You could say Sofia Coppola’s work is primarily concerned with stories of lives playing out in the heady glow of fame or notoriety: the talk-of-the-town death-wishers in “The Virgin Suicides,” the lonely wife lounging in the fancy hotel while her husband hobnobs with celebs in “Lost in Translation,” the mercurial public and private life of the young queen of France in “Marie Antoinette.”
Now comes “Somewhere,” a film set at the famed Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, where a restive hotshot actor (Stephen Dorff) whiles away his time until his adolescent daughter (Elle Fanning) shows up and forces him to reassess his ways of emptiness and agony. The settings might change — 18th-century France, modern-day Hollywood — but the themes and the existentially troubled atmosphere of Coppola’s films remain the same.
Yet the director describes “Somewhere” and “Lost in Translation” as her most personal films, in that she also penned both scripts, and audiences are sure to make many connections between the two. The soft-spoken Oscar winner doesn’t seem to mind. In a recent phone conversation with MTV News as part of our Fall Movie Preview, she spoke openly about her inspirations for the new film and how her own life — from her time living abroad to becoming a mother for the first time — have influenced her creative decision making.
MTV: The title is “Somewhere.” Did you come up with it early on?
Sofia Coppola: Yeah, when I was first writing, that was just a temporary title until I thought of a real title and then it became the title.
MTV: Where did this film begin in your mind? What was the genesis?
Coppola: I’m not sure if it was the character or the setting for this one, but I think it started with wanting to write about Los Angeles, and I was living in Paris at the time. So thinking about Los Angeles, this character came into mind, that Stephen Dorff plays, and then I wanted to do a portrait of this guy and it took its shape from there. And then the character of his daughter came after, and that evolved into kind of the father/daughter part of the story.
MTV: What were you trying to capture about Los Angeles that may or may not have been captured in film before? Do you feel L.A. is ever captured well on film?
Coppola: I like “Shampoo” and “American Gigolo,” and I feel there hasn’t been a portrait of modern-day L.A. And I was just looking at how tabloid culture was while I was living in France. You know, there’s always stuff about the Chateau Marmont. I remember going there when I was in college, and now it’s so different with our reality TV shows and paparazzi around there. There wasn’t Us Weekly when I lived there. It was a different world and I started with wanting to do something set in that world.
MTV: Have you watched some of the reality shows that the people who sign my paycheck created?
Coppola: I haven’t watched tons of it, kind of a little here and there, but it just seems when you look at these tabloids, they’re all reality TV stars and definitely a focus on celebrity culture more than ever. But I’ve seen a few. The twins in my movie are from “The Girls Next Door.” So we do have some reality TV stars in it.
MTV: So Stephen’s character, can you not help but base your characters after different aspects of people that you know?
Coppola: No, he’s a combination of a ton of stories I’ve heard or different people’s experiences, and I have put them all together into my imagination of what this guy’s life is like. So it definitely is from people I know or stories I’ve heard.
MTV: Why was Mr. Dorff the guy for you?
Coppola: I just felt like he was the right guy for this part and I think he’s a really talented actor and he has a lot of heart and sweetness that I thought was important for this role. And it’s nice to see someone that’s not in a million movies every year. You don’t know everything about their personal life and all that.
MTV: As a parent, how much are you relaying your own experiences with the film?
Coppola: The movie’s the first thing I wrote since having a kid. I definitely think that changes your point of view or that it had an effect on what I was thinking about. So the character had a kid, and how it affected him was definitely part of the story.
MTV: What does the script for this one look like versus what I will see on the screen?
Coppola: I don’t think [scripts are] a blueprint, and I kind of stay open to what could happen. I don’t storyboard everything and have an exact plan. I think you have an idea of what you want. So the script is definitely what the movie is. I think, if you look back on it, it’s definitely from that but there’s a lot of improvisation, especially with Chris Pontius, who plays the buddy from “Jackass.” Part of why I cast him is because he’s great at improvising and coming up with things and he’s really great with kids. So I knew he would have a great interaction with Elle’s character.
MTV: Were there any exceptional improvisational moments that you captured that weren’t in the script?
Coppola: Yes, there are always happy accidents because when you’re being creative, it’s always the mistakes or things that you look forward to that make it real. I can’t think [of one] specifically, but I think just putting Chris Pontius and Elle in a room together, and Stephen, the three of them, it was fun to watch that interaction. There are definitely surprises.
MTV: Can you tell me a little bit about Elle?
Coppola: She’s 12 now. She was 11 when we were shooting. I was always impressed by her because she’s so natural. When she starts a scene, she doesn’t shift. You don’t see a big difference even though the character is different from her in real life. But I feel that she is really talented and I tried to stay out of her way and not interfere too much. And we talked about it and she had the impression of what I was trying. At the beginning, we did rehearsals, and we rehearsed with her and Stephen together, so she got an idea of it.
MTV: Would you say at this point in your career you’re a confident filmmaker?
Coppola: I don’t think you’re ever totally confident because you’re always pushing yourself into new territory to do something you haven’t done before. So it’s always scary, but I feel like I have a clear idea in my head when I start a movie of what it should feel like and what it should look like. So I guess it’s an intuitive thing, but I don’t ever feel confident. It’s scary. Besides that, I do have a strong opinion. That’s why I like directing, because you can be very opinionated.
MTV: Were you sensitive when making this to the comparisons to “Lost in Translation”?
Coppola: When I started writing it, I didn’t know what shape it was going to take, so I really didn’t think about that. But then after finishing it, I can definitely see that there are similarities. I’ve only written two original scripts, so I feel this and “Lost in Translation” are my most personal stories because it originates from me. So there are going to be links, because I think, like all creative people, you’re interested in similar themes that you revisit. I think each one of my movies has been a continuation of the last one.
MTV: Why use the Chateau Marmont? What are your memories from your time there?
Coppola: I just thought for this young actor guy in a moment of transition, that’s where he’d be staying. And there’s something impermanent about a hotel. Chateau Marmont is legendary in L.A. and it’s kind of a setting for show business. So it seemed like the natural place for it to take place. And I have memories of going there as a kid and then as an adult in L.A., and we would go out there and it was always filled with interesting people for people-watching and it has great stories and a lot of history that I wanted to be a part of it. But I wanted the iconic L.A. backdrop.
MTV: Do you feel the same need to pick the brain of your successful family members?
Coppola: I always am glad to have my dad when I need advice or mentoring. Sometimes I’ll show him [something] earlier on, but this one I had a more specific idea of how I wanted it to be and then I showed him when I was done. And my brother is the producer and he helped me a lot in the preproduction phase.
MTV: You’re premiering at Venice, right?
Coppola: Yeah, next week. It’s the first time we’re going to show an audience.
MTV: How do you feel about that? Do you get nervous?
Coppola: Yeah I’m excited to share it with the audience and [in Venice]. And the guys from Phoenix are going to be with us. But I’m excited and it’s also scary and nerve-racking to put it out there in the world for opinions and reactions. But I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I like it, so I hope other people will connect to it.
From the saucy Jessica Alba in “Little Fockers” to James Franco’s grueling journey in “127 Hours,” the MTV Movies team is delving into the hottest flicks of fall 2010. Check back daily for exclusive clips, photos and interviews with the films’ biggest stars.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Somewhere.”
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.