EVERYTHING was nicely lined up -- and then the sky started falling.
“The week before the filming was about to start,” Sofia Coppola recounts, “the studio changed the deal, and it fell through. And my dad came to the rescue; our French distributor got involved… But it was really nerve-wracking. It’s stressful enough, already, making your first film.” Who needs a funding disaster on top of it?
Luckily, the nightmare that preceded Coppola’s debut, The Virgin Suicides, did not repeat itself with, her latest, the ethereal, intimate Somewhere, which comes out on DVD today.
The new film, about a reckless, disoriented actor (Stephen Dorff) who drifts through life at the Chateau Marmont before a restorative visit from his 11-year-old daughter, went much more smoothly.
“It often requires a star actor,” the film’s producer Roman Coppola (and the director’s brother) says of funding for indies. “But in Sofia’s case, she has an identity and a fan-base and a cachet. So there’s a core group of people she’s worked with before, and there was a lot of loyalty.” (It didn’t hurt, of course, that Roman and Sofia co-own American Zoetrope, the San Francisco-based studio founded by their father, Francis Ford Coppola.)
“I think it’s always a challenge, especially if you don’t have a huge star,” Sofia Coppola says. “But luckily I have strong relationships with our French distributor and our Japanese distributor.” Foreign presales – along with initial funding from Zoetrope -- gave her money to get the production going, and she later landed Focus, who had distributed Lost in Translation.
Securing early financing overseas was a natural strategy for this film: “It has more of the pacing and feeling of European films,” she says. “So it made sense that we started with a French distributor because it’s more connected to their film history.”
Says producer G. Mac Brown: “I normally do rather large budget features, filled with complexities, stress and ego. Somewhere was the opposite. From the beginning, Sofia's wish was to have the most intimate and pure film making process possible. There was no studio, no boss, no distractions. It was a dream.”
For all the deserved praise earned by Elle Fanning, who plays the visiting daughter, the heart of the movie is Dorff, a longtime friend of Coppola’s and someone who came to mind very early in the film’s conception. “The starting point was this portrait of an actor,” named Johnny Marco, who’s had an international hit with a generic action film called Berlin Agenda.
“I felt like he had been really successful doing some movie he didn’t care about,” she says. “So he wasn’t feeling that good about himself as an artist. He’d had his success but was indulging – so his life was out of balance.”
Getting a bigger name – Dorff is probably best known for Blade, from 1998 despite a more than respectable career that also includes Backbeat and Public Enemies -- would have allowed her to draw a larger budget, but she was dedicated to him playing the lead role.
After the sumptuousness of Marie Antoinette, this one is pretty stripped down: Many of the shots comprise either Dorff alone in the hotel or Dorff with Fanning. “My starting point is always to try to make it as small and low-budget as possible so we can keep creative freedom -- and get it made. Everybody says it’s harder and harder to get unusual movies made.”
“Sofia’s film is kind of an anomaly,” says Roman Coppola, who points out that it’s taken two decades to get the adaptation of On the Road, directed by Walter Salles and produced by Frances Ford Coppola, ready for the camera. “It’s a very tricky climate,” he says, “and it’s a matter of finding partners who are in sync with you.”
“It’s rare – and I think it shows,” in his sister’s new film, he continues. “There’s a lightness. The mood in which a film is made imbues itself into the movie. There wasn’t tearing your hair out the night before.”
The soul of an artist is rarely entirely smooth, and Coppola says she had moments of doubt. “It’s always stressful, waiting to hear from financers, or from actors. I’m sure there were things I blocked out, like childbirth. We needed to forge ahead.”
Overall she says, “Every time I start a movie it’s scary because I’m doing something I haven’t done before. But now I have enough experience to know you get through it. It always looks like it won’t come together. But it does.”