With just four feature films, 'The Virgin Suicides' (2000), 'Lost in Translation' (2003), 'Marie Antoinette' (2006) and the new 'Somewhere,' Sofia Coppola has shown herself to be one of the world's most delicate and uniquely heartfelt filmmakers. She rarely gets credit for this, however, and instead receives criticism for her class and status, for having been born into "Hollywood royalty." It doesn't help that she tends to make movies about privileged characters, but Ms. Coppola also manages to make these characters universal and emotionally truthful, showing them to be just as sad, lost, lonely, and confused as the rest of us. Her new movie has started off well, winning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.
'Somewhere' tells the story of a successful Hollywood actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), who has just finished a movie and spends most of his days living in a room at the Chateau Marmont, drinking, smoking, having sex, and just generally trying to stave off boredom and despair. Things change when his 11 year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) is dropped off for a visit of uncertain legnth; he begins, through this simple human connection, to understand what his life could be about. Coppola tells this story in a dreamy, non-linear way with very little explanation or exposition, which will be aggravating to many American viewers. But those that clue into its sensitive rhythms will find something to treasure.
Dorff may have been an odd choice for the lead role; after appearing in 'The Gate' (1987) as a kid, his career seems to have peaked in the 1990s with films like 'Backbeat' (1994), 'Blade' (1998), and 'Cecil B. DeMented' (2000). A lead role in a 2005 Uwe Boll movie ('Alone in the Dark') may have sealed his career coffin. But he also appeared in last year's 'Public Enemies,' and this excellent new performance certainly won't hurt his career choices.
Both Coppola and Dorff recently sat down with Cinematical for a discussion of 'Somewhere.'
I really love the cast, which Johnny wears on his arm through half the movie. It's such a great visual theme, and helps to show just how lost and trapped he is. How did that come about?
Sofia Coppola: When you first said "the cast," I thought you meant the actors...
Stephen Dorff: Nobody has ever asked that. That's a cool question.
And then he physically rips it off when he starts to get comfortable with his daughter.
Stephen Dorff: It's hard to get off, too. We had to get the right cast. We ultimately got one where I could get it on, but I wanted it to feel tight and real. We had to make them each day, and some got too stuck, too tight, and they had to cut it off. I saved one.
Sofia Coppola: I saved one too.
We know how you wrote 'Lost in Translation' with Bill Murray in mind. How did you find Stephen for this?
Sofia Coppola: I just thought of Stephen when I started to write. I find it helpful to picture someone. I had known him for years, and he just came to mind. We hadn't seen each other for a while. I knew he was a sweet guy, and it's a contrast of his persona. It just felt like the character needed a lot of heart, and to be genuine, because he's so flawed.
There's hardly any dialogue in this script. Isn't it tough to sell a script like this to an actor? Don't actors like a lot of dialogue?
Stephen Dorff: It's not tough for me! I looked at it and I said, 'I'd be crazy not to accept this.' I felt I understood all this stuff. I thought Sofia really got the acting thing down, as far as the loneliness and the emptiness that can happen. As an actor you get so much attention. People need you, need you, need you, and the junkets, and then it just ends. And you're kind of sitting in your house or in your hotel room wondering what the hell do I do now? I had a lot of questions. I wanted to understand. Sofia doesn't really need to necessarily write everything out, because she knows the film she wants to make. I just loved that it was a character piece. There was time to get to know someone. The trend today is everything but that. It's always moving so fast you don't get to know anybody.
Or it's all explained, or over-explained.
Stephen Dorff: Or exposition. I did 'Public Enemies.' I was really happy to be cast in that, working with Johnny Depp. We worked six months on that, and then in the final cut, I liked the movie, but you don't get to know any of these people. It's such a blur. You don't even get to know Johnny's character. This was so refreshing. It was like a 1970s movie.
I overheard that comment at the screening. I was thinking more along the lines of Antonioni.
