INTERVIEW with Sofia Coppola

Director Sofia Coppola; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

[This article originally appeared:]

The Oscar-winning writer/director talks about film making craft, spare storytelling, and her new film “Somewhere”, starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning.

In her fourth film, “Somewhere”, Sofia Coppola (“The Virgin Suicides”, “Lost in Translation”, “Marie Antoinette”) tells the story of Hollywood bad boy Johnny Marco, who lives at the famed Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood. To say Johnny (Stephen Dorff in career comeback mode) “lives” might be a bit of a exaggeration; when he’s not in his car driving to some studio obligation, he is anesthetizing himself in one manner or another. All this comes to an abrupt stop when Johnny’s ex drops off their tween daughter, Chloe (Elle Fanning) for a prolonged visit before summer camp. The visit awakens Johnny and helps him start putting his life back together.

While watching “Somewhere”, one can’t help but wonder how much might be culled from the director’s own life. That said, Coppola’s life has hardly been fodder for the tabloids; in fact, she lives a fairly quiet life in Paris with her musician husband and their two daughters, the younger of whom who was born quite recently.

When you meet Coppola in person, you’d never know that she was Hollywood royalty or that she is the third woman (and the first American woman) to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, she sat for a round table conversation to talk about her newest movie, which opens this week.

Q: Can you describe your writing process?

Sophia: It depends. It’s different when I’m working on an original screenplay as opposed to when I’m adapting something. I try and be disciplined about it. I find it hard, especially to start writing. I used to stay up late at night; now I have kids and that’s not really possible. With “Somewhere”, I was interested in how simply you could tell a story. So I felt inspired to write something that we could make in a simple way: to show a portrait of a guy in a moment of his life. And this guy just sort of came along. I was curious about writing something from a guy’s point of view.

Q: Woody Allen writes his scripts in long hand. What’s your technique?

Sofia Coppola: I use Final Draft on my laptop. I know some people write in long hand, but I find it helpful to sort of see it in the format of a screenplay as I write.

Q: When it comes to writing and directing, do you prefer one discipline over another?

Sofia Coppola: I find that they are both part of the same process for me, because the writing is just a tool to getting to the final story. But writing is so hard for me—it’s the most challenging part [of the writing process]—so when you finish it and print it out, that’s the most gratifying.

Q: How would you describe your directing style?  Do you prefer fewer takes or, if you had unlimited budget, would you do many?

Sofia Coppola: No, I don’t generally like doing a lot of takes. I feel like after eight or ten it just gets exhausting. Also, this movie’s schedule was short—we shot in just six weeks, plus one week in Italy. We had to keep it low-budget, and we had to keep things moving.

Q: Since you’re the writer and director, how do you feel about actors who want to improvise… or changing things on the fly?

Sofia Coppola: I try not to be too precious and to be open-minded. It might be more natural to sit down or to move around—so we rehearse it; I’m open to what works best. Some of the party scenes [in “Somewhere”] were more improvised… But those scenes with dialogue, I thought it was important that they remain minimal… not to change the script too much.

Q: Both “Somewhere” and “Lost in Translation” largely take place in hotels. Both films deal with alienation and loneliness. What interests you about those themes?

Sofia Coppola: I don’t set out to write about those themes. I am interested in characters that are in moments of transition and [in times when they] are self-reflective… [when you] feel most alienated. I’m not interested in writing about times in my life when things are going smoothly; it would be boring and unchallenging.

I also think that a character can change, and it doesn’t have to be the result of some big traumatic event—that it can be a small thing that makes you look inward… I try to write what’s on my mind or what I’m thinking about. And I try to put myself in their shoes.

Q: I really loved the use of Love Like a Sunset [by the band Phoenix, one of whose members is Sofia’s husband] in the film.

Sofia Coppola: I liked that song, so I asked them to give us more music, to provide a score throughout. And the song they gave me for the opening has that sound like the car’s engine. I thought it was a nice motif for Stephen’s character, and [that I could] blend it with the Ferrari.

Q: Did that music inspire the opening sequence in any way?

Sofia Coppola: I had this idea when I first started this story about this guy and this Ferrari going around in circles. That was the first image I had in mind. I listen to music when I’m writing, so that song seemed right.

Q: I get the feelings watching your movies that you make ones you’d like to see.

Sofia Coppola: Yeah, definitely that’s a starting point. It’s also a reaction to other things I’ve been experiencing. I thought for this movie I wanted to do something minimalist with not too much music. I think so many movies bombard you with song after song; I was trying to do something more spare.

