Since her 1999 directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola has put her mark on moody, atmospheric originals like the acclaimed Lost in Translation and the period extravaganza, Marie Antoinette. The daughter of famous director Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia now turns her eye back upon Hollywood, with all its decadence and narcissism. Buzzine sits down with the writer/director for an exclusive interview, going behind the scenes in her new film, Somewhere.
Izumi Hasegawa: Do you feel like Johnny Marco, or do you know people like Johnny Marco, as far as living a lifestyle, being around the industry...
Sofia Coppola: I based it on people I've seen and stories I've heard, and it's a very extreme lifestyle. I tried to imagine what that was like, and I relate to it in some ways, but I don't really feel like him because my life is so different than his. His is pretty out of balance.
IH: Why do you think some people can keep it in perspective and have a good experience and be positive, and some people really get lost?
SC: I think it's up to the person, but I can imagine that if you became famous quickly and had a lot of life switches and girls throwing themselves at you all the time, and people offering all kinds of things, I could see how someone might go out of balance for a little bit.
IH: If someone asked you what this movie about, what would your answer be, since it's not so plot-heavy?
SC: I think I just started with this character and wanting to do a portrait of this guy at this moment in his life, but I think it's about points in your life when you have to look at yourself and decide what kind of person you're going to be, which I feel that everyone has to look at sometimes. Also, I'd just had my first daughter, so I was thinking about how having a kid changes your priorities and perspective. I wanted to put some of that in the story. So I think it's also about a father/daughter relationship.
IH: I love the Chateau. This is so much the Chateau of '92, and you brought back Romulo...
SC: He was still working there. He just retired.
IH: It was like a snapshot before it got Lindsay Lohan'd...
SC: That's funny that's a word now. Well, when I was writing it, I was thinking about when I'd spend time there, which was in the '90s, when I was in my twenties. But I was also looking at how it had changed and how it was the same, but probably my references of it are more from that era.
IH: When you think back on those days, what memories do you have?
SC: I feel like, in a lot of ways, it hasn't changed, but there are aspects...there weren't weekly tabloid magazines, so people didn't go there to be photographed and stuff. I just think of the Chateau Marmont as being this kind of iconic Hollywood place with so many interesting people staying there and lots of stories. It has this kind of decadent feel.
IH: What about the dark side of it?
SC: That's there too, which makes it more interesting, I think.
IH: Did you draw on any experiences of traveling with your dad when you were little--the age of Elle Fanning's character, being along the ride at times?
SC: Definitely. When I was writing that part of the story, I tried to think of memories, and I remember it as exciting as a kid to get to go with my dad, occasionally, to places that kids don't usually go. So I thought I'd try to put some of that into the story that connected to something real.
IH: Do you have a favorite memory of something like that? Like, 'I'm just a kid and I don't know if I should be a part of this'?
SC: I can't think specifically, but I remember my dad stayed at casinos when he would write scripts, and I remember going to visit and him explaining craps to me. It was fun because kids don't get to do that.
IH: How has being a mom affected your life, and also being a mother in this industry?
SC: I think I'm just learning about balancing work and having a family. I'm just starting. It's pretty new to me, so I'm just figuring it out. The work is pretty intense, but then there are breaks in between.
IH: Did you shoot some in Studio City?
SC: Yeah, the Big 5 was there, and Pickwick, the ice skating rink.
IH: Has L.A. made it more welcoming to shoot here?
SC: I've never filmed in L.A. before, so I can't compare it to anything, but I felt like we were able to do what we wanted to do with a small crew. I felt like my line producer probably shielded me from the negotiations and all of that, so they would know better. But I had a good experience shooting here. I had a great crew.
IH: When you are shooting here, what were the visual signatures you wanted to make sure you included?
SC: I really wanted it to look like L.A. and I thought about iconic L.A. movies that I love, like Shampoo and American Gigolo, and I wanted to do an L.A. movie of today. So just driving around and the kind of bright light in the middle of the day, and the view out of window of palm trees and mini-malls... It just feels very specific, to me, of L.A.
