Sofia Coppola had her 21st birthday party at the Chateau Marmont — a fact she had forgotten until Phil Pavel, the manager of the hotel, 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.
Back 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 the age of 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 that ineffable adolescent blend of lust, obsession, depression and awkward connection. Four years later, at age 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-T's, 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. She appeared tastefully topless in a Vanity Fair spread on "it" girls and later admitted to People magazine, "There was a year I did nothing but go out. I was pretty flaky."
"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. In an oversize sweatshirt, 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, she almost vibes as a little girl playing dress-up, even as she small-talks the minutiae of motherhood.
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."
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, follows a couple of weeks that 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.
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. But in order for her to consider Los Angeles a worthy subject, she first 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. 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, imperceptible 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," Coppola says. "To do it in that spirit, of being a rebellious teenager."
With its hordes of extras, extravagant set, costumes and location shooting at Versailles, the film reportedly cost $40 million. In the U.S., it grossed just a quarter of its budget.
About a month after Marie Antoinette opened in the United States, Coppola gave birth to Romy, her first daughter with Mars, who has contributed music to each of her features. Her new family established in France, she started thinking about where she came from.
"I was living in Paris, and I was homesick," she 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 how 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," which, 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."
It's one of the puzzling paradoxes of Sofia's career: a woman who began her working life 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. "She works in more of a shorthand."
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, some journalists cried foul at the fact that the jury for the prize included Quentin Tarantino, whom Coppola dated briefly after divorcing Jonze and before taking up with Mars. 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. 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 tight, lose themselves in a moment that can't be sustained. 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 — but for the moment, more than ever, he's rootless and utterly alone.
With no permanent residence in L.A., Coppola, Mars, and their kids have been living at the hotel while promoting Somewhere. But change is in the air. Coppola will 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.
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."