Sofia Coppola: Hollywood princess

The director Sofia Coppola talks to Fiona Morrow about family, Tokyo and how her new film really isn't about life after Spike Jonze
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The Independent Culture

In Lost in Translation, Charlotte, a bright, well-educated, preppy girl, married to a trendy photographer who takes her for granted, is holed up in a Tokyo hotel room, trying to make sense of her life. Meanwhile in London, Sofia, a bright, well-educated, preppy girl, recently divorced from a trendy photographer, is holed up in a hotel room, trying to make sense of her film.

Sofia Coppola - daughter of Francis, the director of The Godfather, and Eleanor, the documentary maker, sister of Roman, also a film-maker; cinematic royalty to you and me - is not known for her way with words. The director of The Virgin Suicides and the aforementioned Lost in Translation possesses a fiercely intuitive visual style and a wry way with observation. But a natural talker she is not.

"Ah, um, my head's not really working today." Her habit is to start a sentence with a promising spark of attitude then drift away from it, leaving it to trail off into nothingness. But this vague inarticulacy belies a very strong will: Coppola (against her father's advice) wrote the script for The Virgin Suicides when the option already belonged to someone else. (She pounced as soon as that deal fell through.)

The production of her follow up effort was scarcely less troubled, not least because no one knew if her star - Bill Murray who plays Bob - was going to show up on set. "Bill's agent hadn't heard from him for months," Coppola shrugs matter-of-factly.

Nevertheless, Coppola signed up Scarlett Johansson who plays Charlotte, and shipped her crew out to Tokyo. "It was frightening," Coppola concedes. "We were raising money and I didn't want to take someone's money and then not deliver. It was definitely nerve-wracking because we didn't have any kind of real contract or anything." Despite the success of her debut and the concomitant improved money-raising powers, Coppola plumped for a modest budget. "I just thought that if I did it so low budget, if it didn't turn out, it wouldn't have to play in theatres," she admits. No money did have its drawbacks however: "About half way through we were falling badly behind schedule and I was being told that we had to cut stuff out," she recalls. "I was, like, no way. So, luckily my brother Roman came over and shot second unit and we were able to to catch up and do everything." She smiles generously: "It's lucky to have a very nice and talented big brother."

Brother and sister are very close: "He's the first person I show my scripts to," Coppola explains. "He's the person I talk to when I'm writing - we have a similar taste and sensibility."

And what of the big guns: mum and dad? "It's hard because... their criticism can feel stronger than someone else's... I don't feel scared of showing my dad," she adds, "he's just so into films and young film-makers - he just loves it. And anyway," she adds with a defiant toss of the head, "I think if you like what you're doing then it sort of doesn't matter what anyone else thinks."

Lost in Translation is a comedy about cross-cultural confusion and the shallowness of the entertainment business: "I just decided: 'Okay, I really want to do this movie before I die.' Not that it was so big a deal, but I'd always wanted to shoot in Japan." Like her earlier film, this has a dreamlike quality. "I think they are both memories. Also this is through a filter of jet lag. In Tokyo, I found that your view of the city takes on this other quality because you're so jet lagged and it feels kind of dreamy. And the place looks so unreal anyway."

The film is "really personal" to Coppola although she refuses to say how autobiographical it is. Coppola resembles Johansson and, like Johansson's character Charlotte, is an avowed people watcher with an ear for irony. "I think there is something that I really relate to in [Scarlett's] demeanour," Coppola says, "and I like the fact that Scarlett doesn't look like a typical starlet. I guess there are elements of me from when I was younger, like maybe 10 years ago. But," she continues, unusually verbose, "it's also about, like, how these JD Salinger characters have this idea of the kind of preppy girl having a breakdown, of how overwhelming life is in this privileged background. I always thought that was kind of funny."

But Coppola snaps back to reticence at the suggestion that Charlotte's obnoxious photographer husband (played by Giovanni Ribisi) is based on her ex-husband, Spike Jonze. "It's not," she answers sharply, then adds, "but there are elements. His character is more like a caricature from Charlotte's point of view." She lets her eyes go out of focus and she clams up; the subject is clearly over.

She is, however, quickly reengaged when I bring up the stereotyping of the Japanese characters in the film which have led to accusations of racism. "I'm surprised," she frowns. "I can see why people might think that but I know I'm not racist. I think if everything's based on truth you can make fun, have a little laugh, but also be respectful of a culture. I just love Tokyo and I'm not mean spirited," she continues, beginning to sound slightly panicked. "Even on our daily call sheets they would mix up the 'rs' and the 'ls' - all that was from experience, it's not made up. I guess someone has misunderstood my intentions. It bugs me because I know I'm not racist. I think that everything you do, people could be offended by - unless you're just trying to be nice about everyone."

That's not something of which Coppola stands accused. Take the Hollywood starlet character - a thoroughly vapid actress. "She's like a cartoon," shrugs Coppola. "A mixture of all the clichéd actresses you see in the media. I was watching this interview today with this girl who was talking about how she likes to chew gum with ice because it makes it crunchier."

The sneer on Coppola's face is priceless. "Are we supposed to be interested in that?" she spits. We turn to the character of the hotel bar singer, washed up and torturing "Scarborough Fair". "She's the real singer in the bar," points out Coppola. It's my turn to look incredulous. "I know," she smiles. "It was a little bit delicate, but I thought she was a good sport about it."

If the satire in Lost in Translation is unflinchingly sharp Coppola can do subtle too. The timid love story between Charlotte and Bob is tender, poignant and mercifully chaste. "It was more about those relationships that you have that are more than friends but less than a love affair," she explains. There's something so sweet about them that you don't want to see them ripping each others' clothes off." She gives me a look all arched eyebrows: "So no, there was no sex scene that we cut out for the DVD."

I ask if her next film is underway. "I want to get back to writing, but I don't know what yet. I just want to take a break from this story.

Her eyebrows arch: "There are lots of other things I want to be snotty about."

'Lost in Translation' is released next Friday

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