Q&A with writer/director Sofia Coppola

In our interview with Sofia Coppola, the writer/director explains how she endeavors to make personal films.

Q: Can you address the frequency of hotels in your work?

Sofia Coppola: [laughs] Oh, yes – Versailles was like a hotel, too, in Marie Antoinette!

Q: It dates back to [the segment of New York Stories that you co-wrote,] “Life without Zoe” –

SC: Yeah. When I was writing Somewhere, I thought, “Oh, here I am in a hotel again.” When I was growing up, we spent a lot of time in them, off-and-on, going on location with my dad [Francis Ford Coppola] when he was filming in different places. As a kid, I always thought it was interesting to see the people staying in hotels, and fun to be in hotels. They become their own world inside.

Q: Overall, how does place relate to and/or influence the character you’re writing? In Somewhere, it would seem that the Chateau becomes identified with Johnny’s feeling trapped and unable to mature.

SC: When I’m starting writing, I usually start with the character and then the location is next, closely following the main character; which city? Which hotel? [laughs] That shapes it.

A couple of years ago, I was working on a different script, a vampire story. There was this Hollywood movie star character who popped into that story. He kept coming into my thoughts and demanding my attention, and I figured that he really needed his own movie.

So, on Somewhere, I started with this character of Johnny Marco. I thought, “He lives in the Chateau Marmont,” because it seems like every young actor I’ve talked to has a story about living at the Chateau. They’ve all done a stint there; “Oh yeah, I lived there a year,” or “I lived at the Chateau for a couple of months.”

It’s kind of a rite of passage; it’s so linked with making it in Hollywood while showing that you’re still down-to-earth.

Q: That mindset probably took root back in the 1960s and 1970s, in the [Chateau-neighboring] Sunset Strip heyday…

SC: It’s always had a decadent appeal. I went there as a kid, before its latest incarnation. I remember in the 1990s, there were stories of actors or rock stars trashing their rooms. These stories became fragments of scenes when I started writing this script, connecting them to the Johnny Marco character.

Q: Could you elaborate on the title a little?

SC: It’s funny; Somewhere was a temporary title, but it just stuck. Since I wanted the movie to be like a tone poem of this time in this guy’s life, it reflected his knowing he needs to go somewhere – but he doesn’t know where exactly.

The movie is set in modern-day Hollywood, but it’s not really about the film business, and you don’t see him working as an actor; anyone can relate to the universal themes of family and personal crisis.

Q: Speaking of the exact locale, you’ve gone all over the globe to make movies but you’ve never done an “L.A. story” until this one. Your initial description of this movie was as “an intimate story set in contemporary Los Angeles.” Did you just feel it was time to explore that city?

SC: When I was [living] there [in California], I wrote about faraway, distant places. I was living in Paris after our daughter was born, and maybe that distance or some homesickness for America made me want to look at California.

But I’ve always loved those iconic movies about L.A., like Shampoo and American Gigolo, and I couldn’t think of one recently that had captured the mood and the feeling of L.A. today. In starting with the character, I thought of American pop culture today, its fascination with fame and what that brings with it.

Q: The films you just referenced notably have male protagonists who pretty much have it all, are swaggering, and are brought low by varying degrees during the course of the stories.

SC: Right, but I wasn’t thinking directly of those characters – more of the [movies’] mood. I was thinking of successful movie stars who had died or made suicide attempts. I was curious; if you’re in a nonstop partying lifestyle with girls and drugs and all, what is that like in the morning? Do you take a moment to reflect when you’re alone with yourself?

Q: In going back to L.A. to make this movie on location, how did you feel the city has changed in the 21st century?

SC: Well, I lived in L.A. in the early 1990s, and it was…I don’t want to say “more innocent,” but it was before US Weekly [relaunched], tabloids [flourished], and so many celebrity party people. It had a different feeling; the Chateau Marmont wasn’t getting paparazzi, and there weren’t reality shows. It seems that there’s an abundance [of those shows] now, and it seems like people were checking into the Chateau just to be photographed. The Chateau Marmont used to be more of a private world, but now it’s become the center of that part of pop culture.

Q: It became more of an open secret; “It’s private here –“

SC: “But I want to be photographed.”

