By Carrie Rickey
GROWN UP: It took roughly a decade for Coppola to evolve from her training in still photography to moving pictures.
Some show business folk claim to be born in a trunk. Sofia Coppola was baptized on a movie set: she is the infant christened in the penultimate sequence of The Godfather (1972), directed by her father Francis Ford Coppola. Over the past 14 years, she has delivered two daughters of her own, as well as five feature films that have won acclaim; including a DGA and Oscar nomination for directing Lost in Translation; for her nuanced portraits of teenagers and young adults losing and finding themselves.
Coppola’s academic training is in photography. It took roughly a decade for her to evolve organically from still pictures to moving ones. Her latest film, The Bling Ring, follows the nocturnal adventures of starstruck L.A. teens that steal into the homes, and closets, of celebs such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Based on “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” an improbable-but-true tale published in Vanity Fair, the film is a social satire in the spirit of To Die For (1995). It looks askance at these fashion felons who walk, quite literally, in the (stolen) shoes of their style idols.
“I thought it was such an interesting story and the quotes from the real kids really made an impression,” Coppola says, reflecting on her reaction to reading the story about teenagers who dreamed of having their own fragrance lines and reality TV shows. “I thought the story said so much about our culture today and how it can affect young people.”
Coppola adds, “I was curious about these kids growing up always aware of their audience, constantly posting pictures online.” Her intimate film captures the electronic collage of contemporary teenage life. “For visual references, I borrowed the cell phones of my actors and studied their Facebook and Myspace pages.” Many shots in the film look like “selfies,” those cell phone auto-portraits taken from arm’s length. “This world isn’t as visually beautiful as some of my other films,” Coppola notes. “It’s more Pop.” As in Pop Art.
Mastering the small canvas rather than the big screen was Coppola’s original goal. As a teenager she set her sights on becoming an artist. In the 1990s, she enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). “I wanted to be a painter,” she recalls over tea at a West Village cafe near her Manhattan digs. “They told me I wasn’t.” When she transferred to Art Center College of Design, her photography instructor, Paul Jasmin, was more encouraging. “He told me my point of view was worth exploring.”
Colleges don’t give degrees in POV. In any event, by the time Coppola enrolled at Art Center she was already in possession of a doctoral equivalency. “I didn’t realize it at the time,” reflects the filmmaker, 41, poised and watchful. When it comes to the language of film, Coppola says, she was home schooled.
“Dad always included us,” recalls the soft‑spoken Coppola referring to herself and brother Roman, also a director. “We were always talking about and looking at film. I didn’t even realize I was learning.”
DAY AT THE BEACH: For The Bling Ring, her fifth feature, she cast newcomers who had not yet developed “bad habits.”
Still, there are significant stylistic differences between father and daughter. Where the elder Coppola is attracted to larger-than-life characters, employing tracking shots for epic scope and sweep, the younger works on a more intimate scale. Her mantra is “less formality.” From Coppola’s preference for a handheld camera that gets into her subject’s personal space to her painstaking use of ambient sounds to create a you-are-there experience, “it’s about getting close and closer to the character.”
To create her signature shot, shadowing a character from behind, she likes to use a handheld camera or a dolly shot. Whether her camera stalks Scarlett Johansson exploring a Buddhist temple in Kyoto in Lost in Translation (2003) or Kirsten Dunst entering Versailles in Marie Antoinette (2006) or Emma Watson, teenage celebrity stalker in The Bling Ring, Coppola gentles you into their drifts and their dreams.
Hers is not the traditional first-person point of view. In Coppola’s films it’s as though the camera is a balloon invisibly tethered to the nape of the protagonist’s neck, bobbing and floating in her wake as she threads through space. This shot, which requires only one camera, is an umbilical cord attaching the viewer to the character. It creates the effect that you’re not watching a Sofia Coppola movie; you’re inside of it.
