Pale Fire

The quiet determination of Sofia Coppola

Photo by Michael PowersSofia Coppola has a waif's body, cheekbones to die for, a deeply satisfying Mediterranean nose and a ripe upper lip that curls away from her teeth on one side in a unilateral, if futile, attempt at sullenness. Nursing bottled water in a West Hollywood hotel suite, the 32-year-old director, unobtrusive in a blue-and-white oxford shirt, jeans, flip-flops and no discernible makeup on her creamy skin, is an unconventional beauty who also comes across as a thoroughly nice young woman—shy or reserved or both—with not a scrap of Hollywood hubris about her. Coppola is unstinting in her praise for the cast and crew of her second feature, Lost in Translation, one of the most idiosyncratic readings of Brief Encounter ever made. She doesn't have a harsh word for anyone—including her famous family, to which she remains fiercely loyal. She uses the word "sincere" with palpable sincerity, talks with the speech patterns of a schoolgirl ("like" and "stuff" crop up with rhythmic frequency) and offers brief, affirmative answers to my questions. She volunteers little, rarely embellishes and doesn't snow me with PR about how many whales she's been saving on the side. By the end of our conversation I'm sweating at the thought that my tape recorder will yield nothing but good manners.

Coppola's reticence makes it easy to see why playing Al Pacino's doomed daughter in The Godfather Part III—a haplessly gawky performance capped by what may be, unwittingly, one of the funniest death scenes in the history of melodrama—was such agony for her. Still, one absorbs through her guarded delivery something resolute and quietly indomitable. "Sofia is soft-spoken, but she's firm," says Kirsten Dunst, who played one of the ill-fated maidens in Coppola's first feature, The Virgin Suicides, released in 2000. "She knows what she wants." When Coppola tells you she doesn't like to be bossed around, you believe her, but she also has a discriminating feel for emotional nuance, which shaped both her delicate handling of adolescent ennui in The Virgin Suicides and her new film, a delightful chamber piece about a meeting of minds and hearts between two ill-matched strangers in a Tokyo hotel—Bob Harris, a movie star on his way down played by Bill Murray, and a disgruntled young wife, Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Murray is hardly an obvious choice to play a veteran action hero, still less a romantic lead, but Coppola had loved the actor's taciturn vulnerability in Rushmore, which her friend Wes Anderson directed. "And in Groundhog Day, Bill was so romantic," she says. "I loved making him a leading man and dressing him in Helmut Lang suits, and he was into it." It took months and the deployment of Coppola's formidable Rolodex to snag the notoriously elusive and unpredictable Murray, but once persuaded of the merits of a movie with next to no plot, the actor showed up on the set, she says, "fit and ready to work." Notwithstanding rumors that Murray and Johansson didn't get along, onscreen the two have a wonderfully tender, off-kilter chemistry—part father-daughter, part nascent lovers. Coppola had been tracking Johansson's career since her impressive debut as a little girl lost in the small indie picture Manny & Lo, through The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World. Here the enigmatic young actress plays Charlotte, a philosophy graduate along for the ride with her workaholic, emotionally absent photographer spouse (Giovanni Ribisi), whose rumpled schleppiness reminds one inescapably of Coppola's husband, Adaptation director Spike Jonze. Just as Charlotte's reserve carries echoes of her creator. But if this troubled relationship is a portrait of Coppola's marriage, she's not saying so.

Together Jonze, who's heir to the Spiegel catalog fortune, and Coppola, who serves on the board of her dad's Napa winery, must be sitting on millions in inheritance, but you'd never know it. If the pair are, as the current Hollywood gossip mill has it, the industry's hottest young power couple (accordingly, rumors of their imminent breakup abound), they wear the mantle lightly. They own a house in Los Feliz and a place in New York, though this is nothing unusual among the casual-cool younger generation of movie types (among them Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and P.T. Anderson) and assorted musicians (Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, as well as Brian Reitzell of the French electronic group Air and Kevin Shields of the band My Bloody Valentine, who put together the soundtrack for Lost in Translation) with whom Coppola surrounds herself. Even at an afternoon tea on the lawn of the swank Hotel Bel-Air a couple of weeks after we talked, Coppola, visibly more relaxed and chatty as she kibitzed unselfconsciously with publicists and tactfully bestowed equal time on members of the invited press, remained low-key in a black top and short skirt and laced Grecian sandals that, she cheerfully admitted, were "real work" to get into.

While Lost in Translationis not in any direct sense an autobiographical movie, there's a lot of Sofia Coppola's life in it. The film, which was shot on location in 27 days with a budget of $4 million, is set almost exclusively in and around the ritzy Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo, where Coppola had stayed several times on business—with her childhood friend Stephanie Hayman, she runs a lucrative casual-clothing company, Milk Fed, whose chief outlet is in Japan—and which is seen through a fog of jet lag by Bob and Charlotte. The movie is littered with real-life hotel employees; non-pro friends that Coppola made in Japan, including her pal "Charlie Brown" (real name Fumihiro Hayashi), who delivers a spirited karaoke rendition of "God Save the Queen"; and Japanese pop figures putting a manic spin on their fabled obsession with American mass culture. It's a valentine, with a score that includes a lot of Tokyo dream-pop, to the hidden-away corners of the city to which Hayashi had introduced her.

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