Pale Fire

The quiet determination of Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola's initial forays into moviemaking—she collaborated with her father on an ill-received segment of the 1989 anthology film New York Stories and on a half-hour TV children's fantasy based on the Eloise stories—went nowhere. She retreated to CalArts, where she pursued her other interests and also studied a little film history, but never saw film school as an option. "I guess I was impatient," she says. "I figured I could just ask about anything that I needed to know." Which is to say, she absorbed cinema organically from her father, from watching what he did and listening to him talk about writing and making movies. With his support, Sofia got back behind the camera. She made a short film—in 1998, about a clique of junior high school girls—called Lick the Star, and then, having read Jeffrey Eugenides' novel about five sisters who commit suicide and the boys who miss them, wrestled a subtle new screenplay out of a more violent existing one and convinced Muse Productions, which owned the rights, that she could direct the movie. Asked whether being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola makes life harder or easier, she replies without prickliness: "I guess that most kids from known families, there's like a clichť that they don't work as hard. But I'm definitely a hard worker, and I don't think about proving myself. When you're working with people, they can tell whether or not you know what you're talking about."

***

For some, a home life saturated with so many lofty ideals and ambitions might have proved disabling. Sofia took her time becoming a director, but having got there, she quietly gets on with it. She likes working with actors, and they like her too—every actor I talked to stresses how calm and cool and full of dry wit she is, even under pressure. Anna Faris, who's very funny as a bimboish acquaintance of Charlotte's husband in Lost in Translation, says there were times when she didn't know what Coppola was thinking, but that compared to the "loud comedic directors" Faris has worked with (on Scary Movie 1, 2and 3, presumably), Coppola was a welcome relief. Dunst, who's incensed that Coppola was overlooked for best new director at the IFP Independent Spirit Awards for The Virgin Suicides, believes that being Francis Ford Coppola's daughter has been tough on Sofia, because "people were ready to rip her apart," especially after the Godfather Part III fiasco. "Rarely do you read a script where there are spaces to breathe," she says of The Virgin Suicides. "Sofia is very visual. She communicates just enough information to make you feel comfortable improvising."

The looseness seems generational. Coppola hangs with a crowd of compulsive improvisers who are every bit as innovative in their way as the wunderkinder of the '70s of whom her father was arguably the king—but cooler, more ironic and enigmatic, influenced by the staccato rhythms and experimentalism of music video. "We call it 'the revolution,'" says Coppola's close friend Zoe Cassavetes, daughter of John Cassavetes and a fledgling director in her own right. "We just do what we want, and because everyone's doing something different we're not competitive." And it's hard to imagine Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze or Wes Anderson tearing their hair out over whether they are artists or not. Coppola and Jonze, who met on the set of a Sonic Youth music video in the early '90s, don't work together (though her cinematographer for Lost in Translation, Lance Acord, also shot Jonze's Being John Malkovich and Adaptation). Their approaches are different, she says, and she doesn't take advice easily, and in any case it would strain their marriage. "We're not made to be collaborators," she says, but adds "we usually read each other's screenplays and talk about them, and both of us understand when one of us is wiped out, or what it's like to wait for an actor to respond to a script."

Sofia's own work, not to mention her spare style, could hardly be more different from the baroque grandiloquence of Francis Ford Coppola's. And yet—she has taken from him the risky art of personal filmmaking, of working out the big issues of her life in her movies, of just going ahead and doing it even when you're not sure what it is. If The Virgin Suicides distilled the hopeless longings of adolescence to their essence, Lost in Translation is about how the most unexpected, even temporary human bonds can make you take stock and grow up. In the best possible sense, the movie is the work of a director finding her way, and finding herself, as she goes along.

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