Cinema is art, not business, for Sofia Coppola. Two decade ago, when she made her directorial début as a 28-year-old, she took a novel she deeply adored and adapted it into her first film. From then on, we have seen various glimpses of her life, philosophy and politics in her art — some conspicuous, others a lot more layered.

Born to Hollywood royalty, Sofia has had all the resources to be a big budget, multi-million dollar filmmaker. She is the daughter of auteur Francis Ford Coppola, who first entered the industry as an infant in her father’s classic film,
The Godfather,
and later had a full-fledged role in
The Godfather Part III
, which won her a Golden Raspberry for Worst Supporting Actress. But from a flailing career as an actor, where critics loved to rip into her every role and cry nepotism, she took to a space that defines her best as an artist today: indie cinema. Now 47, and six films later, the belief seems to have only gotten stronger. She is currently working on her new script, which will most likely find its place in the indie universe. “Although, it’s in the early stages to talk about it,” she says, over the phone from Paris, where she is visiting her husband, French musician Thomas Mars’ family.

The mother of two, with one leg in New York and the other in Paris, she is an exception in Hollywood, which seldom makes a celebrity out of a female indie filmmaker. But all the mainstream attention has never materialised into a big budget studio film. The last time she tried her hand at one, with Universal Pictures’
The Little Mermaid
, it ended with her walking out of the project. “It is important for me to have more creative freedom and involve myself as much as I can, and I find that more possible on a smaller budget,” she says. “With more money, you have to incorporate more, and it becomes more of a business.”

An alternate lens

Sofia’s cinema — both in narrative and aesthetics — comes from a personal space. Granted that she has a history in modelling, owned a fashion label and is considered a style icon, but her clarion call for femininity in cinema is not mere vanity. “Growing up, I saw a more masculine side of things in film, so it was important for me to show the feminine side in my characters and aesthetics because it is what I connect to,” she says. The ‘female gaze’ is what makes even an American Civil War-set drama like
The Beguiled
(which will have its Indian television première on Sony PIX next month) relatable to her. In it, the arrival of a wounded enemy soldier (Colin Farrell) disrupts the isolated sisterhood of corset-clad white women in a Mississippi ladies’ seminary, stirring up sexual tension, blood-soaked vengeance and era-appropriate flirting like Elle Fanning’s “I hope you like apple pie”. Sofia took Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood-starer of the same name, which oozes machismo, and gave it a makeover with pristine aesthetics, meticulously done costumes and soft colour palettes — everything that makes the film ‘feminine’, hence personal.

The ability to identify with characters and situations has permeated Sofia’s oeuvre. She has shown us the vulnerability of celebrity lives, lonesome musings in cars, love for indie rock, warm hues of pastels and ‘girly’ narratives (as many of her critics put it). Her latest,
The Beguiled
, an antidote to Siegel’s tale of male victimhood, landed her a historic win at the Cannes Film Festival last year, making her only the second woman to receive the Best Director award in its 70-year history.

Building from the known

However, few filmmakers have managed to divide critics (mostly white male) as sharply as Sofia. Her Cannes accolade also brought along accusations of “whitewashing” Thomas P Cullinan’s novel, on which her and Siegel’s films are based. Her decision to eliminate the supporting character of a black female slave, and cast her long-standing collaborator Kirsten Dunst in the role of a biracial character sparked controversy after the film’s US release last year.

With mounting backlash, she wrote in the
defending her position. “I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting. There are many examples of how slaves have been appropriated and “given a voice” by white artists. Rather than an act of denial, my decision of not including Mattie [the slave character] in the film comes from respect,” she wrote. A year later, are people more accepting of her point of view? “I spoke at Harvard recently and it did come up. But I think there is more understanding of that perspective [now],” she observes.

It is not the first time that Sofia has faced the ‘lack of diversity’ criticism for her films. How does she respond to it? “I like seeing films that show different kinds of people and different stories,” she says. “Some stories are worth telling, even if it is [of] one group, so I’m making those. I know more and more other people are making theirs.” It is a fair logic, for, under the comfort of privileges, there are traces of melancholy in her characters.
The Beguiled
, in that sense, fits perfectly within her universe — the slaves have escaped and the white women are left struggling to make sense of a crumbling world. At the same time, the period drama is a departure from her brand of cinema. “I’d never worked in a genre before that has a dark side,” she says. “So for it was [about] how to do [a film] with a thriller aspect, but still in my style.”

A pastel take

The filmmaker is no stranger to a period setting. The last time she presented her work in competition at Cannes was, in fact, such an outing —
Marie Antoinette
(2006), a film booed by high-brow critics for its anachronisms. The pop colours and occasional glimpses of modern-day accessories, like a pair of pink sneakers, gave the aristocratic bildungsroman a contemporary relevance. More than a decade later, Sofia took the opposite (and traditional) approach with
The Beguiled
by staying true to the time. “I tried to make it natural so that you weren’t seeing it at a distance,” she explains.

Her films reflect a distinctly European sensibility and her admiration for the French New Wave cinema is widely documented. It is no surprise then that she subscribes to the idea that an artist’s work is affected by the one that precedes it. But when you look at her previous film,
Bling Ring
(2013), which comments on the materialistic excesses of Los Angles’ celebrity culture, you wonder what prompted a subdued film like
The Beguiled
. “For me,
Bling Ring
was very obnoxious and contemporary, we shot all over the city and it was a certain kind of trashy culture show,” she reflects. Last year’s southern gothic drama was the perfect detox. “I wanted to do something quiet, contained, which spoke more to the quieter time, with beautiful aesthetics,” she adds.

Music and aesthetic

‘Beautiful’ is a keyword in the filmmaker’s repertoire. “My work is definitely very influenced by art and photography,” she says. Take, for instance, the opening shot of
Lost in Translation
(2003), arguably her most popular film which won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a nomination for Best Director (elevating her to the league of a handful of female directors to be nominated). It captures Scarlett Johansson’s derrière in a diaphanous pink underwear, which is believed to be inspired by American artist John Kacere’s artwork,
. “I’ve worked in photography for a long time, so I definitely look to it for references to explain things to my cinematographer,” she reveals. Aesthetics never precede the narrative though. “The story always informs the look,” she says. So what is the process once she has found the story she wants to tell? “I usually start from the very beginning: I think about the visual language, the aesthetics of it and then the music quite early so that it can inform the tone or the atmosphere,” she explains.

In all of Coppola’s films, music lends words to her otherwise reticent characters, and she has had to look no further than her husband’s band, Phoenix, for that. Mars has consistently contributed songs to her soundtracks. “I definitely feel lucky to have his compositions and it’s nice to have that in the family,” says 28-year-old filmmaker. “But I have [also had] other songs in my movies over the years,” she is quick to remind me.

Looking inward

Unlike her childhood, Sofia has always kept her children and family life low key. Especially in her “writing phase”, she prefers to be in a solitary state, which, like many other aspects of her life and beliefs, seems to have an impact on her characters. Whether it is aristocrats or rich LA brats, they all go through moments of rumination, depicted through lonesome mulling. “When I’m writing, I’m isolated in a world I’m more in touch with,” she says, adding that she always think culturally. “Whatever is in the culture, kind of seeps into your work in some way.” So, the critique of Hollywood and the lives of the privileged by the ultimate showbiz insider cannot simply be incidental. “It definitely has a unique perspective of growing up around in that world,” she mumbles. “In my films, I look at how a lot of people are attracted to it, that it’s going to bring them fulfilment, and [then show] the other side of it.” It is what makes celebrities human, and Sofia, a chronicler of their guarded lives.

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