Year in Film: Sofia Coppola's Journey to Somewhere
Merrick Morton for Universal Pictures
Sofia Coppola had her 21st birthday party at the Chateau Marmonta fact she had forgotten until Phil Pavel, the manager of the hotel, reminded her while she was there shooting her new film, Somewhere. Its the first feature to be granted clearance to shoot extensively inside the rooms and on the grounds of the infamous Sunset Boulevard hideaway, legendary for its starry scandal sheet. Its the site where John Belushi and Helmut Newton died, where sometime-Coppola-muse Scarlett Johansson allegedly had sex with Benicio Del Toro in an elevator (an event nodded to in Somewhere), from which Britney Spears wasallegedly!banned for smearing her dinner on her face. It is an official landmark, No. 151 on the citys list of Historic-Cultural Monuments. In contemporary pop culture, its a symbol of Peak L.A.a concentrated dose of a certain fantasy version of this citys secret life.
Back when Sofia first became a regular, in the early 90s, the Chateau had just been purchased by superstar hotelier Andre Balazs and was on its way back from a period of decline. Coppola was on the comeback trail, too: In 1990, at the age of 19, she disastrously co-starred as Mary Corleone in The Godfather, Part III, written and directed by her father, Francis Ford Coppola. Sofia, who had no formal acting training, was pinch-hitting for Winona Ryder, who dropped out at the last minute. Her performance was decimated by critics: Press screening audiences were said to have snickered loudly during the climactic scene that has Mary taking a bullet meant for her father and collapsing with the cry, Dad? The fact that the character has an incestuous relationship with her cousin added a layer of irony to complaints that the Coppolas were keeping it in the family against best advice and good taste.
In 2000, shed face down the haters by writing and directing an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenidess novel The Virgin Suicides. Her first feature, its a visually stunning, 1970s-bikini-poster-meets-homeroom notebook-doodle reverie nailing that ineffable adolescent blend of lust, obsession, depression, and awkward connection. Four years later, at age 32, shed win an Oscar for writing her second feature, Lost in Translation. But for a long stretch of her 20s, she was just lost.
Sofia Coppola seemed to be everywhere in the mid-90s, a kind of Paris Hilton with gallery cred, a daughter of privilege drifting between quasi-creative opportunities afforded by her wealth, beauty, and birth-given spotlight. With her long caramel hair and red pout, waify body in hip-hugger skirts and kitschy baby-tees (which she designed and marketed herself, through the fashion line Milk Fed), she was a poster girl for 90s cool. She did nothing, and everything. She studied photography while modeling for alt-fashion and teen magazines. She vamped in music videos for the Black Crowes, Madonna, and Sonic Youth, sometimes alongside best friend Zoe Cassavetes (daughter of John). She appeared tastefully topless in a Vanity Fair spread on it girls, almost mocking the endeavor by saying: I dont want to be part of some Brat Pack thing. She later admitted to People magazine, There was a year I did nothing but go out. I was pretty flaky.
I was really frustrated that I wasnt really great at one thing, but that I had a lot of interests in different areas, Sofia says today, over lunch in the lobby of the Chateau on an unseasonably sunny November day. Now 39, she looks much younger. Extremely petite, she wears her hair in a pointedly unpolished bob. In an oversize sweatshirt, jeans paired with an expensive-looking tennis bracelet that seems to be falling off her tiny wrist, and a giant ring that she keeps accidentally banging against the table when she gesticulates, she almost vibes as a little girl playing dress-up, even as she small-talks the minutiae of motherhood. (Jet-lagged four-year-old daughter Romy, she says, woke up at, like, four in the morning raring to go.)
It was reading Eugenidess book that changed everything, giving Sofia the push she needed to focus those different interests into filmmaking. There are people who want to be a director and then think about what they wanna do, she muses. Or, it comes from something that you want to express.
Its a great Hollywood turnaround story. Its more impressive when you consider where she went from there.
