Sofia Coppola now represents just the second woman of seventy Cannes Best Director Award winners. The Beguiled, her prize winner, is an immaculate exercise in aesthetic restraint. All facets of its design are an echo of the screams curdling beneath a relentless Southern gentility.
Critical to this masterfully controlled technique is Coppola’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd AFC. Philippe and I discuss the film’s use of perspective, his unique low-contrast take to visualizing oppression, and camera movement's potential to disrupt the emotion of a scene.
- Philippe shot Kodak V3 500T 5219 and pull processed the entire negative by a stop for reduced grain, contrast, and range in the shadows.
- Shot with an Arricam LT body
- Cooke S2’s and Panavision Ultra Speeds for their delicate rendering and fast apertures.
- Panavision customized a ‘close-up filter’ for Le Sourd to imitate the 1860’s style Petzval lensed portraits.
- Dinolights with ¾ CTB and 18K HMI’s for daylight
- Kino Celebs diffused through cotton fabric to supplement candlelit night interiors.
- Framed for a 1.66 Aspect Ratio to reinforce the feel of imprisonment and to emphasize body language.
Cinelinx: This version of The Beguiled is said to be told from the female perspective, but visually it’s not so overt about that. We’re not shooting OTS, or going POV, (and in a film like this with an ensemble cast you have to be careful about that) so how did you suggest that perspective in these objective static frames?
Le Sourd: Yes. I think it’s definitely more focused on the reactions -- how these women are reacting to the man inside the house. So you need these compositions. The man is looked at more like an object -- he’s also a soldier. The goal was to present him as more of an idea of a man and the women as it's perceivers. This is reflected in the lighting, he is lit sharper and with more contrast, more masculine, and the women much softer and delicate, and this is reflected in the other stylistic decisions as well.
Cinelinx: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the only OTS shots we get are from the perspective of Mistress Farnsworth, Nicole Kidman’s character. Is this exception allowed because of her power in the house?
Le Sourd: Yes, yes. There are three or four dinner scenes, and we wanted to express each scene in a different way. In this one, we wanted to express the Mistress idea of Nicole Kidman. She is the power within the house, and Sofia and I wanted to express that her power matters here but that she is also a shadow over all these characters. So this shot expressed this oppression.
Cinelinx: The Beguiled has this pattern of cut-ins where it’ll pay emphasis to a curtsy, or a wink, or a smile. You’re not shooting a ton of coverage, so how do you go about making sure you capture these reactions ideally? Does Sofia know what reactions she wants to cut in on ahead of time?
Le Sourd: Yes, Aaron, yes. When you pay particular attention to the script and dialogue you learn what’s important about a character or a scene. Even if it’s not a line of dialogue, a shot of something else like a reaction can provide the important information about the tensions going on here. You can read about it, pre-plan it, and pre-think each scene, but the final result is always influenced by the actors. When you start to shoot you can start to react and change your mind.
We rehearsed with the actors and took photographs on location to figure out roughly how many set ups we’d needed for each scene. But then on set sometimes it changes, we could end up adding more set ups or even losing some. I think as a cinematographer and as a director, you have to be good at reacting to what you’re seeing. Sofia’s very good at that.
Cinelinx: Is Sofia very specific but also intuitive to changes on the day?
Le Sourd: She’s a unique mix. We spent a lot of time on the script together. There was a lot of back and forth and prep about how to shoot each scene. Sometimes she was very specific. Before we started the movie she’d say “I want to see this girl from the back” or something like that. But then we get on the movie, and we have only so many days and a specific schedule, and all the girls all have different schedules. We have to deliver technically, craft a tableau, and design cinema that drives you to the story and not just its actors. Because a director focuses on what they want to show you.
Cinelinx: The film is shot almost completely static, almost… Was there a consistent reason that justified the scenes with camera movement?
Le Sourd: At the beginning, the camera moves because she’s out in the forest and it’s important to feel the fear and the danger that drives these girls into isolation. I think Sofia -- although we did some tracks for the exteriors -- doesn’t like to move the camera very much. There’s a simplicity. We watched a film by Bresson called Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) that was very simple and static, only rarely does it move. It becomes more about the composition and what’s inside it. It forces the viewer to put some work in and see something. I think that’s what she likes. Movement tends to add a spark or a drama that’s not always necessary for the emotion. Sometimes that emotion can be lost because of the camera movement. Sometimes it becomes more about a celebration of the director’s talent than the actors and the emotion.
Cinelinx: Why the 1.66 AR?
It was decided early on. Most people like to say 2.35 is cinema! I learned in Europe where there’s 1.37, 1.66, 1.85, and cinemascope. In this composition (1.66) you focus more on the body language, rather than the landscape, and you feel more a sense of the competition and the imprisonment. The frame is more oppressive. In the beginning, I asked Sofia if she wanted to shoot a 1.33. We did shoot tests on location, and like I said, you can think long about an idea but you don’t know til the day whether or not it will work out. 1.33 ended up being too formal, and 1.66 felt more appropriate to the story.
Cinelinx: Your light can always be tracked back to a justifiable source, but at the same time, it’s working emotionally and dramatically. For instance, the room with the wounded soldier plays with blocking by the window so that the women's faces fall into soft silhouettes, while his face often remains in light or has a contrast to it. How do you design a lighting plot that works practically for the space but is also working emotionally?
