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“Virgin” Tendencies: Sofia Coppola Takes on Filmmaking

In anticipation of meeting the Princess of the Coppola family, I expected to encounter a woman from an altogether different echelon. I envisioned a diva from a rare and unique class, not merely wealthy, but worldly, exotic, and alluring. In fantasy, this was Mary Corleone, heiress to the most notorious crime family ever to exist. The daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, she was undoubtedly raised with the resources that would allow her to dabble in the glamorous arts of acting, photography, fashion, and now film. I was expecting someone with attitude, out to show the world that she will some day emerge from her father’s shadow. But when I first laid my eyes upon Sofia Coppola, I knew immediately that The Virgin Suicides was not simply the result of ‘daddy’s little girl’ deciding to make a movie. This film is the product of a sophisticated and fiercely intelligent mind, completely independent from the stigma that her family name carries. And although she is well aware of the hand she’s been dealt in life, her personality is so unassuming and down to earth, you would never expect a person so mellow and ordinary could come from regal blood.

The Virgin Suicides speaks for itself, based upon Jefferey Eugenides’ acclaimed novel, and is destined to be a success. But the visionary behind the camera is even more intriguing than the movie. Sofia Coppola is worldly, exotic, and beautiful… yet she’s also humble, a good listener, and an extremely modest person. Our encounter felt more like a pleasant conversation with a cousin you only see once every couple of years, rather than an independent filmmaker seeking publicity. Her first film is just the beginning of what promises to be one of the brightest careers in the entertainment business. Congratulations on the movie. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen at the San Francisco Film Festival. How do you feel now that it’s due for release?

Coppola: It’s nerve-wracking. I find it so strange because we finished it for the Cannes Film Festival last year, and it’s been awhile, so all my friends keep asking, ‘Is this movie ever coming out?’ I’m excited, but it’s also scary because you never know how it’s going to go.

Is there a little extra pressure because the film showed opening night at the San Francisco Film Festival?

It’s not like they gave me much of a choice, but I’m excited because it’s my home turf. I ran my short film (Lick the Star) there, so it’s nice to come back and debut here.

Did you make your short film as practice in order to do The Virgin Suicides?

No, I didn’t. I didn’t have any plans back then. I was just trying directing out. I knew I wanted to eventually make a feature film, but I decided to do the short to just get my bearings, and to make sure it was what I wanted to do. I had been trying a bunch of different things and just being around film sets my whole life reassured me that I knew I could do it.

So is this what you want to do with your career now?

Yeah, I think so. People are always asking me that, ‘Is this what you’re going to do now?’ There’s nothing to me that is as exciting and hard to do because it combines all the things I love: photography, design, acting, and music. So I look forward to doing more.

What was it about Jefferey Eugenides’ book that struck you and made you decide to make a film out of it?

It was just so beautifully written, and it seemed so accurate with its basic theme about being a teenager, and all the epic feelings of first love and obsession. Also, the realistically melancholy atmosphere of the story has such a profound presence throughout, that I felt it would be a beautiful film if I could transcend that unique tone on to the screen.

One thing I noticed about the film was that it has a powerful sense of femininity. An overlying sense of ‘girliness’ that I’ve rarely seen in movies. The colors and the feelings reminded me of my younger sister’s bedroom. But the book is so much more from the male point of view, especially from the narrator reflecting on his fantasy of the young girls. Was Jefferey Eugenides supportive of you taking his story from another perspective?

I believe so. I once read in an interview that he was glad that a girl directed the film because he got accused of being misogynistic since it was about a tragedy besetting five girls. But the truth is, as a writer, he always felt that he loved and sympathized with the Lisbon sisters. I felt the same way when I read the book, too. I just loved the Lisbon girls.

Although the book is considered to be a mystery, I don’t believe the film could be so easily classified as such. In what genre would you categorize the film version of The Virgin Suicides?