Drawing on both her wistful memories of coming of age as the daughter of celebrity and the tsuris of her 20s, Somewhere is a defiantly austere film, the most challenging Coppola has made to date. (See Melissa Anderson's review of Somewhere.) The first image is a three-minute-long, static shot of a black Ferrari circling a strip of track in the dead of the desert. The driver, we come to find out, is a depressed, withdrawn movie star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Cue opening credits, which play to a version of Love Like a Sunset, by Phoenix, the French band fronted by Thomas Mars, the father of Sofia Coppolas two young daughters. The song, which helped inspire Coppolas script, is fueled by an electronic buzz thats almost identical to the sound of Johnnys Italian sports cars engine. Patches of the track serve as a refrain throughout the film, which, in virtual vérité style, tracks a couple of weeks that Johnny spends living at the Chateau while doing press for one shitty blockbuster and prepping for another; nursing a broken arm and binging on painkillers; and quietly, unexpectedly reaching some sort of breakthrough with his preteen daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who spends a few days with him and temporarily turns his hotel room into a home.
Its 15 minutes before the first significant line of dialogue (That was amazing, Johnny says to a stripper, who promptly slaps his face). In the quiet, Coppola sketches Johnnys character and introduces us to his plush but stiflingly boring and lonely lifestyle. The key scene of this prologue is both throwaway to the general narrative, and the films cleanest distillation of Coppolas themes. Its another beautiful day, and Johnnys driving alone, the sound of his Ferraris engine filling the soundtrack, when he catches a glimpse of a blonde (Angela Lindvall) also driving alone, in a vintage Mercedes convertible. Theyre stopped at a light next to one another. He stares. She acknowledges his gaze and smiles; maybe, behind her dark vintage sunglasses, even tosses off a wink. The light turns green and she zooms ahead. Johnny revs the Ferrari and follows this mystery girl up the steep curlicues of Mulholland, with Coppola cutting between Johnnys gaze and its object at the pace of a beating heart. He almost catches up to her. He loses her behind a mansion gate. The manic state inspired by this fleeting attraction suddenly crashes.
In this strange, unconsummated mating dance, Coppola sets the terms for her exploration of life in a city in which cars are at once avatars, communicating to strangers who we are, and impenetrable vessels that force us to keep to ourselves. If the Chateau is, as Team Somewhere is fond of saying, the third character in the movie, then Johnny Marcos Ferrari is the fourth. Somewheres running subtext is that unique-toLos Angeles psychodramatic condition: the car as extension of self.
I think people totally connect their personality with their car, Sofia says. Its definitely specific to L.A., [and to] just spending all that time driving around. In New York, youre walking around and interacting with people. I like those moments when you can listen to music and be kind of sealed off, but it does isolate people.
Somewhere is Coppolas first film set in Los Angeles, and her first to deal directly with the emotional consequences of a professional Hollywood life. An avowedly personal filmmaker, she has until now chosen stories set in far-off times and places, creating de facto distance between her scripts and her autobiography. In order for her to consider Los Angeles a worthy subject, she had to leave it.
As Lost in Translation neared the awards season finish line, Coppola and her husband, Spiegel catalog heir-turned-skate-videographer-turned-quirky prestige film director Spike Jonze, announced they were filing for divorce. Coppola and Jonze, who dated for years before tying the knot in 1999, had personified the creative couple as brand, holding hands together in the center of a Venn diagram depicting the overlap between the culture industry and international art-cred cool. The split fueled speculation that Translations portrait of a bookish young wife foundering under the neglect of a toxic hipster photographer husband was a memoir of Coppolas own marriage, if not a cry for help.
During this period, Coppola moved to New York and then, after winning the Oscar, headed to Paris to prep her third feature, Marie Antoinette. Infusing the story of the Austrian princess/French queen/infamous headless woman with the pop-punk spirit of her own mid-80s teen years, Coppola presented Versailles as a dizzying adolescent fantasy, positing the last years of the French monarchy as an all-consuming teenage house party, obscuring the Revolution until it reached the palace gates. Sound-tracked with anachronistic new-wave dance pop and post-punk, peopled with comic actors (Rip Torn, Steve Coogan, Molly Shannon) and pulsing with sensual energy, its a satire that slowly, imperceptible builds sympathy for its heroine, without fully letting her off the hook for her solipsism and shallow excess. Coppola refused the tropes of the period biopicand ended the film before the queens execution.
I knew it was sort of obnoxious and ballsy for me to make that movie, but for me that was part of the fun of it, Coppola says. To do it in that spirit, of being a rebellious teenager.
With its hordes of extras, extravagant set, costumes and location shooting at Versailles, the film reportedly cost $40 million (about what Lost in Translation made at the domestic box office), bankrolled by Columbia Pictures. In the U.S., it grossed just a quarter of its budget.
