darkness of the Civil War.”

The bulk of “The Beguiled” was filmed in a plantation house that became the film’s Farnsworth Seminary. It wouldn’t have had electricity, so Le Sourd maximized the use of daylight and candles; he deployed studio lights sparingly. “I tried to use the most naturalistic approach, avoiding backlight,” he explains. “If you look at a Vermeer painting, you see that most of the light is candlelight or window light. That was my approach.”

The DP operated the camera himself. He says he and Coppola, who won best director for the film in Cannes in May, didn’t prepare storyboards in advance of the 26-day shoot,  choosing to make up shots as they went along. “Sofia doesn’t do many takes,” says Le Sourd. “The fact that she’s not looking at a monitor — we didn’t do any playback — saved us time.”

The pair focused on capturing the emotion and body language of a cast that includes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, so the camera was most often in a static position. “We tried to be simple and avoid any showy camera movement,” Le Sourd says. “I find sometimes the more you move the camera, the less you get the emotion.”

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