Although her acting career was often attributed to nepotism, Sofia Coppola has carved out her own career writing and directing films.
Coppola was born in New York, the daughter of Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola. Her mother was a set decorator and her father, of course, is the film director most known for The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now. Sofia’s acting career began from birth. She was the infant being baptized in The Godfather and went on to background roles in seven of her father’s films. When Winona Ryder dropped out of The Godfather Part III, Sofia stepped in to the role of Michael Corleone’s daughter. Her performance was critically panned and she ended her acting career. Later, she said she wasn’t hurt by the criticism because she never especially wanted to be an actress.
She attended Mills College before transferring to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) to try her hand at another art form: painting. Coppola said CalArts told her she wasn’t a painter. From there, she transferred to the Art Center College of Design, where her photography instructor, Paul Jasmin, was more supportive. “He told me my point of view was worth exploring,” she said in an interview with DGA Magazine.
But Coppola already had most of the training she needed. “Dad always included us,” referring to herself and her brother Roman, also a director. “We were always talking about and looking at film. I didn’t even realize I was learning.”
While at Art Center, she co-wrote and directed Lick the Star, an angsty short film about youth and death. Her first feature was The Virgin Suicides, based on the Jeffrey Eugenides book. “I loved that book but someone had the rights to it. I had to convince them to consider letting me do it,” she told Interview.
From there, she wrote and directed Lost in Translation, starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. The film won three Golden Globes, including Best Picture Musical or Comedy, and earned Coppola two Academy Award nominations, for both her screenplay and directing. She became only the third woman to be nominated for an Oscar for directing (at the time, the other two were Lina Wertmuller and Jane Campion. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow was added to the list.) Coppola won for Best Screenplay, which made her a third generation Oscar winner.
In 2006, Marie Antoinette debuted at Cannes. Four years later, Somewhere won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. And most recently, in 2013, The Bling Ring also debuted at Cannes.
Next up, Coppola is co-writing a script based on Alysia Abbot’s memoir, Fairyland. She’s also rumored to direct a live-action version of The Little Mermaid. The fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen is within Coppola’s theme of teenagers struggling to find their place.
Coppola’s signature shot is created by following her characters from behind. She uses a handheld camera or a dolly shot. As DGA Magazine said, “Hers is not the traditional first-person point of view. In Coppola’s films it’s as though the camera is a balloon invisibly tethered to the nape of the protagonist’s neck, bobbing and floating in her wake as she threads through space. This shot, which requires only one camera, is an umbilical cord attaching the viewer to the character. It creates the effect that you’re not watching a Sofia Coppola movie; you’re inside of it.” (Think of Scarlett Johansson wandering through a temple and gardens in Kyoto from Lost in Translation.)
“My movies are not about being, but becoming,” she said. These same protagonists she so closely follows are almost all teenagers or adults in transition. Other themes in Coppola’s work are those of outsiders looking in and insiders looking out, the imagining of other lives, different possibilities. Does Coppola relate to these lost teenagers and adults because she wishes for another life (one that doesn’t start with a Hollywood pedigree)? Or does she simply have a fascination with coming of age stories (no matter the protagonist’s age)?
While most of her characters are female, Somewhere stands out from Coppola’s oeuvre because it has a male protagonist. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), an actor living in the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, has to deal with an injury, his career–which seems less bountiful than it used to be–and his relationship with his 11-year-old daughter.
From the outset, this seems to be a man living a charmed life, not a character that necessarily is going to evoke sympathy from the masses. But somehow, through the quiet interludes and wanderings, Coppola gets the audience to feel for this man. He’s not perfect, but he’s searching for the same things all of us are searching for: meaning and a real connection with someone. In his case, human connection may not be with the number of beautiful woman he flirts with and fucks, but instead, with his daughter. The film doesn’t even follow through on that, though, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about what he’s looking for and what we’re looking for.
“I don’t want my movies to feel like movies. I want them to feel like life,” Coppola explains her lack of dialogue and concentration on image in her films. For her short film, she worked with cinematographer Edward Lachman to evoke the same color schemes that Coppola remembered from films of the 70s. Even now, she does extensive color tests before shooting.
Perhaps because of her familial connections to film, Coppola wants to create a bond among her actors before filming. For Somewhere, she had Dorff pick up Elle Fanning from school every day before the start of filming.
Some of her crew members like film editor Sarah Flack, sound editor Richard Beggs, and music producer Brian Reitzell she’s worked with since her first film, which helps carry the family atmosphere throughout the whole production. Lachman, who has worked with Coppola multiple times, said, “The best director is one that gives everybody the feeling that they are really helping to make the film in partly their own vision, but it’s really the director who is engineering it. Sofia makes everybody feel like they are the really important one.”
Coppola isn’t making big budget art films, rather she likes to keep things slimmed down. She works with a small crew and her biggest budget film has been Marie Antoinette at $40 million, which involved elaborate costumes and a shoot in Paris. She shot The Bling Ring in six weeks. “I don’t make the kind of movies that lend themselves to wide releases,” she concludes.
Sources: DGA Magazine – Spring 2013