Le Sourd: I think light has a large effect on the direction and feel of a film, or even the direction within a scene itself. I like, especially in the day interiors, that the light is justified. So if you see a window the light is coming from the window. It has to feel like a jail, and that has to be done subtly. Nothing bright. I like this approach in general. Film is not as light sensitive as digital. In the candle-lit night interiors, I had to supplement, and there are ways of doing that that would not have fit the scene. It can look too elegant, attractive, and brilliant, you have to find a balance. At the same time if it were purely candle lit it would have been too contrasty, and there are too many characters in the frame -- it would have felt too dramatic.
Cinelinx: How controlled were the day exteriors? Was there any struggle with all the surrounding willow trees creating shafts of light/shadows?
Le Sourd: In the beginning of the movie, I didn’t bring any light, just bounces and black (negative fill) for contrast. Sometimes I did have extra light to fill the face. But for the garden, I scouted it properly so that we would shoot at certain times. Of course, we had to keep with the continuity of the daylight within scenes.
Cinelinx: There are certain portrait shots, like the one you can find in the trailer with Collin Farrell outside, that have this sort of curved bokeh that I’ve not really seen before. Can you talk about these shots?
Le Sourd:I was intrigued by the photographs of the time and the techniques that they were using for portraits. I found that, in the 1860’s, they were almost always shot with the same lens, the Petzval lens. This lens has a certain bokeh that makes the out of focus areas circle the subject. Panavision helped me create that look by designing like a close-up filter that could be attached to the lens with a magnetic ring.
Cinelinx: Did you choose the Cooke S2s and Panavision Ultra Speeds for their creamier, softer look?
Le Sourd: Yes, Sofia wanted this pastel look from the beginning. So the choice of the lenses was a mix between what the process would be and what the film stock would be. So I shot some tests and ended up with some Cookes that are a little more delicate and brought out the femininity of the light, and which also brings something more sensual and sexual at certain points. Most of the time I’d be working wide open.
Cinelinx: How do you approach aperture? Are you particular about holding one stop in a given room or scene?
Le Sourd: The shooting wide open was pretty consistent [laughs], which of course made the job for my first A.C. very difficult. It’s part of how you compose an image. I stayed open for the daylight exteriors, which was the whole idea with the Petzval lens look. At night I wanted to work with as low light as possible. So I was working with the low toe of the negative because I was pulling the negative to get much more details in the blacks. There’s a concern in group scenes like at the dinner table, where certain characters are more in focus than others, so you pay more attention to them when that's not intended. That is a problem when you’re shooting at a 1.1 or a 1.2.
Cinelinx: Why was the extra latitude and reduction in contrast gained from pull-processing the negative necessary to the feel of The Beguiled?
Le Sourd: When you pull process you desaturate color, your highlights are lower, and your lowlights higher. You get more range in the blacks. You need less light in the shadow, and I like this idea, inspired by the grey tones of Edward Steichen’s photography, of a grey oppression rather than a high contrast one. So I kind of went the opposite way that you’d imagine. You could go this other direction like The Night Of The Hunter or something, very dramatic. And I felt that -- maybe it’d work with the end of this film -- but it wouldn’t haved work with the beginning.
Cinelinx: Are you closing down the aperture later in the film as it gets thematically darker?
Le Sourd: No, I’m making some more dramatic choices with lighting and angles. For most of the film Sofia and I liked to shoot eye level, but here we’re shooting higher or lower than that. Or instead of using a 50mm I’m using a 35mm. We tried to find a balance so as not to be so obvious, you know -- compared to the beginning. You have to retain that style someway so that there’s not a change in mood.
Cinelinx: Being that you’re working in a real, historical, location, I’m guessing you guys weren’t breaking down and rearranging walls. Did you ever have to ‘compromise’ or use a wider focal length that you didn’t want to?
Le Sourd: Yeah sometimes we had to go wider. You have to be careful that you don’t go too wide and reveal too much information and character. Sofia and I collaborated so that if we did have to go wider the mise-en-scéne and blocking would compensate.
Cinelinx: When collaborating with Sofia are you talking aperture, and focal length, technical things like that? Or is she giving you broader guidelines where you get to decide some of those things on your own?
Le Sourd: She gives you an idea, and then she lets you research these ideas on your own. I shot these tests and presented my take on her ideas and she accepted them. It was a very easy process. She has a lot of trust in the people she hires. And if she doesn’t like something she’ll say it.
Cinelinx: On this film, you got to work mostly uninterrupted through the viewfinder, without Sofia on a big video village. Do you prefer working this way?
Le Sourd: Sofia is interesting in that she never uses the video feedback, she’s always watching the actors. She had full trust in me with composition and camera movement, and of course, I’d report to her any problems I’d notice in a take. When you work this way you go quickly.
Cinelinx: If a cinematographer’s job is to best adapt to suit the story, what personal tendencies have you noticed that find their way into all your work?
Le Sourd: I think you’re right that a cinematographer must work to suit the story. At the same time, every cinematographer will approach the same story a different way. I think it comes down to the choices, the types of processes you want to work in, the types of directors you want to work with, and the type of cinema you want to see. You’ll make certain technical choices with the type of camera you choose, the set-ups, and the lighting -- and you’ll have your different reasons and you’ll do your best to tell the story. You follow your past in a certain way. And I feel you can pick up on all these different cinematographers. Even if they’re following close to a director’s story, you can recognize the tendencies of the cinematographer.
See The Beguiled in theaters now, and keep an eye out for Philippe's future work. My review here.