Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Sofia Coppola

Fever Dreams and Virgin Suicides

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sofia Coppola lives in L.A. now with her husband, director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich). But we'll always consider her a San Francisco girl and we've proven it by making her film the Opening Night feature at the 2000 San Francisco International Film Festival.

I first met Sofia in early 1989, just when her screenplay for Life Without Zoe had been filmed by her father Francis Ford Coppola for a segment of New York Stories, slightly before she would design costumes for Lucas Reiner's camp comedy The Spirit of 76, and a year before her infamous turn in The Godfather Part III (1990). I was a lowly intern at Zoetrope at the time, but she was still very courteous to me.

When I met her again recently, I suppose I was secretly hoping she would remember me, but I was not surprised that she didn't. Yet she was still just as courteous, as if her job in life were to make us all feel at home. She's small--much smaller than I remembered her--and her voice is soft, but she's made a commanding movie with her feature-length directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, the dream-like story of five blonde teenagers whose suicides become the obsession of the boys in the neighborhood.

Sofia has tried lots of jobs. She's been a successful photographer and clothing designer. She's had famous bit parts (sometimes as an infant) in her father's films The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984), and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) where she played Kathleen Turner's daughter. She also appeared in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999). In 1998 she directed her first short film, Lick the Star (which was also shown at the Festival). But when she read Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides, she was truly inspired. "I thought it was beautifully written and it seemed accurate about being a teenager. 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."

Author Eugenides was apparently not pleased with the first draft of Coppola's screenplay. But later he visited the set, saw the house, and met the actors. "I asked him if it looked like anything he'd imagined. I expected him to say, 'not really.' But he said, 'yes. It looks just like it.' That was really encouraging. I'm such a fan of his. I wanted to keep what I loved about the book intact and transfer that to film." Later Eugenides admitted that he was glad his novel was filmed by a woman, "because he got accused of being misogynistic having this violent act happen to these girls, but he always loved the girls. And I get that when I read the book. He was writing from the boys' point of view and he also had empathy for the girls, and sort of knew about their inner world from afar."

Although she added a bit she thinks "it's the boys' story. The girls sort of represent the end of their innocence. The writer talked about some girl he liked that was the prototype for Lux [Lisbon, the most prominent of the five sisters]. I know stories about guys and the girl they loved in second grade and they've never found anyone that compares. But if there's something I don't understand, I go over it a million times. And that way I can relate to it." Coppola sums the story up with, "Boys who don't understand girls grow up to be men who don't understand women."

Audiences will no doubt expect that Sofia used her father's influence to gain money and actors for her film. It's true that Francis produced the film, but his influence was small. The only actor Sofia knew was Turner, who she hadn't seen since she was small. "James Woods I'd never met before, but I sent him the script. I thought, 'it can't hurt.' He's done a lot of independent film and worked with a lot of first time directors. He has a policy of reading every script. He called me up, and said, 'I love the script.' I was really impressed that he connected with the character. He's smart. This story doesn't appeal to everyone. In the book [his character] was more of a dullard. James Woods made him more vulnerable."

Woods has spent a good deal of time going to bat for Coppola and the film, saying that she is one of the best directors he's ever worked with. The other actors had high praise for their director as well. "Someone said, 'I've never been on the set where the director doesn't yell.' Some directors are like dictators but I'm small and not loud. But as long as they knew that I was clear about what I wanted to do and not wishy-washy, everyone was totally respectful."

Coppola expresses her happiness at her good fortune getting the actors she wanted. Kirsten Dunst, who plays Lux Lisbon, nearly wasn't available. "She works all the time," Coppola says. "As soon as I met her I knew that she was right. She's really a kid, but she's also womanly." As for Michael Pare, who plays the older version of Trip Fontaine, Coppola admits to having a crush on him from the cult film Streets of Fire (1985) when she was younger. Then there's the brilliant casting of Giovanni Ribisi as the narrator and the symbolic voice of all five boys. "Sometimes narration can be annoying. I wanted it to feel personal, sort of remembering--a fever dream. There's something romantic about him. He was kind of lovesick. He wasn't actory. He just got it."

Since Coppola had done costume design for the premier set-in-the-70's flick, The Spirit of 76, I wondered if she wasn't tempted to do the same for The Virgin Suicides. "There was too much to do," she says, "I wanted to hand it over. And I wanted to work with Nancy Steiner because she's more aware of the clothes. I'm such a fan of hers. She did that movie Safe (1995), which I think takes place in the 80's. I love that movie. It's so subtle. The clothes in that were really perfect but not flashy. They were understated. I wanted my movie to be period, but in the background and no jokes about it."

Coppola talks about the direction she took in giving the film its cohesive look and feel. "When you start, you picture it a certain way and every decision you make is related to that. That's what I liked about the book--that kind of etherealness--and also that it's a memory and not reality. A lot of [the technique] was shooting it from afar. The camera was really simple. It wasn't aggressive. The music [by the group Air] really helped a lot. I wanted to work with them because they have that kind of dreamlike sound. I listened to their music a lot when I was writing the script."

Coppola talks about preparing the movie at the same time her husband was preparing Being John Malkovich. "We were at the same place when we were both trying to get actors and financing at the same time, waiting for people to call you back. You're so anxious because you're excited to make a movie, but it could fall apart at any minute."

How does she feel now that the film is finally coming out? "It's nerve racking. We finished it for Cannes last year so it's been awhile. And everyone's like, 'is your movie ever coming out?'"

March 30, 2000

Movies Unlimtied