Q: In terms of logistics, after your previous film Marie Antoinette, this was going to be much simpler to make. But is it in fact hard to make a movie in L.A. today?

SC: I didn’t find it to be [so]; we were working under the radar and didn’t have superstars, so we could move around and do our thing. After Marie Antoinette, which had so many costumes and extras, it was liberating to have a smaller crew and so something closer to my experience with Lost in Translation. This was the most low-stress, pleasant shoot I’ve ever had.

For me, this was a good experiment; centering a movie around just two characters, focusing on their intimate story and also spending a lot of time with one [of them] alone. I didn’t want [anyone watching the movie] to be aware of the filmmaking, so you can just be there with the character.

Q: So the aesthetic was informing the story as you were writing it?

SC: Definitely – what it was like when he’s alone with himself at the Chateau; that moment of having to look at yourself, which is always scary for anyone. There are so many distractions in modern life, especially in the culture around show business in L.A. You can distract yourself forever; when do you put those [distractions] aside and really look at yourself? The intention was to take the time to be alone in the room with Johnny; the script was very minimal.

Q: Did you have a plan B if the Chateau did not agree to host the filming? Was there any hotel on back-up?

SC: No. It had to be [the Chateau] – it was an essential element, the third [main] character in the movie. A lot of times, I don’t have a plan B; I just have to find a way to make it work. Or then rethink the whole thing.

Luckily, the owner, André Balazs, and the general manager, Philip Pavel, were very gracious to open it to us.

Q: And you didn’t have to ask to move or knock down any walls?

SC: Right. [Director of photography] Harris Savides is impressive, because he can shoot wherever [you request]. He’s up for it! I thought with the twins [sequences], we’d have to be in a bigger room, but we managed to move things around and make it work.

Q: How did you come to team up with Harris?

SC: My friend Anne Ross, our production designer, had worked with him. I had met him over the years, and had always admired his work. Anne was a bit of a matchmaker; she said, “Oh, you’ll love working with Harris.” We ended up shooting a commercial the summer before [filming Somewhere]. We worked really well together; also, I was working on the Somewhere script around when we did the commercial, and talking with him about movies and filmmaking inspired me to try this more minimal style and got me excited to work in a way I hadn’t before.

Harris and I like similar photography; he gets fashion references, because he’s worked in that world. He embraced the minimal and naturalistic style on this movie; we weren’t encumbered by a lot of set-up time and equipment, and we could be free in how we approached shooting it. I loved the way he shot it in natural light. I’m not one of those people who storyboard everything or plan everything before; I like to try things and then figure it out as we go, and Harris is open to working the same way.

Q: Yet the movie seems classically shot, not on-the-fly – and it was on 35-millimeter film, rather than in hi-definition [HD] digital.

SC: I’ve always shot on film. My dad is really into HD, and he thinks it’s sweet that my brother Roman and I are so sentimental and love film. It has a beautiful quality that is unique, and I hope that we can shoot on it for a little while longer.

The set of lenses we used to shoot Somewhere were the actual ones that my dad shot Rumble Fish [(1983)] on. Roman said that we had them, Harris wanted to try them, and Rumble Fish is a favorite of mine. So I thought, let’s use them. The lenses were in storage, and we had them all cleaned up and restored. These are Zeiss lenses, which have a softer quality; we’re so used to super-sharp with hi-def, but with this I wanted to have a romantic feeling [in the cinematography].

Q:  There’s no romance in the movie per se, but rather the great love of a father and daughter. How close to you is the character of Cleo?

SC: The character of Cleo was inspired by a friend’s kid that age whose parents are in show business, but also by my memories of having a powerful father that people are attracted to being around and having a dad who did things that were kind of out of the ordinary. It’s not all me, but there’s things from my childhood.

In everything I do [as a writer/director], there’s a personal connection. Your life experiences are going to inform what you write about. After Lost in Translation, this is my only other original screenplay [to have been filmed]. I feel that those movies are more personal than ones based on a book or something else, because you fill them with your own experiences and thoughts. I admire personal filmmaking, movies that come from a point of view unique to that person making it. So I try to do that. I try to make personal films.

Q: But you’re still open to writing and directing adaptations?

