Set during the Civil War, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled tells the story of a girls’ school in Virginia that is cut off from the world until a wounded Union soldier arrives at its doorstep. It’s a story about loneliness and isolation, as well as the claustrophobia they bring. Much of that isn’t just conveyed through the characters, but also visually, in the way cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd shot the film — whether it’s huge trees with drooping branches that shroud the characters, or the dim candlelight of dinner scenes that allows darkness to creep in tight around them.
Mood in a film is a subtle, but powerful thing, and not necessarily easy to create. Considering Le Sourd did it so well, we had to learn more about what specifically helped him and Coppola to create the film’s moody atmosphere, and how those elements can help other cinematographers achieve similar effects.
Seeking Out Inspiration
Mood boards are given their name for a reason. They allow creatives and the visual-minded to gather together relevant inspiration that will help inform the mood of what they want to create and guide them toward their goals. For the look and mood of The Beguiled, Le Sourd studied tintype collodion portraits from the 1800s, the photography of Edward Steichen (with emphasis on the use of grays, blacks, and shadows), and even Italian painter Caravaggio’s use of darkness and light. Seeking out inspiration is always vital to help formulate your vision, by utilizing the examples of those who have already succeeded at realizing theirs.
Philippe Le Sourd on set
Shot Format Matters
The composition of a shot has a major impact on what it conveys, but it’s worth remembering that it’s not just about what’s in the frame, but also the format of the frame itself. Format was a major part of how Le Sourd chose to convey the mood of The Beguiled. He specifically wanted to mirror the entrapment of the setting with the format, which is why he originally considered shooting the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio. He also considered 1:85 and 1:33, but eventually settled on 1:66 to leave a little more room to show the characters. “The 1:66 format allows you to see more of the body language, and to trap the people more inside the format,” Le Sourd says.
We often hear about how the location of a film is like a character all its own. That significance applies equally to a movie’s mood — especially when, as Le Sourd felt, you have such evocative imagery to work with, like the old plantation house surrounded by massive trees where The Beguiled is set. “There’s something majestic about these trees. There is some soul to them, and the house has some soul to it, as well,” Le Sourd says. Finding a good location, figuring out what mood it gives off, and then capturing it can go a long way toward fleshing out what feelings you want to instill in your audience.
Using Color and Lighting
Not surprisingly, color and lighting go a long way toward influencing the mood of a film or scene. Take, for example, an early scene in The Beguiled where a young girl finds the wounded Union solider who will bring chaos to the household. It’s a crucial scene — one that’s shot in a way that ominously foreshadows what’s to come. It was a goal for Le Sourd to shoot it in a way to bring that out, and he did that with color and lighting. “I didn’t use any light,” the cinematographer says. “It’s more interesting to bring black inside of the scene.” That doesn’t mean that’s a color or lighting approach you need to take, but considering how it affects the mood of a moment is important.
Tapping Into Emotion
Creating a mood for a film is useless if it’s not something that translates to an audience. They need to feel the emotion that you’re looking to evoke. Le Sourd gets there by asking himself, “What would be the feeling they feel at the end of the scene? You have to think about it as an audience member.” That’s not to say that your artistic intentions and vision should be defined solely by what audiences may or may not want, but mood loses its impact if it doesn’t make its way to the audience.
Colin Farrell and Elle Fanning in The Beguiled
Allowing Actors to Create Mood
Zeroing in on body language and characters was vital to Le Sourd for a reason beyond format. He’s a strong believer that a significant influence on the mood of a film – via individual scenes – is the actors themselves. Whatever plans a cinematographer may have for creating a mood, they can change dramatically once an actor brings a performance to a scene. “The actor can bring you a different mood,” Le Sourd says. “Even a change of voice, or changing one sentence, gives you a different feeling.” A good cinematographer knows that, and needs to be prepared to adapt accordingly. “It’s more about listening and being aware and being able to change your vision during the day,” he continues. “It’s a combination of thinking about what the film could look like, how you can achieve it, and what the actor and director can bring to you.”
Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled
Be Willing to Adapt
Despite all the mood boards, artistic visions, discussions with directors, and working with actors, once shooting begins, Le Sourd still finds everything can change. “Between the moment you start the film and the moment you finish the film, you don’t shoot the same way,” he says. No matter how well you know the script or shooting plan, your understanding of the project will evolve and require adjustments to the mood you’re looking to create. “I would like to reshoot everything I shot at the beginning, because you discover what the film is about along the way,” says Le Sourd. “You almost know more about how to shoot the movie at the end.”
Top image: Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled. All photos by Ben Rothstein, Courtesy of Focus Features.