To hear Sofia Coppola explain it, the genesis for her drama "Somewhere" — an episodic tone poem about celebrity and fatherhood in modern Hollywood that reaches theaters Wednesday — can be pin-pointed to a personal place: the intersection of intimately observed family experiences and tabloid fabulism.
Early reviewers have had a field day reading levels of cinema-as-confessional into "Somewhere," which won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice International Film Festival this year. Specifically, the writer-director's relationship with her dad, "Godfather" auteur Francis Ford Coppola, has been widely presumed to provide the basis for "Somewhere's" plot-propelling father-daughter characters' frisson. But the younger Coppola blanches at that idea.
"It has personal memories," she said quietly, seated in the lobby of Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, where most of the movie is back-dropped and to which "Somewhere" serves as an unabashed valentine. "But my childhood and my parents aren't like that."
Living in Paris with her rock-star boyfriend, Thomas Mars of the French alt-rock band Phoenix, after the birth of their elder daughter, Romy, — and on the heels of the critical drubbing and commercial failure of her third feature film, 2007's period biopic "Marie Antoinette" — Coppola became fascinated with celebrity-magazine reports about several Hollywood bad-boy actor-types (see Charlie Sheen, Colin Farrell, et al.) suffering high-profile breakdowns.
The filmmaker, who won a screenplay Oscar for her Tokyo-set 2003 drama "Lost in Translation," had been working on a vampire movie but shifted gears and began drafting "Somewhere" as a means of addressing this uniquely Angeleno existential condition as well as her shift in focus as a new parent.
It would be a low-budget "experimental" film following a male perspective, the filmmaker decided; an antidote to the set-dressed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life "girlie" frippery of "Marie Antoinette" and an up-to-the-minute depiction of Los Angeles in the age of ubiquitous paparazzi.
"I wanted to make a portrait of L.A. that captures this time in the way movies in the '70s and '80s like 'American Gigolo' or 'Shampoo' captured the L.A. of that time," said Coppola, 39.
"Somewhere" follows Stephen Dorff ( "Public Enemies," "World Trade Center") portraying a callow, too-jaded-by-half B-list movie star named Johnny Marco who's adrift on Hollywood's celebrity shoals. Living the suite life at Chateau Marmont — the venerable Sunset Strip roost where John Belushi overdosed on a speedball, Led Zeppelin band members roamed the corridors on motorcycle and where a constellation of young stars has taken indefinite residence as a kind of louche rite of passage over the years — he pops pills and downs Corona after Corona, orders pole-dancing strippers up like room service and tools around town in a black Ferrari F430, seemingly inured to every upside of hedonism.
Until, that is, his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo ( Elle Fanning), is thrust into Johnny's care. The precocious preteen awakens his parental instinct and punctures his abiding self-absorption. Hmm. Kind of like the movie's director — who as a kid regularly took up lengthy hotel residencies while Dad shot movies such as "Apocalypse Now" and "The Cotton Club" and was exposed to her father's freewheeling Hollywood hubris — might have done?
Sofia Coppola demurred, explaining she based Cleo on a 12-year-old daughter of Hollywood she knows who "seems more together than her parents."
"Cleo's the light in his life, the one bringing him out of his depression," Fanning said of the character. "She's very beyond-her-years. She knows stuff she shouldn't know."
Despite Coppola's assurances to the contrary, the question of how much her art imitates her life in this case has remained naggingly constant since the $7-million movie's September Golden Lion win and throughout her last month of press junketing duties leading to its release.
"Sofia's a personal writer. She writes from experiences," said Dorff. "And she writes what she knows. She'd just had a baby. That made big questions come up in her head. That's what brought her into this world. And of course, this is what brought her to Elle's character. But she put herself in Johnny too."