Sofia Coppola: The Trials, Tears and Talent
The Oscar-winning director is back on the Croisette with "The Bling Ring," seven years after "Marie Antoinette" famously was booed. Now the one-time "it" girl is opening up at last about filmmaking, her father, her first marriage and the childhood tragedy that still haunts her.
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."
While not shooting or with her two girls (Romy, 6, and Cosima, almost 3) or accompanying her husband on tour, Coppola spends much of her time in an office near her apartment, writing when the mood strikes, responding to e-mails when it doesn't. She acknowledges that writing is "difficult," even though she never has directed a movie with a screenplay by someone else.
She follows film but not avidly (she singles out the documentary The Queen of Versailles and Denmark's A Royal Affair as recent favorites, while lamenting, "It hasn't really been an exciting era for movies"); she listens to music, usually chosen by her husband, though she retains a special affection for Elvis Costello, Roxy Music and Chopin's "Preludes"; and she watches a smattering of television -- from 30 Rock to Mad Men -- while avoiding reality TV.
She also collects photography and has works by William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander and Tina Barney on her apartment's white walls along with a treasured photograph of Charlotte Rampling, given to her by the late Helmut Newton.
"I met him the day he died [in 2004] -- that morning, in the elevator of the Chateau Marmont," she says. "He's one of my heroes. I had written about [the Rampling shot], I think for Vogue, and he sent me the photograph. I couldn't believe it. It's one of my most-cherished possessions. I was able to thank him and told him how much I love it." Hours later, Newton crashed his car right outside the hotel, and Sofia saw the smashed vehicle when she returned later that day, paying an oblique homage to it with the ruined car one glimpses in her 2010 film Somewhere.
She remains close to her parents and at the time of this interview was about to join them in New Orleans to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at Jazz Fest. "The actual date was Feb. 2, but this was the first time all of us could get together," she says. They e-mail regularly, but, she adds, "I'm not one of those people that talk to their mom all the time."
Francis remembers his daughter once asking "if I felt she was a dilettante. I said, 'No, do all the things you love and eventually they will be useful for whatever you choose.' When I saw her first film, a short titled Lick the Star, I knew it had all come together and she was a filmmaker."
Indeed, for Hollywood royalty (relatives include Nicolas Cage, Jason Schwartzman, Talia Shire and her brother Roman, 48), she has very carefully carved out an identity of her own, influenced by her parents but still separate from them.
"My demeanor is more like my mom," she observes, referring to Eleanor's quieter manner. But like her father, "I have strong opinions. I have a desire [to stamp them on film]." Some part of her likes that element of control, she acknowledges: "In real life, you can't do that. You can't create a world exactly how you imagine."
The Bling Ring takes a real-life story then filters it through Coppola's lucid and luminous eye. She was drawn to the subject when she read Nancy Jo Sales' Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins." At first, she optioned the underlying material for her family's company, American Zoetrope, without planning to direct. But the more she learned about the case -- helped by transcripts of interviews with the teenagers and police records Sales sent her -- the more intrigued she became.
"It seemed to say so much about contemporary culture and just how this trashy pop culture has become so dominant," she says. "That can be fun, and you can peek at it, but these kids are obsessed with the idea that anybody can be famous and everybody should be."
Coppola spent a year writing the script and negotiating for some of the real characters' life rights, at the same time as a rival project, also titled The Bling Ring, was in the works at Lifetime. She says she watched only five minutes of that 2011 telepic, unwilling for it to influence her work. "I was glad it came and went, but it was everything I wouldn't want my film to be," she says.
Meanwhile, she reached out to the teenagers involved in the crimes. "I spoke to [Alexis Neiers and Nick Prugo] and the detective, Brett Goodkin," she recalls. "Alexis still claims to be innocent and that she wasn't involved in anything. She just stuck with her story."
(Neiers, who served time in prison for her crime, since has tweeted that the finished work is "trashy and inaccurate"; Goodkin, a technical adviser on Coppola's film, is awaiting the verdict of a disciplinary panel on whether his participation violated LAPD rules.)
As is her wont, Coppola kept a "reference book" of pictures and documents that she later could show her cast and crew, including snapshots of Hilton's shoe closet, images of Los Angeles' sparkling skyline and photos she found on the Facebook page of castmember Claire Julien.
While she developed the screenplay, fellow producers Youree Henley and her brother Roman (along with Coppola's agent, ICM Partners' Bart Walker, and FilmNation's Glen Basner) cobbled together funds from foreign distributors, then sold domestic rights to U.S. distributor A24, which will release the film June 14.
Watson was intrigued by her director's manner when shooting began. "Sofia was never really explicit," she says. "Her laughing or getting excited about the take was what I got confidence from. And just the fact she believed I could do it in the first place."
To Coppola's surprise, Hilton agreed to participate, taking a cameo and allowing her to shoot in the actress-model's Beverly Hills home. Coppola had met her there when Somewhere star Stephen Dorff invited her to a party. "That's when I first saw the 'Paris pillows,' " she recalls, referring to pillows that bear Hilton's image, one of the more startling examples of Hollywood narcissism that appear in her movie. "It felt very Entourage."
As to shooting in Hilton's house: "For a while, we weren't talking about it," she says, "because they don't allow filming in her neighborhood -- we had to sneak in and not look like a film crew." Hilton herself surprised her. "She has a sense of humor, and she was really nice."
It is hard to imagine two public figures more different than the socialite and Sofia, one all surface, the other with so much hidden behind her words.
Coppola speaks with candor and a lack of pretense, and yet a sense of mystery remains. It explains why the public and the famous friends she has made are so drawn to her.
She rarely sees Tarantino, her former boyfriend. "I'm friendly with him, and I'm surprised I'm not in touch with him, but that was a different time in my life," she says. Nor is she in contact with Jonze, whose relationship with her inspired Scarlett Johansson's uncomfortable dealings with the photographer spouse played by Giovanni Ribisi in Lost in Translation.
"I was trying to figure it out when I was writing that," says Coppola of the marriage, which ended after four years in 2003, the very year Lost in Translation was released. "My friends said, 'Finish the script and you'll know what to do.' " Looking back, she admits: "I think I had doubts, but I didn't listen to them because I was young. Spike didn't end well."
Her personal life is settled now, she says, and she has gained recognition in her own right. "Sofia has what we call in the wine industry 'terroir,' " says her father. "This means, all you need to do is see a few moments of film, and you know she made it."
She is thinking of teaming with her Somewhere discovery Elle Fanning for a film with her sister Dakota; and she says she is open to doing a studio movie, even though she didn't enjoy the unwieldiness of Sony's Marie Antoinette.
She has one foot in the contemporary world but one foot decidedly out. "There are aspects I enjoy about pop culture -- music and fashion," she says, "but reality TV and the tabloids -- I don't relate."
Her family is what she relates to most ("She's become a truly great mother," notes Francis), possibly even at the expense of her own work. She can't write late into the night as she once did and must tailor her hours to theirs; nor can she readily embark on a months-long shoot, unless she brings the kids, as her father did on Apocalypse Now. That, she recognizes, is the reality of being an adult.
"It's weird being a grown-up," she says, a smile illuminating her face. "I think I'm just getting used to it."