About a month after Marie Antoinette opened in the U.S., Coppola gave birth to Romy, her first daughter with Mars, who has contributed music to each of her features. Her new family established in France, she started thinking about where she came from.
I was living in Paris, and I was homesick, she recalls. In France, its so different, and I was thinking about L.A., how it seems like our whole pop culture is so interested in celebrity, and how people all know about the Chateau Marmont. There have been iconic L.A. movies that I always loved, and I thought, We havent had one showing today, this era of L.A.
The goal: take the single-faceted, ripped-from-the-red-carpet lifestyle, which, since the advent of out-of-state tax credits, seems to be Hollywood propers biggest export, and show another side of that, and to think about how fulfilling that really is. It looks like these guys are having this fun party lifestyle, but what would that really be like? What its like the next morning?
Its like the flipside of Entourage.
I despise that show. This is the opposite.
Stephen Dorff is on the phone from San Francisco whereshades of the movie hes promotinghes exhausted and borderline disoriented after an all-night flight and grueling schedule.
I think being an actor is a very lonely job, and thats probably the reason why you read about a lot of people that go off the deep end. In a hotel room, when the party stops, when the camera stops, when the junket stops, its like, what now? What do I do?
Coppola admits that both Fanning's Cleo and Dorff's Johnny contains elements of her personality and autobiography (and certainly, if you read Eleanor Coppolas memoirs, youll find that parts of Somewhere are direct dramatizations of Coppola family history). But Dorff lived this story before it was written: The actor crashed at the Chateau for two months when he was 19, shortly after filming the role of Stuart Sutcliffe in the early-Beatles biopic Backbeat.
I got back from England, and I didnt want to go home, he explains. I had all this money, so I decided to just stay at the Chateau until they were like, Uh, Stephen, you have to go get another job.
Paying the bills seems to have been a primary motive of his career. Dorffs IMDb page mixes starring roles in undistinguished genre films (Blade, FearDotCom) with interesting indie character work (I Shot Andy Warhol) and straight-to-DVD schlock (Remember .45? I dont). I could never get the leading man [parts], he says. My mom was always getting upset with me. Why are you always a bad guy? Ask my agent, ask Hollywood. I dont make those decisions, Mom.
His mother died, Dorff says, right before this movie just kind of dropped into my lap. I was not in a good place at all. I was shooting with Johnny Depp on Public Enemies for like, you know, two years or however long that movie took. It was more like six months, but it felt like forever, and I was very lost.
As Coppola was writing the role of the also very lost Johnny Marco, she had Dorffs image in her head. I thought of this kind of bad-boy Hollywood actor character, and then he came to mind, Sofia says. When I finished the script, I sent it to him and asked him to come meet with me because I hadnt seen him in many years and just see, you know, if we were on the same wavelength.
I went to Paris to talk to her about the film and spent about a week with her, Dorff remembers. She was, Im sure, observing me, but it wasnt like an audition. It was more just talking, hanging, seeing each other. Coppola and Dorff had run in the same circle in the early 90s, while she was going through her flaky phase. I think the first time we met mightve been at a fashion show in New York, some Anna Sui fashion show, maybe in like 91, he recalls. Zoe Cassavetes was one of my best friendswe never dated, we were just best buddiesand Zoe and Sofia were best friends. I was invited to some of the festivities around Lost in Translation time and just remember being so proud, I had never had a friend close to my own [age], especially a woman, up there winning an Oscar. And Francis was always kind of interested in me.
Dorff came close to working with Sofias dad a number of times: he was up for the role of Neal Cassady in an On the Road adaptation that never happened; he screen-tested for the Matt Damon role in The Rainmaker; and he very nearly played the role that eventually went to Tim Roth in Francis Ford Coppolas self-financed passion project Youth Without Youth, even work-shopping the role with FFC at the Coppola estate. When I had screen-tested for Rainmaker, I was in a hotel and then I was driven to the property, whereas this time, it was just me and Francis, and Sofia was off finishing up Marie Antoinette and I was staying in Sofias room. I remember texting Sofia saying, Im staying in your room, and Im eating steaks and drinking wine with your dad.
The director and her male muse may have had a shared history, but little on Dorffs résumé had prepared him for a film like Somewhere, which has him onscreen in every scene, often saying virtually nothing. You know, dressing to play a woman, [like] in I Shot Andy Warhol, its a piece of cake for me. I look in the mirror, I look like a girl, I just find a voice, walk around in some heels and do it. I find that kind of acting the easiest. I found this the hardest, because I have nothing but myself. Im so raw and so open, theres no cheat, theres no tricks, theres no ... theres nothing, you know?
