Born into one of the world’s most prestigious film-making families, Sofia Coppola is an industry trailblazer. Hard to believe she was once Karl Largerfeld’s tea girl.
Sofia Coppola was always going to be one of the cool kids. Growing up in a world where hanging out on film sets was the norm and Martin Sheen and Al Pacino were just guys working for her dad, it’s safe to say she had an enviable childhood and inherited a discerning set of genes. Her future – however it panned out – was always going to be an interesting one.
But the path she has carved for herself since – that of a writer and director of films full of intelligence, emotion and beauty – is down to her and her alone. She is an individual where style meets substance and skill; a woman at the top of her game yet still grounded enough that you want to share a wine with her.
It was the wistful, understated style of her directing debut, The Virgin Suicides, which established Sofia as a unique talent, but it was winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Lost In Translation (2003) that undoubtedly proved her abilities as a serious director.
Marie Antoinette, a subtle observation of the reign of the French queen played by Kirsten Dunst and Somewhere, a study of life at the legendary Chateau Marmont, followed. Alongside her film work, Sofia’s multifaceted creativity has spilled over into music (she directed Kate Moss in The White Stripes’ video for I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself), fashion (Marc Jacobs named the Sofia bag after her) and even winemaking (her father launched a range of Sofia wines in honour of her romantic spirit). It’s no wonder she has been on our
wishlist of subjects since Stylist launched nearly four years ago and is now the first ever director to grace our cover. Today, it’s not wine on the menu but afternoon tea at Claridge’s, Mayfair. Weaving her way over to the table where I’m waiting, the petite filmmaker is so understated I’d be surprised if those around us know who she is. Wearing a Breton top, black capris and flats, her style is simple and chic, her make-up minimal and her dark hair falls loosely into a bob at her shoulders. Glamorously geeky, the 42 year old sits hunched forward and orders a mint tea. Not one to draw attention to herself, she talks in mumbled, sleepy tones in an accent that’s hard to place.
Sofia’s entire life has been spent on the move; experiencing new environments, coping with unfamiliar situations. She is accustomed to being an outsider and observer and this is the underlying strength of her work. Her childhood was dominated by set to set globe-hopping with her parents Francis Ford and Eleanor (a cinematographer) and brothers Roman, 48, (a music video director) and Gian-Carlo (a budding producer killed in a speed boat accident when he was 22). Even now, she divides her time between New York and Paris with her husband Thomas Mars (the lead singer of French band Phoenix) and their daughters Romy, six and Cosima, three.
Picking at a piece of lavender shortbread, Sofia seems conscious of over-sharing. It’s not that she isn’t friendly, she’s actually very warm, but on sensitive topics she withholds just enough information for you to have to draw your own conclusions – a bit like her films, which rely heavily on visual clues and often have little dialogue.
“I don’t like movies that tell you how to feel,” she says, describing her artistic style. “I like it when it’s more open and the audience can experience it.” With this in mind, it’s interesting to see Sofia make a mental note of an elderly lady dressed head-to-toe in fuchsia, snoring in an armchair nearby. It’s a picture that paints a thousand words and exactly the kind of scene you might see in one of her movies, which makes the choice of subject matter for her latest film The Bling Ring all the more surprising.
Sofia’s loudest, brashest work to date it is based on the true story of a group of semi-privileged LA teenagers so obsessed with fame they break into the Hollywood homes of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and others in order to emulate their lifestyles.
Calling themselves the ‘Bling Ring’, they used websites like celebrityaddressaerial.com to locate the homes of their idols before stealing millions of pounds worth of jewellery, clothes and art in 2008.
Here Sofia explains why the tale fascinates and saddens her in equal measure and how the whole project saw her strike up an unlikely alliance with Paris Hilton.
You only make a movie once every three or four years. Why The Bling Ring?
I’d heard on the news that these 15 and 16 year olds broke into famous people’s houses and then, reading the article in Vanity Fair with details from the kids’ perspective and how it happened, it just seemed so timely and different to when we were growing up. The fascination with that side of our culture is growing so much and there is an idea that anyone could be famous. I met one of the boys [Nick Prugo] but he was just about to go to jail so it was pretty sad because you could see how it really affected him.
