Sofia Coppola: Lost at the Chateau Marmont
Sofia Coppola had her 21st birthday party at the Chateau Marmont — a fact she had forgotten until Phil Pavel, the hotel manager, reminded her while she was there shooting her new film, Somewhere. It's the first feature to be granted clearance to shoot extensively inside the rooms and on the grounds of the infamous Sunset Boulevard hideaway, legendary for its starry scandal sheet. It's the site where John Belushi and Helmut Newton died, where sometime Coppola muse Scarlett Johansson allegedly had sex with Benicio Del Toro in an elevator (an event nodded to in Somewhere), from which Britney Spears was — allegedly! — banned for "smearing her dinner on her face." It is an official landmark, No. 151 on the city's list of Historic-Cultural Monuments. In contemporary pop culture, it's a symbol of Peak L.A. — a concentrated dose of a certain fantasy version of this city's secret life.
When Sofia first became a regular, in the early '90s, the Chateau had just been purchased by superstar hotelier Andre Balazs and was on its way back from a period of decline. Coppola was on the comeback trail, too: In 1990, at 19, she disastrously co-starred as Mary Corleone in The Godfather, Part III, written and directed by her father, Francis Ford Coppola. Sofia, who had no formal acting training, was pinch-hitting for Winona Ryder, who dropped out at the last minute. Her performance was decimated by critics: Press-screening audiences were said to have snickered loudly during the climactic scene that has Mary taking a bullet meant for her father and collapsing with the cry, "Dad?" The fact that the character has an incestuous relationship with her cousin added a layer of irony to complaints that the Coppolas were "keeping it in the family" against best advice and good taste.
In 2000, she'd face down the haters by writing and directing an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides. Her first feature, it's a visually stunning, 1970s-bikini-poster–meets–homeroom-notebook-doodle reverie nailing the ineffable adolescent blend of lust, obsession, depression and awkward connection. Four years later, at 32, she'd win an Oscar for writing her second feature, Lost in Translation. But for a long stretch of her 20s, she was just lost.
Sofia Coppola seemed to be everywhere in the mid-'90s, a kind of Paris Hilton with gallery cred, a daughter of privilege drifting between quasi-creative opportunities afforded by her wealth, beauty and birth-given spotlight. With her long caramel hair and red pout, waify body in hip-hugger skirts and kitschy baby tees (which she designed and marketed herself, through the fashion line Milk Fed), she was a poster girl for '90s cool. She did nothing, and everything. She studied photography while modeling for alt-fashion and teen magazines. She vamped in music videos for the Black Crowes, Madonna and Sonic Youth, sometimes alongside best friend Zoe Cassavetes (daughter of John). She appeared tastefully topless in a Vanity Fair spread on "it" girls, almost mocking the endeavor by saying, "I don't want to be part of some Brat Pack thing." She later admitted to People magazine, "There was a year I did nothing but go out. I was pretty flaky."
Looking back at that time, "I was really frustrated that I wasn't really great at one thing but that I had a lot of interests in different areas," Sofia says today, over lunch in the lobby of the Chateau on an unseasonably sunny November day. Now 39, she looks much younger. Petite, she wears her hair in a pointedly unpolished bob, and in an oversized sweatshirt and jeans paired with an expensive-looking tennis bracelet that seems to be falling off her tiny wrist and a giant ring that she keeps accidentally banging against the table when she gesticulates, Coppola almost vibes as a little girl playing dress-up, even as she small-talks the minutiae of motherhood. (Jet-lagged 4-year-old daughter Romy, she says, "woke up at, like, 4 in the morning, raring to go.")
It was reading Eugenides' book that changed everything, giving Sofia the push she needed to focus those different interests into filmmaking. "There are people who want to be a director and then think about what they wanna do," she muses. "Or, it comes from something that you want to express."
It's a great Hollywood turnaround story. It's more impressive when you consider where she went from there.
Drawing on both her wistful memories of coming of age as the daughter of celebrity and the tsuris of her 20s, Somewhere is a defiantly austere film, the most challenging Coppola has made to date. The first image is a three-minute-long static shot of a black Ferrari circling a strip of track in the dead of the desert. The driver, we come to find out, is a depressed, withdrawn movie star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Cue opening credits, which play to a version of "Love Like a Sunset," by Phoenix, the French band fronted by Thomas Mars, the father of Sofia Coppola's two young daughters. The song, which helped inspire Coppola's script, is fueled by an electronic buzz that's almost identical to the sound of Johnny's Italian sports car's engine. Patches of the track serve as a refrain throughout the film, which, in virtual vérité style, tracks a couple weeks Johnny spends living at the Chateau while doing press for one shitty blockbuster and prepping for another; nursing a broken arm and bingeing on painkillers; and quietly, unexpectedly reaching some sort of breakthrough with his preteen daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who spends a few days with him and temporarily turns his hotel room into a home.
