Sofia Coppola met her muse Kirsten Dunst in 1998. The actress was just 16 at the time, and the 27-year-old daughter of Francis Ford Coppola was about to make her directorial debut with “The Virgin Suicides,” based on a novel that she loved. Dunst was so innocent, she brought her mom along to chaperone their initial conversation. “I was a little nervous,” she says. “It was my first adult role!”
So much of Hollywood is filtered through the male gaze. But Coppola, who tells stories from the perspectives of her heroines, immediately put Dunst at ease. “She was always a good influence on me as a young woman,” Dunst says, recalling a compliment that Coppola once paid her that she never forgot. “She said to me, ‘I love your teeth; don’t ever fix your teeth.’ I remember doing a ‘Spider-Man’ movie later, and one of the producers was like, ‘I need to take you to the dentist!’ They even fixed my teeth on the poster. But I just knew I was never doing that. Sofia is the chicest, coolest girl, and she thinks my teeth are great.” At the risk of sounding “a little corny,” Dunst adds, “She gave me confidence in little things that I wouldn’t necessarily have had.”
|Yu Tsai for Variety|
Coppola and Dunst are the rare female duo in an industry ruled by men and notable for director-actor teams like Marty and Leo, Spielberg and Hanks, Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson. These two women have fostered an unbreakable bond over the past two decades and four movies. “I feel big-sisterly to her,” Coppola says, sipping a mint tea near her home in New York, where she raises her two kids.
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Both spent their formative years on movie sets — one as a young actress (“Interview With the Vampire,” “Little Women,” “Jumanji”), the other as the observant daughter of a famous director. After 1999’s “Virgin Suicides,” they reteamed on Coppola’s 2006 period drama “Marie Antoinette.” Dunst even popped up seven years later in a cameo in “The Bling Ring,” as herself. And now the two are headed to Cannes with Coppola’s latest endeavor “The Beguiled,” a Southern gothic thriller that will premiere at the film festival later this month and debut in theaters June 23.
When Coppola first met with Dunst for “The Virgin Suicides,” she was drawn to a particular quality — a depth beneath her all-American-girl looks. For “Marie Antoinette,” which Coppola wrote with Dunst in mind, she liked that her actress could blend in with the 18th-century corsets and wigs. “She has a German background,” Dunst says. “She’s part of that world.”
Coppola decided to cast Dunst against type in “Beguiled,” as a shy teacher at a girls’ school who befriends a wounded Civil War soldier (Colin Farrell) taking shelter there. “I like casting her in this because it’s so opposite her personality,” Coppola says. “This character is so oppressed and she’s not at all.”
All these years later, Coppola, 46, still feels protective of Dunst, 35. When it came to directing a love scene between Dunst and Farrell, Coppola wanted to make sure Dunst was comfortable. She kept it short, and both actors kept their clothes on. “Having that sex scene with Colin is so not Sofia’s style, even though it’s brief,” Dunst says. “She gets embarrassed for me, which is funny because she’s my director.”
The ease and respect the two share was evident at their Variety photo shoot at the Houdini Estate in Laurel Canyon. They bantered nonstop, as they cracked each other up between shots. Just as the session was about to begin, Dunst noticed they were wearing nearly identical gold watches, and in a sweetly deferential gesture, she took hers off and handed it to an assistant.
When Coppola suggested that Dunst lose some weight for her role in “Beguiled,” the actress pushed back. But she said her director was very understanding. “It’s so much harder when you’re 35 and hate working out,” Dunst says. She even used the shoot’s location—in rural Louisiana—as an excuse. “I’m eating fried chicken and McDonald’s before work. So I’m like, ‘We have no options! I’m sorry I can’t lose weight for this role.’”
|Yu Tsai for Variety|
The Making of ‘The Beguiled’
“The Beguiled,” an indie backed by Focus Features, is based on an out-of-print 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan that was first made into a cult movie in 1971 starring Clint Eastwood. In the new version, Nicole Kidman portrays the headmistress (a part originated by Geraldine Page). Elle Fanning, who appeared in Coppola’s 2010 film “Somewhere,” was cast as the seductive, mean-spirited student.
“I just really like her and that style of hers,” Kidman says of Coppola. “She’s very much about atmosphere. You go off into a bit of a trance with her movies.” Farrell, who had sworn off remakes after “Total Recall,” channels the Eastwood character in a supporting role.
It’s the first time Coppola has attempted a remake. In her version, the heroines are not stereotypes, but fleshed out characters. “The idea of remaking doesn’t make sense to me,” Coppola says. “This [story] stayed in my mind. And then I thought it would be interesting to tell the same premise from the point of view of the women characters.”
