Thursday 19 October 2017

Sofia Coppola lays bare the cult of celebrity

Sofia Coppola is both fascinated and appalled by the 'glamour' of LA life

'The Blin Ring' written and directed by Sofia Coppola dramatises a culture obsessed by fame and notoriety. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
'The Blin Ring' written and directed by Sofia Coppola dramatises a culture obsessed by fame and notoriety. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Julia Molony

Sofia Coppola may have been born into Hollywood royalty, but her upbringing was a world away from the red carpets, parties and paparazzi in LA.

"I grew up in the Napa Valley in a small town, so that whole glitzy side of Hollywood is exotic to me," she says. "Even being in it and going to some of those parties once in a while, I still find it very unique. It doesn't seem common to me or anything."

It's why the true story behind her new film The Bling Ring, about a bunch of Valley Girls-turned-house-burglars, who break into the homes of stars to raid their designer wardrobes, seems so utterly bizarre and intriguing to her.

A dramatic representation set at the apex of our celebrity culture, in The Bling Ring Coppola turns her trademark visual style and subtle emotional register to a subject that seems to both fascinate and appal her – that of disposable, high turnover celebrity.

"I think because I didn't grow up in it," she says, "and my mom wasn't into all that. They wanted us to grow up in the country and outside of that glitzier side of Hollywood. I'm not as drawn to it."

The daughter of iconic filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and documentary film-maker and writer Eleanor Coppola, Sofia's childhood was undoubtedly experienced as an outlier.

As part of a creatively fertile family, she was neither a true small-town girl (her father used to take the family away on his shoots and, as a result, they lived in Vietnam for a year during the filming of Apocalypse Now) nor was she a Hollywood brat. Instead, she absorbed the principles behind her parents' success in a volatile industry; hard work, dedication and versatile creative expression.

"I definitely learned about film-making from my dad," Sofia says, "and working hard and that side of myself. From my mom, I think I get my calm – she's a very calm person. She's not a big, loud personality like my dad.

"My mom is more of an internal, quiet person. She's very creative and does a lot of different things, so I think this idea that you can express yourself in lots of different ways comes from her. She always encouraged us.

"She was really into contemporary art and that got me into collecting photographs. I think I share an aesthetic with her." Like her mother, Sofia prefers to create a serene atmosphere while working. "I'm not a screamer. I'm sure it has an effect – how you make it must come through in your work."

She is also something of a creative polymath. After dabbling in fashion and acting, Sofia's released her first feature film, a whimsical and dark adaptation of the Jeffery Eugenides novel, The Virgin Suicides, when she was just 28.

But her real breakthrough as a director came with Lost in Translation, another mood piece, light on plot but steeped in atmosphere, that was loosely based on her own experiences of finding herself in Japan, adrift in a failing marriage, to director Spike Jonze.

The pair divorced in 2003, and, these days, she's happily married to French musician Thomas Mars. The pair have two children and split their time between New York and Paris. Has she turned into an honorary French person?

"A part-time French person," Sofia says. "I have French family." But, if she's decidedly Left Bank in her sensibilities, Coppola has, inexplicably, got a discernible Valley Girl inflection to her manner of speaking, sing-songing up in tone at the end of those sentences that she sometimes seems unsure about finishing.

The Bling Ring narrative was taken from a Vanity Fair article, written after a group of California girls were charged and convicted of grand larceny after breaking into the houses of a range of celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom and Audrina Patridge.

Their modus operandi was to find out the home addresses of their favourite stars online, work out when they were away from home via entertainment newswires and social networking, and then seize the opportunity to break into their homes and steal their stuff. It's the perfect fable of celebrity culture and consumerism gone mad – something that Sofia herself, as the mother of two young daughters, worries about.

"I do feel like that side of that trashy pop culture – girls in mini-dresses – it's becoming bigger and bigger, it's becoming the mainstream. It's something that I'm aware of and want to protect my kids from. They're little and I want to keep them innocent in a world that's not innocent... and with so much information. I feel like, for little kids, it's hard to not grow up really fast, and that side of our culture is so pervasive."

Sofia adds: "Not to be a total prude – I think there's a fun aspect to it, too, but I just think... in moderation."

Does having made this film, having been steeped in that culture, make her pessimistic? "I think it's more something to talk about," she says, non-committally.

"I just thought it was something so contemporary because it couldn't have happened like that 10 years ago.

"I remember when I was a kid you'd do these ridiculous things you would never do as an adult, but then this one is so extreme.

"But it looks at how they're being influenced, the bombardment with information and the lack of boundaries. I'm curious where it's going. If it's going to combust or if there's a reaction."

The film dramatises a culture obsessed with fame and notoriety; endemic and unchecked narcissism expressed on social networking sites, and how it affected this particular group of teenagers, whose lives are measured out in updates and photo tags. Sofia herself is not on Facebook – "but I remember friends talking about how upset they were if someone defriended them and that being a big deal, so I tried to put that in".

Beyond the culture of the media that surrounds them is the culture of the clique that these teenagers move in, hanging out in West Hollywood nightclubs.

The clique is an animal that has long fascinated Coppola, perhaps because it's something she only had intermittent exposure to when she was a teenager.

"In junior high – especially with girls – there's always that," Sofia recalls. "And I floated in and out because, when we weren't travelling, I went back to the same school, but I wasn't there all the time.

"My first short film was about a clique in junior high and that dynamic is always something I find interesting."

Although this story is based in real life, while most of her other work has been fictionalised, the emphasis on familiar, Sofia Coppola themes are immediately recognisable.

"I like characters that are going through a transition, from whom drama is more internal than external circumstances making the drama" she says.

The same gentle interrogations of Lost in Translation are there in The Bling Ring, albeit very differently expressed.

"I'm always drawn to stories about identity, and finding that," Sofia says.

'The Bling Ring' is released on July 5

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