Going Somewhere with Sofia Coppola
Long in the public eye, the writer-director coaxes out a private story, cryptically.
Tue Dec 14 2010
Can it really only be a decade and change that Sofia Coppola, 39, has been spinning out her stylish brand of indie moviemaking? She seems more established. Since her feature debut, 1999's The Virgin Suicides, she's won an Oscar for screenwriting (Lost in Translation), made a pilloried if sumptuous end-of-the-party biopic (Marie Antoinette), and been married and divorced. Plus, she will always be Mary Corleone in 1990's The Godfather Part III, so maybe that's why we feel we know her.
But we don't know her, not really, and while her latest, Somewhere, an atmospheric Hollywood tale about a debauched actor (Stephen Dorff) and his estranged teenage daughter (Elle Fanning), invites some autobiographical digging, the way will be rocky. Coppola doesn't help.
"I grew up in Northern California, and not really in the midst of all that Hollywood stuff," Coppola says by phone from Los Angeles, a city where she went to school, at CalArts, but not where she calls home. (Lately, that's been Paris and New York City.) "But I definitely was around that, off and on," she adds. "I'm familiar with that world. So I feel comfortable here in L.A., but it's also a foreign place, too?" She stops.
You can begin to see how talking to Coppola, unfailingly nice, can feel a bit like being riddled by the Sphinx. She'd much rather listen than speak. (On two occasions during our chat, responding to ideas about her scripts, Coppola lunges at the chance to take my word: "Oh, maybe! Yeah, that sounds good!") It's an instinct that surely works for her as a director, embracing input if it serves. But softly, for those listening, Coppola has also just articulated a rootlessness than runs throughout her work.
"We were raised on location, always moving to new places," she says of the Coppola clan, which spent years in the Philippines during the nightmarish shoot of Apocalypse Now. (There were other way stations, too, like Tulsa during The Outsiders.) And if Somewhere isn't quite peg-on as an absent-daddy drama torn directly out of her heart, it does accommodate much of which makes Sofia a Coppola—particularly her mother's documentary eye and ear, capturing the cozy, rarefied confines of L.A.'s Chteau Marmont hotel with critical detachment. (In one scene, the squeaks off a stripper pole threaten to upstage twin gyrating blonds.)
"I definitely have that observational aspect—it's there," she agrees. "I probably related more to my dad growing up, but my personality, my demeanor, is much more like my mom, who's the silent watcher. I think I'm a combination of the two, and they're very opposite." Pause. Your turn.
"She's put a lot of herself into both characters, the father and the daughter," says Dorff, a longtime Coppola confidant, for whom the role of Johnny Marco was written. "It's really a movie about an adolescent father becoming a man."
The big change in Coppola's life is undoubtedly becoming a parent: Romy, her first daughter with Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars, was born in November 2006; a second child was born this summer. And this might be a better clue to Somewhere than Papa Francis. "You have to slow down, take time to sit in the park with a little kid, which you don't do as a busy adult," Coppola says. "I took a year off after Marie Antoinette when I had my daughter, just to spend time with her."
Written over six months, the screenplay that emerged from that period is anxious, filled with sublimated worry about parental failure. Somewhere's glamorous trappings are incidental: "It's set in Hollywood because that's more fun to watch than a story about an accountant," Coppola offers. "But a father-daughter story is something anyone can relate to." She squirms at the idea of her plunging (yet again?) into the lifestyles of the privileged. "Seriously? I'm just trying to write about worlds I know. All kinds of people have feelings." Her silence could mean anything. She's content.