It's 15 minutes before the first significant line of dialogue ("That was amazing," Johnny says to a stripper, who promptly slaps his face). In the quiet, Coppola sketches Johnny's character and introduces us to his plush but stiflingly boring and lonely lifestyle. The key scene of this prologue is both throw-away to the general narrative, and the film's cleanest distillation of Coppola's themes. It's another beautiful day, and Johnny's driving alone, the sound of his Ferrari's engine filling the soundtrack, when he catches a glimpse of a blonde (Angela Lindvall) also driving alone, in a vintage Mercedes convertible. They're stopped at a light next to one another. He stares. She acknowledges his gaze and smiles; maybe, behind her dark vintage sunglasses, even tosses off a wink. The light turns green and she zooms ahead. Johnny revs the Ferrari and follows this mystery girl up the steep curlicues of Mulholland, with Coppola cutting between Johnny's gaze and its object at the pace of a beating heart. He almost catches up to her. He loses her behind a mansion gate. The manic state inspired by this fleeting attraction suddenly crashes.
In this strange, unconsummated mating dance, Coppola sets the terms for her exploration of life in a city in which cars are at once avatars — communicating to strangers who we are — and impenetrable vessels that force us to keep to ourselves. If the Chateau is, as Team Somewhere is fond of saying, the "third character" in the movie, then Johnny Marco's Ferrari is the fourth. Somewhere's running subtext is that unique-to–Los Angeles psychodramatic condition: the car as extension of self.
"I think people totally connect their personality with their car," Coppola says. "It's definitely specific to L.A. [and to] just spending all that time driving around. In New York, you're walking around and interacting with people. I like those moments when you can listen to music and be kind of sealed off, but it does isolate people."
Somewhere is Coppola's first film set in Los Angeles, and her first to deal directly with the emotional consequences of a professional Hollywood life. An avowedly personal filmmaker, she has until now chosen stories set in far-off times and places, creating de facto distance between her scripts and her autobiography. For her to consider Los Angeles a worthy subject, she had to leave it.
As Lost in Translation neared the awards-season finish line, Coppola and her husband, Spiegel catalog heir–turned–skate videographer–turned–quirky prestige film director Spike Jonze, announced they were filing for divorce. Coppola and Jonze, who dated for years before tying the knot in 1999, had personified the creative couple as brand, holding hands together in the center of a Venn diagram depicting the overlap between the culture industry and international art-cred cool. The split fueled speculation that Translation's portrait of a bookish young wife floundering under the neglect of a toxic hipster photographer husband was a memoir of Coppola's own marriage, if not a cry for help.
During this period, Coppola moved to New York and then, after winning the Oscar, headed to Paris to prep her third feature, Marie Antoinette. Infusing the story of the Austrian princess/French queen/infamous headless woman with the pop-punk spirit of her own mid-'80s teen years, Coppola presented Versailles as a dizzying adolescent fantasy, positing the last years of the French monarchy as an all-consuming teenage house party, obscuring the Revolution until it reached the palace gates. Sound-tracked with anachronistic new-wave dance pop and post-punk, peopled with comic actors (Rip Torn, Steve Coogan, Molly Shannon) and pulsing with sensual energy, it's a satire that slowly, imperceptibly builds sympathy for its heroine, without fully letting her off the hook for her solipsism and shallow excess. Coppola refused the tropes of the period biopic — and ended the film before the queen's execution.
"I knew it was sort of obnoxious and ballsy for me to make that movie, but for me that was part of the fun of it," she says. "To do it in that spirit, of being a rebellious teenager."
With its hordes of extras, extravagant set and body dressing and location shooting at Versailles, the film reportedly cost $40 million (about what Lost in Translation made at the domestic box office), bankrolled by Columbia Pictures. In the United States, it grossed just a quarter of its budget.
About a month after Marie Antoinette opened in the U.S., Coppola gave birth to Romy, her first daughter with Mars, who had contributed music to each of her features. Her new family established in France, she started thinking about where she's from.
"I was living in Paris, and I was homesick," Coppola recalls. "In France, it's so different, and I was thinking about L.A., how it seems like our whole pop culture is so interested in celebrity, and now people all know about the Chateau Marmont. There have been iconic L.A. movies that I always loved, and I thought, 'We haven't had one showing today, this era of L.A.' "
The goal: Take the single-faceted, ripped-from-the-red-carpet "lifestyle" that, since the advent of out-of-state tax credits, seems to be Hollywood proper's biggest export, and "show another side of that, and to think about how fulfilling that really is. It looks like these guys are having this fun, party lifestyle, but what would that really be like? What it's like the next morning?
