Sofia Coppola's journey to Somewhere

New film works with a patient and observational style

  

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. 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, imperceptibly 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 and costumes, and location shooting at Versailles, the film reportedly cost $40 million. 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 L.A., 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 L.A. movies that I always loved, and I thought, 'We haven't had one showing today, this era of L.A.'"

The goal: take the single-faceted, ripped-from-the-red-carpet lifestyle 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's it like the next morning? It's like the flip side of Entourage."

  

IT'S ONE OF the puzzling paradoxes of Coppola'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.

Her famously threadbare screenplays leave room for spontaneity and improvisation in performance, as well as visual storytelling. As Stephen 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. "She works in more of a shorthand."

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 L.A. 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. 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.

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 L.A.-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."

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