Sofia Coppola first came to our attention ten years ago co-starring in the long-awaited Godfather III sequel, directed by her famous father Francis. The critics cried nepotism and crucified her so she promptly disappeared back into the family fold with a resounding silence. A decade later, the 28-year-old daughter of Francis and new wife of director Spike (Being John Malkovich) Jonze has finally struck out on her own to silence critics, writing and directing the critically-acclaimed The Virgin Suicides, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Sofia's dark adolescent story about the suicide of five sisters attracted some major stars, including Kathleen Turner, James Woods, Danny DeVito and Kirsten Dunst. "Danny was the only family friend who did the movie to help out his friend's daughter," she insists. "All the others were contacted through agents and just loved the script, which was nice."
What attracted you to The Virgin Suicides?
First of all, I loved the book. I thought he wrote beautifully about being that age, about being a teenager and about being at that age where you're first thinking about love and mortality.
Could you relate to these girls?
It's true my upbringing was very different but having been a teenage girl, I could relate to spending hours in my bedroom and thinking that was your whole world. So when I was directing the girls in their pajamas, that was a familiar atmosphere to me.
Is their suicide realistic?
It's not realistic to me because they are not real girls. I always saw them as symbolic and I didn't want the parents to be the villains. They're not ideal parents that I would want to have but what I liked about the story and the book is that there isn't one good reason about why they do it. In life there are so many things that don't make sense and can't be explained. To me it was about these things in life that happen that there are no good reasons for - and how the survivors left behind deal with it.
What were your biggest fears and challenges as a first-time director?
I loved the story and, just growing up around filmmaking, I thought of things in that context. When you haven't done something before, I think you have a naivete that helps you jump into things blindly and you don't realize what you're getting into. I think it helped a lot not knowing how hard it really was, but my main motivation was just to make what I loved about the book translate visually to the screen.
How was your first day on the set?
I was more nervous the day before and driving to the set in the morning! My biggest fear was that everyone was going to look at me as the boss and I would freeze up and go blank and not know what to do. But that never happened so I'm really lucky. We had prepared for so long that as soon as I got there, we had so much excitement about finally being on the set that all my nerves just went away. We had a lot to do in 29 days so I didn't really have time to stop and second-guess things. I just had to charge through and it helped that I had grown up on sets and felt so comfortable in that environment.
Your father was a producer on this film. What influence did he have?
When I finished my script I showed it to my father and didn't really know what he would think but he loved it and encouraged me to make this film. He wanted to be involved because he wanted to make sure I got to make an independent, personal film. He visited for the first few days more as a proud father than producer, but he's a great producer because having been a director, he wants to make an atmosphere where the director has all the freedom and he's not bombarding them with notes.
What influence do you think your father had on you as a filmmaker?
I think my father's the reason I wanted to be film director, having watched him my whole life. It was always interesting and exciting to be around after school and I think I picked up things talking to the great people he worked with too, who wouldn't normally be accessible to first-time directors my age. My dad likes to be a teacher and he would always be talking about screenwriting and filmmaking because he still has all this enthusiasm after all these years. At one point I thought about going to film school but then I realised I had this kind of hands-on tutorial growing up anyway so I'm lucky that he was so willing to teach me.
You are married to another filmmaker, Spike Jonze. Does that help?
It's funny because mostly when we go to see a movie, afterwards we talk for hours about how we thought it should be - but we also talk about normal things as well. It was nice with this movie because we were both actually shooting our first movies at the exact same time. I was in Toronto and he was in L.A., so when we finished and came together, we could understand and sympathize with what the other person was going through.
How did you and Spike meet?
I met him when I was seven or eight years old because he was a skateboard photographer. But we met for real eight years ago and were both interested in photography and different things and he was always fun so we started going out. We've been together for about five years and got married last summer. He's a charming guy.
What was the best advice your father ever gave you?
From him I really learned about working with actors and rehearsing with them and the importance of story and the acting as being fundamentals of the film. He was also one of the first people to do video assists but the first thing he told me was, 'don't use a video assist - be right next to the camera and be with your actors!' because now he thinks you are too far back with the monitor. And it was helpful to me to be closer to the actors.
Is it a double-edged sword having the Coppola name in Hollywood?
I guess you can look at everything two ways. I wanted to make this film and I didn't think about how it was going to be received or if I was going to be compared to my father. I can't change my circumstances so I was glad to at least be able to grow up in an environment where everyone was making films. My family is very collaborative so I'm glad I was exposed to that. I'm sure being a Coppola opens doors for you but I think sometimes you have to prove yourself even more because people expect you to be a spoiled brat or get things really easily.
What do you remember about your acting experience in The Godfather III?
I was eighteen and you're already insecure at that age so being slammed in public didn't help. I remember on the newsstand at the time there was one photo shoot I had done where they put me in a ridiculous outfit and it ended up on the cover of the magazine with a story saying, 'How Sofia ruined her father's film'. It was a devastating experience for me and right after that I went back to college to study fine arts and take up painting. I wasn't planning on being an actress so it was a tough thing to go through.
How do you feel about acting today?
Acting is just not something that I'm interested in doing. I'd much prefer being behind the camera and being able to create the world as opposed to having someone else tell you how to see it.
(August 10, 2000)