An upstart, casual but confident

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

At 32, Coppola looks like a young gymnast, with hair gathered away from her face in a ponytail and thin, shapely arms. Today she wears sailor pants with whimsical gold buttons, a white tank top and ballerina flats -- the get-up of a Parisian teen vacationing on the Riviera. Her only grown-up accessories are the navy Porsche Carrera she pulls up in, and her black Hermes bag, in which, you suspect, she always carries a chic leather-bound notebook to jot down impressions and overheard conversations.

In fact, for “Lost,” Coppola cops to recycling a lot of spied exchanges into dialogue. “I like listening and overhearing things,” she says. “I definitely get stuff from all over the place.” On her script, she worked from snapshot observations she had collected over the years, weaving the narrative around amusing details that struck her.

Two such capsule moments notably anchor the film: One, a version of the “Scarborough Fair” canticle, is performed with ridiculously sultry aplomb by the cover band in residence at the fictional hotel’s New York Bar. The other, a karaoke rendition of the Sex Pistols’ anti-establishment yelp “God Save the Queen,” is garbled by Coppola’s own pal Fumihiro Hayashi, a.k.a. Charlie Brown. They were both lifted from real life.

“There was a performer at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, which I had seen when I was there the year before,” Coppola recalls. “She was singing that song, and I just thought, ‘This is so weird -- we’re in Tokyo and this woman with red hair is singing Simon and Garfunkel!’ And one time my friend Charlie and I were at karaoke and he did ‘God Save the Queen,’ and I was just like, ‘Oh, wow, I wanna put that in a movie!” “I guess,” she concludes, “that’s why I make films: because I get obsessed with some idea and it won’t stop until I actually listen to it and make something out of it.”

That is the closest the filmmaker comes to untangling the impetus behind her delicate, gossamer work.

Unlike her Latin profile -- frank, with full, prominent features -- Coppola’s manner tends to be vague. Her answers are elliptical. Most of her sentences start with a soft “yeah ... " delivered in the loopy cadence of Southern California teen speak, and trail off with a question mark. She has often been described as “shy,” “wan,” “quiet” and “not what you’d call a verbal person” by aggravated interviewers who seldom fail to point out that someone with Coppola’s introverted demeanor would appear unfit to handle a film director’s lot.

Dispassionate but hypersensitive, Coppola works from the surface, which is where her films make their biggest impact. In “Lost,” the soundtrack and visuals tango in lock step to convey the arrested moments in which jet lag, insomnia, and the lack of communication with locals throw the protagonists off balance and open them up to emotion, maybe romance. The droll, sensual pace of the film brings to mind the kind of unexplained languor that sometimes overtakes one late in the afternoon, when the arms of a lover seem like the only appropriate refuge.

Shot guerrilla style last October on location, the keenly observed tableaux that make up the small-budget picture -- Japanese teens hopped-up on energy drinks and bouncing around a video-game arcade, the Tokyo skyline pulsing and humming like a giant golden bumblebee, a formal wedding ceremony, a ride on the bullet train -- may well achieve as memorable an impression on the audience as they make on Murray’s and Johansson’s characters.

Inspiration for the film also came in the shape of a somewhat portly male muse. “I tried to think of what I could do in Tokyo with Bill Murray,” Coppola says with a smile about the actor, whose turn in the film has already sparked Oscar talk. “His character is really based on how I imagined him to be. He has something that’s really sincere and heartfelt, but really funny and at the same time ... tragic.”

In her creative world

Before Coppola blossomed into a filmmaker in her own right, she was, of course, better known for her association with attractive, creative elites: The novel from which she wrote and directed her first film was a gift from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. She has starred in music videos directed by Jonze, and in what is her most recent accomplishment, directed one of her own that features fashion muse Kate Moss writhing around a dance pole to the tune of a White Stripes song.

In her midteens, she was an intern at the Parisian headquarters of couture house Chanel and wore a creation of its designer, Karl Lagerfeld, to her high school prom.

She hosted a celeb chitchat show called “Hi-Octane” on Comedy Central and tried her hand at being a guest beauty editor for Vogue magazine.

She had Tom Waits perform at her wedding as she walked down the aisle.

She has posed in ad campaigns for perfume and purses by designer and good pal Marc Jacobs, who has often noted that Coppola’s minimalist, jeune-fille style informs his creations.

“I figured, I’m gonna try everything once,” she says about her trial-and-error approach. “When I was in my early 20s, I knew that I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know in what area.” After creating the costumes for two of her father’s film productions fresh out of high school, Coppola went to CalArts to study painting. She soon switched to photography. “I started taking photos because paintings took too long and I could never get them the way I wanted,” she says. “I realized I couldn’t do any one thing very well but had a lot of different interests. It looked kind of flaky to do one thing, and then another, and then another -- but I tried to be open to finding the right thing.

“Then when I did my short film [1998’s “Lick the Star”], I felt like that’s something that I really love doing. So I really love doing film. And I still love doing other small projects.”

Throughout it all, media comparisons with her leonine father, along with the obligatory questions about her universally panned performance in “The Godfather: Part III,” have never faded. Nor have the attempts to psychoanalyze her work as a byproduct of an isolated, itinerant childhood, which took her from the Philippines to New York and Oklahoma and finally Northern California’s Napa County as the work of her father demanded; and an adolescence marked by the accidental death of an older brother, Gian-Carlo, which happened when she was 15.

As “Lost in Translation” is about to open, the cliched connection between life and art is made again by tabloid reports that Coppola and Jonze, who have been married for four years, are traversing a marital crisis.

It all seems to have rendered her weary and guarded. “Sometimes people are a little ... challenging,” she notes. “We should just be able to make a film and not have to talk about it.”

After all, her cinematic universe, precisely built on the fragile artifacts of transitory emotion, happenstance encounter and daydreaming, is fascinating enough on its own.

“That’s what I like when I see a film: that I can see somebody’s world that I didn’t know anything about,” she says, noting that her next move will be to “get back to writing.”

“Sometimes it’s the only thing that you can try to do -- express your experiences in a film -- and hope that someone wants to see it.”