Sofia Coppola had her 21st birthday party at the Chateau Marmont—a fact she had forgotten until Phil Pavel, the manager of the hotel, reminded her while she was there shooting her new film, Somewhere. It's the first feature to be granted clearance to shoot extensively inside the rooms and on the grounds of the infamous Sunset Boulevard hideaway, legendary for its starry scandal sheet. It's the site where John Belushi and Helmut Newton died, where sometime-Coppola-muse Scarlett Johansson allegedly had sex with Benicio Del Toro in an elevator (an event nodded to in Somewhere), from which Britney Spears was—allegedly—banned for "smearing her dinner on her face." It is an official landmark, No. 151 on the city's list of Historic-Cultural Monuments. In contemporary pop culture, it's a symbol of Peak L.A.—a concentrated dose of a certain fantasy version of this city's secret life.
Back when Sofia first became a regular, in the early '90s, the Chateau had just been purchased by superstar hotelier Andre Balazs and was on its way back from a period of decline. Coppola was on the comeback trail, too: In 1990, at the age of 19, she disastrously co-starred as Mary Corleone in The Godfather, Part III, written and directed by her father, Francis Ford Coppola. Sofia, who had no formal acting training, was pinch-hitting for Winona Ryder, who dropped out at the last minute. Her performance was decimated by critics: Press-screening audiences were said to have snickered loudly during the climactic scene that has Mary taking a bullet meant for her father and collapsing with the cry, "Dad?"
In 2000, she'd face down the haters by writing and directing an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's novel The Virgin Suicides. Her first feature, it's a visually stunning, 1970s-bikini-poster-meets-homeroom-notebook-doodle reverie that nails that ineffable adolescent blend of lust, obsession, depression, and awkward connection. Four years later, at age 32, she'd win an Oscar for writing her second feature, Lost in Translation. But for a long stretch of her 20s, she was just lost.
SOFIA COPPOLA SEEMED to be everywhere in the mid-'90s, a kind of Paris Hilton with gallery cred, a daughter of privilege drifting between quasi-creative opportunities afforded by her wealth, beauty, and birth-given spotlight. With her long caramel hair and red pout, waify body in hip-hugger skirts and kitschy baby-tees, she was a poster girl for '90s cool. She did nothing, and everything. She studied photography while modeling for alt-fashion and teen magazines. She vamped in music videos for the Black Crowes, Madonna, and Sonic Youth. She appeared tastefully topless in a Vanity Fair spread on "it" girls and later admitted to People magazine, "There was a year I did nothing but go out. I was pretty flaky."
"I was really frustrated that I wasn't really great at one thing, but that I had a lot of interests in different areas," Sofia says today over lunch in the lobby of the Chateau on an unseasonably sunny November day. Now 39, she looks much younger. In an oversized sweatshirt, jeans, and an expensive-looking tennis bracelet that seems to be falling off her tiny wrist, plus a giant ring that she keeps accidentally banging against the table when she gesticulates, she almost vibes as a little girl playing dress-up, even as she small-talks the minutiae of motherhood.
It was reading Eugenides's book that changed everything, giving Sofia the push she needed to focus those different interests into filmmaking. "There are people who want to be a director and then think about what they wanna do," she muses. "Or it comes from something that you want to express."
Drawing on both Coppola's wistful memories of coming of age as the daughter of celebrity and the tsuris of her 20s, Somewhere is a defiantly austere film, the most challenging she has made to date. The first image is a three-minute-long static shot of a black Ferrari circling a strip of track in the dead of the desert. The driver, we come to find out, is a depressed, withdrawn movie star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Cue opening credits, which play to a version of "Love Like a Sunset," by Phoenix, the French band fronted by Thomas Mars, the father of Sofia Coppola's two young daughters. The song, which helped inspire Coppola's script, is fueled by an electronic buzz that's almost identical to the sound of Johnny's Italian sports car's engine. In virtual vérité style, the film follows a couple of weeks that Johnny spends living at the Chateau while doing press for one shitty blockbuster and prepping for another; nursing a broken arm and binging on painkillers; and quietly, unexpectedly reaching some sort of breakthrough with his preteen daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who spends a few days with him and temporarily turns his hotel room into a home.
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.
Somewhere is Coppola's first film set in Los Angeles, and the director admits that both Fanning's Cleo and Dorff's Johnny contain elements of her personality and autobiography (and certainly, if you read Eleanor Coppola's memoirs, you'll find that parts of Somewhere are direct dramatizations of Coppola family history). The movie is also her first to deal directly with the emotional consequences of a professional Hollywood life. But for her to consider Los Angeles a worthy subject, she first had to leave it.
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."
In every conceivable way, Somewhere represents a scaling back. Costuming was essentially a subplot in Marie Antoinette. 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," 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."
But the biggest point of departure may be Somewhere's soundtrack. Marie Antoinette essentially plays out as a series of music videos set to period-imperfect source cues from Adam Ant and the Strokes. That sensibility—MTV-influenced, but personal—has long been a Sofia Coppola trademark, dating back to the montages set to Heart singles in Virgin Suicides. Somewhere is short on both music and montage. It's the first Sofia Coppola film that prizes natural sound over an artfully chosen, hipster-baiting soundtrack.
"I was getting kind of tired of movies that just have pop song after pop song as the score—I did that before," Sofia says.
SOMEWHERE IS A FILM that asks us to pay non-withering attention to the ennui of the beautiful, rich, and famous, made by a woman who is beautiful, rich, and second-generation famous. That alone is enough to inspire knee-jerk negative reactions. When Somewhere won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September, some journalists cried foul at the fact that the jury for the prize included Quentin Tarantino, whom Coppola dated briefly after divorcing Jonze and before taking up with Mars. (Sofia jokes that she would have assumed her past relationship with Tarantino would be a handicap, not a help.) Coppola also has been accused of treading familiar ground: the story of a man at a crisis point, who has a relationship with a female 25 years his junior—in a luxury hotel? Again?
It's fair to point to Somewhere's resemblance to Lost in Translation, but the similarities between the films needn't be pejorative. Both films deal with a very specific side effect of fame: the loneliness of being wanted by strangers and yet having no one to talk to. Translation leavens that loneliness with wry comedy and by offering its sad actor the hope of a quasi-romance. There's very little comedy in Somewhere, and in the world it describes, romantic relationships don't exist; women offer Johnny only easy sex and angry texts. If Johnny's complicated relationship with his preteen daughter is a temporary comfort, it's also a reminder of his inability to sustain a connection or make a commitment of any kind.
In both films, the big event is that the characters, self-obsessed and wound too tight, lose themselves in a moment that can't be sustained. Lost in Translation's Rorschach-blot conclusion may be ambiguous, but it's undeniably exhilarating. At Somewhere's equally enigmatic end, Johnny makes a Big, Symbolic, Potentially Life-Changing Gesture—but for the moment, more than ever, he's rootless and utterly alone. The parallels between the two films point to their key difference: Sofia Coppola's increasingly mature point of view.
WITH NO PERMANENT residence in L.A., Coppola, Mars, and their kids have been living at the hotel while promoting Somewhere. But change is in the air. In a few days the family will head up to Napa for Christmas. After that, Sofia will start to think about her next project. In an echo of her film's highly symbolic ending, she tells me she's just let go of one major tie to L.A. "I had an old Jaguar, and I recently sold it," she says, wistfully.
Is it a sign that she's decisively put Los Angeles in her rearview mirror, so to speak? If so, she isn't letting go completely. She smiles, almost conspiratorially.
"I sold it to a friend."