Sofia Coppola: People have brought that up, but it wasn't intentional.
Even though it is about Hollywood actors, you can identify with it. You get to the core of the human emotions. There's something profoundly human that a general audience can get.
Sofia Coppola: That's what I was trying for. I put it in that setting because that world's familiar to me, and I think it relates to pop culture now. But I tried to keep his job in the background and not make it about that, and make it a universal story. Everyone has to make decisions in their life as to how they're going to live.
Stephen Dorff: It could be anybody. Some of my friends that have seen the film that are older, in their 60s and have daughters. A couple guys I've never seen cry, they just start crying. My friend Tony was an agent at CAA for a long time. He had a black Lotus and he had an 11 year-old daughter, and they got a flat tire once. And after the movie he was crying and he said, 'I don't know how she did it.' And he called his daughter the next day, and they reconnected. It was amazing.
Sofia, your films have this very delicate atmosphere, and you almost want to hold your breath for fear of breaking the spell. How do you manage to get that in a chaotic movie shoot?
Sofia Coppola: It's always mysterious. I just try to focus on what we want from that scene. I always hold my breath [during the opening shot] when the car goes around the track. 'Just one more time!' I feel like there's a lot of tension. I like that kind of tension because there's a lot going on. I like when the drama is going on from within the character, and the tension comes from what's not being said. Like the scene where the ex-wife drops off the daughter, there's barely any dialogue between them, but I felt like you could feel a lot of history between them. We did a lot of rehearsals and improvs before. I think by just being really focused on what you're intending in each scene, but then it's always mysterious how it comes together.
Do you think more about the emotional content of the scene, or the story?
Sofia Coppola: I feel like all the elements come together, and then at the end, it gives you a feeling. I wanted to make a portrait of this guy at this one moment in his life, and feel what he's feeling. There aren't traditional big, dramatic scenes, and you have all the moments of his life that come together, and so hopefully when they come together you have a picture of this moment in his life, and hopefully you have that experience.
Stephen, how is she as a director? Is she quiet, authoritative, controlling...?
Stephen Dorff: She is like she is right now. I will comment on what you said about chaotic movie shoots. Some movies may be that way, but on this one, it felt like everything but that. We had this little crew and we were kind of a covert action team. I felt like we were shooting a little documentary, the intimacy of it. At the same time you look around and you've got the best DP in the world, Harris Savides, standing there, and all these incredible people on the set. I remember one of her things that she was always concerned about was she didn't want trucks. Even when we were on location, 'do we really need that truck?' Well we kind of do, because we need the generator. Being directed by Sofia is incredible. As an actor there's a lot of cheats you can do. It was the most raw I've ever been. It was just me.
Sofia Coppola: You couldn't hide behind anything.
Stephen Dorff: I find mimicking and accents and makeup the easiest kind of acting to do. Some people would be like, 'how did he do that?' That's easy. You can turn me into a woman, give me some heels, I can do that. I can find the voice, etc. But just sit me on the sofa? If I'm acting at all in those scenes, it unravels the movie that she wants to make. So it was trying to find this unconscious quality. I think the intimacy that she brought by picking this small, special crew, by letting me live at the Chateau, by making it so easy for me... all these cool rehearsal exercises without over-rehearsing. We weren't blocking scenes. We were rehearsing more an energy and a feeling of comfort between me and Elle or me and these different characters.
Sofia Coppola: I feel like the atmosphere of the set comes into what we're making. It was important that we didn't have ADs yelling. There's not a huge difference between when you're preparing and when you start rolling. Everything feels more natural and it comes through.
Stephen Dorff: It almost didn't even feel like I was making a movie in a weird way. I'm so happy and proud I was able to deliver for Sofia. Venice was so exciting. But at the same time I think my most excitement is going to be letting people see the movie.
Sofia Coppola: I know! I'm excited for it to come out!
'Somewhere' opens December 22.