Sofia Coppola: The Trials, Tears and Talent
This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Think of Sofia Coppola, and an image comes to mind -- of a globe-trotting hipster whose iconic last name has propelled her to fame; who is best friends with designer Marc Jacobs, has modeled for photographer Mario Testino, guest-edited French Vogue, had her own fashion label and now is married to Thomas Mars of ultracool French rock band Phoenix. All of which makes this reporter slightly hesitant as he waits in a small neighborhood restaurant close to Coppola's home in New York's West Village. Then she enters, and any skepticism vanishes.
The Oscar winner hovers quietly by the doorway, without makeup, dressed in jeans and a simple cream sweater. Rather than being larger-than-life, she appears almost embarrassed to take up too much space.
"I remember my mom saying, 'People aren't going to like you because they'll think you're a snob,' " she says, later. " 'You have to go out of your way to show them you're not a jerk.' "
She is surprisingly a bit old-fashioned: She doesn't tweet, doesn't have a Facebook page, hasn't watched most reality TV (Keeping Up With the Kardashians is an exception) and reads books like Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country -- though she's only halfway through. "I'm a very slow reader," she explains, blushing slightly.
There is sweetness to her, and subtlety. There's also sadness -- just a hint, but it's there.
"Everyone thinks I'm like that," she says of her projected melancholy. "I have that part of myself, but it's not [everything]."
At 41, Francis Ford Coppola's youngest child has made five films, including the soon-to-be-released The Bling Ring, lived in Los Angeles, Paris and New York, won a best screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation, been lambasted for her role in The Godfather: Part III after Winona Ryder dropped out, dated one celebrity director (Quentin Tarantino) and divorced another (she says of Spike Jonze, "I didn't marry the right person").
But perhaps the defining moment of her life came at age 15, when she lost Gian-Carlo, 22, one of her two older siblings.
In 1986, Sofia was with her mother, Eleanor, a former set decorator and the maker of award-winning documentaries including Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), when her father called from Washington, D.C., where he was shooting Gardens of Stone. Gian-Carlo had been killed in a horrific speedboat accident in Annapolis, Md., from injuries sustained after a towline connecting two other vessels tore into him. His fiancee was two months pregnant with a baby girl, who would be born the following year; Ryan O'Neal's son, Griffin, was steering the boat at the time and later would be prosecuted for manslaughter. (He eventually pleaded guilty to negligent operation of a boat.)
"Those weren't carefree years for me," says Sofia. "I felt, when my brother died, my teenage years got interrupted. I was going through a trauma. Therapy helped -- it was really important for me to be healed -- but it becomes a part of who you are."
Who Coppola is now will be on full display at Cannes, where The Bling Ring will screen May 16.
"She's not how most [people] would perceive her to be," says Kirsten Dunst, who played Marie Antoinette in Coppola's 2006 film and starred in her first feature, 1999's The Virgin Suicides. "She's not precious. She's real."
Coppola is returning to the scene of one of her career low points, seven years after the $40 million Marie Antoinette polarized audiences, leading to a standing ovation from some and boos from others.
"After Marie Antoinette, I was over movies," she says, noting she was drained from the huge six-month shoot. "Then I met [cinematographer] Harris Savides, and he gave me a new outlook. He was really into doing things small and as simple as possible. He got me excited about making movies again, in a small-scale way."
The $8 million-plus Bling Ring is set in modern-day Calabasas, Calif., and tells the true story of a group of teens that embarked on a robbing spree, stealing money, jewelry and designer clothing from the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan before they were caught and then, in some cases, given prison sentences. The film mixes a cast of unknowns -- including Israel Broussard, Taissa Farmiga and Katie Chang. Leslie Mann and Harry Potter's former teenage witch, Emma Watson, were exceptions.
Watson, who spent weeks perfecting a Valley accent, was struck by her director's spontaneity during a six-week shoot that got under way in March 2011. "Once you are on set, she lets you be," she says. "She is very loose and free and calm."