Lost At the Chateau Marmont

From party girl to Oscar winner, Sofia Coppola's journey to 'Somewhere'

It’s 15 minutes before the first significant line of dialogue (“That was amazing,” Johnny says to a stripper, who promptly slaps his face). In the quiet, Coppola sketches Johnny’s character and introduces us to his plush but stiflingly boring and lonely lifestyle. The key scene of this prologue is both throw-away to the general narrative and the film’s cleanest distillation of Coppola’s themes. It’s another beautiful day, and Johnny’s driving alone, the sound of his Ferrari’s engine filling the soundtrack, when he catches a glimpse of a blonde (Angela Lindvall) also driving alone, in a vintage Mercedes convertible. They’re stopped at a light next to each other. He stares. She acknowledges his gaze and smiles; maybe, behind her dark vintage sunglasses, even tosses off a wink. The light turns green and she zooms ahead. Johnny revs the Ferrari and follows this mystery girl up the steep curlicues of Mulholland, with Coppola cutting between Johnny’s gaze and its object at the pace of a beating heart. He almost catches up to her. He loses her behind a mansion gate. The manic state inspired by this fleeting attraction suddenly crashes.

In this strange, unconsummated mating dance, Coppola sets the terms for her exploration of life in a city in which cars are at once avatars, communicating to strangers who we are, and impenetrable vessels that force us to keep to ourselves. If the Chateau is, as Team Somewhere is fond of saying, the “third character” in the movie, then Johnny’s Ferrari is the fourth. Somewhere’s running subtext is that unique-to-LA psychodramatic condition: the car as extension of self.

“I think people totally connect their personality with their car,” Coppola says. “It’s definitely specific to LA, [to] just spending all that time driving around. In New York, you’re walking around and interacting with people. I like those moments when you can listen to music and be kind of sealed off, but it does isolate people.”

Somewhere is Coppola’s first film set in Los Angeles, her first to deal directly with the emotional consequences of a professional Hollywood life. An avowedly personal filmmaker, she has thus far chosen stories set in far-off times and places, creating de facto distance between her scripts and her autobiography. In order for her to consider Los Angeles a worthy subject, she had to leave it.

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As Lost In Translation neared the awards-season finish line, Coppola and her husband, Spiegel catalog heir-turned-skate-videographer-turned-quirky prestige film director Spike Jonze, announced they were filing for divorce. Coppola and Jonze, who dated for years before tying the knot in 1999, had personified the creative couple as brand, holding hands together in the center of a Venn diagram depicting the overlap between the culture industry and international art-cred cool. The split fueled speculation that Translation’s portrait of a bookish young wife floundering under the neglect of a toxic hipster-photographer husband was a memoir of Coppola’s own marriage, if not a cry for help.

During this period, Coppola moved to New York, and then, after winning the Oscar, headed to Paris to prep her third feature, Marie Antoinette. Infusing the story of the Austrian princess/French queen/infamous headless woman with the pop-punk spirit of her own mid-’80s teen years, Coppola presented Versailles as a dizzying adolescent fantasy, positing the last years of the French monarchy as an all-consuming teenage house party, obscuring the Revolution until it reached the palace gates. Soundtracked with anachronistic new-wave dance pop and post-punk, peopled with comic actors (Rip Torn, Steve Coogan, Molly Shannon), and pulsing with sensual energy, it’s a satire that slowly, imperceptible builds sympathy for its heroine, without fully letting her off the hook for her solipsism and shallow excess. Coppola refused the tropes of the period biopic—and ended the film before the queen’s execution.

“I knew it was sort of obnoxious and ballsy for me to make that movie, but for me, that was part of the fun of it,” Coppola says. “To do it in that spirit, of being a rebellious teenager.”

With its hordes of extras, extravagant set, costumes and location shooting at Versailles, the film reportedly cost $40 million (about what Lost In Translation made at the domestic box office), bankrolled by Columbia Pictures. In the U.S., it grossed just a quarter of its budget.
About a month after Marie Antoinette opened in the U.S., Coppola gave birth to Romy, her first daughter with Mars, who has contributed music to each of her features. Her new family established in France, she started thinking about where she came from.

“I was living in Paris, and I was homesick,” she recalls. “In France, it’s so different, and I was thinking about LA, how it seems like our whole pop culture is so interested in celebrity and how people all know about the Chateau Marmont. There have been iconic LA movies that I always loved, and I thought, ‘We haven’t had one showing today, this era of LA.’”

The goal: take the single-faceted, ripped-from-the-red-carpet “lifestyle,” which, since the advent of out-of-state tax credits, seems to be Hollywood proper’s biggest export, and “show another side of that, and to think about how fulfilling that really is. It looks like these guys are having this fun party lifestyle, but what would that really be like? What it’s like the next morning?

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