The acclaimed filmmaker Sofia Coppola has a new movie out this holiday season. Somewhere is only her fourth film but the expectations are high from the director of The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. Perhaps the beginning of “awards season” will take notice.
Somewhere spends most of its time in stillness and silence. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is an actor who spends his time between movies hooking up with women, keeping to himself at Hollywood parties and often just sitting alone. When his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) comes to visit, it brightens him up, but he doesn’t even have full custody.
It seems Coppola has a lot to say about Hollywood types. Her Lost in Translation lead was a lonely actor abroad. She is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola so she’s been there and seen that. Now she’s a mother herself and seems much happier with a Hollywood family than the characters in her movies.
Q: If someone asked you what this movie about what would your answer be?
SC: I just started with this character and wanting to do a portrait of this guy at this moment in his life, but I think it's about points in your life when you have to look at yourself and decide what kind of person you're going to be which I feel that everyone has to look at sometimes. Also, I'd just had my first daughter so I was thinking about how having a kid changes your priorities and perspective. I wanted to put some of that in the story. So I think it's also about a father/daughter relationship.
Q: Did you draw on any experiences of traveling with your dad when you were little, the age of Cleo, being along for the ride at times?
SC: Yeah, definitely. When I was writing that part of the story I tried to think of memories and I remember it was exciting as a kid getting to go with my dad to, occasionally, to places that kids don't usually go. So I thought that I'd try to put some of that into the story, connect it to something real.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory of something like that, like “I'm just a kid and I don't know if I should be a part of this?”
SC: I can't think specifically, but I remember my dad stayed at casinos when he would write scripts and I remember going visit and him explaining craps to me. It was fun because kids don't get to do that.
Q: How has being a mom affected your life and also being a mother in this industry?
SC: I just think I'm learning about balancing work and having a family. I'm just starting. It's pretty new to me and so I'm just figuring it out. Our work is pretty intense but then there are breaks in between.
Q: Do you have to direct a child actor any differently than with an adult?
SC: I don't think so. I think with all actors, you want to be sensitive to them because you're asking them to be vulnerable and she's so smart that I never felt different that she was a kid. I guess you're aware. You don't want people to be talking about something inappropriate around an eleven year old. So I felt protective, but I felt protective of Stephen and all my actors.
Q: There are so many moments when you let the camera stay on an image, like when Johnny was in the makeup chair getting a face cast. How do you make those decisions, like what you can get away with when you really want to stay with something?
SC: Luckily I could just do whatever I wanted with this movie because I kept the budget small enough. So I didn't have a lot of pressure to make it more conventional, but it was hard with the editor. We went back and forth with the timing because I wanted to push it and really have you feel stuck in his life with him and experience what he was experiencing, but then not totally bore the audience. So it was hard to keep perspective of how long we could push things and how much was too much. It's hard for me to tell because I've seen it too many times and it seems like forever. I'm so uncomfortable in the screenings, but I hope for someone seeing it the first or second time that they can get into the rhythm and go with it.
Q: What did your father think of the film?
SC: He really loved it and said to me that it was a movie only I could make and that we should just make movies that only we could make. I appreciate that in other movies, when you see the person behind it and it's not just anybody could've made it. But we didn't talk about specifics. That character is not based on him, but of course I put the kind of tender father/daughter moments that are significant to me.
Q: Is it nerve racking showing your film to your dad?
SC: Yeah. I mean in one way he's always very supportive. So it's not a scary environment, but of course I hope that my parents will like what I make like any kid.
Q: Is there anything that connects your four films?
SC: Yeah, I think so. It's hard for me. I don't have a lot of distance, but I'm interested in themes about people kind of finding their identity within the setting that they find themselves in. So I think they all have that.
Q: What did you do with Elle and Stephen to help them get into character?
