Hubert Burda Media

Sofia Coppola: Auteur a la Mode

Movie director and Hollywood royalty Sofia Coppola explains why you won’t see her directing a blockbuster any time soon and why fashion photography was her first love. We meet her in the city that she immortalised in her most famous work.

If there’s a film that has come to define the urban sprawl and throbbing energy of Tokyo, at least to Western eyes, it would have to be Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Only an auteur like Coppola could have captured the sense of alienation and displacement that every visitor to the metropolis experiences. The neon-lit streets, karaoke nights, crowded crosswalks and traffic jams that make up the visual language of the Academy Award-winning movie have greatly contributed to the world’s fascination with Tokyo, and with Japan in general. 

It thus felt quite surreal when, on a chilly evening last autumn, we met Coppola in a bar overlooking Tokyo’s skyline at one of the city’s swanky hotels (it wasn’t her beloved Park Hyatt, another benefactor of the still-strong influence of the film, whose most poignant scenes take place within that property).

The diminutive Coppola, who was in Tokyo to participate in the unveiling of a high-jewellery collection from Cartier, is fashion’s favourite filmmaker. Whether it’s her friendship with Marc Jacobs, her widely copied, Parisian-inflected personal style, or her industry credentials (as a young girl, she interned for Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and decades later guest-edited an issue of Vogue Paris), Coppola has always straddled the worlds of the silver screen and high fashion with great aplomb, keeping a kind of aloofness and indie cred that make her stand out as a director’s director.

Her films – from her debut, The Virgin Suicides, to Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring – are intriguing as much for their storylines as for their visual impact and languid atmosphere. Moody music, sensuous settings, slightly dishevelled and yet perfectly attired heroines, and always spot-on casting are some of the characteristics of her productions, making them catnip for creative types, who often mention her work as a source of inspiration.

Coppola, who is also behind a video made in collaboration with Cartier to celebrate the relaunch of the label’s Panthère watch, was in Cannes last month to debut her most recent creation, The Beguiled, starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. At the time of the interview, she’d just wrapped up shooting the film in Louisiana and was planning to edit it after leaving Tokyo. 

How does it feel to be here, so many years after directing Lost in Translation?

I love Tokyo and I never get tired of it, so I’m happy to be here, and I saw a friend yesterday that I’ve known since before working on Lost in Translation. So it’s fun to discover places. I still feel like I need someone to help show me around. There’s always something to discover. Even though I’ve been here a lot, I still always feel excited to discover new places. I still feel like I never quite understand everything about it. 

Where did your fascination with Japan come from?

My parents liked to come here, so when we were little we went on trips. I was small, but I remember when I was eight we took a trip to Kyoto and we had Christmas here. I remember discovering things that hadn’t come to America. I think Hello Kitty hadn’t come to America yet. I always liked the culture, but I think it was my parents. They loved it. They brought us here, and then I started spending time here in my 20s, but I wasn’t intimidated because my parents had Japanese friends and they had been there, but it’s still very foreign to me. And then when I came in my 20s, I just loved kind of discovering on my own. I love the mix of the really super-modern and then the really traditional. And also my daughter is here with me, who’s nine. And we were going around Harajuku.

You now live in Paris. How is it to be an American in Paris?

I love the culture there and just being in Europe. My father [director Francis Ford Coppola] is European and always embracing European culture. Part of me feels at home there. Also it’s exotic, and different. I love that there’s a little bit more formality in Paris than California. People don’t wear flip-flops in the street. I like that people dress up for dinner, and there’s something kind of classical there that I like. And just the culture and the beauty of the city. 

You’ve always been very close to the fashion world. Where did that come from?

Ever since I was a teenager, I loved fashion. I got really interested in photography, and fashion photography taught me about photography. That was kind of the first photography that I was looking at and The Face magazine. Because of no internet [then], and I lived in another country, that was my only connection to fashion. Fashion wasn’t part of the mainstream culture, which is something that I loved. And again my parents really encouraged it because it was different from anything they did. They thought it was interesting that I liked fashion. They had a friend who worked at Chanel, and they got me an internship. They just always encouraged it, and it was always an interest of mine. But I think it was linked to photography and it was always my interest and hobby when I was young.

Is that why your films are visually striking and have a very distinctive style?

I just enjoy that part of it. What I like about film is it’s visual, but there’s music too. But yeah, the photography. Usually the plot is not very strong; it’s more about the atmosphere. I’m just more interested in that and what appeals to me and that’s what I enjoy. I feel like when you have a strong sense of your aesthetic that you like, in real life you can’t have it the way you want but in a movie you can kind of create a world that is in a style that you imagine.

