Meeting Sofia Coppola is an enigmatic, opaque experience. As she discusses her new movie Somewhere, her first in four years, she is so level, so calm, with a gently modulated voice and that very American kind of untroubled socio-conversational gyroscope that stays on an absolute horizontal, imperceptibly humming through the conversation. Famously the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, she already has an impressive body of work: The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie-Antoinette (2006).
It was very much the second feature, a quirkily platonic, Tokyo-set romantic friendship between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, which catapulted her into the big league, and established the Coppola name as a directing dynasty, in the way that Iran’s Samira Makhmalbaf carried on the reputation of her father, Mohsen. Her private life has not been without trouble: She married Spike Jonze in 1999; they were divorced four years later. Her partner now, with whom she has two children, is French musician Thomas Mars, front man of the band Phoenix. Her films, however, do appear to remind us more pointedly of that other important man in her life: her father.
This fourth film tells the story of a feckless, pampered movie star, Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff), as he lives a luxurious, meaningless life in the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles; drifting as if on an inflatable in a Hockneyesque pool. Frequently boozing and womanizing, he is still often unhappily alone and, like a teenager in his bedroom, sometimes gets called down by the grownups to do publicity events for his latest action movie. In career and personal terms, he is on the verge of stagnation, but his life gets turned around when he has to look after Cleo (played by Elle Fanning), his 11-year-old daughter from a failed relationship.
When I meet Coppola during the Venice Film Festival, in a shady garden on the Lido, her untroubled gaze and easy, musical tone unmistakably reproduce the authorial tone of the film; she has a gentle, lilting tendency to uptalk and a semi-articulacy, like a super-intelligent version of Valley-girl speak. She is unjudging, pleasant, almost withdrawn, although cheerfully confesses to having a brain like “jelly” having gone through hour upon hour of interviews before I showed up.
I ask if doing things like this — exactly the kind of publicity junket experiences that she coleslaws together into ironic montages — feels like being inside her own film. Coppola smiles and laughs a little quizzically, as if at an unfamiliar thought: Throughout our conversation she affects to be surprised, albeit in the mildest possible way, by what seem to me the most screamingly obvious things. “Well, when I was watching the movie, I felt I was … in the movie!” she finally concedes, gently amused.
Coppola says that she wanted to make a film about celebrity and its alienated, alienating effects, because she had been away from the US, where the celeb cult is at its strongest. “I don’t feel it, because I’m not in public so much,” she says, “so it’s not something that I experience personally. There are all these problems in the press with all these actors having this party lifestyle …”
She continues: “I was living in Paris, and I was taking some time off after my daughter was born, and sometimes people would come over and bring these tabloids from the US. It’s not around in Paris, the way it is in America, this crazy obsession with celebrity, all these reality shows. I wanted to do something about this moment in our culture.”