Thursday 14 December 2017

Sofia's story

Her subtle approach to directing maybe light years away from that of her famous father, but it suits Sofia Coppola’s gentle demeanour, finds James Mottram, as he talks to her about working with family, bad reviews and her unusual childhood

Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola
Sofia on the set of Somewhere. Left, Elle Fanning and Stephen Dorff in Somewhere

James Mottram

It's the day after the Venice world premiere of Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. In a few days, the film will go on to win the film festival's coveted Golden Lion award, but, right now, Coppola just has a batch of glowing reviews to wallow in. Not that she has.

"I didn't read them," she says, in a voice that's almost as dreamy as her work. "But I heard they were good -- or at least positive -- so I'm relieved." Little wonder. When her last film, jazzy period bio Marie Antoinette, took its bow in Cannes, the boos from the French filmgoers could be heard halfway down the Croisette.

The critics were no better -- "no more nourishing than a bonbon" noted trade paper Variety, in one of the kinder comments. "It's always hard to make a project, and then you have to put it out for people to criticise," she acknowledges. "So that part is not easy. I don't know any creative person that isn't sensitive about their work. But it's part of it; you can't think too much about it or else you will never try anything again." Of course, it hardly helps that she is Hollywood royalty, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of such landmark movies as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.

As tough as it must be to emerge from her father's not inconsiderable shadow, the Marie Antoinette debacle is typical of the polarising effect Coppola's work has on critics. It's either countless plaudits, as seen for her Oscar-winning directorial effort Lost In Translation, or vitriolic attacks, as with her appearance in The Godfather Part III (in which she was a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder). "I think I'd rather make something that some people love and some people hate than something that's in the middle," she states, as defiantly as she can for one so shy.

When we meet, in a tranquil Venetian garden, Coppola is wearing a Celine button-down dress with navy and black horizontal stripes -- a reminder that, while she interned for Chanel under Karl Lagerfeld in her teens, her taste is elegantly simple (as MilkFed, the Japanese clothing line she designed, shows). Her only extravagance is a blue Louis Vuitton bag, which she presses into her lap with her hands (both of which reveal bitten nails, a consequence of opening-night jitters). As delicate as her father is large, as understated as he is outgoing, rarely has a director so physically embodied their work as Sofia Coppola does.

Somewhere is certainly no departure for Coppola -- other than the fact that for the first time, she has a male protagonist. Like 2003's Lost In Translation, it features an actor adrift in a hotel. But Bill Murray's over-the-hill thesp was really secondary to Scarlett Johansson (whose faltering marriage reflected the demise of Coppola's own to director Spike Jonze). Here, the focus is fully on newly anointed A-list star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), spiralling out of control in Los Angeles' Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi famously died of an overdose. Drink, drugs, strippers -- if Marco is a walking cliché of Tinseltown debauchery, things change when his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) turns up out of the blue.

As they begin to bond, it's tempting to read this tender evocation of a father-daughter relationship as Coppola's diary-like recollection of her own childhood. "I thought about trips I took with my dad at that age," she admits. "It was so exciting as a kid to go places that kids don't normally go. He taught me how to play craps in a casino!"

This is typical of the ultra-reserved Coppola; learning cards is one thing, but from schooling in the Philippines while her father was having a meltdown during Apocalypse Now, to jetting to Cuba with him to meet Fidel Castro, her youth was entirely unique.

As showed by Life Without Zoë, the short film she penned with her father (for his contribution to 1989's New York Stories) about a girl living in the Sherry-Netherland while her parents go on vacation, Coppola knows hotels.

"When I was little, whenever my Dad would write a script, he liked to go stay in a hotel. He brought me with him sometimes. And it's that thing -- you can order room service! You can focus on your writing because they're taking care of you. And also when you're at home, it's easy to procrastinate, and decide to organise your socks or something. But when you're in a hotel, you have to focus on your writing."

In the case of Somewhere, Coppola began penning the script while living in France, with her long-term musician boyfriend Thomas Mars. After a friend brought her some US tabloids, she began thinking about setting a story around LA popular culture.

"Then the character of Johnny Marco came into my mind," she adds. "There were also a few stories about young actors having these crises and problems, so I imagined what's going on in that whole party lifestyle, and when they're alone the next morning." The result is a subtle study of the loneliness -- a theme she has already mined in both Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette -- and the isolation a celebrity lifestyle can bring.

Of course, as a journalist asks during the course of the film, "Who is Johnny Marco?" So -- who is he? "It's funny ... a few different people think it's based on them," smiles Coppola, enigmatically. What about Colin Farrell, given Marco breaks his arm in a drunken accident à la the Irish star? Or Marco's namesake Johnny Depp, who claimed that he and Kate Moss made love in just about every room? "It's definitely based on a dozen people," says Coppola. "People I know and stories I've heard." As far as she's concerned, there's something about the hotel that inspires misbehaviour. "There is some kind of decadent feeling, so maybe it brings that out in people, because they know that's the setting for that."

At 39, if Coppola ever had a Johnny Marco moment (and it seems unlikely), she's long since grown up. Across the genesis of Somewhere, she became a mother -- twice. The first script she wrote since the birth of her first child Romy, now four, by the time Somewhere went into production, she was pregnant with her second daughter, Cosima, now six months old. "I think it changes your priorities," says Coppola of motherhood. "But we always visited the set when I was little, and now my daughter comes to the set." And what with her boyfriend's band Phoenix providing the film's score, and her brother Roman producing, it's no surprise Coppola's work has a homespun feel about it.

If this is merely a continuation of her father's family oriented approach to filmmaking ("that's my example of how to work," she says), the results couldn't be more different. Unlike her father's grandiose visions, her work consists of the subtle accumulation of intimate moments.

"I think it's just my taste and my personality," she says. "I think in real life there are these quiet moments that have a big effect on you." Maybe this is why her favourite film of her father's is his minimalist tale of teen angst Rumble Fish (so much so, she even shot Somewhere on the same lenses as her father's 1983 effort).

Yet such is Coppola's growing influence, her father has admitted to being inspired by her small-scale approach to filmmaking, recently returning to the director's chair with the low-budget efforts Youth Without Youth and Tetro.

"He was just going back to how he originally started," shrugs Coppola, unwilling to take much credit. But after four films, an Oscar win and now a Golden Lion for Somewhere, as well as taking over the family company American Zoetrope, there can be no doubt that she has taken the baton from him to represent the Coppola clan.

Somewhere opens on December 10

Irish Independent

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