Film and TV

From Party Girl to Oscar Winner, Sofia Coppola's Journey to Somewhere

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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?

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Karina Longworth