Jennifer Dehghan: "I always pictured the visuals like you're trying to take a deep breath and your corset is way too tight."
Every minute of Sofia Coppola’s sparse Southern chamber drama sizzles with war, sex, and death. Returning to the gauzy, teenage fever dream form of The Virgin Suicides, Coppola packsThe Beguiled with fierce sexual tension, baked in the wispy haze of a small world cordoned off from the anguish of the Civil War. Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and Kirsten Dunst star as three women whose lives on the estate of a Southern girls' school are upended by the appearance of a Union soldier (Colin Farrell). As each woman vies for his affection, sex and death become nearly indistinguishable, and a war of its own boils over within the school's mossy walls.
As is to be expected from a Coppola film, The Beguiled features impeccable visuals. Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography, shot on film and vintage lenses, winds through the untamed grounds, which Art Director Jennifer Dehghan designed to preserve the authenticity of the period and enhance the Southern Gothic undertones of the story. Dehghan worked with the film's production designer, Anne Ross—the two also collaborated on The Squid and the Whale—to painstakingly bring Coppola's vision to life. In the process, they transformed a manicured wedding estate with a golf course into an overgrown would-be sanctuary whose lushness threatens to dissolve into something more menacing.
No Film School spoke to Dehghan about collaborating with Coppola, building out the film's period-specific world, and the importance of securing the right crew.
No Film School: I imagine this was a pretty evocative script. What were some of the first things that came to mind when you read it?
Jennifer Dehghan: Well, since Sofia Coppola is directing it, it comes with this quiet presence. I think that's what's nice about a lot of Sofia's work: there are long pauses, there's silence, there's time, there's good music. It's not all just jam-packed with talking people all the time, telling you what to think. I think the flow of it was really nice.
Also, it’s all women! There’s one man in the whole thing. It's incredible. That doesn't happen.
NFS: It definitely doesn't. Were there many women on the crew, too?
Dehghan: I wouldn't say it was mostly women, but there were a lot of women department heads. It was a fair balance. Even that is special.
I have a little photo series that I've been doing over the years of me in the front of the set, and it's all men behind me. On this set, there was still obviously a ton of men—there should be because they're qualified, too—but there were a lot of women as well.
NFS: When you initially read a script, do you do a breakdown?
Dehghan: Yes, because that's how I wrap my head around the film and create a framework for all the details. The Beguiled had been on and off for a long time, so [Production Designer] Anne Ross and Sofia [Coppola] have been working on research and mood boards months and months earlier, when we thought it was a go. When it was finally greenlit, it was a big rush. Usually, the breakdown is what I do first, but Anne had pretty much done all of the research with Sofia already. And thank goodness, because the budget on this wasn't huge. We didn't have a ton of time and a ton of people for research.
NFS: What had they decided on together in terms of research and references?
Dehghan: There were a couple Hitchcock reference images, Roman Polanski's Tess, and there were quite a few John Singer Sargent paintings, and then there were just general mood images of a woman's hair pulled up with flowers and flowing in the breeze, or how light comes through some lace sheer in a window and falls on a face. I think that all those things came across in the film.
Then, with the breakdown, you fill in all the details. We did a lot of research on domestic work to make sure that when you zoom in on the house and they were sewing or they were cleaning or they were playing their musical instruments, we did it all correctly. We bought books on table settings and dressings for the period, we went to museums and met with the directors and did research on ironwork and how the different kinds of wooden fences were made by hand. Then, of course, specific things, like what vegetables were grown in Virginia in this time period. We tried to plant those in the gardens.
NFS: What do you look for in the script, in terms of how art direction informs the story at large, when you’re doing a breakdown?
Dehghan: Well, for this one, we wanted to make this feel claustrophobic and trapped. This is based on a book set in Virginia towards the end of the [Civil] War. These women have been holed up in this house for five years, waiting it out. The children were babies when the war started, and haven't had a father figure around. The men are all gone, the slaves are all gone, and they really don't want to encounter any men, because they don't want to draw any attention to themselves. They don't want anyone coming into their space and finding out it's a house of just women.
