After great success with indie features “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation”, director Sofia Coppola turned her eye towards something more light and fluffy.
The result is “Marie Antoinette”, a historically questionable but nevertheless pleasing piece of atmospheric eye candy that effectively recreates the decadent, protocol laden, gossip fuelled court at the Palace of Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI and his ill-fated wife.
It’s a surprising film, taking a completely different approach than many expected with its use of 80’s new wave music, lack of exploration of Antoinette’s early and later years, and just its overall rose-tinted glossy take on one of the more hated figures in history. Coppola, along with actors Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzmann, sat down to talk about their film in New York recently:
Question: How did you go from reading Marie Antoinette’s autobiography to making this movie?
Sofia Coppola: I was interested in the eighteenth century, France and the fact that people lived like that. When I started reading about Marie Antoinette, I thought it was so interesting to learn about this real person that was so different from the myths and clichés and that she was so young. She was only 14. I thought it would be interesting to tell a portrait of this girl growing up from her point of view.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your vision and inspiration for the direction you took the film in?
Sofia Coppola: When I was writing the story I was struck by the vertical elements that people can relate to nowadays in the things that people did and although the setting seemed so different my approach was to make an impressionistic portrait of what it would have been like and what it felt like as oppose to doing a documentary or historical recreation. When I first visited Versailles and the private apartments behind her big public bedroom I saw the scale of it was much more human. There were still the fabrics that she had chosen; these turquoise and pinks with flowers. I was surprised because usually when you think of that time period you usually see it faded in museums and the court portraits are a much different palette. When I actually saw what she had chosen which made sense for a 15 year old girl, I wanted to do the film in her world; in the palette that she lived in.
Question: Did you always have Kirsten in mind since you worked with her on “The Virgin Suicides,” did you always want to work with her again?
Sofia Coppola: I always wanted to work with her again because I enjoy working with her. When I was reading Antonia Fraser’s biography, the more I read about Marie Antoinette I thought the way they described her characteristics and personality that this was something that Kirsten could portray.
Question: Some people might say that this film doesn’t show the socio-political underpinnings of what was going on at the time, what when into the decision not to show that?
Sofia Coppola: Well I wanted to tell the story from her point of view and she was interested in politics and she was pretty unaware of what was going on. In trying to tell the story from her point of view I wanted to show that isolation. And with the royal family we don’t see the world outside of their velvet rope.
Question: What was it like to shoot at the Palace of Versailles? It looked like a really complicated shoot.
Sofia Coppola: It was the biggest challenge I had ever taken on, to shoot at that scale. It was really exciting to shoot in Versailles, where the actually story had taken place. I had people ask, “what would you do if they didn’t let you film there.” I remember just not having a Plan B. I thought we just have to be able to shoot in France and at Versailles. I just met with the directors and explained my approach and they liked that my approach was from her point of view. They were very open to me and my crew. Fortunately the director of Versailles said he liked “Lost in Translation.”
Question: How was it getting prepared to play Marie Antoinette?
Kirsten Dunst: Well I read Antonia Fraser’s book and I read a book of letters between Marie Antoinette and her mother Comtesse de Noailles. We went through etiquette classes. I took singing and piano and learned how to fake the harp. We spoke to different historians about their opinions to try and make sense of it all for ourselves but in the end not judging her and trying to understand her point of view. In making that real for myself I was trying to an essence about her that I felt comfortable portraying. It messes with your mind to think you are playing Marie Antoinette. I don’t think that I could ever play her; I could only find her perfume somewhere, maybe to try and smell like her.
Question: What about the costumes, what were they like.
Kirsten Dunst: They were like characters themselves. Because there wasn’t a lot of dialogue, everything became a sensory experience. The cakes… everything meant something.
Question: Did you have a favorite?
Kirsten Dunst: I actually liked when I got to wear black because I always had to wear these bright colors all the time so I felt like even though she was in mourning, I felt womanly in that dress.
Question: I noticed in the eating scenes that you didn’t really eat.
Kirsten Dunst: I made a point of not eating anything in the film except for pastries and strawberries and things like that. Marie Antoinette was really into pastries but I feel like she was really uncomfortable in settings where they were eating so I never made an effort. And then it would give me more to work with when I’m observing him eating and the way he looks at his food.
Question: What would you say is the most surprising discovery about Marie Antoinette?
Kirsten Dunst: I never knew how young she was. I never looked at a historical figure in such a personal way. I knew she never said, “let them eat cake.”
Question: Were there parallels that you saw in being royalty and being a celebrity?
Kirsten Dunst: It’s so different. Like I’m not running a country, I’m an actress. I can understand feeling that a lot of people have opinions of you, that they don’t want the best things for you. But I can have a distance from that. They don’t have to know about me. But when you’re running a country it’s a completely different thing. I can understand the feeling of being isolated sometimes, but I can’t compare myself to Marie Antoinette.
Question: What other projects do you have coming up?
Kirsten Dunst: Spider Man 3.
Question: Did you film that before Marie Antoinette?
Kirsten Dunst: No, after; a year after. Working with Sam Raimi is like working with an independent director. Even though we are making a big movie and there are elements about it that are straining, like blue screens and acting to nothing. All those things can make you go crazy, but when it comes down to the scene everything is always collaborative. I respect him completely and that character is very important to me. I was really excited to get that started again.
Question: What mindset did you have to get into to play this character, to make Louis The XVI human?
Jason Schwartzman: I had a hard time in the beginning when I was researching this character. I had a hard time trying to get in because he didn’t say much. And what he did say in the research that I found came up short in terms of what I needed from him to give me insight. Stupidly that was the insight that I needed. I didn’t need a way in. The vagueness was the way in. Instead of playing a character that said one line or didn’t say anything and didn’t look her in the eye, because I felt that didn’t was way too passive I tried to play a character who couldn’t. I wanted him to want to communicate.
Question: So you gained 40lbs for this role.
Jason Schwartzman: I ate and ate. I ate all day long. I cut out any physical exercise. I rarely even walked anywhere. I did it all organically. You spend a little extra money but I think it’s worth it. I didn’t take this as a hall pass to eat junk food. But I did it organically; eating vegan treats. I was putting like 4,000 calories in my body a day.
Question: Did you find it weird that King Louis XVI had difficulty consummating his marriage to his wife?
Jason Schwartzman: I don’t. I personally at 16 years of age wouldn’t have been comfortable with it. I think he was probably a naturally awkward gentleman and he was thrown in the bed with a strange woman and asked to produce an heir to the thrown in front of everyone.
Question: Did you read the Antonia Fraser book?
Jason Schwartzman: Yea, I was actually reading before I knew Sofia was doing the movie. That’s how Sofia actually told me about the movie. She saw it in my backpack and said “I’m actually thinking about you for Louis the XVI. I didn’t think she was serious, but it was actually a joy to be in this film.
Question: Would you have liked to have given King Louis any advice?
Jason Schwartzman: I don’t know, I don’t know what I would have said; maybe, “Don’t worry.’