SC: Yes, because I enjoy adapting. With The Virgin Suicides, I loved that book, and I wanted to make the movie version. What’s fun is figuring out the puzzle of how you’re going to adapt. It’s a little less scary than writing an original screenplay, where you have nothing to look at [first]. Writing original screenplays can push you to make something that you maybe didn’t know you were interested in.

Q: With your films’ lead characters, you come down on the side of empathetic rather than judgmental or condescending.

SC: I want to tell their stories, imagining what it’s like for that person at a point of transition in their lives. On Somewhere, I wanted to be in Johnny’s head. Because this [character] was a guy and my other films have been more about women, I asked Stephen a lot of questions. But I also had a sense of Johnny from people I knew.

What you try to do is, try to show a point of view that someone might not otherwise see. I’ve seen privileged worlds; if you’re outside one, you might think it would completely fulfill you, but that’s not necessarily so.

Q: Any frequent moviegoer has their own Johnny Marco – actors or actresses we are loyal to but who maybe haven’t made the most of their potential.

SC: There’s ones that you like, actors that you’re rooting for. There have been bad-boy actors who either grew up a little, chose to have families, or went the route of being the old guy at the club and never evolved. I wanted Johnny to be right at that moment in his life where he has to look at himself and choose – which I feel is something that anyone can relate to, having to make that decision of what kind of person you’re going to be.

So Johnny was a mix of people I know or have met, and stories heard. There were people that I talked to who thought it was them [that Johnny was based on].

Q: What were your conversations with Stephen like?

SC: I counted on Stephen to collaborate. I’ve always thought he was talented. I’ve known him a while and I wanted to see him doing something he hadn’t [yet] done – a side he hadn’t shown audiences. When I sent him the script, he said, “I get it. I totally can relate to this guy.” Stephen has a reputation for being out and about with girls, but he also has a little sister around Cleo’s age that he’s close with.

Q: Did you write the script with Stephen in mind?

SC: When I was working on that other script and this character came into my head, I pictured Stephen from the beginning. Other actors were suggested to me [later], but I came back to my first [choice], Stephen.

Q: How did Elle Fanning come to your attention to play Cleo?

SC: I was in L.A. meeting with [executive producer] Fred Roos and he told me that he had seen Elle at a screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which she had a part in and which he said she was great in, and that in person she just had something about her – and that we should meet her. I was thinking, “Oh, she’s going to be this professional Hollywood Kid, and probably not what I had in mind.” I wanted a kid who would feel real, and a contrast from the showbiz world.

But we met Elle and were really taken with her. She was at the exact age I wanted. Fred wanted us to meet all the young actresses out there, and I did but I kept comparing them to her; “She’s not Elle.” You want to watch Elle; she stands out, she has this sparkle, she is full of life, and she brings so much to Somewhere. I tried not to interfere too much with what she was doing, because she’s so good and was so instinctual.

Q: Did you rehearse her and Stephen together?

SC: We had a little rehearsal period, with some improv, so that they had some history together. They hit it off, so I was happy. I went bowling with them and [costar] Chris Pontius. I asked Stephen to pick up Elle from school and he took her to Color Me Mine [the personalized ceramics studio], so they had some bonding time. Stephen also went to Elle’s volleyball game and cheered her on from the sidelines, and together they had lunch with Lala Sloatman, who plays Cleo’s mother [/Johnny’s ex-wife].

With the father/daughter relationship – them getting to know each other – I was also thinking of Paper Moon, which I love. I asked Stephen to watch that.

Q: Cleo is introduced in an ice-skating sequence. How did you conceive this as an understated turning point in the story – with the Gwen Stefani song [“Cool”] in mind?

SC: The story starts out darker, and just by herself, Cleo brightens it up. I wanted Johnny to have to do some parent thing in the beginning, so [it became Cleo’s] taking ice-skating lessons. The dreamy gliding on the ice is her purity, in contrast to the strippers [we’ve seen him with] in his world. I wanted the source music to be music that would really be playing there [at the rink], part of the experience. “Cool” is a sweet song, and you believe that an 11-year-old would be ice-skating to it. I’m so happy we got that song, because I love the way it works with that [sequence]; it’s so sincere.