Emma Watson plays one of the teenagers in a role very different to anything she’s done before. Why did you cast her?
Emma had a smart point of view about the subject. I liked that she had a sweet face in contrast to being a bad girl. She had this audition where she put on lip gloss and turned into this LA girl and I was even more impressed when she got the Calabasas accent down. The character could have been a total satire but she made it believable.
The film features cameos from Kirsten Dunst and Paris Hilton. How did you persuade Paris to let you film at her house?
Stephen Dorff, who I worked with on Somewhere, knew Paris was having a party. So he asked if I wanted to see her house and, um, of course I wanted to see it! When I first went there I was like, “I have to get a picture with the Paris pillows” [cushions with her face printed on]. But she has a good sense of humour and was like, “My friend made those.” It was funny, she’s not totally serious. She is definitely aware of herself but very likeable and less of a doll than you’d think. She was really open to being helpful and showed me the real security footage of the kids breaking in and let us do make-up in her bathroom. It felt so authentic to have access to her house. Kirsten did it as my friend. We have stayed close since [The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette], so I asked her to come by and she loved the subject.
A lot of people are interested in that story, especially in LA as it’s so talked about. Social media is pivotal to the story; do you tweet or use Facebook?
I don’t, but in terms of the [characters in the] film it has taken away a lot of boundaries and they felt like they almost knew the people they were focused on. They felt like they could go in the celebrities’ houses and that they knew their friends. There isn’t the mystique that used to be associated with [celebrities]. There is so much information that they don’t have the same boundaries.
Film is in your blood, was there ever a plan B?
I never really planned to be a film director, I always liked magazines and wanted to be a magazine editor or an art director. I always liked the visual arts but I was always on the set and my dad was always talking to my brothers and I about film-making, trying to teach us about it. In my 20s when I read the book The Virgin Suicides, that was what made me want to direct a movie because I loved that book and felt protective of it and didn’t want anyone to ruin the movie version. I wasn’t looking for a project.
Prior to directing you were an actress. How did that come about?
I was at art school and Winona Ryder fell out of a part [playing Mary Corleone in The Godfather: Part III] and my dad called saying, “Come and be in the movie”. I didn’t want to go back to school so I thought I’d try that, I was at the stage where you’re open to trying anything.
Was it a daunting experience?
I wasn’t thinking about how public it was. I grew up with [those films] so it wasn’t a big deal to me but now, with hindsight, people take them so personally. To me it was just a family project my dad asked me to do.
What’s your earliest memory of being on a film set?
I remember being in the Philippines filming Apocolypse Now in 1978 and being four or five but that was more a memory of being in the jungle. Now when I am on film sets it’s really comfortable because it’s so familiar. I like being with all the equipment and being with the camera department, I have my little spot to watch the energy and excitement, all the hustle and bustle of all the departments.
Was travelling around commonplace for you?
We’d do it every few years. My parents would pack up all our stuff and we would go and live somewhere. I would go to the local schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Philippines. Once I even went to a Chinese school. Sometimes it was hard to move around, especially at middle school when you are attached to your friends, but it was an adventure. I enjoyed living in different places. My mom always made an effort to make our life really settled and wherever we went we did activities. I remember in Oklahoma I took ice-skating lessons.
What qualities do you have as a consequence of this?
I had to be flexible to fit in to the different environments – from normal suburban worlds to all kinds of different worlds, it probably helps me understand different characters.
Do you ever ask advice from your father?
I now have my own approach and know how I like to work. I rely on the people I work with, my director, my cinematographer, my producer – I have found a team I like to work with.
Do you become different when you put on your director’s cap?
No, I feel like I stay the same. People are always surprised that my personality doesn’t change, I’m not one for yelling, I think I am just an extension of myself.
How would you describe your style?
It’s hard to describe your own style but I’ve always loved photography so one of the starting places for me is looking at photobooks. Making reference books with the look of the movie and the music is always planned early on.
