❉ Costume designer Stacey Battat, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, and sound designer Richard Beggs talk to We Are Cult about their work on The Beguiled.
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is a pure “filmmaker” movie. Every single craft department came to play with their A-game on display, with the striking and painterly aesthetic results speaking for themselves – this is a ravishing motion picture to watch unfold, and after a successful theatrical run which was bolstered by Coppola’s Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival and widespread critical acclaim, The Beguiled has now hit Blu-ray/DVD and streaming services, so audiences who are keen to seek it out now have all the opportunity they need.
We Are Cult’s Nick Clement spoke with costume designer Stacey Battat (Still Alice, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Somewhere, The Bling Ring, What Maisie Knew), cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster, A Good Year), and sound designer Richard Beggs (The Homesman, The Bling Ring, Children of Men, Lost In Translation) about their stunning achievements on The Beguiled.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, as I think this is an intensely beautiful film to experience. Stacey, let’s start with you – what was it like travelling back in time and going period with your costumes?
Battat: Oh, I loved the chance to do a period piece, it’s so much fun. You do different research for each project you take on, but when you’re working on a movie where the vision is this vivid it gets very exciting, despite the challenges we all faced. Every film is a challenge in its own way.
What was the biggest challenge for you on The Beguiled? I assume it was making the costumes?
Battat: (laughs) Yes, I had an absolutely amazing team of artisans who brilliantly executed my thoughts and ideas. I’m very lucky to have had such a wonderful team. Nearly everything that you see in the film was handmade for the project. We did very little outsourcing to rental shops. Pretty much everything, including the corsets, was hand-made from top to bottom. When you’re working with a very specific color palette ad visual style, it’s helpful to get in there and make the big decisions yourself.
What’s it like working with Sofia? This isn’t your first time collaborating with her so I assume it’s a great relationship.
Battat: Sofia’s set is a lovely place to be. She’s very commanding and she gets what she wants without having to resort to yelling or belittling everyone. She’s focused and knows what she wants, which makes the rest of her creative team feel confident in their jobs. She always brings a very distinct vision to each of her projects and on The Beguiled it was no different. I love working with her.
The gothic setting of the house at the center of the film is as much of a character as any human in the narrative. How did the setting and the interior of the house affect your work with the costumes?
Battat: I had lots of discussions with production designer Anne Ross about how the house would play a larger role than normal within the context of the story. It had to be a part of your consciousness as a viewer, and in keeping with the period that the film is set during, we needed to make sure that we had the proper fabrics and textures so that everything felt tangible and lived-in. Finding the perfect upholstery was very important. And overall, it’s a testament to Sofia’s vision for the film, because everyone was very much in synch. The way that the house was lit and designed played a role in how I went about designing certain aspects of each piece of clothing that was in the film.
What was your response when you saw the film for the first time?
Battat: I had the great pleasure of seeing the film, for the first time, projected on film, and I was absolutely blown away by the final result. I felt proud for myself, and for the amazing work done by my entire team.
Philippe, I’m a huge fan of your work in general, and what you achieved in The Beguiled is nearly on another level when it comes to the quality of light and shooting on film in this digital age. How did shooting on film stock bolster the way the film looks?
Philippe: Shooting on film allows you to play with your palette more, and it opens up the space to more milky whites and shades of greys, which were important to this film and Sofia’s vision. Shooting on film is completely different than shooting something digitally, so for a period film of this nature, it made contextual sense to shoot it on film. There’s more of a delicate nature to the image and because Sofia’s approach is very feminine yet strong, this worked well with the material.
What was your mindset in terms of how you approached the house as a character?
Philippe: It needed to feel oppressive, because yes, the house is definitely a character in the film. You needed to feel the shades of light from within the interior, and then with the exteriors, be able to convey that murky sense of ambiguity. The story focuses on strong male-female relationships so the house had to feel like an external force that everyone needed to contend with.
Was it exclusively natural light you used? How much of the film, what percentage, was dictated by candle light?
Philippe: It wasn’t exclusive, but yes, we went for a totally organic approach to the lighting, and we used a lot of natural light, especially when shooting through windows, and allowing light into the frame. We shot the film in 1.66:1 which made it feel even more old-fashioned and gave it more of a cinema quality. And working with candlelight, especially this much candlelight, that was a big challenge, and I look at the work done in Barry Lyndon as a sort of inspiration for what we wanted to achieve.
Do you prefer shooting on film or shooting digitally?
Philippe: It all depends on the project. I think that digital works for many things, but for a project like this, it made sense to shoot on film. I do love shooting on film, though.
What was it like collaborating with Sofia Coppola?
Philippe: She’s wonderful, and it was a great collaboration. We worked fast, and she spends most of her time with the actors, and watching them during the various takes. She’s not hooked up to the monitors all day. It places a huge amount of confidence and trust in me to work like this but I loved her vision for the story and how strong of a voice she brought to the material.
Richard, I’d love to ask about your use of sound, or, rather, the lack of sound in crucial parts of The Beguiled. How hard is it to work with a quiet soundscape?
Beggs: It’s extremely vexing when you’re working with delicate sound but the challenge becomes its own reward. I knew going into the project that it would have minimal music, but I wasn’t prepare for how stripped-clean of sound that Sofia wanted it to be. When I realized how empty the picture was in that sense and that the dialogue had its own sense of economical rhythm, I realized that the sound in the film needed to come from places where the audience wouldn’t be expecting it. I never wanted them to realize any part of the soundtrack. It needed to feel organic and totally built-in.
How did the house setting play a role in designing the soundscape?
Beggs: We wanted everything to feel special, and to have the audience feel as if were conjuring up a special place for the story to unfold. I’ve worked on a few films with Sofia and the locations are always of primary concern because they feel like characters in and of themselves. Spending time on location to gather the raw materials was definitely a challenge because we needed to take any sense of modernity out of the equation. Early on in the process, I tried to imagine what Sofia wanted to get out of the sound in the film, and when we spoke, I was so happy that we were very much in tune to what we wanted to accomplish. We’re able to get things done with a minimal amount of discussion which is also very helpful when collaborating.
Do you enjoy the challenge of doing sound work on a period piece?
Beggs: Again, it comes back to taking anything modern out of the picture. It can be quite a pain from a sound POV but you learn to deal with it. It’s all a part of making it all feel like movie magic. The audience doesn’t know that on a particular take, there was a tractor trailer rumbling in the distance; it’s my job to make sure that everything stays believable and natural to your ears. The modern world simply cannot show up when you’re doing a period piece, so that’s always the biggest challenge – keeping it out!
And because there was a distinct lack of music, what does this do to your job?
Beggs: There was no place to hide because of the lack of a traditional score! So everything had to be on-point. The audience likes to cue themselves into every facet of the movie-watching experience, so it’s my job on a project like this to make sure that nothing stands out too much, and that it all feels natural. You don’t want to draw too much attention to any one area or aspect of the overall soundtrack, but at the same time, you want the movie to sound honest. It’s always a challenge to keep it all perfectly clean.