MY ART BELONGS TO DADDY
Daughter of Francis Ford, wife of Spike Jonze and muse to Marc Jacobs, film-maker Sofia Coppola uses her life as inspiration for her movies. Here, she talks to Lucie Young about her latest film, Lost in Translation.
Sofia Coppola lived a charmed life as a child. She was brought up in a very close Italian family with two brothers, a doting mother and a superstar father, the film director Francis Ford Coppola, who would surprise his children by inviting an animal tamer to bring tiger cubs over to play with them. They lived in a 28-room mansion overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and then on a 1,700-acre Napa Valley estate. The family always accompanied Francis during shooting. During the filming of Apocolypse Now, Sofia played in the Philippines jungle, looked after by her mother Eleanor. ‘I think my childhood was very magical when I look back on it. We were living in all these different places. And my dad was like a big kid and he was always fun. He took us everywhere. Even when he went to Cannes for the film festival we would all tag along with him.’
The idyll came to an end when her brother, Coppola’s eldest son Giancarlo, was killed in a freak accident during the filming of Gardens of Stone in 1986. Gio, as he was known, was considered to be his father’s natural successor as a director, but he died in a motorboat disaster with Ryan O’Neal’s son at the helm. Giancarlo was 22 at the time and Sofia only 15.
She acknowledges that it was this tragedy that led her to film-making. Her first success as a director was in adapting The Virgin Suicides, a book that explores the way in which the lives, and deaths, of five sisters influence those around them. ‘The death of my brother obviously had a huge impact on my life. It changed the way I looked at things. The Virgin Suicides is about loss. But what particularly appealed to me about the book was the idea that everyone’s life, however short, is there for a reason.’
Before her move into film-making, Sofia, now 32, was famous (or infamous) as an actress. From an early age, the zealous Francis Ford Coppola had been involved in his daughter’s career. He decided that acting might be her calling and gave her the part of the baby boy christened at the end of The Godfather. She appeared as a little sister in both Peggy Sue Got Married and Rumble Fish. But her big break came at age 18 when he asked her to replace an ailing Winona Ryder as Mary Corleone in the final part of The Godfather trilogy. As Francis said: ‘Obviously, the kind of daughter I wanted for Michael [Corleone] was my own daughter, because I was thinking: If I were Michael, and I had this nice daughter, she’d be sort of like Sofia. She’d be beautiful, but she wouldn’t be movie-star beautiful. She‘d be Italian, so in her face you could see Sicily.’
Unfortunately for Sofia, the result was a critical disaster. Her acting was panned as ‘catatonic’, ‘painful to watch and even more painful to listen to’. She admits: ‘I am not comfortable in front of the camera. I definitely prefer to watch.’ Understandably, she moved away from acting and for the next ten years appeared to drift. ‘Something I remember from my early twenties was that kind of existential meltdown when you can’t figure out what to do,’ says Sofia. ‘It was overwhelming, all the different options and what other people want you to be and what your family wants you to be.’
Next she started a course at art school, dropped out, dabbled in photography, and shot for French Vogue and American Interview magazine. She created her own TV show High Octane, an offbeat news-magazine show on cable, with her close friend Zoe Cassavetes, daughter of the film director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, whom she met while modeling for Steven Miesel. But the show got canned after only four episodes. Then she launched a clothing company Milk Fed with an old school chum Stephanie Hayman. The clothes are still being made, even thought they are now only sold in Japan. ‘I try everything once,’ she says. ‘I think the more things you try, it gives you a little more awareness.’
In person, Sofia, sitting on the sofa in a Bloomsbury office immaculately dressed in a blue-green Balenciaga wool dress and shiny black pumps, is strangely timid. She’s naturally shy and quiet (indeed Cassavetes said when they met: ‘She’s so quiet that I thought she might be a jerk’) and gives off a sense of intense discomfort at being scrutinized. Nevertheless, she has managed to collaborate with an impressive group of people. She’s a muse for Marc Jacobs, having appeared in one of his perfume ads and designed a canvas bag for his Marc line. She directed the raunchy music video for White Stripe that featured Kate Moss pole-dancing in her underwear in the basement of Manhattan’s Mercer Hotel.
‘Don’t let Sofia’s littleness and quietness confuse you,’ says Bill Murray after working with her. ‘Sofia is made of steel. She has a way of getting her way. She’s very polite about it. She nods her head and says, “You’re right, you’re right, but this is what I want to do.”’ Her steely determination showed when she fought her father’s initial disapproval of her choice of The Virgin Suicides for a debut feature. The film rights had already been bought by someone else, but Sofia persisted, writing her own screenplay (taking a year to do it) and eventually wining the rights. In the end, The Virgin Suicides was very much a family affair. Her dad produced it, her brother Roman shot segments including the diary montages, and her mum shot a video about the making of the movie, which is part of the bonus features on the DVD. Her mother Eleanor Neil, is a talented artist and set designer in her own right. She met Francis during the filming of Dementia 13, in Ireland in 1962.
The Virgin Suicides was a surprise hit when it came out in 1999, called ‘sublime’ by some reviewers. Sofia at last seemed to have found her voice. It was during that year that she also got married. Her husband is Spike Jonze, the director of Being John Malkovich, and they married on her family’s Napa Valley estate. Spike Jonze is a pseudonym for Adam Spiegel, heir to a multimillion-dollar mail-order fortune.
With a talented husband and a blossoming film career, everything should be rosy in Sofia’s world, but there are signs of trouble and perhaps Sofia is using her film-making again to play them out. ‘If you had it all worked out you wouldn’t need to make a movie out of it, you could just sit around all day and eat bonbons,’ she says. Her newest film, Lost in Translation, has been called autobiographical by some viewers. It has a Brief Encounter style plot, starring Bill Murray and newcommer Scarlett Johansson and charts their platonic, yet romantic, three-day relationship which begins by chance in a hotel bar in Tokyo. ‘Hasn’t everyone had those kind of friendships that are romantic? Where you aren’t just friends, there is something more?’ she asks, adding quickly. ‘I haven’t had the experience in the movie, but I’ve definitely had friendships, which because it happened somewhere else was more intense and then you all go back to your normal life.’
Scarlett Johansson’s character Charlotte, has no career to speak of and her dorky photographer husband is either off on assignment or being chatted up by a blond bimbo actress who likes to regale people at dinner parties with tales of her intestinal cleanse. Some reviewers have speculated that the emotionally absent photographer is based on Spike Jonze and that the air-head actress has shades of Cameron Diaz whom Jonze directed in Being John Malkovich. Sofia has said in response: ‘The photographer is not Spike. There are elements of him there, elements of experiences. There are elements of me in all the characters.’
While Sofia shrugs off questions about her marriage, and her publicist simply says, ‘Sofia is still Spike’s wife,’ no one knows how long the couple will stay together. Jonze geeky antics suggest he is an exhibitionist dork. He has hired an actor to play him for an interview, started a food fight to avoid answering a question, turned up at the airport in a fat suit to meet his wife and brought Jackass, the show about acts of extreme stupidity, to MTV.
Is there a new man in her life? She is not saying. For the moment, she is having fun going out shopping with Zoe, hanging out in her 50s LA house (designed with the aid of Gucci fashion designer Tom Ford) and her East Village apartment in New York. As well as roaring about town in her new blue Porsche, she has another new toy – her father has named a Blanc de Blancs from his Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery after her. The labels offers a candid description of its namesake: ‘revolutionary, petulant, reactionary,ebullient, fragrant, cold, cool.’