SC: He stayed in a room, the same room that we shot in just a floor up. So he was in his Johnny Marco character the whole time. It was funny, in the morning he'd come to set and tell me, like, all the Johnny Marco moments that he was living in the hotel. He would stay up late and be kind of trashed in the scenes that we needed him to be. But then the character, as he evolves, he's fresher and you can really see I think. It's subtle. It was important to me that they feel connected and not like they'd just met a few weeks before. So I asked Stephen to pick her up from school and take her to do stuff, and then we did improvs together in the hotel and I felt like when we were shooting then that they had all this rapport and private jokes. It felt like they had a connection, and also because so much is unsaid we did improvs with the woman who plays the mother of Elle. She only has one scene, but although they barely say anything I think you can feel a whole dynamic between them because of the improv that we did before.
Q: Christmas is coming. What's the Coppola family Christmas like? Does the whole family come together? Nicolas Cage married an Asian woman so do you have Korean and Italian food on the table?
SC: We don't get together with our whole huge family. It's just my immediate family. It's not a huge group of Italians having Korean barbecue but that’s a good idea. It's just my immediate family. I have a baby and a little daughter and so it's fun with the kids and there's lots of food and wine around. We go out to my dad's winery.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker? Was there a defining moment?
SC: I was always around the sets, but it never occurred to me. I was going to art school and trying different things and I was interested in mostly the visual arts, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. Then I made a short film and I felt like, “Oh, that's a combination of all these interests of mine,” like design and photography and music. But it was really when I read the book of The Virgin Suicides that made me want to make a movie. I heard that they were making a movie and I'd loved the book so much and I had such an idea of how I thought they should make the movie. So I just started working on the script, thinking, “Oh, this will be interesting, I’ll learn how to adapt a book into a script.” Then I got so into it that I finished the script and started pursuing the producers to consider me and let me do the movie. But it was really that, just the wanting to kind of protect this book that I loved.
Q: Was there any hesitation because of your father's success to being compared to him?
SC: Maybe subconsciously that's why it took me longer to figure out that's what I wanted to do, but I feel like just as a creative person you're driven to see what you have in your mind and it kind of nags at you. I think that's what compels you and you try to weed out all the doubts and things that can stop you.
Q: Have you talked to Jeffrey Eugenides about doing Middlesex?
SC: I’ve never read Middlesex. I've heard it's great. I have to read it. I have it. I'm going to read it.
Q: A lot of your adult characters like Marie Antoinette and Johnny Marco seem like overgrown children. Is that a conscious or subconscious choice on your part, an interest or something that intrigues you?
SC: I haven't thought about it. Definitely he's a kid and I see that a lot with my generation. A lot of guys that kind of don't want to grow up. So I guess that's something that I'm aware of, but with Marie Antoinette, she was such a kid and kind of kept isolated in this childish world. I don't know why. I feel like I'm an adult.
Q: Your characters are often experiencing things internally rather than emoting. How do actors take to do that?
SC: I think they liked it because it's different from how they're used to working, but I think it took some maybe getting used to. I think for Stephen I think it was a challenge because he couldn't hide behind anything. He didn't have any long dialogue or things to do and I think that he had to really be totally vulnerable.
Q: Does that make it more challenging for the audience since a lot of it is internalized?
SC: I don't know. I like the idea that a lot of times in movies it takes a big, dramatic event, like a disaster or being held hostage for the character to change and I feel like in life that there are moments that seem like small things that strike you and motivate you to change. So I wanted to try to convey that the drama is more internal. I don't know if it's harder for them. We talk about it. So I'm very clear with them and I think they understand the character. I don't leave them without clues. So we definitely work it all out and talk about it and then it's up to them to convey it. I think it's more challenging because you don't have a line to say. You have to express it through a look. I thought they did such a good job of that, but I think it's harder to do. I love the breakfast scene where Elle looks at the woman that's there and you can tell the whole thing just by the way that she looks at her. So for me that's interesting to watch.
Q: What is your favorite Francis Ford Coppola film?
SC: I can’t pick one but I have an affection for Rumble Fish, that’s probably my favorite.
Q: Would you encourage your kids to be in the industry?
SC: They're just babies so I hope they just do what they want.