Its one of the puzzling paradoxes of Sofias career: a woman who began her working life being eviscerated for her acting has turned into a supremely confident director of actors, coaxing naturalistic, extraordinarily nuanced performances out of stars (Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, even Bill Murray) who have not necessarily shown such chops in other circumstances.
She studied with an acting coach before directing Virgin Suicides, and her famously threadbare screenplays leave room for spontaneity and improvisation in performance, as well as visual storytelling. As Dorff explains it, In the script itll be, Scene 36: Johnny plays Guitar Hero with Cleo while Sammys on the couch on a sunny day. Suns blasting through the windows of the Chateau. You know, it would be two sentences, but now in the movie thats probably seven minutes.
Its true that she is a person of fewer words than other people, says Roman Coppola, Sofias older brother, producer of Somewhere and frequent second-unit director (hes responsible for some of the most iconic images from Sofias films, including the exterior shots of Tokyo in Translation and the pastry montage in Marie). She works in more of a shorthand. Not just with me, but with her collaborators, theres a place you get to with people youre close to, where not a whole lot needs to be said. If we were talking and I said, Oh, this restaurant has red tablecloths, [shed respond], Oh, I totally get it, I know that kind of place. I think she develops that shorthand with the people that she chooses to work with.
On Somewhere, one of Sofias key methods for expressing that shorthand was by citing and showing to her collaborators movies that contain elements of Somewheres DNA. She wanted to make a portrait of L.A. today that would serve as a time capsule for future generations, the way American Gigolo and Shampoo do for their respective moments in time. Peter Bogdanovichs Paper Moon, she says, helped define the nontraditional relationship between Johnny and Cleo: I always loved the dynamic of a buddy movie between father and daughter. Toby Dammit, Federico Fellinis segment of the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, spoke to Johnnys depression and desperation in the heightened atmosphere of celebrity (plus, Johnnys stealth black Ferrari could be considered the real-world version of the golden, deal-with-the-devil Technicolor nightmare car that Terence Stamp acquires in Fellinis movie).
And as for Somewheres patient, often wordless, observational style? Thank Harris Savides, the great cinematographer who shot the movie (as well as Last Days, Zodiac, and this years other epic L.A.-angst movie, Greenberg). He turned Coppola on to Chantal Akermans 1975 avant-garde/feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
This woman alone in her apartment, these very long takes of her doing mundane things, Coppola marvels. Just her washing the dishes. It should be boring to watch someone washing their dishes for 10 minutes or whatever, but theres something really fascinating about that. So I talked to Stephen about that, the challenge of just having to be alone and be believable, and be real.
Like two and a half hours of literally a woman in her kitchen cooking breakfast, eating, going to sleep, waking up and doing the same exact thing, in real time, says Dorff of Akermans experimental tragedy, starring Delphine Seyrig as a stay-at-home mom-turned-prostitute. I was kind of scared at first when I watched that, cause, like, it was driving me crazy, but at the same time I found it incredibly interesting. I asked Sofia, I said, Are we gonna do some of that? and shes like, Well, I do want to experiment with doing some stuff in real time ... , and I said, OK, cool. I immediately got it.
For Sofia, Somewheres stylistic spareness was definitely a reaction to Marie. That movie was so decorative and girly and frilly that after that, the idea of [going] really minimal was appealing. I didnt want the audience to be aware of the camera, so you just felt like you were alone with them. I had to shoot it in a simple way.
In every conceivable way, Somewhere represents a scaling back. Costuming was essentially a subplot in Marie Antoinette, and Milena Canoneros wardrobe design won a much-deserved Oscar accordingly. In Somewhere, Dorff has exactly three looks: a tuxedo in one scene, a post-shower towel in a couple of them, and a T-shirt and jeans through the rest of the film. And while the Chateau may be exclusive, its hardly VersaillesSomewheres production design aimed to present it with as little gloss as possible.
When you make a movie, the attitude generally is just bring everythingevery light, every stand, every tool, every lensbecause thats just kind of the culture of movies: Have everything at hand and then you wont be lacking for something, Roman Coppola says. The vibe of Sofias movie was one of being really intimate, and so we didnt want all that stuff, all the extra people and all the extra tools. If a guy had to ash his cigarette, he would just use the ashtray that was there, and if not he would just use the glass from the kitchen cupboard, and if not hed just ash out the window. That was the attitude: Naturalistic, authentic to that place.