So the little girls haven't really had father figures, and then the ones that were younger are now adolescents and are coming into their own awakening. They haven't had a male gaze on them or been able to feel that tension. Then, you have the slightly older girls, who now have passed their peak. I mean, it was such a limited timeframe before a girl turned into an old maid in this period. These women felt like their chances had disappeared with the war. Then, you have the headmistress, who's been holding the fort down for five years on her own. She's had all these children to look after and hasn't had an adult to have a conversation with.
When I read the script, I always pictured the [visuals] like you're trying to take a deep breath and your corset is way too tight. The strings are just wrapped around you and you can't take a deep breath. You’re struggling for air. We tried to translate that.
NFS: The estate grounds did feel incredibly isolated—it was a small sanctuary in the middle of a chaotic world that was slowly creeping in.
Dehghan: When I was talking to Anne in the beginning, we liked that the war is just a backdrop. There's only one time where we ever see soldiers; there's only one interaction with the outside world besides the injured soldier. So it's just cannon blasts in the distance every now and then that you hear, or the fear of the war, the peeking through the curtains. So we started with the curtains open whenever we were in the house. But as the story progressed, we then started to pull the curtains and the plantation shutters closed. The air got heavier inside the house. Light came through in dusty shafts, and it just enhanced the fact that now they were scared because they had brought someone from the outside world in, and they didn't really know what to make of it yet.
The plantation house that we shot at is gorgeous, but it's well-kept. They have a lot of wedding parties there and the lawn was like a golf course. The trees were pruned. Unfortunately, we didn't have the property to ourselves for long enough. I think Anne was disappointed because in her head, she always had this tall, flowing, seedy grass on the estate because there’s no one left to tend it. But that just wasn't going to happen logistically. We had to find other ways.
So we hung a lot of moss. We had vines climbing up the house and around the columns and the pillars. We installed vegetable gardens and rose gardens and fencing to obscure the outside world; that way, we could build a cocoon around the estate. Then, we messed up the grounds and tried to grow the grass out. We added a lot of sticks and branches and vines coming up out of the ground. We tried to add leaves and dirt and we built a lot of handmade wooden things that were kind of period specific that we could move around and place to block things.
"This was shot on film, and the budget wasn't huge, but there were a lot of specific goals to achieve."
NFS: The changing quality of the light in the house is a big part of the film's mise en scène. I'm sure that involved a lot of intimate collaboration with the camera and lighting departments. How did you communicate to get all of your needs met, especially when it came to working with the windows and the candles in order to enhance natural light?
Dehghan: We did quite a few camera tests. This was shot on film, and the budget wasn't huge, but there were a lot of specific goals to achieve. We worked with candlelight because, of course, there was no electricity in this period. Not only did we have to figure out ways to hide all of the electrical outlets and switches in the interior house, but candles also create a lot of smoke. We had the candles made with double or triple wicks and they had different kinds of blacks and colors. Then, with the lighting package as well, the DP and the lighting department tried out a lot of different things until we could figure out what worked.
Philippe Le Sourd, the DP, used a lot of atmosphere inside and outside the house, and it kind of has this eerie feeling of a floating world. You don't really know where they are but you know that they're isolated.
NFS: How do you make all of the period-specific detail work within the budget that you had?
Dehghan: Sometimes you do and sometimes you don't. We had such an amazing crew on this. As long as everyone understands the parameters of the project, then you can make choices based on your priorities. Our crew was aware of our budget constraints and would talk to us when concerns arose so Anne and I, or Anne and Sofia and I, could prioritize where the money had to go.
Once Amy Silver, the decorator, and I got to town, the two of us went with Anne out to the plantation house. We walked around for a few hours and kind of did a survey. We got a general assessment of where Sofia thought they would shoot what, and Philippe went around with a camera, and then afterward he put together a deck of really gorgeous shots for different scenes so we could focus specifically on what we were going see. We just didn't have the budget or the time to spread it out and let the shots be found. He put together this deck of scenes and we focused on that.
NFS: So everything was very pre-planned?
Dehghan: Yeah. That was possible because the script was so contained. Since we weren't in a ton of locations, we didn't have to spread ourselves out so thin. We got to put all our budget to the interior and exterior of the house, and that was pretty much it.