She developed this distinctive shot on her 1999 feature debut The Virgin Suicides, an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1970s‑era novel about teenage boys obsessed with a quartet of sisters whose overprotective parents have them under a kind of house arrest.
“It wasn’t just showing boys looking at and spying on girls,” Coppola says, recalling her conversations with cinematographer Edward Lachman. The challenge was how to convey the boys’ fascination with Girl World. “I wanted to be very clear about translating their perspective, how to get up close to them as they entered these girly spaces.” Unlike so many films about boys spying on girls, in Suicides the camera is focused on the boys’ self-consciousness rather than on the girls’ bodies. A brief moment of drollery in Coppola’s elegy to adolescence involves one boy’s encounter with a cache of sanitary napkins in the bathroom shared by the sisters.
(above) She allowed Bill Murray to basically play himself in Lost in Translation; (below) In The Virgin Suicides she created the girly space of four very sheltered sisters.
From The Virgin Suicides to The Bling Ring, Coppola mines visual means to express the psychological states of enclosure and exposure. What you remember about her films are the microclimates of feeling and longing. As she puts it, “My movies are not about being, but becoming.” Her protagonists are almost all teenagers or adults-in-transition (the latter would include Bill Murray in Lost in Translation and Stephen Dorff, estranged father of an 11-year-old daughter, in Somewhere ).
Apart from teenagehood, the dominant themes of Coppola’s movies are that of outsiders looking (and wanting) in and insiders looking (and wanting) out, imagining alternative lives. The most trancelike passages in her films are dialogue‑free sequences of the curious peering into the lives of others (The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring) and the entrapped gazing out to perceived freedom (Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere). Such shots present challenges.
“The biggest shock about Suicides was how hard it is to shoot from inside a car,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I always forget how hard. You don’t think about that when you’re writing it. And I write it again and again.”
Although oblivious to much of her cinematic home schooling while it was happening, Coppola now acknowledges how decisively it has influenced her choices in preproduction, on set, and in post.
In The Godfather: Part III (1990), Coppola plays Mary Corleone, the gosling‑like almost-grown daughter of Al Pacino and Diane Keaton. She was a last‑minute replacement for Winona Ryder and The New York Times panned her performance as “flat” and “uneasy.” Coppola, who was much more relaxed on screen as Kathleen Turner’s kid sister in her father’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), would turn that rotten tomato into ragu.
“Having been in front of a camera, knowing how vulnerable that can be, I am sensitive to that vulnerability in my actors,” she says. Clearly performers as stylistically diverse as Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Kathleen Turner and Bill Murray feel secure enough to reveal their defenselessness.
“I was open to Bill being himself,” she observes of Murray’s Oscar‑nominated turn in Lost in Translation as an emotionally‑naked actor sleepless and adrift in Tokyo. To help shape the performance she wants, Coppola applies lessons she learned from studying with the acting and dialogue coach Greta Seacat (daughter of acting guru Sandra Seacat). “By going to her classes when I was younger, I learned how to talk to actors. Instead of saying, ‘Act tired in this scene,’ I’ll say, ‘You’ve been up all night and you want to go home,’ to set the mood for them.”
Coppola says she casts less for looks than for simpatico. “I feel like there has to be a connection, you have to find the same things funny. That way, you’re on the same channel and you’ll be able to communicate more effectively.”
On The Bling Ring, she says, “I worked with a lot of first‑timers. They’re so enthusiastic...and they don’t have bad habits.” The performances by newcomers Israel Broussard and Katie Chang mesh seamlessly with that of Emma Watson, the Harry Potter alum who spent months perfecting Valley Girl dialect for the role. “She worked really hard,” Coppola says, “like the good student she is.”
Coppola, too, worked hard at being a good teacher, guiding her cast away from acting and toward natural behavior. The rehearsal period is key for her. “I get ideas for dialogue and the actors form relationships so they’re comfortable together. By the time we’re shooting you might believe they’re people who really know each other. On The Bling Ring, the kids hung out and did stuff together; they formed a group and had inside jokes.”