I wanted to show that she’s a girl right on the cusp of transforming into a teenager; the way Johnny is with women, I thought it must be complicated to have a daughter who’s on the verge of becoming a woman. So, to me, the sequence is about that.

Q: But we’re experiencing it as a beautiful moment. The characters may not pick up on that, because they’re in the moment, but through the lens we do and behind the lens you must.

SC: Yes, I feel that in life, you notice these moments that could be in the most mundane places, They’re magical moments, but they’re real and they’re all around you – if you’re looking for them. When you look back on moments that touch you, things don’t have to [have] happen[ed] in a dramatic way. They can be not extraordinary, very ordinary.

Q: You mentioned the women we’ve seen Johnny with up to that point, the twin strippers – the sequences with them are also music-driven. Was the music we hear what they were listening to on the set?

SC: Again, I wanted it to be music which was believable and had the right feeling – [music] that they would bring [with them], not something obscure. So, yeah, we had a boom box. The first song was Foo Fighters’ “My Hero,” which I thought was funny because Johnny has broken his arm and they’re dancing as candy stripers to cheer him up. The second one [later in the movie], with their sassy tennis routine, was Amerie’s “1 Thing,” which had the right spirit to it.

I had the idea that Johnny gets twins, like room service, all the time. I met with a bunch of different twins, but the Shannon twins were great – so enthusiastic, with a cuteness to them. They would light up the room when they came in.

We had to go to the [Playboy] Mansion when they were rehearsing. The staff told us, “They’re filming the [reality-television] show [The Girls Next Door], so you’re going to have to be on it if you come see them.” It wasn’t a goal for me to be on that show, but…it was fun to visit the Mansion and see them in their element.

Q: Not everyone will be familiar with Chris Pontius, who plays Sammy, Johnny’s friend.

SC: I know him from [the stunt-television series] Jackass, and one of our mutual friends has a daughter around Cleo’s age that Chris is always kidding around with. He’s good with kids, and that’s what gave me the idea that he would be good as Johnny’s buddy [interacting with Cleo]. My intention was that Sammy is a friend of Johnny’s from back home, or a cousin. There’s something lovable about Chris, and he’s funny; I thought he would be able to improvise with Elle. I liked having them hang out in the room knowing that he could come up with stuff.

Q: Did you tell him to do what he wanted, and then follow along with the camera?

SC: We planned some things out. I asked him to come up with certain stories, and then wait ‘til we were filming to tell the stories, so we could get real reactions.

Q: Elle does look aghast at times –

SC: Yeah, I loved when he asks her if her teacher is an alcoholic – the look on her face! But then we would do other versions and Elle would just go with it, being natural while staying in-character.

Q: How was it working in Italy?

SC: Working in a foreign country has its challenges; there’s always their style of doing things. But I always prefer to shoot in the real places, rather than making Milan in L.A. To fake even the extras in L.A. wouldn’t have had the same feeling.

Q: Yes, you got actual industry people, like filmmaker Maurizio Nichetti, for the Telegatto Awards sequence…

SC: They made it more authentic, especially for the Italian audience [who will see the movie]. I had gone to the Telegatto Awards with my family years ago. That Italian television culture is so specific, and so different than ours – it’s over the top. Being in that foreign a setting bonds Johnny and Cleo together.

Q: For post-production, you made this your third consecutive film with editor Sarah Flack. Did you approach this differently than your previous works together?

SC: Before, [on the earlier movies,] we’d try [scenes] in a lot of different orders, shift things around. Somewhere felt like it didn’t want to change its order. We ended up keeping things the way they were shot. That lent itself to the story and how simply we made it. We didn’t do a lot of coverage.

Q: In terms of the actors’ performances, were there a lot of takes to choose from?

SC: Well, you don’t move on [during filming] until you feel like you have it. There was a lot of good material with Elle and Stephen that we could use.

Q: As the movie progresses, there’s no artificially induced melodrama, like a custody battle or a trip to the ER…

SC: Something like that was suggested to me, but I feel that in life those things don’t always happen. You don’t have to gain awareness from something big and dramatic; it can be from details that you [take] notice [of]. Spending time with his daughter in a more aware way [than before] affects Johnny, and I feel that the film ends on a hopeful note.