Like Helmut Newton? Wasn’t his work an inspiration for Somewhere?
Yeah. I met him at Chateau Marmont [where it was filmed] in the elevator and I was really excited because he was a hero of mine. He’d given me a photograph and I was pleased I got to thank him for it. That was the day that he crashed his car and died. So, in Somewhere the crashed car when comes back to the hotel one day is an homage to that.
You pay close attention to detail in your films. Are you that meticulous in the rest of your life?
I definitely get obsessed with things, when I am working I get very immersed and it takes over all my thinking. But I like movies that are really intense and when you’re done you have a break. I get stressed but I think I hide it well because everyone always thinks I’m so calm inside. The thing is I just keep it to myself.
There aren’t that many female directors in the business. What are the challenges presented to you?
It’s like a lot of businesses, it’s been dominated by men and I do think it’s changing a lot – there are definitely more women going into it now than there were when I started 10 years ago. And now there are more and more female executives, so there will be more female points of view.
It’s often said that Hollywood can be a bit sexist. Do you find that?
I haven’t, because I do my own projects. But recently I was being considered for a big project and they wanted it to be really girly and feminine and romantic and they were talking to me and they ended up going for some older guy who’d made a war movie, so moments like that you’re like, “Aaaaagh!” There’s a boys’ club and every now and then I encounter it but I haven’t found it to be too frustrating as I’ve been able to do what I want to do.
You’re very selective with your projects, why make so few films?
You have to find something you are really excited and passionate about because you spend such a long time working on it. It has to stay in your interest for three years – to make it and promote it – so it has to have enough to make you want to put that effort in but it’s hard to say exactly what that is.
Are there any actors that you want to work with?
I loved working with Elle Fanning [in Somewhere]. I’d love to do something with Elle and Dakota together. I like working with talent when they are new and starting and they can approach it in that way, but I also like working with older, experienced actors like Bill Murray. I feel like I can learn a lot from them. But I do feel a connection with young women to show that point of view because it’s not as common in movies.
In terms of contemporaries, whose work are you enjoying now?
Gus Van Sant [who directed Elephant]. I love how he approaches things and has a really artful side, and obviously Jane Campion and the new Woody Allen movie – I am really excited to see that. Not that I see Woody as my contemporary!
What other films or documentaries have struck a chord with you lately?
I loved The Queen Of Versailles . It’s a documentary about a real estate developer and his wife who are building the biggest house in Florida that’s modelled on Versailles. I thought that was really well done. And A Royal Affair – it’s Danish, it’s period, 18th century, about revolution, it’s done really well. And the Liberace movie, I’m really excited to see that.
Didn’t you once have your own fashion label?
In my early 20s I had a simple little T-shirt company, it was fun. My friends were doing X-Girl [Nineties fashion label] and I was like, “I want to have a company too”. So it came out of that culture. It wasn’t high fashion.
Unlike Chanel, where you did an internship...
I did! I was 15 or 16 and a friend of my parents worked there and they take a few girls every summer to do an internship. It was so exciting to go to Paris in the Eighties at the height of Chanel. I was in the design studio so I got to see Karl Largerfeld doing haute couture sketches for the final shows. It was incredible – he is so creative. I was getting coffee and doing intern stuff but just to be around him was amazing.
As a regular at catwalk shows, have you spoken to him since?
Oh yeah. I meet him every once in a while and he’s always really sweet and remembers me.
Marc Jacobs named a bag after you – what was more of an honour, an Oscar or a bag?
That’s funny, yeah, I thought the bag was nice but it didn’t make as big an impact on my life. The Oscar helped me with my career, my work.
Having had close ties with Paris throughout your life, what do you love about the place?
My parents loved to go there so we went there a lot growing up and it’s such a beautiful city with such a rich culture. I find it really enriching,
Do you speak French?
I should – I have French kids! But I don’t.
How do you relax?
My parents still live in Napa Valley where I grew up and they have a winery [Francis Ford Coppola Winery] so I love going there because it’s total escapism.
The opposite of Hollywood?
That’s the beauty of it.
The Bling Ring is in cinemas nationwide from 5 July