Coppola is among the top auteurs of her generation — a title bestowed on her after winning the 2004 Oscar for her original screenplay for “Lost in Translation.” She’s directed only six features, taking breaks between each one before toiling away on new scripts. “I used to stay up all night writing, but now I have little kids,” Coppola says. “I had to train myself to work normal hours, which is so weird.”
Unlike the rest of Hollywood, she doesn’t make sequels. “I can’t imagine,” she says about revisiting one of her stories. And she doesn’t fixate on her films’ box office totals. “I feel like guys pay more attention than girls,” she says. “That’s a generalization; I shouldn’t say that. There are probably women who care too. The women directors that I know are less box office oriented.”
She also isn’t a hothead, like some of her male counterparts, according to those who’ve worked with her. “Sofia is easygoing,” says her brother, Roman Coppola, who produces her films. “She doesn’t really fight.” But she’s got a tough spine. Bill Murray, who starred in “Translation,” came up with a nickname: the Velvet Hammer. “She’s got an inner titanium,” Farrell says. “She’s so clear in what she wants. She’s so strong in pursuing it. She has this intoxicatingly gentle demeanor that’s really beautiful to be around.”
The movie business has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Independent films only occasionally break out as must-see cultural events (usually around Oscar season). The medium has largely surrendered its mojo to TV, which has hijacked some of the most distinct female voices, such as Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Jane Campion (“Top of the Lake”) and Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal”).
This year, “Big Little Lies” marked another turning point by landing three of the biggest actresses in Hollywood (Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley) for a seven-episode arc on HBO. And the FX drama “Feud” revisited the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as they struggle to age gracefully. “I was getting depressed watching ‘Feud,’” Dunst says. “I was like, ‘I’m an aging actress!’ But they also had a lot more leverage because they had contracts. So even though they were stuck, they could also bully the studio back. Now you work for nothing on independent films, and you rely on the fashion industry to support your artistic endeavors.”
“The Beguiled” shot for 26 days in Louisiana on the plantation where Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” filmed. The entire cast bunked at a local Hampton Inn to cut costs. Indeed, releasing an art-house movie at the height of summer has become a challenge, as the multiplexes are clogged with superhero extravaganzas. “We want to sell that experience for everything that it is: Sofia’s vision for a genre that people love,” says Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski.
Coppola has tried to evolve and take on more mainstream fare. She was attached to Working Title’s “The Little Mermaid,” a retelling of the classic fairy tale, but dropped out due to creative differences. “I would have liked to have done that,” she says. “We couldn’t agree on some elements. When it’s smaller, you can have exactly what you have in mind. For me, it wasn’t a good fit.” Coppola requires final cut on her movies. “That’s the only way I feel like I can make it my own,” she says.
|“She was always a good influence on me as a young woman. She gave me confidence in little things.”|
She can’t see herself working on a blockbuster. “At one point, I was like, ‘What’s happening with “Wonder Woman”?’ ” she says. “I wanted to see a woman superhero because they’re all guys. I’m not really a comic-book person, but I liked the idea. On TV, she was so glamorous to me.”
In 2017, women film directors are still an endangered species. In spite of a new wave of feminism in the Trump era, the statistics aren’t improving. “Men are the bankers, and they have the money to invest,” says Sofia’s mother, filmmaker Eleanor Coppola, 81, who spent six years trying to get financing for her first feature, “Paris Can Wait,” starring Diane Lane. “I don’t have any violence in my film. Nobody dies. There are no guns, car crashes, train wrecks, aliens, robots, special effects. A lot of women’s stories are different than men’s stories, and they are not being told.”
Dunst can attest to that. She’ll make her directorial debut with “The Bell Jar,” a big-screen version of Sylvia Plath’s novel starring Dakota Fanning. But there’s just one holdup. “We need our financing,” Dunst says. “I’m telling you, I have so many great actresses attached. People are afraid of the name Sylvia and that this is a depressing movie, which it’s not at all.” She hopes to shoot later this year. “It’s always harder for women,” she says. “Everyone has to work 10 times harder.”
At least women rule on Sofia Coppola’s sets. On “The Beguiled,” they outnumbered the men, both in front of and behind the camera. “The nice thing about Sofia is she not only makes films about women from the female perspective,” says her production designer, Anne Ross. “She hires an enormous number of women on her crew. So many department heads were women.”
On Election Day, the crew believed they were about to witness history. “A lot of the women wore white in support of Hillary,” Ross says. Donald Trump’s victory cast an unexpected shadow on a story about females trapped in a confined space. “I had to go to bed because we had to get up early for work,” Dunst recalls. “I was sure Hillary was going to win. I woke up and they told me and I started crying.”
The script’s themes, of women rising up, couldn’t be timelier. “As we were making it, you could see more and more connections,” Coppola says. Dunst likes the marketing campaign: “I think ‘Vengeful Bitches’ is a good tagline.”