IH: Can you talk about casting Stephen Dorff and Elle?
SC: When I was writing the script, Stephen Dorff came to mind. I knew him a little over the years, and I just thought he would be the right guy for this part and was the right age. I think he's such a great actor, but we haven't seen the more sensitive side to him. I also knew from life that he's such a sweet guy and sincere, and the character is so flawed that he could be unlikable. So it needed someone with a lot of heart to make you want to watch him for a whole movie. And then Elle Fanning--we just met her when we were putting the movie together. I was writing and I was thinking of a friend's daughter, and then when we met Elle, I was just taken with her.
IH: Do you have to direct a child actor any differently than with an adult?
SC: I don't think so. I think, with actors, you want to be sensitive to them because you're asking them to be vulnerable, and she's so smart that I never felt that she was a kid. I guess you're aware. You don't want people to be talking about something inappropriate around an 11-year-old. So I felt protective, but I felt protective of Stephen and all my actors.
IH: There are so many moments when you let the camera stay on an image. My favorite was when he was in the makeup chair. How do you make those decisions, like what you can get away with when you really want to stay with something?
SC: Luckily, I could do whatever I wanted with this movie because I kept the budget small enough, so I didn't have a lot of pressure to make it more conventional, but it was hard with the editor. We went back and forth with the timing because I wanted to push it and really have you feel stuck in his life with him and experience what he was experiencing, but then not totally bore the audience. So it was hard to keep perspective of how long we could push things and how much was too much. It's hard for me to tell because I've seen it too many times and it seems like forever. I'm so uncomfortable in the screenings, but I hope for someone seeing it the first or second time that they can get into the rhythm and go with it.
IH: Can you talk about what your father's reaction to this film was? I know you only show him final cuts these days.
SC: I don't generally have a thing about, 'I'll only show final cut,' but on this one, I wanted to show him when it was all put together, and he was really touched by it. He really loved it and said to me that it was a movie only I could make, and that we should make movies that only we could make. I appreciate that in other movies, when you see the person behind it and it's not just that anybody could've made it. But we didn't talk about specifics. That character isn't based on him, but of course I put the kind of tender father/daughter moments that are significant to me.
IH: Is it nerve-wracking, showing your film to your dad?
SC: Yeah. I mean, in one way, he's always very supportive, so it's not a scary environment, but of course I hope my parents like what I make, like any kid.
IH: A few years ago, someone digitally touched the audio at the end of Lost in Translation. How does it feel that, years later, people were still obsessing over that last line, and did he figure it out?
SC: I don't think they ever figured it out, but it's very bizarre to me. I never expected that movie to be seen by that many people or get that much attention. I never expected, with that scene, that it would become something people would talk about. So it's interesting when you're writing. You never know what people are going to connect to. So that was a big surprise.
IH: He says, "I have to be leaving, but I won't let that come between us, okay?" Is that right?
SC: I don't want to talk about it, but I think it should be left the way it is. If you want to ruin it for people...
IH: I still don't see how he gets that, even with his fixed audio...
SC: I've heard different versions, but I like it being between them.
IH: Is there anything that connects your four films?
SC: I think so. It's hard for me. I don't have a lot of distance, but I'm interested in things where people are kind of finding their identity within the setting that they find themselves in. So I think they all have that.
IH: It seems sort of like dealing with emptiness and the melancholy of having the things you want but not knowing what you want. Is that familiar?
SC: I feel like it's related to this idea that you don't pick the world that you find yourself in, and then finding what kind of person you want to be and what you really want your life to be. So I think it's related to that. I think there are moments like that. I'm interested in characters that are in transition or self-reflection, and usually those kinds of moments, I feel like there's isolation. I didn't want to write about the times between that, when you're feeling great, because you don't learn anything. I don't feel compelled to write about that. So I feel like it's more there are times when you're looking at yourself and trying to learn about that.
