Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, which was the surprise winner of the Golden Lion in Venice, will be released by Focus Features this December.
Coppola’s fourth film, Somewhere marks a return to form for the writer-director. (Here’s my Venice Film Festival review.) During the Venice fest, Coppola and I sat down in a quiet garden on the Lido to talk about writing and directing this modest-scaled movie (which was shot on location in Los Angeles, Milan and Las Vegas), casting Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning, and developing as a filmmaker.
AT: You’re almost 40, you’ve made four films, you have two kids…
SC: Yeah, I almost feel like a grown-up.
AT: Did you feel strongly about coming back to Venice after your success here with Lost In Translation?
SC: I did, I have really good memories of being here with Bill Murray and Lost In Translation, and it also has a different feeling than Cannes or other festivals; it’s such a magical place to visit. So I was excited to come back here.
AT: Many people like and relate to Lost In Translation, which was so successful and acclaimed that it must have felt hard to top.
SC: Yes, there is a certain expectation that people want you to do that again, and I can’t. So I just try to do what I’m interested in and hope that some people will connect.
AT: Marie Antoinette was this elaborate period costumer, this one is much more naturalistic…what was your thinking in terms of how you wanted to shoot? What were your financial limitations?
SC: After Marie Antoinette, which was really fun and over the top, but it just involved so many people, I thought, ‘oh I’d really like to go back to doing something more intimate where I can just focus on one or two characters and a small crew.’
AT: Do you identify yourself as an independent filmmaker? As opposed to Marie Antoinette, which was much more a studio film?
SC: Yeah, because I raised the money independently. Marie Antoinette was the only time I’ve worked more with a studio, so it was important for me to have creative freedom, I never get myself in a situation where I don’t have creative freedom. I learned that from my dad: you put your heart into something, you have to protect it, what you’re making. I always like to keep the budget as small as possible just to have the most freedom. You know you get left alone, you get to pick the actors you want to use. I like doing personal films, after doing a bigger movie, I enjoy doing smaller, intimate films. I’ve always written my own scripts, I really like doing everything from the beginning and taking it all the way through, I’ve probably learned that from my dad. Marie Antoinette was an adaptation but I wrote the script and put it together.
AT: What is your process, do you have writing folders for ideas, do you collect things?
SC: Someone was telling me Woody Allen has a drawer of ideas. No I don’t, I try to just feel out what I’m thinking about at the time, what appeals to me, so I guess its more of an intuitive thing. I’ve had different ideas here and there that I’ll revisit, but after Marie Antoinette, I took a year off to be with the baby and then I wanted to start getting back to work and writing again but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write, so I started a few different things and then this character of Johnny Marco kept coming back to mind, and I wanted to give him more attention and do a portrait of him. And also being in France, it’s pretty removed from the U.S. tabloid culture, but once in a while friends would bring [a magazine] over and I would see pictures of stuff and it make me think of L.A. today and how it’s changed from when I lived there in my early twenties. I remember going to Chateau Marmont, when there wasn’t the paparazzi, and Us Weekly and all these reality shows didn’t exist.
AT: Do you remember some of the actors that lived at the Chateau Marmont, like Johnny Marco?
SC: There’s tons; any actor you talk to, I’m sure they’ve spent time at the Chateau Marmont. I’ve stayed there for a week or two, I’ve never lived there.
AT: Marco’s like a kid with his daughter; he’s a playmate. Was that what you had in mind for their interaction?
SC: I thought he’s that kind of guy that, ‘oh, it’ll be fun, let’s get a helicopter and go to Vegas,’ because that’s how he does things. Yeah, he doesn’t do the more grounded, you know, day-to-day things like take her to the dentist or whatever–he comes in for the fun. He’s that kind of guy, like my dad or my cousin Nicholas, they would, “Let’s take a helicopter for fun.” It’s not normal real life that your mom would hire a helicopter. So it’s that kind of guy and that kind of lifestyle that’s a little bit removed from reality, but fun.
AT: Did you have experiences like that as a child, that were over-the-top, like the hotel in Milan?
SC: Yeah, we stayed there, we went to the Telegatto awards, that’s how I know about that, and this hotel suite with a swimming pool, which was something I’d never seen before. But I have memories as a kid…we stayed in that actual room one time, my whole family, my mom, my brother. Yeah, definitely some of these trips with my dad, it can be pretty over the top. But I remember as a kid it was always fun and exciting to go with him to places kids don’t usually get to go to, he always brought us into these kind of grown-up worlds.
AT: How long did it take you to write the screenplay?
SC: Around six months.
AT: So it was right after you had your child that you figured out Johnny Marco had a child? It was that direct a connection?
SC: I was just thinking about what was on my mind. I like to write things to be personal, so I just put what I’m thinking about at the time.
AT: Do you like being a mom?
SC: Yes, of course! It makes such a big impact on anyone I would think, but I wanted to put that aspect into the story, and also looking at having a kid now, and how that changes your perspective and priorities, and then wondering: someone in that life, how it would affect them differently? Having a kid, it makes you slow down; when you’re walking with a toddler to pick up a leaf it can take a half hour. You’ve never spent that time looking at a leaf before, having that kind of interaction. So I think it does make you change the way you look things.
AT: Stephen Dorff was an interesting choice, partly because he isn’t an identifiable star…you could have gotten Brad Pitt, presumably, if you wanted.
