The Coppola clan's best director?

Sofia Coppola talks about her crazy childhood, the "Dolce Vita" energy of Tokyo, and casting Bill Murray as a romantic lead in "Lost in Translation."

Published September 23, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

When Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, "The Virgin Suicides," wowed critics and audiences in 2000, there was an unspoken sense of surprise. Before then, her only public involvement in film had been a much-maligned supporting role in her father's 1991 film "The Godfather Part III."

Now Francis Ford Coppola's daughter has bucked expectations again. The dreaded sophomore slump has been avoided with her acclaimed "Lost in Translation." For starters, the picture does the wonderful service of creating a great role for Bill Murray, allowing the actor to blend his genius for absurdist improvisation with an underrated, untapped ability as a serious lead, seen only in the disappointing "Razor's Edge" and for fleeting moments in two fantastic Wes Anderson pictures, "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums." More than that, though, "Lost in Translation" shows a filmmaker of exceptional control, able to fuse the simple acts of photography and writing in a subtle and elusive manner. How many movies can you say resemble the poetic, contemplative work of Japan's midcentury master Yasujiro Ozu one moment and an irreverent Harold Ramis comedy the next?

As the daughter of one legendary filmmaker, the wife of another very talented one, Spike Jonze, the sister of up-and-coming director Roman Coppola, and the cousin of actors Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, Sofia Coppola has had to claim a place of her own. And she's done just that.

With apologies to the man who made the "Godfather" trilogy, "Apocalypse Now" and "The Conversation," not to mention Jonze, the mind behind "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and some superb music videos, Sofia is arguably the one in her family making the best movies. (Where has Francis been lately? Has he exiled himself from the director's chair after "Jack"?) Her style is unquestionably distinct; her pictures aren't the pageants of Francis Ford Coppola, nor the bizarre struggles for sincerity amid an ocean of irony that characterize her husband's movies. As slight and soft-spoken as her father is burly and boisterous, Sofia Coppola is beginning to cast a shadow of her own.

What was your environment like in the Coppola household as a child? Were you told things like, "Daddy can't make it to your birthday party because he's losing his mind in the Philippines shooting 'Apocalypse Now'?"

Actually, I was in the Philippines with him. We were always around my dad, so he wasn't absentee at all. I don't think it was normal, but it was exciting. You always had lots of creative people around, and my parents took us everywhere. I got exposed to so many different cultures and people. I mean, I got to go to Kurosawa's house as a child.

So when other kids your age were obsessing over "Star Wars" as a child, did you just think to yourself, "That's Dad's friend George?"

I was pretty excited too. I had all the action figures.

I know you wrote "Lost in Translation" with Bill Murray in mind. Can you tell me what films of his you were a fan of over the years?

I always loved "Groundhog Day" and "Tootsie." Of course "Rushmore." And I remember watching "Saturday Night Live" when I was little. Oh, and "What About Bob?" too. Not so much the older ones like "Meatballs" or "Stripes," though, to tell the truth.

Was it a conscious move on your part to give Murray the chance to play a more serious romantic lead?

Yeah, definitely. I thought he often showed that side but hardly anyone framed a whole movie around that. The one time someone did, in "The Razor's Edge," I thought he was really good. I thought you could just tell he had the depth to pull it off, not just doing slapstick but showing a more touching side. I think he's really romantic, but not in a cheesy way.

There are a lot of famous relationships on- and off-screen in Hollywood involving older men and younger women, be it Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart or the sort of "Autumn in New York" genre. How did you negotiate the potential for that kind of cliché with "Lost in Translation"?

I know what you mean. I don't mean to put down movies like "Autumn in New York," but that doesn't appeal to me at all. I wasn't thinking of making a May-December romance. That wasn't the point. But I did like the idea of these characters that were on the opposite ends of their lives, looking at these same kinds of issues. It really came from me looking back on my early 20s, and that kind of angst that had me in crisis. I think this movie is romantic, but it's not about an affair.

In fact, this movie is ambiguous enough, especially at the end, that you could interpret it as strictly platonic -- or just the opposite.

I like that you don't hear everything they express to each other in that final resolution. It's a moment of acknowledgement, but viewers can make up their own minds about it. I like that better than spelling out how they feel. My niece, who is 16, told me, "I hope he gave her his e-mail address."

I understand you worked in Japan as a photographer in your 20s. How did that inspire the movie?

I remember going there at a time in my life when all the choices about what to do with myself seemed overwhelming. Then there was the jet lag; it was the worst I've ever had. And it was just so foreign that it felt like being on another planet. It was exciting, but it also felt daunting. I knew I wanted to set a movie there, because what I'd experienced I didn't feel like I'd seen in another American movie. Just the whole energy of the city reminded me of some "Dolce Vita" kind of feeling, where there's always something interesting happening, but it's more a mood or an atmosphere. Everything there is really extreme, either really modern or really ancient. It's fascinating to observe all those idiosyncrasies.

Both "Lost in Translation" and "The Virgin Suicides" are about alienation from society, due in part to forms of unhealthy adoration. Is it reading too much to wonder if this comes from your own experience growing up around celebrity? Have you ever wished your last name wasn't Coppola?

Oh, that's interesting, I've never thought of that. There is always that kind of romantic sense of alienation that I think is interesting to me, but I can't tell you that because of my name I feel alienated. I can walk down the street and not be noticed. And so far, when somebody in public does tell me "I love your movie," that's nice.

You've given some musicians with no experience in soundtrack work great opportunities, whether it's the French electronica duo Air in "The Virgin Suicides" or Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine for "Lost in Translation." How do you approach the question of music in your films?

I really wanted to work with people in my films who don't normally work in movies. I wanted there to be a different context, so it didn't just feel like a typical movie. It never even occurred to me to use a more traditional score or composer. For this one I loved working with Kevin Shields to create this kind of romantic melancholy, with a sort of droopiness too. It's such a huge part of the atmosphere.

Who are you listening to now?

I've been listening to a lot of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Brian Reitzell, our music supervisor for "Lost in Translation," got me into them. I've also been listening to a band called Darkland. Brian loaded up my iPod with a bunch of stuff like that. I like New Order a lot. Then my guilty pleasure is that Beyoncé song "Crazy in Love."

Because you come from such a film family, with your father and husband being directors and your cousin being a famous actor, it's easy to think of you only in that context. What are your other interests?

I like to travel a lot. That's why I went to Japan. And I'm going to Italy next week, and Vienna. We went to Iceland this year, which was really incredible. I also like going to see bands and to see art shows. I just went to a Philip-Lorca diCorcia show, and I just got a painting by Elizabeth Peyton. I like her a lot.

People are naturally inclined to wonder about your father's influence on your filmmaking, but who are some of the other people who have inspired and helped you become the artist you are?

My mom was always encouraging me to be true to myself. And my brother Roman is someone I've always been able to talk things over with. My photo teacher, Paul Jasmine, really encouraged me. Or the guy who plays Charlie in the movie, years ago he was at a fashion magazine and hired me to do photos. He liked the way I saw things through the camera, and that was really encouraging to me when I was younger.

Do you feel vindicated by the acclaim you've received as a filmmaker after the unduly harsh criticism you got after "Godfather III"? Or do you consider it apples and oranges?

I just don't even think about that. It was 12 years ago. I didn't really care then and I don't care now.

By Brian Libby

Brian Libby has written for the New York Times, Premiere and the Christian Science Monitor.

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