IH: Also, the music in your films plays a huge role. Can you talk about what you created for this?
SC: The whole tone of the movie I wanted to be minimal, so I tried to do the music minimally and have a lot of silence. When I did pick music, I just pick music that feels right for the atmosphere of the story, and I tried to have the music be source music that the characters could really be listening to so you believe that could fit in there.
IH: You always have a band that's the sound of that particular film, like with Air and The Virgin Suicides. Do you think that this time it had the same feeling?
SC: Usually when I do a movie, I pick a kind of music or a band for the music, like people have composers. So on this one, I asked Phoenix, and with The Virgin Suicides, it was Air. A lot of it relates to the music that I'm listening to when I'm writing and kind of the mood of it.
IH: Why did you choose Phoenix for this?
SC: I've always liked their music, and that song "Love Like A Sunset" just related to the feeling of the movie, so I thought they would do a good job.
IH: Did you listen to them while you were writing?
SC: Yes. A lot of times, the music that I'm listening to while I'm writing ends up in the movie or things related to it.
IH: This film is an intimate character study. Can you talk about what you did to set that up between Elle and Stephen, having them hangout and having him stay at the Chateau?
SC: He stayed in the same room we shot in, just a floor up, so he was in his Johnny Marco character the whole time. It was funny--in the morning, he'd come to set and tell me all the Johnny Marco moments that he was living in the hotel. He would stay up late and be kind of trashed in the scenes that we needed him to be, but then the character, as he evolves, is fresher and you can really see it, I think. It's subtle. It was important to me that they feel connected and not like they'd just met a few weeks before. So I asked Stephen to pick her up from school and take her to do stuff, and then we did improvs together in the hotel, and I felt like, when we were shooting then, they had all this rapport and private jokes. It felt like they had a connection, and also because so much is unsaid, we did improvs with a woman who plays the mother of Elle. She only has one scene, but although they barely say anything, I think you can feel a whole dynamic between them because of the improv that we did before.
IH: Were you aware that Elle and Stephen had gone to the same school?
SC: No. They have all these coincidences. They discovered all these things that they have in common.
IH: So that wasn't a casting choice, knowing that on your end?
SC: No, I just thought she was great and they looked like they could be related, and then, before I cast her, I did a rehearsal together to see if they had chemistry, and it turns out that they have a lot in common. They have a cute relationship and dynamic.
IH: Some of the imagery was so unique, especially around the women who were throwing themselves at him. The topless woman getting her haircut... How much of that was invented and how much of that was from stories you'd heard? It felt really authentic...
SC: Oh, that's cool. That's from a Helmut Newton photograph--a picture of a woman topless...
IH: Was that his crashed car?
SC: That was an homage to his crashed car. because I had met him that morning at the hotel and then he crashed his car. So I was glad I got to meet him.
IH: That was your first, only time meeting him?
SC: Yeah, and he's a hero of mine, so I was glad to meet him, but it was sad to see that. I looked at his photographs to get references for the movie, and I feel like, a lot of times, when I've gone to the hotel, there are photo-shoots going on. Even last night, I was staying there and I opened my door, and in that long hallway, the one that he walks down, there were these two made-up models in leopard dresses and a fashion photographer. It was just like a scene in the movie. So I was trying to put that flavor in there. Also, I wanted to do this kind of decadent place so that when he drops his kid off and comes back, it's sort of a reminder that he's back in this decadent world.
IH: What is the Coppola family Christmas like? Does the whole family come together? You have an Asian influence in your family with Nicolas Cage's wife being Korean. So do you have Korean food on the table?
SC: We don't get together with our whole huge family. It's just my immediate family. It's not a huge group of Italians, but having Korean barbecue is a good idea. It's just my immediate family. I have a baby and a little daughter, so it's fun with the kids, and there's lots of food and wine around. We go out to my dad's winery.
