Pale Fire

The quiet determination of Sofia Coppola

Bob and Charlotte bond while drinking all this in, but their goofy expat fellowship soon morphs into the kind of accelerated, intense intimacy—the two are going through marital crises at very different stages of their lives—we experience only when we hang suspended away from our normal lives. The movie, which was shot at Coppola's insistence on film rather than digital video, has the soft glow of an oldie romance ("I was thinking Roman Holiday," says Coppola) played against a background replete with the mix-and-match pop artifacts beloved of her generation. Lost in Translation has the pleasingly loose, impressionistic ambiance of a movie shot on the fly—much of it was, in an attempt to remain open to the filmmakers' experience of the city. The result is a collection of seemingly haphazard moments that add up to a turning point in both protagonists' lives, from which each takes something from the other, and gives something in return.

Coppola insists the movie is not based on a specific experience of her own. "But I definitely have had friendships and moments with people from different backgrounds and in different stages of their lives," she says, "brief encounters where you know someone for a few days and it seems you've had a whole lifetime, and it shapes who you are as a person. To me that's like the most comforting or best thing in life, when you have a little connection or you both find something funny, and it makes you feel not alone. And I like movies that just meander along, where it's more about the feelings." She cites influences as disparate as Terrence Malick's work, Kubrick's Lolita, Antonioni's L'Avventura, Godard's Breathless, Bob Fosse's All That Jazz—and the collected works of Francis Ford Coppola. She loved Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love("Barely anything happened, but the tension was enormous"), and she's enamored of Jane Campion's work—though she doesn't pick up on my remark that her own movie could only have been made by a woman. "I was just compiling all these different things that I liked and hoped that it would all add up to the feeling I wanted to give," she says. "But yeah, there were definitely worries that—what if this isn't interesting to anybody else? I was worried about it being really self-indulgent. I like to make things that I would want to see or show my friends."


"I don't know who I'm supposed to be," laments Charlotte early on in Lost in Translation. Like many children of rich arty types, Sofia Coppola spent most of her teens and 20s trying on expensive identities. At the instigation of her mother, Eleanor, a writer and painter, she studied painting at CalArts, then hung around the music-video world, taught herself photography and, at age 24, started Milk Fed, about which she is characteristically offhand: "It was fun to have our own company and a fax account, and the fact that we were actually able to make money from our business was really cool."

The Coppolas have always been a close family—more often than not, the three children traveled on location with their parents, and, growing up away from Hollywood on the Napa estate, Sofia and her two older brothers became very tight. Gio, the eldest, was killed at 22 in a boating accident when Sofia was 15. She remains very close to her brother Roman, who's six years older than she and also a filmmaker (he made the 2001 release CQ). He advises her and showed up in Japan to operate a second camera when Lost in Translation fell behind schedule. And she pays warm tribute to her father, who served as executive producer on both of her movies, setting up the financing and advising in postproduction, and gave her access to industry talent (Ed Lachman shot The Virgin Suicides) that most young filmmakers would kill for.

Sofia's life spans her father's greatest successes as well as his decline into an unsuccessful director for hire. Born in Manhattan in the spring of 1971 during the making of The Godfather, she had her first acting role as Michael Corleone's infant son. She had bit parts in The Godfather Part II and various Zoetrope productions, but her acting career effectively ended with that disastrous turn—she was a hasty replacement for Winona Ryder, who bailed at the last minute—in the third installment of the mob saga. (In retrospect, her performance was more awkward than catastrophic—perhaps the fury and derision that critics vented on Sofia was displaced from their disappointment with the movie itself.) "I'll try anything once," says Coppola, "but acting isn't for me. I don't like being told what to do, and I'm more interested in set design, more visually driven. I was just trying to help out."

At home, nobody was telling her not to make films, but nobody was telling her to make them either. The message drilled into all three Coppola children was to become who they were through some form of artistic endeavor. Francis Ford Coppola has spent great chunks of his career agonizing over whether or not he's a true artist, and his wife, Eleanor, who wrote the diary that became the basis for Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's inevitably circumspect 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, has put up with more than her share of poor behavior from her husband in the name of his artistry: If Peter Biskind's gossipy book about the great directors of the '70s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, is to be believed, the more time Coppola spent ranting about the risks of art, the less art was actually getting made (and the more drugging and screwing around was going on).

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