Sofia Coppola Mimics Hollywood Life In 'Somewhere'

Sofia Coppola i i

Sofia Coppola was nominated for an Academy Award for her film Lost in Translation. Her new project, Somewhere, won the Gold Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival. Damian Dovarganes/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Damian Dovarganes/AP
Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola was nominated for an Academy Award for her film Lost in Translation. Her new project, Somewhere, won the Gold Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

Sofia Coppola's latest film is about a Hollywood actor who seemingly has it all on the surface. But in between the more public moments of his life, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is bored and depressed. His life is intellectually and emotionally empty, and he compensates with an endless stream of pills, alcohol and random one-night hookups in his suite at the Chateau Marmont, the Hollywood hotel famous for catering to raucous celebrities.

Coppola, who wrote, produced and directed the film, says she wanted to show a side of the movie-star lifestyle that people don't normally get to see.

"I wanted to show what happens in between the more public moments [of an actor's life,]" she says. "When I was writing the script, there were a few stories in the news about a couple of really successful actors and performers having personal crises, and it looked like they were having this fun party lifestyle — and from there, I tried to imagine what [Marco's] life would be like the next morning."

Marco's life gets turned upside down when his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), moves in with him and he's forced to re-examine his superficial existence.

Coppola tells Terry Gross that she based the 11-year-old daughter in her film on the daughter of a Hollywood friend but also tried to work in experiences she remembered growing up as the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola.

"I remember being in a casino with my dad, because he used to like to write scripts in casinos, and him explaining craps to me," she says. "And it was always exciting as a kid to get to go on a trip or around a world where kids aren't normally brought into."

But she says there are major differences between the disconnected father in her movie and her relationship with her own father.

"My dad was always very engaged. He always included us, and my parents are still married after many years, so the situation is different. But I tried to put in things that I remember about him into this character who's very unlike him — that bigger-than-life person," she says.

She points to one scene in the movie, where Marco takes his daughter to an Italian film festival and orders every flavor of ice cream for her in the hotel.

"That's the kind of thing my dad would have done," she says. "I remember one time, I think I had the flu, and I was on my own with my dad. My mom was doing something, and I remember he made me every kind of ice cream concoction he could come up with. So things like that stay in my mind as fun memories of that kind of dad."

For Coppola, Dorff, A Realistic Look At 'Somewhere'

Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning

A Place For Them? Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) bonds with his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), in Sofia Coppola's Hollywood drama Somewhere. Merrick Morton/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Merrick Morton/Focus Features

Hollywood actor Johnny Marco drives a Ferrari. He lives in the Chateau Marmont, synonymous with both "celebrity" and "notoriety." Twin blond strippers visit his room there to pole-dance for him in the middle of the night.

He's also divorced and disconnected, numbed by booze and pills, energetically "on" in public but deeply unhappy in private.

Marco is the protagonist of Sofia Coppola's new movie, Somewhere, and both Coppola and Stephen Dorff, the actor who plays the character, appear to be fascinated by him. Coppola wrote, produced and directed the film and says her protagonist was inspired by real Hollywood people — "these successful movie-star types with a party lifestyle," as she puts it, "and, you know, lots of different women."

"It looks really fun," Coppola tells NPR's Melissa Block. "But I wondered what the other side of his life might be like, and what it could be like in his private moments."

What came to her was a character whose life "has become out of balance when we meet him," she says. "He's drifting."

That life gets upended when Marco's 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), unexpectedly comes to live with him. Coppola and Dorff tried to portray the changes in a superficial life as realistically as possible, and they resorted to some somewhat unconventional methods to do it.

"It was so important for the movie to be really natural, or else you wouldn't feel like you were with this guy, alone with him," Coppola says. "It was important for the tone, I think."

"I'm glad you didn't do any acting," Coppola tells Dorff, who joined her in the studios at NPR West. She means it as a compliment, and Dorff seems to take it that way.

"I felt like if I was going to do any acting, it might unravel this intimacy that Sofia was creating," Dorff says.

'When You're Lost, Time's Moving Slow'

In the early stretches of Somewhere, Johnny Marco can't quite stay awake. He falls asleep in the middle of that pole-dance. At one point, he nods off during sex.

"Yeah, he sleeps a lot, Johnny Marco," Dorff says. "There are so many quiet moments, so much sleeping."

With such an understated character to play, Dorff looked for ways to express the man's emotional state through brief glances and telling behavior.

"It took some good sleep-acting," he says, laughing. "I tried to [come to the set] really tired, because I always find that [in] movies with people 'waking up' or 'falling asleep,' it always seems a little acted."

There are long scenes in Somewhere where nothing really happens. Marco sits by himself, has a beer, smokes an entire cigarette on camera.

