Somewhere is the exact type of film you expect from Sofia Coppola. Thematically, it’s very similar to her other works. And its lead protagonist, Johnny Marco, is a celebrity. A celebrity (like Bob in Lost in Translation) that is empty and nearly invisible. There are a lot of people who can’t sympathize with those with success. It’s a cynical response, and Coppola doesn’t seem to understand it as well. There’s something saddening and universal about Johnny Marco that people without large bank accounts should be able to connect with.
Most of Coppola’s leads are always lost and trying to find footing in their lives. Coppola explores similar themes quite frequently from isolation to empty success, and revisiting those themes and trying to keep it fresh is something the acclaimed director discussed below. Coppola was swift in her responses, but always to the point. Thankfully, I had plenty of time with her and found her to be quite pleasant and passionate.
Here’s what Sofia Coppola had to say about her new entry in the unplanned Celebrity trilogy:
It seems more than suitable to start off talking about doing press, especially since there’s a scene with Johnny Marco in that process. Is it as terrible for you as it is for him?
[Laughs] No. I was trying to write it from his point-of-view and how he’s promoting this movie he’s not proud of. It’s just this big action movie he didn’t care about. I just wanted to do it from his point-of-view. I’m proud to talk about [the] movie. I’m glad to talk about the movie because I’m excited about it, especially when people are genuinely interested. It gets bizarre talking about yourself all the time. When you have a long stretch of interviews, it gets a little weird.
Was it a conscious decision after Marie Antoinette to do something more minimal?
Yeah, definitely. I think after that, it was just so much decoration and characters. It was really fun, but after that I just wanted to do something simpler. It’s totally different.
I know that was your first studio film. Was this different direction at all a reaction to your studio experience or was that a positive experience?
I got to do it in a way that I could do it exactly as I wanted to, so I didn’t really see a big difference as far as that. It just was a lot of managing and a lot of people. It was a long and expensive shoot. I just wanted to do something the way you do a short story.
When it comes to Johnny Marco, he’s someone that’s not likable or dislikable; he’s kind of invisible. What peaked your interest about that point-of-view?
I feel like he’s so out of balance and drifting. It’s, like, he’s just not kinda there. I felt like he was a likable person underneath. Hopefully he’s a type of decent person that you root for to get it together. A part of casting Stephen [Dorff] was that he’s such a sweet guy with a lot of heart, so that would come through. So when he’s with the kid, you can see there’s something sweet kinda underneath his blankness. He’s numb and needs waking up. I wanted him to be a nice guy, even though he’s a mess.
You really pace and shoot the film in a deliberately paced way. When it comes to that type of pace, how do you make sure that slow-burn doesn’t become tiring or tedious?
I hope that you can feel his disconnect and be stuck with him. It was a balance I found in the editing room. It was a hope that it’s not boring the audience while tearing into this guy’s private time and seeing the moments you normally don’t see of someone’s life.
Do you recall any specific moments for certain scenes of finding that balance?
No, I can’t. I think we used most of it. I’m trying to think, but there were a few things. It was more about the timing and how long we could hold onto things, like the pole dancers. I wanted it to be long enough where it’s mundane, not exciting. I wanted to do things in real time when we could. The ice skating is a whole sequence, instead of cutting it out like a typical movie approach.
For most of the film, do you think Johnny is aware of how his life is or is oblivious?
I think he’s oblivious, but then starts to come out of his daze after spending time with his daughter, who’s so full of life. I imagine that he just became famous a couple of years ago, so he got in trouble and got into all the perks. He’s just been partying for the past couple of years. I imagined that he was from a small town, like Nevada. His buddy, the Chris Pontius character, is from his old days. I imagined his wife that he had the daughter with was with him before he made it. It was kinda the general ideas.
Does Johnny Marco end your unofficial celebrity trilogy?
Oh, I never really thought about it like that, but I can see that. I think they all have an element of that. In The Virgin Suicides, the girls were the celebrities of the town. It had such a big presence in my upbringing that I guess it made an impact on me. I feel like, I never intended that or thought about it consciously. Now that I look at them, I definitely see that there’s themes they share and that they’re made by the same person.
And when it comes to revisiting themes like loneliness and empty success, how do you keep it fresh? Do you think there’s just plenty to explore there?
I don’t know. I just try to write what’s on my mind. I like writing about moments in peoples’ lives where they’re going through a transition and try to learn something about themselves. The drama comes a lot from within them opposed to a lot of other movies where you need a big disaster for people to realize what type of person they’re going to be and bring it out of them and for them to have this impetus to change. I think everyone has to decide what kind of person they want to be in the world that they didn’t choose for themselves.
That’s obviously very universal, but there’s always a response from some people about protagonists like Johnny Marco that they can’t sympathize with someone successful. What do you think about that?