But the biggest point of departure may be Somewheres soundtrack. Marie Antoinette essentially plays out as a series of music videos set to period-imperfect source cues from Adam Ant and the Strokes. That sensibilityMTV-influenced, but personalhas long been a Sofia Coppola trademark, dating back to the montages set to Heart singles in Virgin Suicides. Somewhere is short on both music and montage. Its the first Sofia Coppola film that prizes natural, diegetic soundincluding music thats organically part of a scene, as in two sequences involving rent-a-strippersover an artfully chosen, hipster-baiting soundtrack.
I was getting kind of tired of movies that just have pop song after pop song as the scoreI did that before, Sofia says. I wanted to see how little we could use music. Some scenes are so quiet that sounds that otherwise would seem incidental almost boom on the soundtrack, as in a long take of Johnny in his hotel room, in which theres so little going on that the sound of his cigarette burning almost seems to echo.
I found sitting there smoking a cigarette with nothing [to say] one of the most challenging things, Dorff says. Because if Im acting for one second, the movies done.
Somewhere is a film that asks us to pay non-withering attention to the ennui of the beautiful, rich and famous, made by a woman who is beautiful, rich and second-generation famous. That alone is enough to inspire knee-jerk negative reactions. When Somewhere won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September, where it was in competition against such formidable contenders as Darren Aronofskys Black Swan and Kelly Reichardts Meeks Cutoff, some journalists cried foul at the fact that the jury for the prize included Quentin Tarantino, whom Coppola dated briefly after divorcing Jonze and before taking up with Mars. (For her part, Sofia jokes that she would have assumed her past relationship with Tarantino would be a handicap, not a help.) Some Somewhere critics complain that nothing happens in the movie; others suggest she should have gone further with the avant-garde inspirations, studio-subsidiary distributor be damned. Coppola also has been accused of treading familiar ground: the story of a man at a crisis point, who has a relationship with a female 25 years his juniorin a luxury hotel? Again?
Its fair to point to Somewheres resemblance to Lost in Translation, but the similarities between the films neednt be pejorative. Somewhere seems to systematically revisit certain scenes and elements of Translation, but approaches them with added distance, wisdom and grace. A press conference scene that existed to mock a brainless starlet in Translation has been refashioned in Somewhere to show sympathy for the celebrity. Both films deal with a very specific side effect of fame: the loneliness of being wanted by strangers and yet having no one to talk to. Translation leavens that loneliness with wry comedy and by offering its sad actor the hope of a quasi-romance. Theres very little comedy in Somewhere, and in the world it describes, romantic relationships dont exist; women offer Johnny only easy sex and angry texts. If Johnnys complicated relationship with his preteen daughter is a temporary comfort, its also a reminder of his inability to sustain a connection or make a commitment of any kind.
In both films, the big event is that the characters, self-obsessed and wound too tight, lose themselves in a moment that cant be sustained, but Translation and Somewhere milk ephemera for different emotional results. Lost in Translations Rorschach-blot conclusion may be ambiguous, but its undeniably exhilarating. At Somewheres equally enigmatic end, Johnny makes a Big, Symbolic, Potentially Life-Changing Gesture that could lead to positive changebut for the moment, more than ever, hes rootless and utterly alone. The parallels between the two films point to their key difference: Sofia Coppolas increasingly mature point of view.
With no permanent residence in L.A., Coppola and Mars and their kids have been living at the hotel while promoting Somewhere. Despite the hotels reputation, theyre not the odd domestic unit at the bacchanal; a fashion-industry friend of Sofias who also has a baby daughter has been living here with her own family for the past six months. Its been fun, Sofia says, with genuine enthusiasm, in full mom mode and apparently loving it.
But change is in the air. In a few days, Sofia and family will head up to Napa for Christmas. After that, shell start to think about her next project. In an echo of her films highly symbolic ending, she tells me shes just let go of one major tie to L.A. I had an old Jaguar, and I recently sold it, she says, wistfully. I love cars, and I miss that part of L.A., driving around. I had it for like 10 years, but it was just sitting in a garage. Is it a sign that shes decisively put Los Angeles in her rearview mirror, so to speak? If so, she isnt letting go completely. She smiles, almost conspiratorially.
I sold it to a friend.