You also like to take your time and only release films once every few years.

I understand people who make a movie every year. Well, I also write them, but there are people who write every year. Usually I write a film, and then by the time I put it all together and really make it, it takes a couple of years. And then afterwards I like to just think about what I’m interested in; usually it’s reaction to the movie I just did. I like to see what I’m in the mood for after that. And luckily, I can take my time and then see what I’m in the mood for, and not just plan it before I’m done. Marie Antoinette was so decorative that after that I wanted to do something really minimal. I did Somewhere and The Bling Ring and that was really a “bad taste” movie. I always think that it’s a reaction to the movie I had before. 

Would you ever direct a blockbuster? 

I mean, you have to work with the big corporations with that. If you’re working on a project with a corporation, you can’t really be an artist in that world because you have so many people telling you their pet peeves. When you have so many panels of people, you have to please everyone, you can’t make something really specific or personal. So, not for me. I need to have creative freedom or else there’s no point. Like, I don’t care if it doesn’t make a ton of money. I’d rather make something that I love and hope that I don’t just do it as a job. I always put myself into it; I think there’s always my personality in there.

Do you still enjoy physically going to the movies?

Yeah, I don’t watch them on the phone. No, I have a big screen at home, a big TV screen that I watch movies on, and I like to go to the theatre. But nowadays I don’t go that often. But whenever I do I’m always happy that I did. I wish more people saw previews in the theatre. Also, movies that take some patience or that you have to focus on are movies that I’ve seen in the theatre and loved. But if I were at home I would’ve gotten kind of bored, or turned it off, or done something else. It’s hard to be distracted when you’re in a movie theatre; you can only focus on it. Or like certain movies, if I watch them at home I probably won’t make it through everything. 

What’s your opinion about the lack of female leaders in film? Was it difficult when you started?

Back then it was pretty unusual, but I didn’t think about it because my dad always taught me the same way as my brother. I felt also that because there weren’t as many women in movies I wanted to make something that I wanted to see, with a feminine point of view.

Do you talk with your father [Francis Ford Coppola] about your films? Does he give you his input?

I’m working on a new film now. I always talk to him because he’s such a resource of knowledge. I feel so lucky that I have a great teacher that I can ask.

As a child, did you know you were going to be a director?

No, I never thought I would go into film. I don’t know why. I was interested in fashion. I went to arts school. I wanted to be a photographer. At first I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to do something artistic and visual. I’ve always been a visual person.

When did you realise that this was your calling? 

I think when I made my first short film, I felt like I made something that combined all my interests, and when I read The Virgin Suicides I wanted to make a movie of it. I wanted to change my direction and do that. 

What’s your favourite part about your job?

I think the editing. I enjoy being on set because there’s the energy and you’re all there together and I love the people I work with, but it’s stressful because you’re just trying to get everything finished in time. We’re quite low budget so we’re always scrambling, but I’m excited because then you get to go somewhere like this, and New Orleans, and be out on a plantation; that’s fun. 

Your films always have great music and costumes. Are you very involved in that?

Everyone works differently. Some directors are really involved in it because you kind of have to be a control freak to want to be a director, but some don’t care as much about music. They leave it to the music producer. It depends on the person, but I love it because I get to make everything exactly how I want.

Can you tell me about your collaboration with Cartier?

I’ve always loved Cartier because it’s so oriented around the design. It’s so beautiful. And the red box … I always loved it, so when they asked if I’d be interested to do some things with them I was excited. My wedding ring is from Cartier and I have a watch that I bought myself in Paris, maybe around Marie Antoinette time. I remember I tried to buy myself a little present, and I have another Cartier ring. It’s fun to have a little jewellery. The design is so classic. 

You’re a very private and low-key person.

I like people who have a little mystery, that idea of mystique growing up. People who I was interested in, you didn’t know everything about them. They had mystique, and I love that. It doesn’t appeal to me to share everything. My films are personal and that’s how I share myself. But I don’t like to see what everyone’s eating. I like to have some privacy and mystery or it doesn’t appeal to me.


Photography Andrew Durham  

Styling Tina Chai   

Make-up Katie Mellinger   

Hair Ayumi 

Photography Assistant Jim Welch 

Make-up Assistant Aziza Walker

Location The Carlyle Sant Ambroeus Madison