NFS: Where did you find some of the period-specific furniture and props?
Dehghan: We shot this in New Orleans, so all of our crew were all locals, and there had been quite a few period films in this period that were shot in New Orleans in the last six years, like Django Unchained. The crew all had leads on antique shops and estate sales. They had done a lot of period research for the interior furnishing and the props, and a lot of people collect these things after the movies end.
You really should hire your crew wisely. I can't say this enough: we had such an amazing art department. Chuck Stringer, our construction coordinator, just got it. We didn't have a budget for an assistant art director or set designer to draw tons of plans for everything that we wanted to build. I would hand sketch it and he and I would work it out. He'd say, "You know, this might be better, that might save us here, and that might save us there." You could have all the ideas in the world and they could all be brilliant and beautiful, but if nobody can execute them on a budget, then they just float away in the breeze.
"You could have all the ideas in the world and they could all be brilliant and beautiful, but if nobody can execute them on a budget, then they just float away in the breeze."
Jason Hortling was our head scenic. He could do anything. One of the most specific things we built was the front iron gate of the house. So much takes place in front of that gate and Sofia wanted to open and close the movie with it. It's the only barrier between these women and the outside world. She had very specific ideas about how she wanted the bottom to be curving and feminine, but to rise up into spikes at different levels that would play off of the different women as they stand by it. And it had to be very threatening at the top. She wanted it to feel like the bars of a prison.
So we went through a long process of not just designing the gate, but also making it work on time constraints and money constraints. We found a welder put together the general structure for us so that it was sturdy and it would hold up and we could properly install it and use it. Jason, our scenic, made it look handmade. It was all just so beautiful. The algae and the age and the weather from that region would have made the iron very damp and moist.
NFS: Did it help that Sofia had these specific visual ideas?
Dehghan: Yes. The fact that she and Anne had worked together for so many years means they have such easy communication. We never really went down the wrong path and wasted money or time experimenting. We never had to show Sofia a bunch of options. I think that was because Anne and Sophia have such a good relationship and they were kind of on the same page.
NFS: Do you like it when directors have very specific visions? In your ideal role, how much would a director give you in terms of preconceived notions?
Dehghan: I think there are two ways to go. Nothing in the middle works. Either they have very specific ideas and reference images for the mood, like Sofia and Anne had, so that you can fill in all the details, or the director would trust you and want you to guide it. That's good, as long as your relationship is good enough that they know you have their story in mind. You want the director to believe that you have their intentions—their story's intentions—in mind, not your own. So, it's the two extremes. When it's in the middle, it gets kind of muddy.
I did a movie with Michael Keaton, where he took the opposite approach from Sofia and he didn't have reference images or very specific ideas of how he wanted it to look. He told me that the story that we were working on was two lost people who wash up on an island. There's just the two of them on it, and they help each other, and they're there for each other. They also know soon the tides are going to rise and going to wash them away again. And they're going to be okay if they can heal each other in the time that they're there. That was the goal. Then he just let me do it.
NFS: What is a major challenge associated with doing a period piece as an art director?
Dehghan: I think one of the challenges was working in historic homes and not being allowed to touch things, but having to alter them nonetheless. You need to make them right for the period, and also for the story. We shot somewhere that was mostly restored. A lot of the walls had the original plaster back on them. You can't really tape on it, you can't paint it, you can't fix it, so we had to find ways to fill the white walls or alter them, or change the doors. We changed all the hardware, but I also had to find ways to hide all of the electrical outlets that were everywhere.
For instance, you're reading a scene and you're like, "Nicole Kidman goes to the music room and opens the door," and all I can see was the light switch next to her head. These are high-ceiling rooms. There was no way to hide them. We couldn't take them out and plaster over them because we weren't allowed to touch the plaster on the walls. It was this whole process of figuring out how to unscrew the light switches, and then screw in the existing hardware. It had to be something that would hold up, and be very specific and relevant. So we made a ton of different butler bells and tapestries and candelabras that had candle sticks on them. It was a real pit in my stomach for a lot of the prep. Luckily, I think it worked out. That was a real sweater. Half the movie takes place in that doorway!