The Inertial Force of Sophia Coppola


Published in Filter Magazine, 2010. 

The films of Sofia Coppola are threats.

They are provocations to those big-budget extravaganzas that explode their way into megaplexes across the world, showing so much but saying so little. If blockbusters are brightly shining names on a marquee, Coppola’s films are handwritten notes, rolled up, placed into a bottle and thrown to the sea. She makes the statement that bigger isn’t always better— that inscribed to those moments in between, there are songs in silence imploring us to come closer and listen. 

The details in Coppola’s films define the whole and in "Somewhere," her latest project as writer and director, she explores the life of an aging actor in Los Angeles. Her subject is Johnny Marco, played by Stephen Dorff, a fading Hollywood actor who languishes his days away at the iconic Hollywood haunt, the Chateau Marmont. 

Johnny’s life is soaked in contradictions. He speeds his Ferrari down L.A.’s congested streets, always looking over his shoulder for paparazzi that aren’t there. Women throw themselves at him daily while phones buzz with angry texts from spurned lovers. Sex has lost its meaning, and Johnny even falls asleep during hotel room visits from twin strippers. Then, when his ex-wife drops off his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) for a week, his centerless life suddenly gains a focus. 

Like Coppola’s "Lost in Translation," this film revisits the stories of actors in hotels, but whereas that film about Tokyo was a landscape, "Somewhere" is a portrait. She reveals the bizarre world that actors occupy where their only conduit to the outside world is their professional entourage of managers and PR people who shepherd talent along as they sleepwalk through life. 

Across the spectrum of Coppola’s work, it becomes evident that she is interested in states of rest. In "The Virgin Suicides" (and her first film, 1998’s Lick the Star), she opened the door on middle class economic (not emotional) stability; "Lost in Translation" examined listlessness at a hotel set apart from Tokyo’s sensory storm; and "Marie Antoinette" presented a girl who had everything—including an empire. Coppola often seems to ask: What happens when people have everything they want? When material needs are fulfilled, does emotional fulfillment follow? For many, the world of wealth is as alien as Mars, and her films explore these far reaches of spiritual space. 

Coppola deftly creates a story that moves with inertia, not energy. Her films float along, a drop of oil that seeps across the water. She makes ordinary moments extraordinary by extending a scene to the point past where mainstream directors would have called cut. In these longer moments, she makes reflection unavoidable as the viewer is faced head-on with the question: What does this all mean? Films from Coppola’s father’s heyday typically had no problem with taking their time, but most modern American cinema refuses to let audiences lavish in the moment, instead relying on sleight-of-hand tricks—explosions, computer graphics, quick cuts—to distract its viewers with all-out sensory assaults of escapism. Coppola strips it all away, leaving a story naked and exposed, unencumbered by plot additions from studio execs who sacrifice art for the bottom line. 

Perhaps Coppola’s extraordinary lineage gives her a modicum of freedom from the pressures of commercial success, but Somewhere proves that a famous last name isn’t everything. As Somewhere received critical acclaim at the 67th Venice International Film Festival and Coppola earned the prestigious Golden Lion for Best Picture (she’s one of the few women and only the fourth American to win), she has proven that she’s never been simply a name to watch. She’s the new paradigm. 

A Conversation with Sofia Coppola

How do you begin the process of writing a movie? Do you start with characters or the story?

With "Lost in Translation," it was the place; I wanted to write about Tokyo because I’d spent time there. Then on Somewhere, I started with the character that Stephen Dorff plays, this actor character came into my mind. I’ve always related to L.A. so I guess the starting point was him. 

When you finish a script do you run it by your father [Francis Ford Coppola] and your brother Roman before you take it to the studios? 

I usually try to finish it and show my brother early on when I’m writing. I showed this one to my dad when I was finished and he was impressed with how short it was—more that I had the nerve to submit such a short script to production companies. I try not to get too much input because I have an idea about how I want to do something. 

Which of your father’s films influenced you? 

One of my favorite films is Rumble Fish, I love that film. So many of them, really. I remember seeing Apocalypse Now on film when they re-did it. I saw it as a little kid at seven or eight; I kind of grew up with it, so seeing it as an adult on film again I was blown away. 

