Sofia Coppola's Journey From Party Girl to Oscar Winner

Sofia Coppola had her 21st birthday party at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles — a fact she had forgotten until Phil Pavel, 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...
Share this:

Sofia Coppola had her 21st birthday party at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles — a fact she had forgotten until Phil Pavel, 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." In contemporary pop culture, it's a concentrated dose of a certain fantasy version of Hollywood.

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 costarred 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?" The fact that the character has an incestuous relationship with her cousin added a layer of irony to complaints that the Coppolas were "keeping it in the family" against best advice and good taste.

In 2000, Sofia would face down the haters by writing and directing an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides. Her first feature, it's a visually stunning, 1970s-bikini poster-meets-homeroom notebook-doodle reverie nailing 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 quasicreative 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 T's (which she designed and marketed herself, through the fashion line Milk Fed), 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, sometimes alongside best friend Zoe Cassavetes. She appeared tastefully topless in a Vanity Fair spread on "it" girls, almost mocking the endeavor by saying: "I don't want to be part of some Brat Pack thing." She 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. Extremely petite, she wears her hair in a pointedly unpolished bob. In an oversized sweatshirt, jeans paired with an expensive-looking tennis bracelet that seems to be falling off her tiny wrist, and a giant ring that she keeps accidentally banging against the table when she gesticulates, she almost vibes as a little girl playing dressup, even as she small-talks the minutiae of motherhood. (Jet-lagged 4-year-old daughter Romy, she says, "woke up at, like, four in the morning raring to go.")

It was reading Eugenides' 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."

It's a great Hollywood turnaround story. It's more impressive when you consider where she went from there.

Drawing both on her 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 Coppola 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 learn, 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 helped inspire Coppola's script. Patches of the track serve as a refrain throughout the film, which, in virtual vérité style, tracks 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 bingeing 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. The key scene of this prologue is both throwaway 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 blond (Angela Lindvall) also driving alone, in a vintage Mercedes convertible. They're stopped at a light next to one another. 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 Marco's Ferrari is the fourth. Somewhere's running subtext is that unique-to-Los Angeles psychodramatic condition: the car as extension of self.

"I think people totally connect their personality with their car," Sofia says. "It's definitely specific to L.A., [and 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 and her first to deal directly with the emotional consequences of a professional Hollywood life. An avowedly personal filmmaker, she has until now 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.

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. Sound-tracked 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, 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 States, 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," which seems to be Hollywood's biggest export, and show another side of it.

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 that 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 L.A. today that would serve as a time capsule for future generations, the way American Gigolo and Shampoo did for their respective moments in time.

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.

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 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, narrative sound — including music that's organically part of a scene, as in two sequences involving rent-a-strippers — 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. "I wanted to see how little we could use music." Some scenes are so quiet that sounds that otherwise would seem incidental almost boom on the soundtrack, as in a long take of Johnny in his hotel room, in which there's so little going on that the sound of his cigarette burning almost seems to echo.

"I found sitting there smoking a cigarette with nothing [to say] one of the most challenging things," Dorff says. "Because if I'm 'acting' for one second, the movie's done."

With no permanent residence in L.A., Coppola and Mars and their kids have been living at the Chateau while she promotes Somewhere. Despite the hotel's reputation, they're not the odd domestic unit at the bacchanal; a fashion-industry friend of Sofia's who also has a baby daughter has been living here with her own family for the past six months. "It's been fun," Sofia says, with genuine enthusiasm, in full mom mode and apparently loving it.

But change is in the air. In a few days, Sofia and family will head up to Napa for Christmas. After that, she'll 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. "I love cars, and I miss that part of L.A., driving around. I had it for like ten years, but it was just sitting in a garage."

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."

KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.