FASHION STATEMENT: Coppola directed Marie Antoinette as an 18th-century girl trying to find herself.
Perhaps because she experienced filmmaking as a family affair growing up, or maybe just because it just makes creative sense, Coppola tries to create a family atmosphere among the actors. To reinforce the parent-child bond before shooting Somewhere, she had Dorff pick up Elle Fanning, his screen daughter, from school every day. Before shooting The Bling Ring, she sent her young actors on recon missions to shopping malls and clubs. “That way, during the club scenes when they are partying, they’re really partying,” she says.
But before directing, there has to be a script, which is her blueprint on the set. Here, the elder Coppola was more intentional with his daughter’s home schooling. Sofia was 16, fresh from a Paris internship with couturier Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, when her father asked her to collaborate on the script for Life Without Zoe, his contribution to the anthology film New York Stories (1989) that also included short films from Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.
“That was about Dad teaching me to write, creating an opportunity for us to do something together,” recalls Coppola. “It’s more his story than mine,” she observes of the fairy tale about a teenager longing for her absent father. What she remembers most about the experience; for which she received screen credit for costumes and screenplay; is selecting the Chanel ensembles and hats worn by the middle‑schoolers in the film. As she tells it, the takeaway wasn’t so much about how to structure a script, but about being party to the process by which an idea is developed, tweaked and ultimately executed as the director.
From the start, all of Coppola’s films have been image rather than dialogue‑intensive. “I don’t want my movies to feel like movies,” she says. “I want them to feel like life.” If there’s less smart talk than small talk in her films, it’s because she believes that’s how life is. “People don’t really express themselves that articulately in real life.” When she constructs a scenario, Coppola says she’s thinking in images. To get more of the in‑the‑moment feel, she encourages improvisation from her actors.
“Remember Scarlett [Johansson] perched in the window ledge in Lost in Translation, looking out over Tokyo?” she asks. “You project your feelings on her. That’s what I’m going for. I want the visual ways to tell the story rather than have the characters talk.” What’s unsaid speaks volumes.
For Coppola, “The scripts are notes to let cast and crew know what I want to do. I don’t make a shot list. There’s no sense in that until you see the actors rehearse the scene. So, I’ll say, ‘In this scene I want to show X.’ I feel camera placement is really intuitive. It helps to have a script supervisor who keeps track of what I want to accomplish in each scene.”
She breaks down the script while writing it. “I see the movie in three acts and have a sense of how I want each act framed. With Bling Ring I knew I wanted the early acts to be in wide shots and gradually proceed to tighter shots.”
Her visual aesthetic and preference for shooting with available light whenever possible was shaped by her training at Art Center. Then in 1998, Coppola co‑wrote and directed the short Lick the Star. The angsty film about youth and death anticipates the themes of The Virgin Suicides, set in the leafy suburbs of Detroit circa 1974.
Working with her DP Lachman to determine the look of the film, she took a page from her father’s preproduction playbook: watching movies and thumbing through books with Lachman. “We prepped by looking at ’70s movies and photographs; Terrence Malick’s Badlands, [photographer] Bill Owens’ Suburbia.” William Eggleston’s influential dye‑transfer color photos of the ’70s were also influential in establishing the palette and mood. Even now, Coppola does extensive color tests before shooting. “In general, I like things low‑contrast and adapt to the project at hand,” she says.
With some embarrassment she recalls her rookie mistake of exceeding her budget for film stock. “To create a natural mood for the girls in their bedroom I would just keep the camera running.”
In her films since Suicides, Coppola has adapted a visual shorthand from her days as a fashion entrepreneur (she was a co-founder of MilkFed, a label that sold street fashion in Japan). She compiles a “lookbook,” an album of found images that establish the film’s texture and tone, and shares it with her cinematography, art and costume departments.
