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Southern Gothic: Philippe Le Sourd’s Beautiful, Menacing ‘Beguiled’

"I wanted to change the usual perception of background, looking for something that was more textured, closer to paintings," says director of photography Philippe Le Sourd.

After a pair of successful collaborations with Clint Eastwood, Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara, director Don Siegel extended his association with the actor on two 1971 films, the urban cop classic Dirty Harry and a lesser known effort, The Beguiled. That Civil War-era tale—of a wounded Union soldier taken in by a group of ladies at a Southern boarding school—departed from Eastwood’s established antihero persona, verging on much darker territory, with the recuperating trooper exploiting his hosts until they exact a necessary retribution. Shot by Bruce Surtees, ASC, the film makes a deliberate departure from era-typical Hollywood toplighting, with the cinematographer deploying arc lights outside the windows of stage interiors to convey a credible sense of daylight.

Writer-director Sofia Coppola learned of the Siegel film from longtime production designer Anne Ross, then read the source novel before deciding on it as her next project. The result would net Coppola Best Director honors at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and draw praise for its through-the-opposite-end-of-the-lens viewpoint; Coppola’s The Beguiled portrays events more from the perspective of the ladies—principally headmistress (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a student (Elle Fanning)—than the soldier (Colin Farrell).

Colin Farrell as John McBurney in The Beguiled

When Coppola directed a 2016 version of the opera La Traviata, she had chosen director of photography Philippe Le Sourd to capture the proceedings in 4K; she looked looked to him again for The Beguiled. The DP is credited with numerous music videos and has logged an array of high-profile brand-name commercial spots. Among his feature credits, Le Sourd counts A Good Year (2006), Seven Pounds (2008) and The Grandmaster (2013), with the latter earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography.

From the start, Coppola was firmly committed to originating on 35mm film, which delighted Le Sourd. “The producers were very agreeable about this,” he recalls, “though of course we had to prove in advance that 35mm was the right choice given our schedule and shooting situation. Using an ARRICAM LT from Panavision, we did various tests, mainly to prove we could shoot in extremely low-light situations, as many interiors utilized candlelight.”

Kirsten Dunst as Edwina

During his research into Civil War-era photography, Le Sourd discovered that technical limitations of the time and frequent use of Petzval lenses had contributed to a level of stylization that later became known as “pictorialism,” with images exhibiting shallow depth of field and a dramatic fall-off in image quality at the edges. These qualities of extreme vignetting and accompanying bokeh swirl were exactly what he sought to reproduce for the feature, even while shooting day exteriors.

“I wanted to change the usual perception of background, looking for something that was more textured, closer to paintings,” he explains, later citing Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer as one influence on his work. “The lenses of that era had less contrast too, and also gave that swirly look to the backgrounds, so I worked with Guy [McVicker] at Panavision [Los Angeles] to get this intentionally out-of-focus look behind the characters for both of our sets of lenses.”

Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha

To keep the principals from looking too sharp, Le Sourd employed an old set of Cooke S2 Speed Panchro primes during most day exterior and interior shooting, while nighttime interiors and some dark forest exteriors utilized Zeiss Ultra Speeds. “The lenses from Panavision let me shoot as I prefer to work, shooting pretty much wide open,” the cinematographer relates. “I like working on the low end of the exposure scale, using as little light as possible.” A Primo 11:1 zoom completed the lens package.

The DP shot the entirety of the feature on Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 film stock. “I pull-processed the negative for less contrast and saturation,” he reveals. “This helped to minimize grain while bringing out the pastel effect I wanted. Even in dimly lit scenes I was able to preserve detail in shadows and keep the highlights.”

Sofia Coppola on the set

The workflow for film mandated the film be sent to Los Angeles for processing at FotoKem, which Le Sourd declares has evolved a very efficient system, with the lab sending keyframes for his review via iPad the next morning. Le Sourd could grade those frames and send the information back, then receive a hard drive that evening with color-timed dailies. “If Sofia or I wanted to watch the dailies in a screening room, we could see them in 2K.”

The tightly-budgeted feature was shot over 26 days near the end of 2016. The Madewood Plantation House, a historic Louisiana locale, figured prominently as the exterior for the boarding school. “We determined the [aspect ratio] format after arriving on location to do our scouting,” Le Sourd continues. “We shot 1.66, which is not at all common these days but was often employed back in the 1960s, especially in France. I find that this format let us get a bit closer to the faces while at the [same] time drawing them out that much more from the landscape. Even though Sofia doesn’t storyboard in advance, we knew that this would nearly always be a single-camera shoot, with little extra coverage and no excessive flourishes. It was to look something like a fairy tale in many ways, starting with a pastoral look that then progresses into a more gothic one.”

Colin Farrell as John McBurney and Elle Fanning as Alicia

Interiors for the boarding school were accomplished within a separate residence in New Orleans. “Except for candlelight, all illumination comes in through the windows,” states Le Sourd. “We always seek to find a natural looking [light], but that usually means enhancing what nature provides us, especially since we might shoot two days on a scene and need to achieve continuity of look apart from what the sun gives us. That meant bringing in light via 18Ks set up outside.”

Le Sourd was ably aided by gaffer Bob Bates, who deployed Kino Flo LEDs with cotton diffusion. As male/female tensions peak in the film’s climax, the cinematographer departed slightly from naturalism for dramatic effect. “I lit Colin to seem more dangerous, using more contrast to bring out that menace at times, and went with slightly wider angles as well compared to how I framed compositions in the beginning of the film.”

Le Sourd’s camera was often static, with movement usually limited to following characters through a shot. “The style for this film would be interrupted if you introduced a dynamic camera into the scene,” he states. “In another film, things would perhaps be different, but here it would seem very artificial. One reference I used for [my] approach is from [Robert] Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar [a 1966 film shot by Ghislain Cloquet]. It’s a matter of delivering stylish and well-composed shooting on a limited schedule without compromising because of to limited hours, which was often the case with us due to the availability of the children actors.”

Other acknowledged cinematic influences on the film’s look include Peter Weir’s haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), shot by Russell Boyd, ACS, ASC, and cinematographer Jon Alcott’s then-revolutionary low-light shooting by candlelight in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).

Le Sourd summed up his collaboration with Coppola as one based entirely on her trust in the abilities of the DP and his 1st AC, Hector Rodriguez. While the latter pulled focus in a variety of challenging low-light situations, Le Sourd served as his own camera operator. “She never even checks the monitor,” Le Sourd reports, “and instead lets her focus remain at all times with the actors.”

For the film’s digital intermediate, Le Sourd spent two weeks at Technicolor with colorist Damien van der Cruyssen. “It was a 2K scan, but we did a film print as well. It is important to do this to judge the quality. This let us compare side-by-side to see how the highlights look, and I found the print was just so much more effective and beautiful. It remains a privilege to shoot film.”