Your films have gotten a great reception in Europe. Do you think your work is more European, and if so, what does that mean? [That means] sloooow. I wasn’t trying to make a European film but I am a fan of how some European films are approached and I like stories that are less plot-driven and are more of an atmosphere. I feel that [Europeans directors have a] tradition of taking their time and not having a lot of drama.

Did you write the role in "Somewhere" specifically for Stephen Dorff? 

Well, it wasn’t based on him; it was based on a lot of other people. But I did think of him when I was writing it. I knew pretty early on he would be a good L.A. actor. I combined it all into one guy and thought he could play it. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, maybe like six years, and I sent him the script and he really connected to it. I hadn’t sent it out to very many people so it was nice. He has a real sweetness and a lot of heart and sincerity that you wouldn’t expect from his persona. I thought he would be really good with the daughter character because the character is pretty flawed; you have to get someone pretty likeable to keep people watching and following along. He had to carry the movie. But it was a challenge for me to write from a guy’s point of view. 

The female character, Cleo, seems to resonate well with the female perspective. 

When I started, she was based on my friend’s daughter who is that age, and I’d put in details from her like her cooking and her computer. Then I put in memories from my own childhood. I can relate to being a kid around that grown-up Hollywood world; my dad taught me how to play craps at a casino when I was a kid. I put myself in all of my characters, but especially with Cleo. I remembered being her age and going on trips with my dad; my big brother had a Porsche and would drive me around. My dad’s not anything like the character in the story, but I put things from my life into it. This is your first movie about L.A. 

Why did you choose to make this movie now, after having lived away from the city for so long? 

I think I always like to write about things from a distance. When I was living in L.A., I wrote about Japan and France. I guess it just seems more exotic when you’re far away. So, being in Paris after "Marie Antoinette," my daughter was born and I took the year off and I think I was a little homesick for California. There were always L.A. movies that I loved that had good style and I think that we haven’t had one for the latest era of modern-day L.A. 

How long ago was it that you lived in L.A. and how has the city changed since then? 

I moved there in college, in the early ’90s, and lived there for about 10 years. So I think of L.A. in the ’90s. I feel like there are things that have changed about it and things that are still the same. I remember going to the Chateau Marmont a lot back then, before Us Weekly existed and when there weren’t paparazzi around. It just felt a little more innocent. Being in Paris, noticing how reality shows are such a big thing [in the U.S.]—that is definitely something that doesn’t exist in France, especially reality stars being in the center of pop culture. All of these things were on my mind when I was writing Somewhere. 

Los Angeles, as a city, lacks a center. At the beginning of the film, Dorff’s character lacks a center or purpose in his life. He’s a centerless person in a centerless city, driving around but not going anywhere. Can you talk about this? 

That’s a good observation on your part. I didn’t think about that connection, but it seemed right that he lives in L.A. in the Chateau Marmont and he’s not very rooted. I felt like he was at a critical moment in his life where he could either have a family and a real life or be the old guy at the club. I was thinking more of an L.A. that people who want to be stars or whatever are drawn to, but it’s true that it is kind of spread out and vague.

The Marmont is like a purgatory: it’s only when you leave that you have to deal with the real world. You addressed the notion of hotels as places of stasis in Lost in Translation. But what does it mean here? 

I think I am interested in characters that are in transition and in crisis and not defined. A hotel is usually a good place because you’re in limbo and it’s not permanent. It seems like the right setting for that kind of character. And it’s true that your real life is on hold—someone’s taking care of you. 

Johnny’s view of women is skewed, too. To him, they’re all PR flacks, strippers, ex-girlfriends and groupies. Is this decision to depict women as such meant to be taken literally or are these just archetypes? 

I wasn’t trying to make a statement about women. I just know the PR people in my life are women and they have a more nurturing side, so they’re kind of taking care of him. It’s not a well-rounded idea of women, it’s just a slice of this world that he’s in, surrounded by groupies. 

His daughter is a contrast. His daughter then has to try to understand these women in his life and try to reconcile the fact that her father is a sexual being. What interests you about sexual politics? 

I was thinking that it must be complicated for him, a guy with a daughter who’s on the verge of becoming a teenager and a woman, with the way that he relates to women. She’s aware. You see when there’s some young girl flirting with him, she’s aware. She kind of gives him a look and busts him. I feel like kids are more aware than people give them credit for.