You know, they don’t have to come see the movie [Laughs]. I think these are really human and universal themes that everyone can relate to. I think just because someone has money or wealth doesn’t mean that his or her feelings are less valid, you know? I don’t know why… I feel that people should be open to seeing all kinds of points-of-view, even if it’s talking about superficiality. That’s just an element of the story and life that I think is very prevalent in today’s culture.
While you do focus on celebrities in your films, your work also usually follows a coming-of-age tale. Do you see it that way?
Coming-of-age? I think that, yeah. The characters are usually at a moment of growth and transition. I think they’ve all had an element of that.
Does it matter if Cleo heard Johnny say, “Sorry I haven’t been around,” at the end?
I feel like she didn’t hear him. I think it’s just that thing in life where you think of the right thing to say, but it’s just too late. It’s just that kind of missed opportunity. He says it right when the helicopter started, so it’s just that bad timing in life. It doesn’t matter, I feel like. They’re going to hang out again soon, and it’ll be different from the beginning of the story.
And maybe she already knows he’s sorry.
Yeah, yeah. I feel like he doesn’t mean to be that way and he could’ve said it to her in the car, though. I think that’s like a lot of times in life that you think of the right thing to say after the fact.
It’s a lot like the ending of Lost in Translation. People always try to figure out what he says, but it doesn’t really seem to matter.
Yeah, yeah. I like those kind of moments where it’s all spelled out, but you get the gist of it.
When it comes to your style, how precise are you as a filmmaker?
I don’t storyboard. I usually try to approach it like a photo shoot where you have all the elements and then you get there and just see. There’s certain things I really picture while I’m writing, like the opening shot. That was really clear to me. I know they contradict each other, but I feel like the writing is very precise, because it’s so simple. I try to also be intuitive and open when I’m on set. Does that make sense?
Completely. Trying to be spontaneous.
Yeah. I like working in a more loose way, where you’re responding to the actors. You don’t know once you get there if the light might look great on the balcony or the actors just feel more comfortable sitting somewhere else. I’m not one of those rigid directors who has it all planned out, although I have a clear picture of how I want it to feel.
How about when you zoom out from Johnny and Cleo by the pool or when they’re playing around under water? How did those come about?
I feel like we were just there like, “Where should we shoot it? Oh, lets shoot it from across the pool. Now let’s try to slow it down just for fun.” I think it comes out of the shooting. There are certain things I have in mind before that I really want to get, like the close-up of the pole dancer’s pole being folded up.
Obviously, you have a very identifiable style. I’ve talked to a few filmmakers about this, but can you talk about the challenge of staying invisible behind the camera and not calling attention to yourself?
Oh yeah, I never really thought about that. I remember I was watching something where I was really aware of the director recently, so that’s funny you mention it. I never thought about how to stay out of the way. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my personality [Laughs]. I just try to make it in a way that I see how the story should be told. It’s a good question, but I don’t know how you stay out of the way. I think some put their ego… Well, I mean it is pretty important of the whole aspect of making sure you’re putting exactly what you want, and that can be something admirable. I guess, you either like it or you don’t. It’s a personal style.
Do you conduct test screenings?
No, we never did any test screenings. I don’t find that helpful. Usually the people in those don’t like things that are different, so I think for this type of movie it wouldn’t be helpful. I mean, maybe for a different kind of movie it would be.
Have any of your previous films been shown to a test audience? Was Marie Antoinette shown to a preview audience?
Yeah, I don’t remember being at one. I’m sure they did one. I can’t remember, but I remember there being notes. I just don’t find them very helpful [Laughs]. I remember doing it for The Virgin Suicides.
Did you show your films to friends or filmmaker for notes?
Yeah, yeah. I showed it to friends, and you can still feel like you’re watching it with an audience seeing when they’re involved and when they’re not. They’ll ask questions and tell me what they thought.
Do you remember what type of notes you got?
I can’t remember exactly the specifics. It was all about timing and stuff, but it didn’t change a lot. There wasn’t anything drastic.
When it comes to Phoenix’s score, what was your collaboration process like with them?
I like that song Love Like a Sunset, so I asked them if we could use that and if they could do some other really simple pieces that were related to that. It’s very simple in the background and blends into the sound of the Ferrari. I think it has a hint of his kind of themes. I tried to use the pop songs as source music, so they’re not a part of the score. I would just send them scenes and they’d send me some options. It was all kinda related to that one song.
The score feels like something Johnny Marco would listen to.
[Laughs] Oh, that’s cool. I never really thought about that. I did give Stephen [Dorff] some of the music. He has a Porsche and he’d drive around LA listening to it to get into that mood.
What made you go with Phoenix over a standard composer?
You know, I’ve never worked with a standard film composer. I’ve always worked with bands. I’ve never worked with a composer. I don’t like those traditional scores that kinda underline the emotions and stuff, in a conventional way. I also feel like, with musicians that haven’t done a film [score] before, I find it interesting that they approach it in a more unusual way because they’re not used to working that way.
Somewhere is now in limited release and expanding soon.