“The Beguiled” marked other departures for Coppola. It’s her first genre movie, with a trailer that played before “50 Shades Darker.” (“I went,” she admits. “I don’t know what to say about that.”) “The Beguiled” could widen her fan base: “I just wanted this to be fun and entertaining,” she says. “I liked that there was actually a plot; it had dialogue. Things that I’m not used to doing.” She wasn’t too fond of the blood, though. “It wasn’t my thing,” she says.
Coppola added an intimate scene with Farrell’s character getting a sponge bath from Kidman. “I just bathed him for hours,” Kidman says. “Maybe two hours of cleaning his hands and his whole body.” What was it like for him? “It wasn’t as comprehensive as you might have thought,” he jokes. “She missed a few spots.” And Coppola tones down the violence from the original. “I didn’t want it to be campy,” she says of a pivotal scene near the end. “I liked the idea of implying it, and then you find out what happened.”
Coppola grew up as a bit of a nomad. “Francis and I had an arrangement,” Eleanor says. “If he was going to be gone for more than two weeks, we’d take the family.” That meant attending school in New York; Los Angeles; Tulsa, Okla.; and the Philippines, where “Apocalypse Now” was shot. “It was like we were a circus family, and she was part of it,” Eleanor says.
|Yu Tsai for Variety|
As a result, Sofia’s interests were varied. She liked fashion and drawing — sketching pictures of her visits to Disneyland for days on end. At 12, she cut her hair in an asymmetrical bob and plastered copies of Vogue on her bedroom walls. She dabbled with art school and photography. And she sidelined as a stand-in extra on her dad’s movies, debuting onscreen in a baptism scene in “The Godfather.” “When you’re making a movie and you need a one-month-old infant, and you happen to have a one-month-old infant, it’s just easier,” Francis Ford Coppola says.
After Winona Ryder dropped out of “The Godfather III” at the last minute, Francis made the controversial decision to cast Sofia as Michael Corleone’s 19-year-old daughter. The reviews were scathing. “She was targeted,” Francis says. “I don’t think Sofia was bad in the picture. I never did. Had that not been my daughter, I don’t think it would have gotten the attention. It was hurtful, some of it. But she’s made of steel.”
Her mother was relieved when she finally decided to make films. “She was feeling badly about herself, like she was a dilettante,” Eleanor says. “When she made her first short film, a light bulb went off.”
Dunst also grew up on movie sets, acting from the age of 12. But her career entered another stratosphere when she was cast as Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, which helped launch Hollywood’s obsession with comic books. “I wanted to be in that movie so badly,” Dunst says. “I loved it, and I wish we could have made a fourth.”
She’s ambivalent about Sony’s decision to keep rebooting the franchise, now in its third iteration. “I don’t care,” she says of the reboots, admitting she didn’t see the last installment. “Everyone likes our ‘Spider-Man.’ C’mon, am I right or what? Listen, I’d rather be in the first ones than the new ones.”
The tentpoles gave Dunst a financial safety net, so she was able to shoot independent features in between. Asked if there was any pay disparity, she says: “Because I was young, I thought, ‘Oh wow, I’m getting paid a lot of money for the “Spider-Man” movies.’ But definitely the men were getting paid more. So yes, I experienced that.”
Dunst eventually settled on a career of dramas (“On the Road”) and TV (“Fargo”), away from big-budget spectacles. “I didn’t want to be a romantic lead,” she says, having starred in projects like “Wimbledon” and “Elizabethtown.” “It’s just so boring. I think that was a time when the romantic comedy was so big. I knew it wasn’t for me. I just didn’t have fun making them. I guess it’s not in my DNA.”
Coppola and Dunst are no strangers to Cannes. “The Virgin Suicides” premiered as a Directors’ Fortnight selection, and “Marie Antoinette” was in competition, although the reception wasn’t as enthusiastic. “A few journalists started booing, so they could say it got booed,” Coppola says. “It got a standing ovation too. We had a good time.”
They’ve both served on the Cannes jury — in 2014 for Coppola and last year for Dunst. “It was so much work, but it was really fun,” Dunst says. Did she ever fall asleep? “A little bit,” she confesses. “I had to go back and re-watch that movie.” Dunst clocked another appearance in the south of France with “Melancholia,” during an awkward press conference where Lars von Trier said he sympathized with Hitler. “I have a lot of Cannes memories,” she says with a laugh.
Coppola’s inaugural Cannes goes back further, to her 8th birthday. “There are pictures of me on my dad’s shoulders at the ‘Apocalypse Now’ premiere,” she says. “I remember there was a huge joint on the Croisette for Cheech and Chong’s ‘Up in Smoke.’ My brothers were going. And I couldn’t go. That’s my first memory.”