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It's one of the puzzling paradoxes of Sofia's career: A woman who began her working life being eviscerated for her acting has turned into a supremely confident director of actors, coaxing naturalistic, extraordinarily nuanced performances out of stars (Kirsten Dunst, Scarlett Johansson, even Bill Murray) who have not necessarily shown such chops in other circumstances.
She studied with an acting coach before directing Virgin Suicides, and her famously threadbare screenplays leave room for spontaneity and improvisation in performance, as well as visual storytelling. As Dorff explains it, "In the script it'll be, 'Scene 36: Johnny plays Guitar Hero with Cleo while Sammy's on the couch on a sunny day. Sun's blasting through the windows of the Chateau.' You know, it would be two sentences, but now in the movie that's probably seven minutes."
"It's true that she is a person of fewer words than other people," says Roman Coppola, Sofia's older brother, producer of Somewhere and frequent second-unit director (he's responsible for some of the most iconic images from Sofia's films, including the exterior shots of Tokyo in Translation and the pastry montage in Marie). "She works in more of a shorthand. Not just with me, but with her collaborators; there's a place you get to with people you're close to, where not a whole lot needs to be said. If we were talking and I said, 'Oh, this restaurant has red tablecloths,' [she'd respond], 'Oh, I totally get it, I know that kind of place.' I think she develops that shorthand with the people that she chooses to work with."
On Somewhere, one of Sofia's key methods for expressing that shorthand was by citing and showing to her collaborators movies that contain elements of Somewhere's DNA. She wanted to make a portrait of L.A. today that would serve as a time capsule for future generations, the way American Gigolo and Shampoo do for their respective moments in time.
In every conceivable way, Somewhere represents a scaling back. Costuming was essentially a subplot in Marie Antoinette, and Milena Canonero's wardrobe design won a much-deserved Oscar accordingly. In Somewhere, Dorff has exactly three looks: a tuxedo in one scene, a post-shower towel in a couple of them, and a T-shirt and jeans through the rest of the film. And while the Chateau may be exclusive, it's hardly Versailles — Somewhere's production design aimed to present it with as little gloss as possible.
The biggest point of departure may be Somewhere's soundtrack. Marie Antoinette essentially plays out as a series of music videos set to period-imperfect source cues from Adam Ant and The Strokes. That sensibility has long been a Sofia Coppola trademark, dating back to the montages set to Heart singles in Virgin Suicides. Somewhere is short on both music and montage. It's the first Sofia Coppola film that prizes natural, narrative sound — including music that's organically part of a scene, as in two sequences involving rent-a-strippers — over an artfully chosen, hipster-baiting soundtrack.
"I was getting kind of tired of movies that just have pop song after pop song as the score — I did that before," Sofia says. "I wanted to see how little we could use music." Some scenes are so quiet that sounds that otherwise would seem incidental almost boom on the soundtrack, as in a long take of Johnny in his hotel room, in which there's so little going on that the sound of his cigarette burning almost seems to echo.
"I found sitting there smoking a cigarette with nothing [to say] one of the most challenging things," Dorff says. "Because if I'm 'acting' for one second, the movie's done."
With no permanent residence in L.A., she and Mars and their kids have been living at the Chateau while Coppola promotes Somewhere. Despite the hotel's reputation, they're not the odd domestic unit at the bacchanal; a fashion-industry friend of Sofia's who also has a baby daughter has been living here with her own family for the past six months. "It's been fun," Sofia says with genuine enthusiasm, in full mom mode and apparently loving it.
But change is in the air. In a few days, Sofia and family will head up to Napa for Christmas. After that, she'll start to think about her next project. In an echo of her film's highly symbolic ending, she tells me she's just let go of one major tie to L.A. "I had an old Jaguar, and I recently sold it," she says, wistfully. "I love cars, and I miss that part of L.A., driving around. I had it for like ten years, but it was just sitting in a garage."
Is it a sign that she's decisively put Los Angeles in her rearview mirror, so to speak? If so, she isn't letting go completely. She smiles, almost conspiratorially.
"I sold it to a friend."
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