IH: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker? Was there a defining moment?
SC: I was always around the sets, but it never occurred to me. I was going to art school and trying different things, and I was interested in mostly the visual arts, but I didn't know what to do. Then I made a short film and I felt like, "Oh, that's a combination of all these interests of mine," with design and photography and music. But it was really when I read the book of The Virgin Suicides that made me want to make a movie. I heard that they were making a movie, and I'd loved the book so much and I had such an idea of how they should make the movie, so I just started working on the script, thinking, "Oh, this will be interesting, learning how to adapt a book into a script." Then I got so into it that I finished the script and started pursuing the producers to consider me and let me do the movie. But it was really just wanting to kind of protect this book that I loved.
IH: Was there any hesitation, because of your father's success, of being compared to him?
SC: Maybe subconsciously that's why it took me longer to figure out that's what I wanted to do, but I feel like, just as a creative person, you're driven to see what you have in your mind, and it kind of nags at you. I think that's what compels you, and you try to weed out all the doubts and things that could stop you.
IH: Have you talked to Jeffrey Eugenides about doing Middlesex?
SC: I haven't read Middlesex. I've heard it's great. I have to read it. I have it. I'm going to read it.
IH: A lot of your adult characters, like Marie Antoinette and Johnny Marco, seem like overgrown children. Is that a conscious or subconscious choice on your part? An interest or something that intrigues you?
SC: I haven't thought about it. Definitely he's a kid, and I see that a lot with my generation--a lot of guys that kind of don't want to grow up. So I guess that's something I'm aware of, but with Marie Antoinette, she was such a kid and kind of kept isolated in this childish world. I don't know why. I feel like I'm an adult.
IH: You do still feel empathy for them...
SC: That's good. I try to be empathetic toward the character because I think you want the audience to try and connect with them, and I like young characters because, when I was a kid, I felt like I could relate to a lot of the ways that they were portrayed.
IH: It's sort of a fantasy, living in a hotel with two children.
SC: Definitely. You can avoid real life and you don't have to do certain things with them, and then they get to a point where they want to grow up.
IH: When you're dealing with another character that's also an actor, were you worried that the film would be compared to Lost in Translation?
SC: No, I didn't think about that. I just try to be open to what I'm interested in and not judge it. I think it's such a different character and such a different world.
IH: Your characters are often experiencing things internally rather than emoting. How do actors take to that?
SC: I think they liked it because it's different from how they're used to working, but I think it maybe took some getting used to. I think, with Stephen, it was maybe a challenge because he couldn't hide behind anything. He didn't have any long dialogue or things to do, and I think he had to be totally vulnerable.
IH: Does that make it more challenging for the audience, since a lot of it is internalized?
SC: I don't know. I like the idea that a lot of times in movies, it takes a big, dramatic event--like a disaster, being held hostage--for the character to change, and I feel like, in life, there are moments that seem like small things that strike you and motivate you to change. So I wanted to try to convey that the drama is more internal. I don't know if it's harder for them.
IH: It's just that the characters aren't telling them everything they're supposed to know...
SC: We talk about it, so I'm very clear with them and I think they understand the character. I don't leave them without clues. So we definitely work it all out and then talk about it, and then it's up to them to convey it. I think it's more challenging because you don't have a line to say and you have to express it through a look. I thought they did such a good job of that, but I think it's harder to do. I love the breakfast scene where Elle looks at the woman that's there, and you can tell the whole thing just by the way that she looks at her. For me, that's interesting to watch.
IH: What was your budget on this so that Hollywood would leave you alone on it?
SC: This was around $7 million.
IH: Do you have a favorite Francis Ford Coppola film?
SC: I can't think of one, but I have affection for Rumble Fish.
IH: Do you encourage your kids to enter the Hollywood industry?
SC: They're just babies, so I hope they do what they want.
Focus Features' 'Somewhere' released in the United States on December 22, 2010.