SC: Yeah, I liked that it was someone you didn’t see every year in a million movies, so there’s a freshness, and also you’re not confusing them with their persona, and you don’t know too much about his personal life, so you can make him more into this character. Yeah, I don’t want to have the same few actors in every part.
AT: I couldn’t agree with you more. He was a great discovery in Back Beat. But something happened to him.
SC: I think directors all regard him as a really talented actor. But I guess it was just the parts being offered. I remember there was that initial excitement, I don’t know exactly because I haven’t followed his whole career moves, but I always thought he was a good actor.
AT: Was there a quality he had? You said at the press conference that even as you were writing you started thinking of him, which was odd.
SC: Well I know him a little bit through a friend, so I’ve met him over the years, so I know him. So that’s why he came to mind because I know his real personality, and he has a real sweetness that is a contrast to his kind of macho image. But he’s actually a really sincere sweet guy, and I thought with a story with a kid it was important to have someone that had a lot of heart that would come through, to see in that relationship.
AT: The film could have gone awfully wrong if you didn’t like this guy. So what was your strategy there, how did you make him likable?
SC: Yeah, it’s an unlikable character. I remember in All That Jazz, I love Roy Scheider’s character and you look at him and he’s not a likable character but you love him. So I had that in mind; if he’s charming and has a good heart and he’s flawed, you know, they’re still lovable.
AT: But you’re also really feeling his pain, that’s what you wanted, right?
SC: Oh, good. I’m glad! For me, because I’ve seen it so many times, it’s hard, but I hope that the emotions come across. But yeah, I wanted you to feel really alone with him, to feel what he’s going through.
AT: Do you think a lot of actors go through this?
SC: I don’t know, but there were a few in a row who were having this crisis and suicide attempts and I was thinking, “well, you know, that party lifestyle looks fun, but what’s it like in the morning, the next day”?
AT: What’s with the obsession with the twins?
SC: Yeah, I was just having fun imagining what his lifestyle must be like. I remember there were stories with Heidi’s Girls, the guys liked them to dress up like cheerleaders, they could order them up like room service. But even that, even twins didn’t do the trick [for Marco]. But they were fun to have around, even though they were from Hef’s mansion. My friend found them on that reality show and they were like, “you gotta meet Hef’s twins!” because they knew I was looking for twins.
AT: The guy who plays Marco’s buddy, Chris Pontius, he’s a friend of yours?
SC: Yeah, I know him from the Jack-Ass group, but he’s so good with kids I knew he’d be fun to watch with Elle. He’s supposed to be someone from his past.
AT: So Marco’s masking, medicating and covering his anguish, until in the end he’s actually feeling it?
SC: I wanted to feel like in modern life there are so many distractions you can use to avoid looking at yourself, and then by spending his time with [his daughter], he’s at that point in his life where he has to choose which way he’s going to go, if he’s going to choose something more real in his life or be the old guy at the club. He’s right at that age, and you see that in people.
AT: How did you want this film to look?
SC: Well, I was excited to work with [cinematographer] Harris [Savides], and I felt like he has a similar taste of what we both appreciate; I wanted the film to be really naturalistic and the whole thing to be really minimal, and see how simply we could tell this story visually to not be aware of the camera, so you felt like you’re really alone with this guy, to make it as intimate as possible.
AT: You also did a lot of long, stately takes.
SC: I think it was to feel like you’re really just alone with him, and there’s no break for the audience or for him.
AT: Although, again, with the stately pace: are you a fan of Antonioni? Were you thinking about that kind of approach? There’s that element of taking your audience to the edge of your character’s boredom.
SC: I love some of his films, he always made an impression…and Antonioni does do that, I mean I must know that from watching his films, but I wasn’t thinking that directly. I mean, even for me, the beginning [making circles with the Ferrari] is uncomfortable to watch, because it’s like, “ok he’s going to do it one more time,” but it tells the audience: “you know, if it’s not for you, you can leave right now, or you’re going to have to get with the pacing of it.” It makes you have to shift, so you’re used to being stimulated, and shift into this more introspective mood.
AT: And you are always invested in the music you use. What were your choices here?
SC: Again, I wanted this whole exercise in minimalism, so I didn’t want to have wall-to-wall songs, I was kind of sick of that in movies, even though I’m guilty of that (like in Marie Antoinette), so I think it’s just a reaction to that. I wanted to be quiet and only use it sparingly. Except for one scene, it’s all source music, and I wanted it to be music that you would believe that you could be used in that scene, the ice skating rink, that it would be a song a twelve-year-old girl would listen to.
AT: Was Elle an ice skater?
SC: No, she learned to ice skate for the movie. I think we were all so emotional when we filmed that because she didn’t skate before and she learned how to skate and showed us the routine and we were all rooting for her.
AT: So clearly you were contrasting the babes in the room with this more innocent, ethereal performance.
SC: Yeah, to me it was such a contrast to the twins and the rest of his life, and also her being right at that age where she’s about to grow up.
AT: So you’ve been living in Paris?
SC: We’re in New York, we’ll be back and forth. My boyfriend is French so we have ties to both, but we’re going to be based in New York now for the next little while.
AT: So you have no idea what’s next?
SC: No, all my energy was going into this, approving the poster, you know, all the elements, because I like to be involved in everything, so now after showing this, I feel like I can start to think about writing again. I have a few things I’m thinking about, but I haven’t had time to focus in on them and see which one keeps my attention.