Growing up passing the cornflakes to Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola and sharing family gatherings with the likes of film composer great Carmine Coppola and cousins Jason Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage, it’s hardly surprising that some of those cinematic chromosomes have rubbed off on Sofia Coppola. Now 39, she’s perhaps the ultimate Hollywood insider-turned-observer, eshewing the LA limelight to make films with an emotional distance and quiet power that mark her out as a unique voice in filmmaking. Her latest, Somewhere, is another hymn to dislocation and change, set in the grand surrounds of Sunset Bouvelard’s Chateau Marmont. To mark its release we’ve looked back at her impressive and consistent filmography to find out what makes her tick.
Sofia Coppola’s acting career began when she was still in diapers, a first on-screen appearance coming in The Godfather as Michael Corleone’s nephew (hey, the mafia have androgynous sprogs). She popped up in Tim Burton’s canine B-movie caper Frankenweenie – under adopted stage name ‘Domino’ (“I thought it was glamorous,” she laughs) – and cameoed in The Phantom Menace as Queen Amidala’s handmaiden. But there’s no escaping the on-screen baptism of fire that was The Godfather: Part III, an experience that would have left John Rambo sobbing into his bandolier, let alone a 19 year-old student stepping into Paramount’s vastly anticipated tentpole movie. As Mary Corleone, a last minute replacement for Winona Ryder, she was focal point for a storm of criticism. Reviewers cried nepotism. In fairness, despite praise from some esteemed critics (“She brings a certain up-front vulnerability and simplicity that are appropriate and right for the role,” wrote Roger Ebert), it was casting that nowadays would probably melt the internet. Even the usually moderate Leonard Maltin called it an "almost fatal flaw". Coppola looks back sanguinely on the experience though, happy to consign her acting career to history.“I was just a kid,” she remembers, “all I really wanted to do was direct”.
After directing music videos and making acclaimed 14-minute short Lick A Star with lenser Lance Acord, Coppola finally got her wish. “I just loved the Lisbon girls,” she says of the teenage sisters at the heart of Jeffrey Eugenides’ American gothic tragedy. “I just thought it was beautifully written and it seemed accurate about being a teenager," Coppola told Splicewire. “It had an epic feeling of first love, obsession, and melancholy. There’s not too many things I've read or seen about being a teenager that I relate to. I think Jeff Eugenides really understood that.” She finally found her Lux Lisbon, the book’s outwardly perfect heroine, in Kirsten Dunst after a long search and endless auditions. An ethereal mood piece elevated by Air’s atmospheric score, The Virgin Suicides saw Coppola’s gossamer touch extended to her on-set persona.“I'm small and not at all loud, but everyone was totally respectful,” she said of her less-is-more directing style. “As long as you are clear about what you want to do and not wishy-washy, everybody will act professionally.”
Coppola’s best film to date buried those ugly whispers of nepotism once and for all. It earned her a shot at an Oscar for Best Director – unbelievably, the first such nomination for an American woman (Lina Wertmüller and Jane Campion were previous nominees) – and a sea of admirers. She was pipped to Best Director by Peter Jackson and The Return Of The King, but walked away with a well-deserved Best Writer statue, her rapturously received win a true Hollywood homecoming. Her speech cited Wong Kar-wai and Antonioni as influences, and their same DNA of heartache and alienation run through Lost In Translation, and she likens the (albeit platonic) fizz of Bill Murray’s drifting actor and Scarlett Johansson's neglected wife to Bacall and Bogart’s chemistry in The Big Sleep. “I wanted the movie’s structure to have all the different parts of a relationship condensed in a few days. They meet, they break up,” she told Filmmaker magazine. Ultimately, though, with its blissful Air and Kevin Shields-fuelled soundtrack and pitch-perfect turns from Murray and Johansson, Lost In Translation has aged into a modern classic all of its own.
Coppola originally intended to make her biopic of France’s most famous cake-fancier before Lost In Translation, but the $40m budget and creative control its Oscar success earned her meant she could upscale Antonia Fraser’s biography into a gloriously flamboyant spectacle. Nestled inside a Fabergé egg of decadence and dazzle is another intimate story of loneliness: Kirsten Dunst’s naïve young queen lost among aristocratic intrigue. Not everyone responded to the stylised Blahnik-and-Bow Wow Wow anachronisms – it was famously booed at its Cannes screening – but, as Coppola explained, “it is not a lesson of history, it’s an interpretation carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.” A family affair, with cousin Schwartzman a shy, sexually disinterested Dauphin and dad Francis Ford sharing production duties, Marie Antoinette is pure candy for the eye. “Gorgeous, giddy, gilded filmmaking,” said Empire. Surely even the dustiest history don would struggle to disagree.
After the draining six-month shoot for Marie Antoinette, Coppola stepped away from lavish production design and period detail to craft a smaller story set in a more modest, but in its own way, similarly historic chateau: Hollywood’s Marmont hotel. “I guess I wanted to do something simple, with just one or two characters and an intimate story,” she tells Empire. Somewhere, in which Stephen Dorff plays a fading A-lister jolted into reassessing his life by preternaturally smart offspring Elle Fanning, draws on her own life without tipping into full-blown autobiography. “The starting point for that was my friend’s daughter,” Coppola explains. “Her parents are both in Hollywood, and she’s like the adult of the situation.” Coppola’s travels with her dad were an inspiration for the crazy-weird lifestyle of the actor and his young daughter. “I remember him teaching me how to play craps in a casino. In high school he took me to Cuba and we met Castro. Y’know, these aren’t quite normal teenage experiences.” While Somewhere has yet to stir the same kind of Oscar buzz as Lost In Translation, Coppola has already picked up a Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festive – only the fourth woman to do so in its 61 year history. So what’s next? “It could be anything,” she reflects. “I try to have a break when I’ve finished something and just kind of look around.”