"It's like the flip side of Entourage."
"I despise that show. This is the opposite."
Stephen Dorff is on the phone from San Francisco, where — shades of the movie he's promoting — he's exhausted and borderline disoriented after an all-night flight and grueling schedule.
"I think being an actor is a very lonely job, and that's probably why you read about a lot of people that go off the deep end. In a hotel room, when the party stops, when the camera stops, when the junket stops, it's like, what now? What do I do?"
Coppola admits both Cleo and Johnny contain elements of her personality and autobiography (and certainly, if you read Eleanor Coppola's memoirs, you'll find that parts of Somewhere are direct dramatizations of Coppola family history). But Dorff lived this story before it was written: The actor crashed at the Chateau for two months when he was 19, shortly after filming the role of Stuart Sutcliffe in the early-Beatles biopic Backbeat.
"I got back from England, and I didn't want to go home," he explains. "I had all this money, so I decided to just stay at the Chateau until they were, like, 'Uh, Stephen, you have to go get another job.' "
Paying the bills seems to have been a primary motivator for his career. Dorff's IMDb page mixes starring roles in undistinguished genre films (Blade, FearDotCom) with interesting indie character work (I Shot Andy Warhol) and straight-to-DVD schlock (Remember .45? I don't). "I could never get the leading man [parts]," he says. "My mom was always getting upset with me. 'Why are you always a bad guy?' Ask my agent, ask Hollywood. I don't make those decisions, Mom."
His mother died, Dorff says, "right before this movie just kind of dropped into my lap. I was not in a good place. I was shooting with Johnny Depp on Public Enemies for, like, you know, two years or however long that movie took. It was more like six months, but it felt like forever, and I was very lost."
As Coppola was writing the role of the also very lost Johnny Marco, she had Dorff's image in her head. "I thought of this kind of bad-boy Hollywood actor character, and then he came to mind," she says. "When I finished the script, I sent it to him and asked him to come meet with me, because I hadn't seen him in many years, and just see, you know, if we were on the same wavelength."
"I went to Paris to talk to her about the film and spent about a week with her," Dorff recalls. "She was, I'm sure, observing me, but it wasn't like an audition. It was more just talking, hanging, seeing each other."
Coppola and Dorff had run in the same circle in the early '90s, while she was going through her "flaky" phase. "I think the first time we met might've been at a fashion show in New York, some Anna Sui fashion show, maybe in, like, '91," he recalls. "Zoe Cassavetes was one of my best friends — we never dated, we were just best buddies — and Zoe and Sofia were best friends. I was invited to some of the festivities around Lost in Translation time and just remember being so proud, I had never had a friend close to my own [age], especially a woman, up there winning an Oscar. And Francis was always kind of interested in me."
Dorff came close to working with Sofia's dad a number of times: He was up for the role of Neal Cassady in an On the Road adaptation that never happened; he screen-tested for the Matt Damon role in The Rainmaker; and he very nearly played the role that eventually went to Tim Roth in Francis Ford Coppola's self-financed passion project Youth Without Youth, even workshopping the role with FFC at the Coppola estate. "When I had screen-tested for Rainmaker, I was in a hotel and then I was driven to the property, whereas this time, it was just me and Francis, and Sofia was off finishing Marie Antoinette and I was staying in Sofia's room. I remember texting Sofia, saying, 'I'm staying in your room, and I'm eating steaks and drinking wine with your dad.' "
The director and her male muse may have had a shared history, but little on Dorff's résumé had prepared him for a film like Somewhere, which has him on-screen in every scene, often saying virtually nothing. "You know, dressing to play a woman, [like] in I Shot Andy Warhol, it's a piece of cake for me. I look in the mirror, I look like a girl, I just find a voice, walk around in some heels and do it. I find that kind of acting the easiest. I found this the hardest, because I have nothing but myself. I'm so raw and so open, there's no cheat, there are no tricks, there's no ... there's nothing, you know?"
It's one of the puzzling paradoxes of Coppola's career: a woman who began her working life by being eviscerated for her acting has turned into a supremely confident director of actors, coaxing naturalistic, extraordinarily nuanced performances out of stars (Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, even Bill Murray) who have not necessarily shown such chops in other circumstances.
