Sofia Coppola already had “The Virgin Suicides” under her belt when Focus Features opened “Lost In Translation” in limited release on September 12, 2003, but her career forever changed with her second directorial effort. “Translation” broke through on a mainstream level, grossing $119 million at the worldwide box office and winning Coppola the Oscar for best original screenplay (one of four nominations, including best picture and best director). If “Suicides” made Coppola a breakout director to watch, then “Translation” cemented her status as one of the best directors in the business.
“Lost In Translation” turns 15 years old this September, and Little White Lies celebrated the milestone anniversary by reliving the film’s making with Coppola herself. The writer-director remembered the idea for the movie percolating not long after she got married to Spike Jonze and started to feel isolated.
“I was in this stage where I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right choices or what I was doing in the post-college beginning of my adult life,” Coppola remembered. “’Brief Encounter’ was in my mind while writing but I was looking a lot of the idea of being connected because at that moment, I wasn’t.”
Scarlett Johansson was the first actress to sign on for the movie in the role of Charlotte, a young college graduate unsure of her marriage to a celebrity photographer. Coppola knew Johansson was the one after seeing her breakout performance in “Manny and Lo.”
“She was like 12 years old and I just loved her,” Coppola said. “She had that husky voice even then and seemed mature beyond her years. There was some quality about her that stood out and I connected with. She’s able to convey a lot without saying anything. I had a feeling about her. I wasn’t surprised she went on to do lots of different things after but I’m surprised when I look back at how young she was. She was only 17.”
Casting Bill Murray posed a greater challenge for Coppola. The filmmaker wrote the role of Bob Harris with Murray in mind and knew the entire project lived or died on the comedian agreeing to play the role. Coppola began financing the movie before Murray was officially attached, which she remembered as “nerve-wracking.”
“We went to Tokyo and were spending money in the hope that he would show up,” Coppola said. “I don’t even know how we got our financing without a contract. I was determined and probably spent a year trying to track him down. People were trying to give me other options but I was set that I wasn’t going to make the movie if he wasn’t doing it and I really wanted to make this movie, so I had to find him.”
Murray signed on after getting the script from a writing partner of his who also happened to be one of Coppola’s friends. “He brought so much,” Coppola said of Murray. “I was having a hard time at that stage of my life and I’d wish Bill would show up and take me on an adventure…A lot of it was just found moments with Bill improvising. The scene in the sushi restaurant with the black toe? That was just Bill riffing on the situation.”
Fifteen years later, “Lost in Translation” continues to be a hallmark of indie cinema, no doubt thanks to Coppola’s elusive ending. The final scene finds Bill whispering in Charlotte’s ear before the two characters part ways. Coppola made the strategic decision to not reveal the dialogue, which has kept fans of the movie theorizing for over a decade.
“Luckily I did it without a studio so we were able to just make it how I wanted,” Coppla said of the ending. “That thing Bill whispers to Scarlett was never intended to be anything. I was going to figure out later what to say and add it in and then we never did. It was between them. Just acknowledging that week meant something to both of them and it affects them going back to their lives. People always ask me what’s said. I always like Bill’s answer: that it’s between lovers – so I’ll leave it at that.”
Coppola said the reaction to the movie surprised her, as she “never expected people to connect with it so much.” The director feared her movie was a “really self indulgent, personal project” that wouldn’t resonant, so the fact movie fans still come up to her and shower the film in praise in 2018 continues to surprise her.
“It’s always scary to do something personal because you put yourself into,” Coppola summarized of her experience with “Translation.” “There’s something about being naive that allows you to jump into things in a freer way.”
Head over to Little White Lies to read Coppola’s complete “Lost in Translation” 15th anniversary interview.