INTERVIEW: Like Father, Like Daughter? Sofia Coppola's Coming Out with "Virgin Suicides"

by Anthony Kaufman

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(indieWIRE/4.24.2000) -- In "The Virgin Suicides," Jeffrey Eugenides' acclaimed novel of innocence lost, Sofia Coppola has found a platform to show off her long-anticipated directorial talents. Say what you will about her famous filmmaking clan (recently broadened to include husband "Being John Malkovich" director Spike Jonze), the 28-year-old former fashion designer, photographer, and one-time actress can indeed make a movie. Of course it helps when you have a father who let you play on the set of "Apocalypse Now" and has fed you filmmaking your entire life, but daughter Coppola proves with her feature debut that she's got a sense of pace and artful framing, and a captivating world-view all her own.

Acquired by Paramount Classics during its run at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival Directors' Fortnight sidebar, "The Virgin Suicides" opens this Friday abuzz with the Coppola name and all the expectations that come with it. Coppola spoke with indieWIRE about the strong support network that brought her film to the screen, from cinematographer Edward Lachman ("Light Sleeper," "True Stories") to editor James Lyons ("Poison," "Safe," "Velvet Goldmine") to her producer Dad, the theme of loss, and adapting the much beloved book.

indieWIRE: For a first film, you had a remarkable support system. Can you talk about your experienced crew?

Sofia Coppola: I think that's one of the fortunate things about coming out of a film family. With my Dad, he knew how to find great people to work with. Someone like Ed Lachman, he's done 20 movies or something, and I really enjoyed working with him and learned a lot from him. A bunch of people I knew from living in LA. The production designer [Jasna Stefanovic] was a find in Toronto. I had never heard of her before; she had done TV movies in Toronto, but I loved her work. And the costumes were really important to me, because of my interest in clothes, and the 70s period can be so over the top, so [costume designer Nancy Steiner] added a great subtlety. I knew about [Steiner] and the editor James Lyons from Todd Haynes' "Safe" which is one of my favorite movies. And I was impressed with her and happy to work with her.

iW: So what sort of advice did you get from your father?

Coppola: I thought about going to film school. But why go to film school, because I have the best tutor in the world. He loves to talk about film. Right before I started filming, I remember one day sitting and talking with him and the one thing that always stays with me, he said, "Make sure you know the theme of your movie in one word or a few words. And then every time you make a decision, whether it's which costume or where the prop should be, just ask yourself what's the theme and then it's easy to make any decision."

He said, "Make sure you know the theme of your movie in one word or a few words. And then every time you make a decision, whether it's which costume or where the prop should be, just ask yourself what's the theme."

iW: So what's the word for "The Virgin Suicides"?

Coppola: Loss. When I was working on it, the theme was loss.

iW: It's interesting the way you tell this story of loss. The camera is often at a distance and your direction is actually very restrained for a story that could have been told with so much melodrama?

Coppola: I wanted the whole story to be told from the boys' point of view and the neighbors, always looking from across the street at a distance. In my experience, it's always more intriguing to imagine what's happening, as opposed to seeing everything because then you can use your imagination. When we were filming, I always wanted to be at a distance. And also because the Lisbons are shrouded in mystery.

iW: Can you talk about the struggle to get the film financed?

Coppola: It's impossible to do a movie with unknown actors. It just seems like a hard time to get financing, especially for unusual work. Maybe, it's getting better with everyone getting into independent films. But we got the money selling foreign territories. We also filmed in Toronto to save money.

iW: Can you talk then about the casting? The girls you got were incredible.

Coppola: I really wanted to have real kids. It really bugs me in movies when they have 30-year-olds playing kids. That age is so specific. So some of them had acted before, one girl was my best friend's little sister that I used to take photos of. And Chelsea Swain is really awkward, neurotic and really interesting to watch. I tried not to be intimidating and make it comfortable. We rehearsed for about a week with Kathleen Turner and James Woods, and the daughters and they stayed in the house and cooked meals together. And we went and all played laser tag together as a family.

iW: James Woods was a surprising choice for the cuckolded father. . . ?

Coppola: He has this loveable side that you don't see in movies. I didn't know him, at all, but I had seen him speaking at some thing and he had this funny, charismatic side. Then he read the script and I starting talking to him, and he really got it. He was like, "Look, I want to help you get this movie made, whatever I can do."

"It's always more intriguing to imagine what's happening, as opposed to seeing everything because then you can use your imagination. I always wanted to be at a distance."

iW: Was he the first to commit to the film?

Coppola: Kathleen Turner was the very first; she was the bravest one. I had access to her, because my Dad worked with her, so that was a big help. And she read it and I was surprised when she said she'd be Mrs. Lisbon. Because there were no actors on board, it's my first movie, and it's such an unflattering character with no makeup, awful clothes, so that was really brave of her.

iW: So how did you come to start adapting the script without owning the rights?

Coppola: There had been a couple of versions of scripts and there was a director with another script; he wanted to make it very violent and added all this darkness and added sex. And the book, to me, had this innocence and sweetness that I felt very protective of. I was talking to my friends and saying "this is how they should do it." So I looked back at the book and started writing how I thought it should be done. But I was just doing it as an exercise, because I was curious about adapting a novel to a script. I wasn't even planning on finishing it. And then when I got half way through, I thought I should see if I could finish something. And then, I felt so strongly about it that I went to the producers, but they said, we have someone else. Then they called me months later and said, "his contract's up, do you want to try it?"

iW: What sort of changes did you make in adapting from script to screen?

Coppola: It's hard for me to remember. I had to change things, but I tried to stay as close to the novel as possible. I had to cut things out, but I tried to keep the essence of it and stay true to the book.

iW: You mentioned earlier that you really admired "Safe" and that really straddles the line between straight drama and satire. You also have an interesting mix between humor and tragic elements in your movie. How did you find the right balance?

Coppola: What I liked about "Safe" was that it was so subtle. My personal taste is for subtlety. I also wanted to try to have the humor on a subtle level -- a mixture of something awful -- those situations where something inappropriate happens in a sad time. The book was so moving and so funny and it's that specific sense of humor that I like.

[Stephen Garrett contributed to this interview.]