Lost At the Chateau Marmont

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

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It’s one of the puzzling paradoxes of Sofia’s career: a woman who began her working life being eviscerated for her acting has turned into a supremely confident director of actors, coaxing naturalistic, extraordinarily nuanced performances out of stars (Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, even Bill Murray) who have not necessarily shown such chops in other circumstances.

She studied with an acting coach before directing Virgin Suicides, and her famously threadbare screenplays leave room for spontaneity and improvisation in performance, as well as visual storytelling. As Dorff explains it, “In the script, it’ll be, ‘Scene 36: Johnny plays Guitar Hero with Cleo while Sammy’s on the couch on a sunny day. Sun’s blasting through the windows of the Chateau.’ You know, it would be two sentences, but now, in the movie, that’s probably seven minutes.”

“It’s true that she is a person of fewer words than other people,” says Roman Coppola, Sofia’s older brother, producer of Somewhere and frequent second-unit director (he’s responsible for some of the most iconic images from Sofia’s films, including the exterior shots of Tokyo in Translation and the pastry montage in Marie). “She works in more of a shorthand. Not just with me, but with her collaborators, there’s a place you get to with people you’re close to, where not a whole lot needs to be said. If we were talking, and I said, ‘Oh, this restaurant has red tablecloths,’ [she’d respond], ‘Oh, I totally get it. I know that kind of place.’ I think she develops that shorthand with the people she chooses to work with.”

On Somewhere, one of Sofia’s key methods for expressing that shorthand was by citing and showing to her collaborators movies that contain elements of Somewhere’s DNA. She wanted to make a portrait of LA today that would serve as a time capsule for future generations, the way American Gigolo and Shampoo do for their respective moments in time. Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, she says, helped define the nontraditional relationship between Johnny and Cleo: “I always loved the dynamic of a buddy movie between father and daughter.” Toby Dammit, Federico Fellini’s segment of the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, spoke to Johnny’s depression and desperation in the heightened atmosphere of celebrity (plus, Johnny’s stealth-black Ferrari could be considered the real-world version of the golden, deal-with-the-devil Technicolor nightmare car Terence Stamp acquires in Fellini’s movie).

And as for Somewhere’s patient, often-wordless, observational style? Thank Harris Savides, the great cinematographer who shot the movie (as well as Last Days, Zodiac and this year’s other epic LA-angst movie, Greenberg). He turned Coppola on to Chantal Akerman’s 1975 avant-garde/feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

“This woman alone in her apartment; these very long takes of her doing mundane things,” Coppola marvels. “Just her washing the dishes. It should be boring to watch someone washing their dishes for 10 minutes or whatever, but there’s something really fascinating about that. So I talked to Stephen about that, the challenge of just having to be alone and be believable and be real.”

“Like, two and a half hours of literally a woman in her kitchen cooking breakfast, eating, going to sleep, waking up and doing the same exact thing in real time,” says Dorff of Akerman’s experimental tragedy, starring Delphine Seyrig as a stay-at-home mom-turned-prostitute. “I was kind of scared at first when I watched that ’cause, like, it was driving me crazy, but at the same time, I found it incredibly interesting. I asked Sofia, I said, ‘Are we gonna do some of that?’ and she’s like, ‘Well, I do want to experiment with doing some stuff in real time . . .’ and I said, ‘Okay, cool.’ I immediately got it.”

For Coppola, Somewhere’s stylistic spareness “was definitely a reaction to Marie. That movie was so decorative and girly and frilly that after that, the idea of [going] really minimal was appealing,” she says. “I didn’t want the audience to be aware of the camera, so you just felt like you were alone with them. I had to shoot it in a simple way.”

In every conceivable way, Somewhere represents a scaling back. Costuming was essentially a subplot in Marie Antoinette, and Milena Canonero’s wardrobe design won a much-deserved Oscar accordingly. In Somewhere, Dorff has exactly three looks: a tuxedo in one scene, a post-shower towel in a couple of them, and a T-shirt and jeans through the rest of the film. And while the Chateau may be exclusive, it’s hardly Versailles—Somewhere’s production design aimed to present it with as little gloss as possible.

“When you make a movie, the attitude generally is just bring everything—every light, every stand, every tool, every lens—because that’s just kind of the culture of movies: Have everything at hand, and then you won’t be lacking for something,” Roman Coppola says. “The vibe of Sofia’s movie was one of being really intimate, and so we didn’t want all that stuff, all the extra people and all the extra tools. If a guy had to ash his cigarette, he would just use the ashtray that was there, and if not, he would just use the glass from the kitchen cupboard, and if not, he’d just ash out the window. That was the attitude: naturalistic, authentic to that place.”

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