I always seem to have trouble describing exactly what mold this movie fits in. I think it’s a mystery, but not your typical whodunit, for it ponders more on the question of ‘why’? I don’t know what you’d call it. Maybe coming of age, but that sounds a little corny to me.

It was a great touch having Giovanni Ribisi as the narrator, representing the boys of the future. How did you pick him?

I just like him as an actor, he’s my favorite of that young-twenties age group. And there’s something about his voice that’s very romantic. He makes the narration feel very personal because he sounds lovesick for the girls.

Even down to the narrator the movie has a dream cast! You must have known some of these people from before, right?

I knew Kathleen Turner, but I hadn’t seen her since I was a little kid. James Woods I had never met before. I sent him the script on a whim saying to myself, ‘It can’t hurt.’ I didn’t know when I sent it that he has a personal policy of reading every script himself. He called me up and said he loved the script; I was just so surprised that he connected with the character of Mr. Lisbon. That particular character is such a passive type that definitely wouldn’t appeal to every actor, but I felt that James added an amazing tragic quality to the role.

Was Kirsten Dunst your first choice for the role of Lux Lisbon?

When I was writing it, I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind, but when we started casting I thought of her, and of course, she wasn’t available because of a crazy work schedule. She’s been on more film sets than me! So I met a million girls, and I couldn’t find the right one. I was looking for someone to walk in the room and just be Lux. Coincidentally, she was filming in Toronto, and I went to meet her there and it turned out that she might be available. I knew when I saw her she was the right one for the part because she’s a kid and yet so womanly at the same time. The same thing happened with Josh Hartnett. I said to myself, ‘We’ve go to find the perfect Trip Fontaine.’

What sort of approach do you take to directing both veteran and younger actors? You seem so passive and down to earth, but honestly, I was expecting someone who would take on an endeavor like The Virgin Suicides to be high strung and super intense.

That was one of the first things somebody commented on. How they’d never been on a set with a director that doesn’t yell.

I can’t see you yelling.

Most people picture directors as dictators, but as long as you know what you’re doing you don’t have to be loud. I’m small and not at all loud, but everyone was totally respectful. As long as you are clear about what you want to do and not wishy-washy, everybody will act professionally. As far as the veteran actors are concerned, they were great with a lot of the kids who had never been in anything before. Plus, they were extremely supportive and even made a few sugges
tions along the way.

What steps did you take to maintain that enigmatic and dreamlike state that persists throughout the whole movie?

Basically, we began with a vision, and every decision we made revolved around that idea. I wanted to emphasize that the whole film is a memory of the past as opposed to a reality of the present. A lot of it was shooting it from afar and the camera work was real simple and not aggressive at all. Also, the Air (the featured band in the score) music really helped a lot to add feeling. When I watched it for the first time with the music it added a whole extra dimension.

Did you collaborate at all with your husband Spike Jones (Being John Malkovich) in putting this film together? Did you get any advice from him? Or did you collaborate with him?

No, c’mon (exaggerates a smile)… Not at all, I was in Toronto shooting and he was in LA. It was strange because both of us were making our first feature films at the same time. We weren’t in the same place during the shooting, but we were together just before while we were going through the process of getting actors and financing our projects, which is a tedious waiting game. It was a really trying time because we had both decided to make movies, but we knew that they could fall apart at any minute.

Throughout the film, the narrator is constantly obsessing over his ordeal with the girls. Do you think realistically that guys would obsess twenty years later over girls in high school?

Well, I talked with Jefferey Eugenides, and he told me that the character of Lux was based on some girl that he was in love with back in high school. I’ve heard stories of guys who fell in love in second grade and never found anyone that was quite the same. I know from a personal point of view that if there’s something that I can’t understand, I’ll go through it a million times, so I can relate. That reminds me of the old adage of boys and girls not understanding one another. Someone once said that boys that don’t understand girls grow up to be men that can’t understand women. It’s all very emotionally true.

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