Sofia Coppola is so slight in build and so unassuming in person that it's hard to believe she is 42 years old, let alone that she is the daughter of the bear-like filmmaking behemoth, Francis Ford Coppola. But Coppola has made her own mark on cinematic history as a director—just like her dad. She was the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for directing Lost in Translation and she became the first American woman (and fourth American director) to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, for Somewhere, the story of a substance-abusing movie star struggling to raise his surprisingly mature daughter in the Hollywood party hub of the Chateau Marmont, a place Coppola herself used to frequent as a child—even if her own upbringing took place in a “fairly normal” environment in the Napa Valley.
I just tried to make a movie that was the experience of these kids and
let the audience think about what’s important to them and how they feel.
“It was fun to watch the people—Helmut Newton used to go there and he's a hero of mine, so it has that kind of glamorous history with so many stories attached to it. The Chateau Marmont was different before all the tabloids and all the reality shows,” she says.
Coppola had mined similar turf before in Marie Antoinette, during whose reign the very concept of celebrity reporting had been invented. Now she is perhaps at her most scathing in The Bling Ring where she follows a group of teens who live and breathe celebrity culture to such an extent that they are blinded by the consequences of their actions.
When Coppola first read Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales' article 'The Suspects Wore Louboutins', she was vaguely aware of the story of Los Angeles high schoolers, who between 2008 and 2009 stole from celebrity mansions. “It sounded like a movie to me and I thought that somebody must already be making a movie out of this story.” When she discovered they weren't, she obtained the rights and access to all of Sales' interview transcripts and research. She then put together research kits for her cast, featuring surveillance footage of their real-life counterparts.
Rachel Lee, here played by Katie Chang, was the ringleader of the gang, though the impressionable Nick Prugo, played by Israel Broussard, was always by her side. Emma Watson, in the supporting role of attention-seeking Nicky, based on Alexis Neiers (who was actually on the short-lived reality show Pretty Wild, together her mum and sisters) bookends the film with her self-satisfied speeches outside the courthouse.
Why are you so fascinated by celebrity culture in America?
I see it as a guilty pleasure, a fun thing that you look at once in a while. Now it's become this dominating thing in our culture—and it's growing and growing. It's kind of out of control. So I'm curious if it's just going to keep growing, or if there's going to be a reaction against it.”
What's your explanation for its boom?
I don't want to say my theories. I just tried to make a movie that was the experience of these kids and let the audience think about what's important to them and how they feel. But it's just that it's growing and I guess there's a hunger for it. To me, reality TV had a lot to do with it. These kids are looking at it in magazines and websites, so I wanted to look at that and let the audience think about what's important to them.
Did you meet any of them?
I met the girl once, the boy twice. He was sympathetic, and remorseful for what he did. He had a hard time getting on with his life. But I didn't feel my role was to get their story across. It's fiction. I took liberties in telling their story and changed their names. I didn't want to make them bigger celebrities.
It's been reported that Paris Hilton attended The Bling Ring's Cannes premiere, and while she didn't walk the red carpet, she did attend the after-party.
It was the first time she saw the movie so I was curious to hear her point of view. She really liked the movie and she said that she got emotional when she saw them in her house because it brought back that time for her. She was really supportive.
Could you empathise with what she was going through when it was happening to her, given you're both children from famous dynasties?
I don't really relate our backgrounds at all. To me, she's very exotic. But I liked her. She's a very warm person. So, yeah, I can understand if it was emotional for her, but I didn't really think about that part.
In the film you also include Lindsay Lohan, who likewise was robbed. Is it poignant to have her there?
There's a lot attached to her, but she's one of the people they were emulating. Then you see how she's become since then. When this story took place a few years ago, she was less of a mess than she is now. I was curious about the people they chose to admire and I tried to show that whole side of it. I remembered a picture of her in the white dress going to court, which we put in the film, and then these girls think about their outfits to wear to court.
In the movie The Bling Ring characters are teenagers, dressing provocatively and yet they never have sex. Was this deliberate?
To me, there's no intimacy. They were very unsexual. All that energy was going into other stuff—they wanted to look sexy to get attention, not to actually have sex. That was my impression. I mean, the boy ends up being gay; he was trying to figure that out and I tried to imply that.
What advice would you give to your young actors regarding their future in the profession?
I don't want to dispense advice but my parents always emphasised the importance of hard work and following what your interests are. That's something that I try to instil in my daughters. (Coppola has two daughters, Romy, 6, and Cosima, 3, with husband Thomas Mars, lead singer of the French alternative rock band Phoenix.)
You take your time between projects. What are you looking for with each film?
It's hard to say. It's more you have a feeling of something that interests you, or might ultimately make an interesting movie and I try to make something that would be interesting to me and then you hope that other people are interested in it too. But it's not really specific to me; it's more mysterious.
Is it harder than it was, say, 10 years ago, when you didn't also have a family life to balance with your professional life.
Nothing's different now that I have children, but you think more about your priorities and I don't want to waste time on things when I could be with my kids. I want to do things that I'm really invested in or care about.
Are you starting to feel like a chronicler of Hollywood in some ways?
I guess so. (Hesitates) I don't think of myself like that but it's true that I have a certain kind of relationship to that idea of celebrity and probably growing up around that made some impression on me.
Do you feel connected to other writers or directors who also explore Hollywood as a subject, like Bret Easton Ellis?
Not necessarily, but I thought about Less Than Zero when I was working on this movie, that kind of decadent side of LA. I thought about that because I like that kind of dark side.
Could you ever go back and live in LA? (She mostly lives in New York though also has a place in Paris.)
No, I like to visit but I prefer living in New York and in Europe. Just because LA's so centred around show business and I prefer being in New York where it's more of a mix of different worlds.
Your brother and father are very strong characters. Is that why you focus on women in your films?
Probably. I feel like I am really into my feminine side and being girly probably because I grew up around a lot of men. I know that's a side that I like to explore. (Modest giggle)
Your brother Roman helped you to find a producer and put a creative team together for this film.
He's always helpful and supportive and someone I trust.
Do you want your kids to go into the movie business as well?
Not really. I want them to do whatever they want to do. But to me it'd be more interesting if they did something else because everybody in my family's in the film business. I'll be curious to see what they want to do, especially since my husband's a musician.
As a mother, what do you think about how social media is changing the way new generations behave and believe? Is it sapping the moral compass?
As a mother, it's concerning. You just have to think about how you protect your kids, as there's so much information and so little privacy. It's something that I want to be aware of and hopefully teach my children how I feel about it all. I've had my house broken into before and it's not a pleasant experience.
Were you worried in Cannes that you'd be at The Bling Ring's premiere and everyone would know you'd be there?
That's funny, no. (Hearty chuckle)
There were also young protagonists in your 1999 film, The Virgin Suicides. Are you keen to do something with older characters now?
I'd love to do something with older characters. I loved working with Bill Murray and I don't just want to work with teenagers, but I do have a fondness for that tradition of teen films and making films for young people.
Are you a feminist and do you think women have enough opportunities in Hollywood?
I don't want to be political and make political statements. I don't talk about political things. But there are more and more women filmmakers and I try to do my work and I'm happy that I get to put out a feminine point of view.
The Bling Ring arrives in cinemas August 8.