The “Somewhere” director talks about breaking Hollywood rules, learning from dad and making a European-style art film about L.A.
Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" is a movie defiantly unlike anything to come out of Hollywood this year: intimate and sometimes maddeningly slow-paced, it is a Los Angeles movie made European style, a quiet look at the life of a listless young movie star (Stephen Dorff) as he lies around L.A.'s Chateau Marmont hotel, takes his Ferrari to the desert for occasional drives, and tries to figure out how to be a father to his teenage daughter (Elle Fanning).
The Focus Features release is sometimes infuriating and sometimes mesmerizing; it also seems to be exactly the movie the 39-year-old director of "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette" wanted to make. Like her father, Francis Ford Coppola, this is a director who keeps Hollywood at arm's length.
Coppola spoke to TheWrap at – where else? – the Chateau Marmont, where she once celebrated her 21st birthday and where she shot much of "Somewhere."
What was the origin of this film?
I started writing a different story, and the idea of this character popped into my mind. I kept coming back to him, and it felt like he wanted his own movie.
I remember my dad, when he was talking about writing, he said, "Listen to the characters, they'll tell you what they want to do." So I just kept thinking about him, and I thought, I want to do a portrait of this guy, in L.A., at the Chateau Marmont.
I've always loved movies that really capture L.A. in different eras, and thought, well, we haven’t had one about this era of L.A. So the starting point was this character.
What is it about this era that felt distinctive?
That whole kind of reality TV, tabloid culture didn’t exist back when I lived here in my 20s. It felt a little more innocent, I think.
Why did this character feel as if he needed his own movie?
I don’t know. It's think it's just a mysterious thing with writing, and I don’t really understand it. I just think that it was just in the culture that there were all these stories about successful movie-star guys that were living this party lifestyle and having personal crises. So I was thinking about what that might be like.
And then I had my first child after "Marie Antoinette," and I was thinking about how having a kid changes your perspective. Being a parent also makes you think about your own childhood, so I was trying to put that in my writing.
That original project you were writing was a vampire movie, right?
Yeah. It's sort of embarrassing, because it was before "Twilight," and now it's such an obvious thing. At the time I was thinking, oh, I feel like it's time for a vampire movie, and I was writing a movie about a family of vampires. And this character came in, this Hollywood movie star guy. But then I got more interested and thought more and more about him and thought I'll do a portrait of this guy.
The style of the film is so distinctive, and so unlike what you find in most Hollywood movies. When you were writing it, did you know how you wanted to shoot it?
I had this idea in my mind that I wanted to do something really minimal and atmospheric. I wanted to be alone with this character, and try to avoid all the movie-like things where some big dramatic event has to happen to make someone change.
In life, I feel like it can be something that seems very small on the outside that makes a big impact on you. It's the little moments. So I tried to do something closer to what life is.
I remember friends saying "Oh, what if the daughter's sick and he has to give her her medicine?" But I'm trying not to do that. I love the "Bourne Identity" movies and stuff, but I wanted to make something in this very quiet way that's not bombarding you. There's enough things that do that. Our lives are always full of so many distractions, I wanted to have quiet moments with this character alone.
Was that a reaction to making "Marie Antoinette" – moving from a very extravagant movie to a very austere one?
Yeah, definitely. There was so much decoration, so much of everything, that after that I definitely wanted to do the opposite – to do something very simple, and from a guy's point of view.
Does that make it hard to sell, when you're going to your investors and saying, "Well, there's not that much … "
Going on? [laughs] Well, luckily, Europeans are used to that, and I have French and Italian distributors. I try to make movies with the smallest budgets possible, so I have the freedom to experiment and do things this way. And my movies don't lose money, so I can continue to work in this way.
Speaking of Europeans, the pace and style of the film has been compared to Antonioni and other European filmmakers. Did you have models you were thinking of?
Yeah. I wasn’t thinking of Antonioni, but of course I appreciate his films. There was a French movie that Chantal Ackerman made, called "Jeanne Dielman" ["Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles"], that is a lot of a woman alone in her apartment. You see her washing her dishes for 10 minutes, and it was interesting how not boring it was. You really feel like you're alone with this woman, and it's fascinating. So we had that in mind. It was an experiment to see if you felt like you were alone with him, or if it was just boring.
In a case like that, you really have to cast the right person.
Definitely. And I feel like I knew that Stephen was a really sweet guy with a lot of heart. The character is so flawed that he could be really unlikable, so I needed someone that had a lot of heart to make you care enough to even watch him.
When I spoke to him, he said that it’s the hardest thing in the world, to sit there for long takes and resist the temptation to "act."
Yeah. It looks like he's not doing anything. I think it's so hard to be real and be alone and not hide behind the flashy performance. It's in actors' nature to come up with stuff: "How about if I do this, how about if I do that?" I'm like, "No, don’t do anything." "How about if I just do that?" "No, you can't do anything." That's hard.
In the movie's opening scene, he's driving his Ferrari around in circles in the desert. It comes into the frame, then it goes out of the frame, and it does that over and over. How do you figure out how long you can sustain that one shot?
I think we did a few different versions. Some were longer and some were shorter. I always get uncomfortable – I wanted just one more lap, so there's a tension in it. But it felt like that was the right way to set up the state of this guy. And also, people can leave if it's not their thing. You know right there what kind of move it is.
It's funny that a movie that's so much about L.A. starts out …
In the middle of nowhere? I was thinking of the idea that these movie-star guys collect sports cars, but they can't drive them in traffic so they have to go to some desert track to take their cars out. I thought that was a metaphor for the state of him.
In the scenes where the young girl it tagging along with her dad to luxury hotels in Europe, how much of that was informed by your childhood?
When I was writing that part of the story, I tried to think of memories to connect it to something real. And I remember going with my dad to adult worlds that kids don’t normally see. The scene where he's teaching her to play craps in the casino, I remember my dad trying to explain gambling to me, and using that to talk about life and taking risks.
It was always fun as a kid, because normally you don’t get to be around that kind of world. So yeah, that stuff was from my life. I've been to that particular hotel with my family, and I'd never seen anything like that.
In the movie, the kid takes it all in uncritically, and enjoys it.
Yeah, I think she's kind of amused.
Was that how you treated that world?
My childhood was different because I didn’t grow up around that all the time. We lived in the country in Northern California, but once in a while we'd go on these trips or be around that. I think I thought it was fun and exciting, but then also I was always aware of people being drawn to my dad because he was a celebrity. I think kids are aware of what's going on. So I could relate to that in the girl.
It strikes me that something else you may have taken from your dad is the idea of making movies from outside the Hollywood system.
I think I learned from him how important it is to have creative control. It just seems like it'd be so heartbreaking to make something you cared about and then have someone want to change it. So it's always been important to me to keep the budget as small as possible.
Do you have expectations for how this movie will do commercially?
I'm curious. I feel like people like to think more than maybe studios expect. It’s the inclination to explain everything and make it easy, but I feel like people want to be challenged, to watch a movie they have to think about.
But I never know. I didn't expect people to connect to "Lost in Translation." It's always a surprise. I hope people watch it. I feel like the relationship between the father and the daughter is something that a lot of people tell me they are moved by and can relate to. And I feel like it's pretty universal, the idea that we all have points in our lives where we have to make decisions.
If "Somewhere" was made partly because you wanted to get away from the scale and extravagance of "Marie Antoinette," is your next film going to …
Look grandiose? I don’t know. I really liked working in a more intimate way. And I'm not sure what's next, because I'm still too close to this. I need to have a little break, and then think about what I want to work on.
[laughs] I have to sit down and procrastinate for a little bit before I start writing again.