Sofia So Good
Your name is Sofia Coppola. Your first four films were runaway hits. You picked up an Oscar for Lost In Translation, as well as a cupboard load of Golden Globes. You’ve just wrapped your latest movie, Marie Antoinette , which scooped another Academy Award (this one for the costumes). What next?
Well, what indeed. First, Coppola stepped away from the movies. Instead, she took her bag of tricks over to the world of advertising. The Miss Dior Cherie fragrance ad that she helmed featured Maryna Linchuk frolicking around the streets of Paris to the tune of Brigitte Bardot’s Moi, Je Joue. But it wasn’t long before the movies started calling again…
All of Coppola’s films up to that point had dealt in some way with alienation. Two of them had been book adaptations. Two were original scripts by Coppola herself. But with her next filmic endeavour, Coppola wanted to go even more personal than ever before.
“After Marie Antoinette ,” she says, “which was really fun and over the top, but it just involved so many people, I thought, ‘Oh I’d really like to go back to doing something more intimate where I can just focus on one or two characters and a small crew.’” All she needed was a story…
Some Kind Of Story
Luckily, Sofia found the basis for her story right there in her own past. “When I was growing up, we spent a lot of time in hotels, off-and-on, going on location with my dad [ Francis Ford Coppola ] when he was filming in different places,” she reveals. “As a kid, I always thought it was interesting to see the people staying in hotels, and fun to be in hotels. They become their own world inside.”
So hotels were in again, a place Sofia had previously exploreed with Lost In Translation . But how to go about crafting this hotel-based story? Sofia discovered her lead character in a surprising place – one of her own unused scripts. “A couple of years ago, I was working on a different script, a vampire story,” she says. “There was this Hollywood movie star character who popped into that story. He kept coming into my thoughts and demanding my attention, and I figured that he really needed his own movie.” And then Johnny Marco was born…
Sofia’s new script, given the working title Somewhere , found its voice and purpose with the character of Johnny Marco. An acting sensation, he’s adored by women, and spends his life partying it up in the famous celebrity hotel Chateau Marmont.
“It seems like every young actor I’ve talked to has a story about living at the Chateau,” says Sofia. “They’ve all done a stint there; ‘Oh yeah, I lived there a year,’ or ‘I lived at the Chateau for a couple of months.’ It’s kind of a rite of passage.” Alright, so who to play Mr Marco…?
Coppola found her perfect leading man in Stephen Dorff. Which was sort of who she’d had in mind the entire time, anyway. “When I was working on that other script and this character came into my head, I pictured Stephen from the beginning,” the director says. “Other actors were suggested to me [ later ], but I came back to my first [ choice ], Stephen.”
Having made an impact with films like Back Beat and Blade , Dorff had been appearing in less high profile films for a while. Coppola's offer seemed like the perfect return to form. “After making around three dozen movies, I’ve gotten a gift of a part,” Dorff recalls. “ Somewhere is special – poetic, sweet, and truly in Sofia’s style.” Now he just needed to figure out who Johnny Marco was…
The M Factor
“I know what it’s like to live as an actor like Johnny Marco,” Dorff says. “I get who he is. I’ve had times where I’ve coasted. When we meet him, Johnny is lost in a monotonous rhythm and a decadent lifestyle. He’s a nice guy, but he’s drinking and popping pills.”
Though Dorff doesn't elaborate just where Marco begins and he ends, it's clear that the part struck a chord with him. “I don’t think he’s proud of a lot of the films he’s done – like his new one, Berlin Agenda. He hasn’t gotten his Somewhere yet.” But things are about to change for Marco…
Marco’s life is turned upside-down when his daughter, Cleo, arrives for a prolonged visit after her mother decides she needs some space. “The character of Cleo was inspired by a friend’s kid that age whose parents are in show business,” Sofia says, “but also by my memories of having a powerful father that people are attracted to being around. It’s not all me, but there’s things from my childhood.”
Cleo ends up inadvertently shining a light on Marco’s life, and helping him to dig himself out of the rut that he’s fallen into. But where to find a young actress who could pull off the role…
One young actress who was put forward for the part was Elle Fanning. The young sister of Dakota Fanning, Elle had already worked in the movies, most notably on The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, she’s going to be this professional Hollywood Kid, and probably not what I had in mind,’” Coppola recalls. “I wanted a kid who would feel real, and a contrast from the showbiz world. But we met Elle and were really taken with her.” Elle herself felt that Somewhere was “a movie where everything felt real, including Cleo’s relationship with her dad.” Now she just had to meet Dorff…
Dorff & Elle
“We got right to the core of how Stephen and Elle would work together, without any pressure or tension,” notes producer G. Mac Brown. Dorff, meanwhile, believes that his relationship with his younger sisters helped him find some common ground with Elle.
“My sisters are, or have been, near Cleo’s age and I’m very close to them,” he says. “I pulled from that a lot for my scenes with Elle – who is a brilliant little thespian and also a real, sweet girl.” How did Elle find the emotional scenes involved? “I put myself in the character’s place. Acting is making believe, then being natural – and going with whatever happens.” She had another challenge coming up, though…
Ice To See You
As written, Cleo is a burgeoning ice skater. Which naturally meant that Fanning would have to get into a pair of skates and learn to slice the ice for a pivotal scene in which her father watches her practice. Fanning spent six weeks learning with figure-skating champ Renee Roca.
