Cannes, France — WHEN you are the third generation of a celebrated Hollywood family, when your father's an eminent director, people tend to underestimate you. It's been happening to Sofia Coppola all her life, and, frankly, it's fine by her.
"I think it's an advantage," she says, smiling. "If people don't expect much, even though you have to work harder to prove you're not a spoiled brat, if you just do OK it's considered good. I like being under the radar. I'd rather be the kid who got into the grown-up section at Cannes than one of the big, expected films. It's better to be an underdog and hope."
At first glance, it's easy to see why people might underestimate Coppola, whose Kirsten Dunst-starring historical drama, "Marie Antoinette," premieres here tonight. Dressed simply in jeans, white shirt and flip-flops, she looks younger than someone who celebrated her 35th birthday the Sunday before Cannes opened.
And unlike many of her hyped-up directing peers, Coppola projects an air of casual, unruffled calm and, refreshingly, is not stuck on herself. But the consideration that causes her to uncap a bottle of water for a visitor and allow a room service waiter to go on and on about his relatives in America doesn't prevent her from being determined as well as intelligent and thoughtful.
"You don't have to be a yeller to direct; you can still be strong and get what you need done as long as you're clear about what you want," she says, yes, quietly. "I guess I have a bossy side, but I'm polite about it."
Ready or not, Coppola's days of being underestimated are over. First she won a screenwriting Oscar and became the first American woman to be nominated for best director, for "Lost in Translation." Now, with the quietly exuberant "Marie Antoinette," costarring the wild mixture of Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Marianne Faithfull and Asia Argento, she has even bent history to her will, disarmingly blending her exquisitely modern sensibility with a potent re-creation of the salad days of the last queen of France. This is accomplished, impressive filmmaking on both an epic and an intimate scale.
Kind of like "The O.C." set in Versailles, "Marie Antoinette," which is based on Antonia Fraser's authoritative biography, reminds us that Marie and her husband, Louis XVI, were real people, ages 18 and 20, when he became king and they entered history's stage.
"I liked the idea that she was a real girl, someone who didn't like to do schoolwork, that there were all these teenagers running around in Versailles being in charge," Coppola says. "Now, looking back, I see my films [starting with "The Virgin Suicides"] as a trilogy about characters who are all trying to grow up and find their identity."
Coppola first thought of doing a film about Marie Antoinette when production designer and family friend Dean Tavoularis talked to her about Fraser's book, about the life of someone who went from Austria to Versailles when she was 14 and had a marriage that was not consummated for years. Coppola optioned the book, began a screenplay, took a break to write what became "Lost in Translation," then returned to this story that "kept nagging at me."
"I liked the idea just as a challenge to myself; I liked that it was so different for me," the director explains. "I'm not excited by huge crowds; I like more intimate stories. This was so big [a $40-million budget], with a couple of hundred extras where I'd never worked with any before, it was sort of daunting."
Also, Coppola says, she liked that "Marie Antoinette" was different in another way.
"This was something I hadn't seen a lot of in the movies of my contemporaries, who are shooting super-realistic scenes in 7-Elevens. This was kind of a reaction to that."
Coppola was also determined to do a historical movie "in my style, to make it my own film, something I wanted to see. That was the most important thing, not to fall into the habits of generic period movies, not to get pushed into 'this is how you should do it.' "
So the director settled on a seductive pastel palette inspired by the "sherberty colors" of the celebrated macarons of Paris confectioner Laduree. And she "never thought twice" about her decision to use pop music on the soundtrack.
"Brian Reitzell, the music supervisor, would make me what we called 'Versailles mix' CDs," she says of the prep for a soundtrack that eventually included Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" and songs by New Order, the Strokes and the Cure. "I wanted atmospheric, dreamy contemporary music, that kind of teenage girl spirit." And by playing a rousing Gang of Four anthem over the opening credits, the film effectively announces that this is going to be a historical drama unlike those we've seen before.
Coppola was also determined to shoot at Versailles, and she got unprecedented use of the palace, including being able to film at the Petit Trianon and its fragile theater, where the queen put on plays.