She studied with an acting coach before directing Virgin Suicides, and her famously threadbare screenplays leave room for spontaneity and improvisation in performance, as well as visual storytelling. As Dorff explains it, "In the script it'll be, 'Scene 36: Johnny plays Guitar Hero with Cleo while Sammy's on the couch on a sunny day. Sun's blasting through the windows of the Chateau.' You know, it would be two sentences, but now in the movie that's probably seven minutes."
"It's true that she is a person of fewer words than other people," says Roman Coppola, Sofia's older brother, producer of Somewhere and frequent second-unit director (he's responsible for some of the most iconic images from Sofia's films, including the exterior shots of Tokyo in Translation and the pastry montage in Marie). "She works in more of a shorthand. Not just with me but with her collaborators, there's a place you get to with people you're close to, where not a whole lot needs to be said. If we were talking and I said, 'Oh, this restaurant has red tablecloths,' [she'd respond], 'Oh, I totally get it, I know that kind of place.' I think she develops that shorthand with the people she chooses to work with."
On Somewhere, one of Sofia's key methods for expressing that shorthand was by citing and showing to her collaborators movies that contain elements of Somewhere's DNA.
She wanted to make a portrait of L.A. today that would serve as a time capsule for future generations, the way American Gigolo and Shampoo do for their respective moments in time. Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, she says, helped define the nontraditional relationship between Johnny and Cleo: "I always loved the dynamic of a buddy movie between father and daughter."
Toby Dammit, Federico Fellini's segment of the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, spoke to Johnny's depression and desperation in the heightened atmosphere of celebrity (plus, Johnny's stealth black Ferrari could be considered the real-world version of the golden, deal-with-the-devil Technicolor nightmare car that Terence Stamp acquires in Fellini's movie).
And as for Somewhere's patient, often wordless, observational style? Thank Harris Savides, the great cinematographer who shot the movie (as well as Last Days, Zodiac and this year's other epic L.A.-angst movie, Greenberg). He turned Coppola on to Chantal Akerman's 1975 avant-garde/feminist masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
"This woman alone in her apartment, these very long takes of her doing mundane things," Coppola marvels. "Just her washing the dishes. It should be boring to watch someone washing their dishes for 10 minutes or whatever, but there's something really fascinating about that. So I talked to Stephen about that, the challenge of just having to be alone and be believable, and be real."
"Like two and a half hours of literally a woman in her kitchen cooking breakfast, eating, going to sleep, waking up and doing the same exact thing, in real time," says Dorff of Akerman's experimental tragedy, starring Delphine Seyrig as a stay-at-home mom turned prostitute. "I was kind of scared at first when I watched that, 'cause, like, it was driving me crazy, but at the same time I found it incredibly interesting. I asked Sofia, I said, 'Are we gonna do some of that?' and she's, like, 'Well, I do want to experiment with doing some stuff in real time ... ', and I said, 'OK, cool.' I immediately got it."
For Coppola, Somewhere's stylistic spareness "was definitely a reaction to Marie. That movie was so decorative and girly and frilly that after that, the idea of [going] really minimal was appealing. I didn't want the audience to be aware of the camera, so you just felt like you were alone with them. I had to shoot it in a simple way."
In every conceivable way, Somewhere represents a scaling back. Costuming was essentially a subplot in Marie Antoinette, and Milena Canonero's wardrobe design won a much-deserved Oscar accordingly. In Somewhere, Dorff has exactly three looks: a tuxedo in one scene, a post-shower towel in a couple of them, and a T-shirt and jeans through the rest of the film. And while the Chateau may be exclusive, it's hardly Versailles, and Somewhere's production design aimed to present it with as little gloss as possible.
"When you make a movie, the attitude generally is just bring everything — every light, every stand, every tool, every lens — because that's just kind of the culture of movies: Have everything at hand, and then you won't be lacking for something," Roman Coppola says. "The vibe of Sofia's movie was one of being really intimate, and so we didn't want all that stuff, all the extra people and all the extra tools. If a guy had to ash his cigarette, he would just use the ashtray that was there; and if not, he would just use the glass from the kitchen cupboard; and if not, he'd just ash out the window. That was the attitude: Naturalistic, authentic to that place."
But the biggest point of departure may be Somewhere's soundtrack. Marie Antoinette essentially plays out as a series of music videos set to period-imperfect source cues from Adam Ant and The Strokes. That sensibility — MTV-influenced, but personal rather than pandering to youth — has long been a Sofia Coppola trademark, dating back to the montages set to Heart singles in Virgin Suicides. Somewhere is short on both music and montage. It's the first Sofia Coppola film that prizes natural, diegetic sound — including music that's organically part of a scene, as in two sequences involving rent-a-strippers — over an artfully chosen, hipster-baiting soundtrack.
