BY ANTHONY KAUFMAN
Friends and collaborators
for nearly 30 years, writer-director
Sofia Coppola and production
designer Anne Ross
have worked together on a variety
of feature films (Lost in
commercials (Christian Dior
and H&M) and music videos
(The White Stripes). Theirs is
a sleek visual world of elegant
mansions, minimalist and
modern interiors, and, above
all, a vivid depiction of isolation and alienation. However,
with their upcoming fourth feature collaboration, The Beguiled,
a remake of Don Siegel's 1971 Civil War-era drama
about a Union soldier who takes refuge in a Confederate
girls school, Coppola and Ross appear to be forging into new
territory with their first period film together. They spoke to
DGA Quarterly about their methods, from mood boards to
white spaces to the advantages of real locations.
DGA: You two go back a long time. Anne, I saw
that you assisted on Francis Ford Coppola's Bram
Stoker's Dracula in 1992. Did you meet before that?
ROSS: Yes, we've been friends for decades through
work. It's wonderful to be friends with someone
who you've collaborated with for so long. We did this
little movie, The Spirit of '76, in the late '80s; she was
doing costumes and I was in the art department.
DGA: What is your prep process like?
COPPOLA: We start early on talking about it when
I'm writing. It's a big help to me. I put together
reference photos and images to help with writing.
Anne knows me so well that we have a shorthand,
and she's able to find those images that are helpful
for the mood and tone of the world we're trying to
create. When we start the actual prep, Anne has big
mood boards of images on set that help the DP and
costume designer get on the same page.
DGA: Do you ever disagree?
COPPOLA: Usually, we're on the same page.
Sometimes, I have to figure out why I don't agree
with her, whether it'll be about a color or something else. My tendency is always to be more restrained.
ROSS: There's not a lot of pushing, because ultimately,
it's Sofia's movie. But I present my ideas
passionately, and sometimes, it might be too over
the top or strong, and she'll keep things in line.
Oftentimes, if I come with an idea, by discussing it
with her, it becomes a better idea.
DGA: What were some of the reference images that
you looked at for The Beguiled?
ROSS: When Sofia was talking about the things
that she's drawn to, we looked at Picnic at Hanging
Rock, Tess and there was a shot from To Catch a
Thief of someone who is in silhouette that Sofia
found for a specific shot. And not just movies, but
also photographers and painters, like we looked
at a lot of John Singer Sargent and his paintings
of women and girls in white dresses against dark
DGA: In looking at a lot of your work together, I
see lots of white: white walls, white costumes, white
rooms. Is that intentional?
ROSS: I remember on The Bling Ring (2013), when we were
shooting in the Valley, we thought about how those people lived in
these bland, beige boxes.
COPPOLA: Definitely, and the beige, bland colors are in contrast
to the bright world they enter. You want to follow the emotional
state of the characters in a visual way. In Somewhere (2010), we
wanted the Chateau [Marmont] to be blank, simple and neutral.
For that film, I think the starting point was: Let's make it as normal
as possible. I had just finished Marie Antoinette (2006), and
I wanted to make a movie that was simple, as it's really about the
father and the daughter. The locations, like the desert and the iceskating
rink, are about his solitude and trying to find a connection
to her, and not really being connected to the world around him.
ROSS: Within those wider shots it was also about the personal
things they carried and that were around them.
DGA: Do you remember any specifics?
COPPOLA: Anne had this idea that [Stephen Dorff's character]
had some art that he never unpacked that was just lying around.
Anne had also put some flowers and other things around the
house, but as the film goes on, those elements
ROSS: I remember on Lost in Translation (2003), we had long
conversations about luggage, and we gave Bill [Murray] this Tumi
luggage, because that's something her dad had and it was very
male, not interested in flashy design.
DGA: Speaking of Lost in Translation, I always wondered about
that iconic triangular zebra-print wallpaper in the hallway of the
karaoke bar. How did you find it? And what attracted you to it?
COPPOLA: It was the real place; in my 20s, the guy who plays
Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi) would take me to these little
places that you'd never find on your own as a tourist. In Tokyo,
there's this mixture of Western styles, and it's always interesting in
the way that they interpret that.
DGA: From the Park Hyatt in Lost in Translation to Paris Hilton's
house in The Bling Ring, a lot of your collaborations have taken
place in found locations. Why do you prefer that?
COPPOLA: I've always preferred shooting in a real location. Even
when I was working as a photographer, I never worked in a studio.
People feel differently in a real location, because it has a history.
If you look out the window, you can see a real place outside. When
we did the Very Murray Christmas special [in 2015], we created
this fantasy TV station, which was different. But that worked
because it was all fake. When it has to feel real, we love to work
in a real location. On The Beguiled, we made the film in two real locations: a plantation house for the exteriors, and found another
house for the interiors.
ROSS: We're always trying to find the best existing locations, so
you're not creating more work if you find something that's beautiful.
You step away and leave it alone. Especially when you're moving
fast as Sofia tends to do a lot. On The Beguiled, we did some
building on the outside of the houses to remove anything that
looked modern, but Sofia and her cinematographer like to be able
to shoot in order and move from room to room so it can feel authentic
and real for the characters.
DGA: It seems like The Beguiled, at least in subject matter, seems a
lot darker than your previous films. How different is it?
COPPOLA: The film starts off in this lacey, pastel, soft world, but
then the softness goes away and it gets darker, with pale images on dark backgrounds. The whole
gothic feeling is more genre-y,
and we hadn't done that before.
Anne made the house with vines
growing up it, and that feeling
of neglect really helped set the
stage that they're cut off from
the world. She also designed this
gate with spikes on it; we had
these candelabras and a woodpaneled
dining room. It was fun to have those gothic details.
ROSS: The period is also very different, but there is a nice connection
between The Virgin Suicides (1999), because it's about women
being together, and we were interested in the domestic life of
these women and the isolation that they were living in.