LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - In just four films — two original and two adaptations — Sofia Coppola has proved herself one of the most fascinating American auteurs working today.
She makes pensive, intimate portraits in which her protagonists often feel growing pains while transitioning into a new stage in their isolated, privileged lives. Coppola’s special brand of “cool” marks each film she touches — a strong sense of personal style that has propelled her far from Francis Ford Coppola’s paternal shadow.
In her latest film, “Somewhere,” Hollywood star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is going nowhere in style — driving his Ferrari, ordering strippers like room service, and partying — when his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning), who is fast becoming a woman, reappears in his life.
“I thought about how Johnny is at that age in this moment where he can either be a guy with a family or the old guy at the nightclub,” says Coppola, a mother of two.
“It’s really that pivotal point. I think everybody has to choose what way they’re going to live their life eventually, and I wanted to show that.”
Shot with a small crew almost entirely at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, “Somewhere” contrasts sharply with her previous film, “Marie Antoinette” — a grand period production with hundreds of extras in whipped-cream costumes at Versailles. Inspired by the French New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut, “Somewhere” includes a lot of long, lingering takes of her leading man in action that might put off an audience with a shorter attention span.
The character of Johnny was born in a vampire movie script Coppola penned years ago that never went anywhere, and she always imagined Dorff in the role, having first met him in the 1990s. Later, while she attended a film festival in London for “Lost in Translation” — the script for which she won the Oscar — she spent an evening with Dorff at a party.
“He was so sweet, and he was such a genuine guy that he came to mind when I was writing this character again, because I thought he could kind of be a mess but that he has this lovable side. Stephen has a lot of heart, and that would add a lot to the character,” she says.
Dorff has since called Johnny the best role of his career. The film’s pace was a new thing for the actor. He had never smoked an entire cigarette on camera before, and he pulls off those lonely moments beautifully.
“It looks seemingly easy, but I think it’s hard for an actor to be believable just being alone like that and not hiding behind a big flashy performance,” Coppola says.
Fanning was the first actor to read for the part, and Coppola got so attached to her as Cleo that she compared every other auditioning young actor against Fanning.
Coppola says she gets uncomfortable with traditional auditions. “Usually we just ask them to talk and have a conversation. Elle just told us about school. You can tell if someone is interesting to talk to or has a charisma or whatever it is that comes through.”
To create a feeling of rapport, Dorff picked Fanning up from school, cheered her at her volleyball game, and made pottery with her for Coppola at Color Me Mine. “Yes, they brought me things,” says Coppola, smiling. “It was very sweet.”
Coppola instructed Dorff to watch “Paper Moon,” starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, and he moved into a room a floor up from his character’s at the Chateau Marmont. Fanning trained for six weeks to learn her figure skating routine.
To play the role of Johnny’s oldest buddy, Sammy, Coppola chose Chris Pontius — a.k.a. Party Boy from “Jackass” — because she knew he’d have “amazing” improvisational skills.
When the director was searching for twins to play Johnny’s favorite, mesmerizing strippers, a friend of Coppola’s suggested the Shannon twins from the E! reality series “The Girls Next Door.” Coppola instantly found Kristina and Karissa Shannon perfect for the roles and “really cute.”
The director recalls, “They started rehearsing with my choreographer (Robin Conrad), and I had to go meet them to work on the (pole dancing) choreography, and they said, ‘Well, part of it is we’re taping our show, so you have to be on the show.’ So I was like, ‘Um, okay,’ but it was fun to go to the Playboy mansion. It was really funny how many of my friends watch that show, because everyone saw it, and they were really surprised to see me there.”