“I wanted to show that she’s a girl right on the cusp of transforming into a teenager,” says Sofia. “The way Johnny is with women, I thought it must be complicated to have a daughter who’s on the verge of becoming a woman. So, to me, the sequence is about that. Elle learned to ice skate for the movie. I think we were all so emotional when we filmed that because she didn’t skate before and she learned how to skate and showed us the routine and we were all rooting for her.” Next up, Sofia needed to cast Marco’s friend Sammy...
Play It Again, Sammy
And she had just the right guy for the job – Chris Pontius. “I know him from the Jackass group,” she says, “but he’s so good with kids I knew he’d be fun to watch with Elle. He’s supposed to be someone from Johnny’s past.”
For Pontius, the movie posed a fun challenge: adapting the spotaneity and improvisation-heavy approach of Jackass to a movie. “What I do on Jackass and Wildboyz is mostly improvisation,” he says, “though we have things planned out that we’re going to film. In the Somewhere script, my character would only have one or two lines written, so a lot of my part was improvised. I did make up histories in my head and remember stories to have in mind. I got a kick out of shocking Elle sometimes.” Finally, Sofia needed some sexy ladies…
In order to give a hint of Marco’s decadent, slightly seedy lifestyle, Sofia needed some rather, uh, exotic dancers for scenes set in Marco’s bedroom. After auditioning a number of girls, she met Playboy models Kristina and Karissa Shannon.
“Sofia asked us if we could dance,” Kristina says. “We love dancing, and we’re good at it. Because I’m more girly and Karissa’s more of a tomboy, that’s how we got our [ respective ] parts [ assigned by Sofia ]. I get to kiss Stephen Dorff, and Karissa gets to smack him.” Alright, cast’s done. Now it’s time to shoot…
Considering that much of Sofia’s script took place inside the Chateau Marmont, it was pivotal that she get access to the prestigious hotel – which is not open to the public. Did she have a back up? “No. It had to be [ the Chateau ] – it was an essential element, the third [ main ] character in the movie,” she says. “A lot of times, I don’t have a plan B; I just have to find a way to make it work. Or then rethink the whole thing.
Luckily for her, owner André Balazs and general manager Philip Pavel were happy to open their doors. Producer Roman Coppola knows the film wouldn’t have been the same without it: “The Chateau is such a beautiful place. I have affectionate memories of it. The place is its own little world, peaceful and very European. It’s charged with history and personality.” It was Dorff who’d get to know the hotel best, though…
Dorff had already stayed in the Chateau for a couple of months around his 21st birthday. “I remember it always being trendy,” he says, “but I don’t remember it being so popular. It’s now quite a hot spot at night.”
In preparation for the film, Dorff decided to check into the hotel again. “It was kind of a trip to be back staying at the Chateau, not going back to my own home every night,” he reveals. “By living there, I experienced a lot of what Johnny would have. Many times I would think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see anybody; I’m going to order room service.’” He had the pad, now he needed threads...
Stacey Battat, who had worked as costume designer for Broken English and How To Make It In America, was hired to help find Johnny Marco’s wardrobe. As inspiration, the costume designer looked at Bruce Webber photos, as well as Gus van Sant's iconic My Own Private Idaho.
“We knew we wanted Johnny to wear work boots, and the brown boots we ended up using were vintage Red Wings from the 1940s,” Battat says. “We wanted him to recall Marlon Brando, wearing T-shirts and vintage Levi’s jeans. Even though he’s a movie star of today, he wears classic clothes. His wardrobe is reflective of his personality, but also that he is messy. He will sleep in his clothes, and doesn’t own pyjamas.” He was also going to need a passport…
“I had never been to Italy,” enthuses Fanning, “and I had been told that Milan is the fashion capital of the world, so I was excited to go. I liked visiting the places that were from another era – and the pasta and pizza were so good!”
Shooting saw the cast and crew uproot from LA and set down in Italy in June 2009, as Marco goes to collect a trophy at the Telegatto Awards. Which also involved cameos from people like filmmaker Maurizio Nichetti. “They made it more authentic, especially for the Italian audience," reasons Sofia. "I had gone to the Telegatto Awards with my family years ago. That Italian television culture is so specific, and so different than ours – it’s over the top. Being in that foreign a setting bonds Johnny and Cleo together.” As shooting wrapped in June 2009, Coppola and crew preapred to unleash Somewhere on the world…
Somewhere had its debut at the Venice Film Festival in September 2010, where it went down a storm. Stephen Dorff was in no doubt why it ended up making such an impact. “The emotions in Somewhere are real, but subtle,” he says. “Sofia, being both open and precise, created a foundation where Elle and I could get to them. It had been a long time since I’d been on a set where there wasn’t a bunch of monitors being watched; Sofia would always be watching us.”
At the Festival, Somewhere was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion award for best picture. Judge Quentin Tarantino commented that the film “grew and grew in our hearts, in our minds, in our affections”. So, after all the accolades, Sofia can finally reflect on her fourth successful film…
…And she wouldn’t change a thing. Unlike most Hollywood films, she resisted giving Somewhere an overblown dramatic finale. “Something like that was suggested to me,” she admits, “but I feel that in life those things don’t always happen. You don’t have to gain awareness from something big and dramatic; it can be from details that you [ take ] notice [ of ]. Spending time with his daughter in a more aware way [ than before ] affects Johnny, and I feel that the film ends on a hopeful note.”
She’s even happy with the film’s title. “It’s funny, Somewhere was a temporary title, but it just stuck. Since I wanted the movie to be like a tone poem of this time in this guy’s life, it reflected his knowing he needs to go somewhere – but he doesn’t know where exactly.” Somewhere good, we’re sure.