Q: Is there any truth that Johnny was based on Colin Farrell?

Sofia Coppola: The character was based on a dozen or so guys that I had either met or heard stories about. When I was writing “Lost in Translation”, Colin was staying at the Chateau Marmont—this was before he was sober—so he did come to mind. But Johnny’s not based on him. I don’t like singling anyone out, but perhaps there’s a little bit of Colin in it.

Q: The Chateau Marmont has such a history. Do you have any anecdotes about the place?

Sofia Coppola: There are so many stories I’ve heard. The crashed car in the movie was based on this time when I was staying at the Chateau and Helmut Newton was there. I was really excited to have met him. I left, and when I came back, his car had crashed into the wall. That was when he died.

I also remember hearing some story about a rock star who was staying there: he used to have parties in his suite and he’d be alone in his bedroom. Just things I’ve seen or heard over the years.

Q: The choreographed strip scenes are really striking. What were they like to shoot?

Sofia Coppola: It was fun. They were not professional pole dancers, but it was fun to work with the choreographer. And it was challenging to shoot in a small hotel room, so they had to make it all work. Harris, the photographer, got into the corner and made it work.

Q: The scene with the Hollywood Foreign Press is really funny. Was that inspired by your own experiences being in front of them?

Sofia Coppola: The Hollywood Foreign Press is a very specific type of press conference; their questions are so much more random. But I find the whole process kind of unnatural, because it’s just so strange to talk about yourself all day long. That scene in the movie is supposed to be from Johnny’s point of view; he’s promoting some action movie that he doesn’t really care about. It’s different for me, where I’m happy to talk about something that I have my heart invested in… I can’t imagine having to promote something that I’m not proud of.

Q: In both “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere”, you poke fun at award shows. Since you’ve won an Oscar and recently The Golden Lion at The Venice Film Festival, how do you feel about award shows in general?

Sofia Coppola: I’ve always been uncomfortable speaking in front of people. I’ve never gotten comfortable with it. I’m just not good at it. Getting the award in Venice was such a surprise. It was just so exciting. I was really happy to be a part of that. It’s one of those experiences where you’re excited and have no idea what you’re saying; you hope that you just get through it without saying anything embarrassing.

 Q: What would you say was the most important thing you’ve learned from your father as a director?

Sofia Coppola: I learned a lot just spending time on his sets. He always emphasized that the most important thing was the script and the acting. He also always said… to sit next to the camera. His teacher told him that, and that’s something that I do. Nowadays a lot of directors are behind a monitor or in another room. I think an actor connects [best] with you if you are right where they can see you.

Q: Working with a younger actress (Elle Fanning) whose talent is just budding must have been both exciting and refreshing.

Sofia Coppola: It was always fun having a kid around, because she was just so energetic. On the days where we just worked with Stephen, [his character] was mostly in bed hung over. Then she would come in, and it would just boost the energy on the set.

Q: Chris Pontius was an unusual bit of casting. Was he intimidated on the set at all?

Sofia Coppola: I knew him in real life, and I’ve seen him with friends’ kids. He’s always really funny with them; he has a real lovable quality. I was hoping that quality would come through. Because you never know, but luckily it did. Those scenes were mostly improvised. I figured from his work on Jackass that he would be good at improvising. I don’t think he ever filmed something like [this]; the continuity of shooting a scene like that was completely new to him, but he was really fun to work with.

Q: He improvised those stories? He was so relaxed in those scenes with Elle.

Sofia Coppola: And her reactions were Elle’s real reactions. It was fun to wait until we were filming to see her respond.

Q: Was it a conscious choice to begin and end the movie with Johnny in his car?

Sofia Coppola: Yeah. I was having trouble figuring out the ending and a friend said, “Look at the beginning.” That’s when I realized that the car is a symbol of a part of his life. And that’s when I realized I wanted to bookend the film that way.

Q: When Johnny is walking away at the end, did you have a specific road in mind?

Sofia Coppola: I just wanted him to get out of the city and show that he’s now really beginning his life.

Q: Not being able to hear something someone said has happened in “Lost in Translation” and now again in Somewhere. What is it about words being said but not heard that appeals to you?

Sofia Coppola: There’s so much miscommunication in life. I thought that his saying that from a distance as the helicopter is taking off was closer to real life—that it felt safe for Johnny.