"I was getting kind of tired of movies that just have pop song after pop song as the score — I did that before," Coppola says. "I wanted to see how little we could use music."
Some scenes are so quiet that sounds that otherwise would seem incidental almost boom on the soundtrack, as in a long take of Johnny in his hotel room, in which there's so little going on that the sound of his cigarette burning almost seems to echo.
"I found sitting there smoking a cigarette with nothing [to say] one of the most challenging things," Dorff says. "Because if I'm 'acting' for one second, the movie's done."
Somewhere is a film that asks us to pay non-withering attention to the ennui of the beautiful, rich and famous, made by a woman who is beautiful, rich and second-generation famous. That alone is enough to inspire knee-jerk, negative reactions. When Somewhere won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September, where it was in competition against such formidable contenders as Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, some journalists cried foul over the fact that the jury for the prize included Quentin Tarantino, whom Coppola dated briefly after divorcing Jonze and before taking up with Mars. (For her part, Coppola jokes that she would have assumed her past relationship with Tarantino would be a handicap, not a help.) Some Somewhere critics complain that "nothing happens" in the movie; others say she should have gone further with the avant-garde inspirations, studio-subsidiary distributor be damned. Coppola also has been accused of treading familiar ground: the story of a man at a crisis point, who has a relationship with a female 25 years his junior — in a luxury hotel? Again?
It's fair to point to Somewhere's resemblance to Lost in Translation, but the similarities between the films needn't be pejorative. Somewhere seems to systematically revisit certain scenes and elements of Translation, approaching them with added distance, wisdom and grace. A press conference scene that existed to mock a brainless starlet in Translation has been refashioned in Somewhere to show sympathy for the celebrity. Both films deal with a very specific side effect of fame: the loneliness of being wanted by strangers and yet having no one to talk to. Translation leavens that loneliness with wry comedy and by offering its sad actor the hope of a quasi-romance. There's very little comedy in Somewhere, and in the world it describes, romantic relationships don't exist; women offer Johnny only easy sex and angry texts. If Johnny's complicated relationship with his preteen daughter is a temporary comfort, it's also a reminder of his inability to sustain a connection or make a commitment of any kind.
In both films, the big event is that the characters — self-obsessed and wound too tightly — lose themselves in a moment that can't be sustained, but Translation and Somewhere milk ephemera for different emotional results. Lost in Translation's Rorschach-blot conclusion may be ambiguous, but it's undeniably exhilarating. At Somewhere's equally enigmatic end, Johnny makes a Big, Symbolic, Potentially Life-Changing Gesture that could lead to positive change — but for the moment, more than ever, he's rootless and utterly alone. The parallels between the two films point to their key difference: Sofia Coppola's increasingly mature point of view.
Another Monday, another sunny day at the Chateau. The photo shoot for this story is taking place in the same lobby dining area where Coppola and I had lunch. The scene is different from how it's portrayed in Somewhere — booze swapped out for breakfast dishes, groupies for babies and a dog. As one of the many publicists milling about jokes, "It's the G-rated Chateau."
In between shots, Coppola opens her Christmas present from yet another publicist: two baby bibs, monogrammed "COSIMA," for Coppola and Mars' newborn daughter, who is upstairs sleeping.
With no permanent residence in L.A., the family has been living at the hotel while Coppola promotes the film. Despite the hotel's reputation, they're not the odd domestic unit at the bacchanal; a fashion-industry friend of Coppola's, who also has a baby daughter, has been living here with her own family for the past six months. "It's been fun," Coppola says, with genuine enthusiasm, in full mom mode and apparently loving it.
Finished having her photo taken, Elle Fanning comes over to seek sartorial counsel from her director before their next press commitment. Clad in high-waisted, dark flare jeans and a puff-sleeved blouse, the willowy seventh grader now is taller than Coppola. "Are you leaving your jeans on? I brought a skirt I could change in to."
Coppola shrugs. "It's casual. It's L.A." When the actress is out of earshot, the director marvels, "She's grown so much since our shoot."
Change is in the air. In a few days, Coppola and family will head up to Napa for Christmas. After that, she'll start to think about her next project. In an echo of her film's highly symbolic ending, she tells me she's just let go of one major tie to L.A. "I had an old Jaguar, and I recently sold it," she says, wistfully. "I love cars, and I miss that part of L.A., driving around. I had it for, like, 10 years, but it was just sitting in a garage."
Is it a sign that she's decisively put Los Angeles in her rearview mirror, so to speak? If so, she isn't letting go completely. She smiles, almost conspiratorially.
"I sold it to a friend."
Get the Weekly Newsletter