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.

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).

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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