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Fall Sneaks

An upstart, casual but confident

Filmmaker Sofia Coppola lets intuition be her creative guide.

September 07, 2003|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

Sofia Coppola's latest film, the tender travelers' tale "Lost in Translation," opens enigmatically with a glimpse of a young woman's body curled up in bed, her bottom in peach mesh underwear turned against the audience. Framed and lighted by a soft glow that brings to mind the pinup paintings of midcentury American photorealist John Kacere, the title sequence establishes the tenor of the film -- at once romantic, innocent and mysterious.

And it suggests audacity and a playful confidence on the part of Coppola, who wrote and directed the film -- though her intention was not to toss ironic, possibly provocative winks at the indie crowd, or tick off cool art references.

"I don't have a really good reason for it," she says with disarming frankness about the memorable shot. "It's just how I wanted to start the movie. I liked having a hint of the character -- a sweet, young girl waiting around in her hotel room -- and then go into the story."

It's this kind of spontaneous, guileless and visually bold approach that Coppola has cultivated since she joined the family business five years ago. Her work has earned her comparisons to that of Chekhov, no less; and the buzz-worthy sobriquet of "the most original and promising young female filmmaker in America," recently bestowed upon her in an article in the New York Times Magazine. The film, playing this week at the Toronto Film Festival, is being released by Focus Features, red-hot after last year's Oscar and indie successes "The Pianist" and "Far From Heaven."

It may all seem a bit out of proportion for an upstart director, except, of course, Coppola is a filmmaker in a dynasty of filmmakers that includes father Francis Ford, documentarian mother Eleanor, brother Roman and husband Spike Jonze.

And while the growing media din heralding the Sept. 12 release of "Lost in Translation" is not surprising given Coppola's thoroughbred pedigree, the elated response to the film so far indicate that critics and audiences have embraced the young director on her own merit.

, "Lost" has the intimate, adolescent charm of a travel scrapbook assembled for the benefit of close friends. And on a recent sunny morning over breakfast at a Los Feliz cafe, Coppola calls her filmmaking approach deeply personal and "intuitive" rather than cerebral.

"Everything about it was very personal to me," she says about the picture. "It was a bit scary. I didn't know if anyone would really relate to it at all." In the film, Scarlett Johansson plays the wife of an obnoxiously trendy photographer, and Bill Murray is an American actor of certain fame shooting a lucrative commercial abroad on the sly. Sleepless and marooned in the same luxurious hotel in Tokyo, the two hook up to traverse the foreign night and comfort each other in that emotional limbo that the filmmaker herself has gotten to know all too well.

"I've had my share of jet-lagged moments," Coppola says. "Being in a hotel, and jet-lagged, kind of distorts everything. Even little things that are no big deal feel epic when you're in that mood. Your emotions are exaggerated, it's hard to find your way around, it's lonely."

This is not the first time Coppola has traced the contours of a specific locale through the lens of sentiment. Her praised 1999 debut, "The Virgin Suicides," was an erotic, feverish adaptation of a cult novel about five doomed sisters and the boys who adored them, set in the dreamy, mythical space of '70s Detroit suburbia.

But as she traded suburban for urban reverie in "Lost," Coppola's signature outlook has become more clearly defined: A visual style that is fluid but precise. A preference for the themes of melancholy, regret and boredom.

The main source of inspiration for the film was the time the director spent in her post-college years wandering around Tokyo, not knowing what she wanted to do for work, contemplating her options.

There was, she says, "a lot of driving around in my friend's car, listening to music and looking at the neon as we were going by. Tokyo is just such an exciting city -- totally visually interesting, crazy and overwhelming. And just so foreign from your real life."

She found that once absorbed into the system, the metropolis was impossible to forget, with its sense of hysterical glamour, East-crashes-into-West artifacts and mishmash of misspelled, often hilarious pop-culture references.

The exorcism took place once she started parlaying her experiences into a script. Her protagonists, both mired in self-doubt and marital troubles -- he from a midage vantage point, she perched insecure on the cusp of adulthood -- sprang naturally into being. "The character of the girl is based on me when I was younger," Coppola says. "She has that early '20s crisis of 'What am I gonna do?' And Bill Murray's character is going through a breakdown over almost the same thing but from the opposite end."

Keeping her ears open

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