And she doesn’t storyboard. Like her father, Coppola plays music on the set, frequently the same cuts she listened to while writing the screenplay. She thinks it helps establish mood. She favors actual locations over shooting studio sets because a location; Tokyo in Lost in Translation, Versailles in Marie Antoinette, Hollywood and Milan in Somewhere, Los Angeles in The Bling Ring; has an energy and authenticity that can’t be replicated in a studio. “I like a small crew,” she says. “I like to keep it as lean and simple as possible.”
Coppola is quick to credit her many collaborators, some of whom, such as film editor Sarah Flack, sound editor Richard Beggs and music producer Brian Reitzell, she’s worked with since her first film. “You rely on the people you work well with.” Roman Coppola has been a producer on two of her films as well as an occasional second unit director. “It was like having my clone working on another scene.”
Speaking on a panel in March 2013, Lachman offered insight into how she works with her team. “The best director,” he said, “is one that gives everybody the feeling that they are really helping to make the film in partly their own vision, but it’s really the director who is engineering it. Sofia makes everybody feel like they are the really important one.”
Such was the case on The Bling Ring. Working with her DP, the late Harris Savides, for the second time, they came up with a unique setup for a shot. One of the robberies takes place in a glass‑clad modernist house high up in the Hollywood Hills. Savides suggested shooting from an abandoned house across the street. From this perspective, Coppola found a wide-angle shot so that as the teenagers break in, enter, and turn on the lights, they resemble dolls in a dollhouse. The startling angle both underscores a sense of child’s play and suggests the aphorism that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. “I loved how the twinkling city lights below looked just like the jewelry the kids were stealing,” Coppola says, obviously pleased with the results.
Coppola shot The Bling Ring on a RED camera, her first digital feature, but because of her photography background, she said she feels more at home shooting on film. What she liked about digital: “It feels more immediate, and since you’re not limited by the film in the camera you can go on and on and have really long shots.”
What she didn’t like: “I spent more time watching the monitor than being on set. It felt passive. I see how it can distance you from the action. I had to keep reminding myself to get back on the set. I’d shoot on film again, if it’s still available.”
From her father, Coppola learned that “a movie is never as bad as the first rough cut.” Still, the rough of Suicides crushed her. Fortunately, she had sound designer Beggs on board as well as Reitzell, one-time drummer of Redd Kross. Reitzell has suggested the musical cues on four of her five films, including anachronistic punk tunes such as Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It,” that opens Marie Antoinette, announcing its central character as an 18th‑century riot grrrl.
Working in the editing room with Flack, “I explain what I want it to feel like, she shows me alternatives, I respond and we find it together,” says Coppola. “You find the rhythm in the edit.” For her, the film’s pace is almost always guided by the movement inside the frame and by the tempo of the soundtrack, which in The Bling Ring is louder, and in Coppola’s description, “more obnoxious” than the dreamy music in most of her films.
“I’m more rigid than my dad is about editing,” she says. “He moves things all over the place; I stick to the script. He finds the movie in the editing room; I find the movie after the sound mix. The sound adds so much to make you feel you’re really there.”
Her first experiments wedding image with sound were for music videos for The Flaming Lips and The White Stripes. Usually the soundscape in Coppola’s films, a layering of ambient noise and musical score punctuated by a pop track and punched up with augmented effects, such as the birdsong that opens The Virgin Suicides, enhances the you‑are‑there environment. She likes using songs that the characters would listen to, like M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” in The Bling Ring, which the characters sing along to on the car radio.
Coppola made The Bling Ring on a still-modest $20 million budget. Lost in Translation, her biggest hit to date, cost only $4 million to make (and grossed $120 million worldwide). Except for Marie Antoinette, which had a $40 million budget and an arduous 12‑week shoot mostly in France, Coppola prefers to keep things smaller and more intimate.
Having completed her fifth feature, Coppola says she feels at home in what she perceives as her niche; character-driven films mapping the moves of people lost in transition. “I don’t make the kind of movies that lend themselves to wide releases,” she concludes.