Sofia Coppola

Virgin territory

Sofia Coppola was literally baptized (as a boy) into the cinema during the famous climactic montage in father Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. She continued to play bit parts in his films throughout her childhood, and at 18 co-wrote the script for his New York Stories segment, Life Without Zoe. But it wasn't until her infamous turn in The Godfather Part III that Coppola, a last-minute replacement for Winona Ryder, came under intense public scrutiny, an experience she has had trouble living down. That may change with the release of her assured directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, a faithful adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' popular novel. Set in suburban Detroit in the mid-'70s, the story unfolds from the collective memory of a group of boys fascinated by five enigmatic and deeply troubled sisters confined to their home by overprotective parents James Woods and Kathleen Turner. Coppola prepared for her first feature with Lick The Star, a short film about four cruel teenage girls obsessed with Flowers In The Attic, and her experience in photography and clothing design (she runs the independent Milk Fed label) contribute to the film's lush visual scheme. She recently spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about the challenges of occupying the director's chair.

The Onion: Considering your involvement in design and photography, was it always your intention to direct films at some point?

Sofia Coppola: I guess it was subconsciously. I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I went to art school and tried a bunch of different things, but I knew I wanted to do something in the visual arts. And I'd always been around my dad's film sets, so the interest was there. But I didn't have the guts to say, "I want to be a director," especially coming from that family. When I read [The Virgin Suicides], I thought I knew exactly how it should be as a film. I did a short film, and that was when I first realized that [directing] was actually something I knew how to do, which surprised me.

O: It seems like your short film deals with some of the same themes [as those in The Virgin Suicides].

SC: Oh, you saw that?

O: No.

SC: It's embarrassing, like an old term paper. But I guess it's related, because it deals with a clique of young girls.

O: What's your interest in girls of that particular age?

SC: Well, the girls in [Lick The Star] were a little younger, like seventh grade. I just remember seventh grade as being really difficult, because there's nothing meaner than a girl at that age. You gang up on people, and it's traumatic. It wasn't so bad for me, but there's a woman I know who's still traumatized by junior high. At that age, everything seems like a huge deal, but of course that changes when you get older. How does [Lick The Star] relate to Virgin Suicides? There's something about being a teenager that's so sincere. Everything is more epic, like your first crush. I feel that it's not always portrayed very accurately. It bugs me when they have people my age [28] playing teenagers.

O: What were some of the problems inherent in adapting this book?

SC: One of the things the book does so well is jump around in time and flash-forward and piece together [the boys'] memory, which is hard to do on film. We tried to do more with time than we did, but we ended up cutting things up and just sticking with the scenes with Michael Pare in the future. Otherwise, the effect was too jarring.

O: It would seem to me that the big problem would be the narrative "we."

SC: I'm surprised no one has had a problem with that. There really hasn't been any confusion over which [boy] is the narrator.

O: But then you have the dilemma—or maybe you don't—of dealing with the boys as individuals, too.

SC: Yeah, but I didn't really care as much about that as following this group of kids and their collective watching and thinking.

O: What was the relationship between the events in the story and the period?

SC: The period seemed more innocent than now, but maybe that's because it's a childhood story. Like when I listen to music from that period, and when we were picking out songs, the music struck me as really passionate and heartfelt, not cynical at all. But I think it was less about the era than about the idea of boys looking back on this experience.

O: But it seemed like the parents' extreme response to their daughters' behavior was in part a backlash against the '60s.

SC: Yeah, James Woods has said that those parents just missed the '60s altogether. [Laughs.]

O: What were some of the stylistic influences for the film?

SC: They were mostly from photography. I collect a lot of photos and I went through a lot of photo books with [cinematographer] Ed Lachman. There were so many influences, I have a hard time naming them. A couple of the bigger ones were Bill Owens [a photojournalist best known for his survey of American suburbia in the '70s] and Todd Haynes' movie Safe, which is also set in the suburbs and was made with a kind of restraint and atmosphere that made a big impression on me. In fact, I chose to work with the costume designer of that film [Nancy Steiner] because her work was so subtle.

O: What were you trying to get across from the look of the film?

SC: I wanted it to be like a long summer day in the '70s. Everything was sunny and backlit, the girls were wearing sherbet colors, the parents were very drab, and I wanted the camerawork to be simple, like taking snapshots. A lot of the shots were from across the street [from the boys' perspective] to create a sense of distance, because they were always trying to see beyond the door. The distance also imitates memory, too, in that it's not completely accurate or precise.

O: Could you talk about your collaboration with Air [who performed The Virgin Suicides' excellent score]?

SC: I was listening to Premiers Symptomes, an earlier album of theirs, when I was writing the script. I really liked the atmosphere, which fed into what I was doing. Again, I wanted to deal with this idea of memory, because the story doesn't take place in the '70s, per se, but it's being reflected on years later. Also, Air are the masters of a specific kind of melancholy, a good kind of melancholy. So my friend Mike Mills, who did a bunch of their videos for my brother's [Roman Coppola] company, introduced us, and I sent them my script. They liked movie soundtracks and always wanted to do one, so they were open to the idea.

O: I'd like to talk a little bit about your design work. You apprenticed at Chanel in Paris for two summers during high school. What sort of work did you do?

SC: Well, I made Xeroxes, I fetched people coffee... the kind of menial tasks that interns do. [Laughs.] But I was right in the thick of it when they were working on the collections, so I got to watch them go from working sketches to final designs.

O: So you'd pick these things up while you were making copies?

SC: I don't know how to make clothes the way they do. We make T-shirts with logos and graphic designs on them. It really doesn't compare to Chanel.

O: When it came down to creating your own design, were you sort of rebelling against what they were doing?

SC: No, I always liked that stuff. They did a lot of the costumes for Life Without Zoe. Years later, when my friends were doing X-Girl [a design label by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, among others], I was inspired because they didn't know how to sew or anything, but they liked clothes and just started making them anyway. I like amateur things. I didn't mind sort of half-assing it and seeing what the clothes looked like. Not to be disrespectful to people who are experts at things and study them, but I'd be in school forever if I tried to be a designer like that.