Normally that is a technical challenge — in an average film, with multiple takes and camera angles, "you have to worry about how long the cigarette was at the moment [you cut]" to avoid continuity errors, Dorff points out. "So I thought that cigarette scene was very daring."

In Somewhere, though, the long, lonely scenes take place in real time, and the camera rarely cuts. Dorff says that in addition to minimizing continuity issues, it actually made his job easier.

"Sofia did such a cool job at keeping it very bare minimum with the crew," he says. "It felt like we were alone — the room felt dark; I just had a coffee table with a beer and my cigarette and those fake apples on the table."

Sofia Coppola and Stephen Dorff. i i

Unconventional Moviemaking: Director Sofia Coppola (left, with Dorff at the Somewhere premiere) used strategies she learned from her father, Francis Ford Coppola, to help heighten the film's sense of realism. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Sofia Coppola and Stephen Dorff.

Unconventional Moviemaking: Director Sofia Coppola (left, with Dorff at the Somewhere premiere) used strategies she learned from her father, Francis Ford Coppola, to help heighten the film's sense of realism.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Actor and director agree that those scenes are key to conveying Marco's discontent.

"When you're lost, time's moving slow," Dorff says. "You look at your watch, and maybe only 10 minutes have gone by."

And when it comes to Johnny Marco, "he's always had someone telling him where to go and what to do," adds Coppola. "So the moment he's alone, he doesn't really know what to do with himself."

After-School Bonding

Cleo, Johnny Marco's daughter, has led a privileged life herself — her dad's a star, after all — but she's still something of an innocent when she arrives to stay with him at the Chateau Marmont.

"It was important that that she feel like a real kid," Coppola says. She wanted Cleo to represent "a real contrast" to Johnny's unmoored life.

And it was important that the two have a clear connection, even though he doesn't know her very well. To create that bond convincingly, Coppola, Dorff and Fanning did plenty of work off camera.

"We did rehearsals and improvisations — and I asked Stephen to pick her up at school, and really take her to do some things," Coppola says.

It's a trick the director learned from her father, Hollywood veteran Francis Ford Coppola. "He used to do that with actors ... to give the characters memories," she says. "I've done that with my other films, and I found it really adds a lot to it."

"It was cute," she adds. "Stephen and Elle would come back and tell me the things they did together."

For the young, unmarried Dorff, picking Fanning up from school was an unfamiliar experience. "I was kind of worried about being responsible," he remembers. "Not being a father yet, I don't really know what it's like to hang out with an 11-year-old in my car."

Among other things, he's a smoker — and his car smelled like it, he says.

"It was strange," he remembers. "I picked her up in my car, and I kind of sprayed some air freshener, and asked her to put her seat belt on and really focused on my driving. We went for a yogurt together because she didn't want ice cream — we went to Pinkberry. And then we went to this cool place called Color Me Mine, this pottery place where kids can, like, make stuff, and then they cook it in ovens and you pick it up the next day.

"What was great was that we got to kind of fight through the awkwardness and the nervousness of just meeting each other, and developed a friendship and a trust," he says. "So much of the movie was like working with my equal — I had to try to remember, 'Oh, Elle's only 11,' because she's such a great actress and such a great girl.

"I went to her volleyball games. It was just kind of nice that Sofia gave us that time. When it came time to come around the set, we really could do anything."

"I felt like by the time we started shooting they had a rapport," Coppola adds. "All these kind of private jokes. You feel their bond come through."

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Though Dorff and Coppola went to great lengths to conjure up Marco's world convincingly, some parts of his life were easier than others to portray realistically. In one scene, Marco attends a press conference with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to promote his latest film. A flurry of hilariously inane questions ensues. Coppola says the journalists in the scene were real members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — the group that hands out the Golden Globes — and they came up with plenty of those offbeat queries themselves.

"They're so random, because they all write for different kinds of magazines," she says. So although she scripted some of the sillier questions, also "just asked them, 'You know, ask what you would ask really at a conference.' "

The result? A Russian journalist asked Dorff, in character as Johnny Marco, for his workout secrets. It's one of the funnier moments in the film.

And then it happened all over again, when the two hit the PR circuit for Somewhere.

"Yeah I found the [real-life] Hollywood Foreign Press conference that we just did the other day very surreal," Dorff says. "We were in the same exact room, same exact desk, except it said my name instead of Johnny Marco's."

"They did ask me a silly question [about] if I had a cat or a dog," he adds.

"Mmm, the pet question," Coppola says, sympathetically.

"Yeah, from a pet magazine," Dorff says.

Sometimes, apparently, you don't need to make this stuff up.

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