Much as with real estate, in movies the key sometimes is location, location, location.
Writer-director Sofia Coppola makes full use of that premise in her new film, “Somewhere,” which she shot primarily at Los Angeles’ historic Chateau Marmont, the discreetly decadent hotel tucked above Sunset Boulevard that combines the low-key luxury of contemporary Hollywood with the tarnished glamour of Tinseltown’s classic era.
Winner of the top prize at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, “Somewhere,” which will be released Dec. 22, opens with movie-star Johnny Marco ( Stephen Dorff) driving his Ferrari in circles around a short stretch of road. His life seems to be going the same way. Living at the Chateau, his torpor of wealth and boredom is interrupted only by press junkets and other work-related annoyances. He seems over it, nodding off to sleep even as a pair of twins, apparently ordered up like room service, perform a synchronized pole-dance in his room.
“That’s where that kind of guy would live,” said Coppola in an e-mail about why she set the story specifically at the Chateau. “It’s sort of a rite of passage for an actor to live at the Chateau Marmont. It means you’ve made it, but you’re still ‘down-to-earth.’”
Into this situation comes Marco’s 11-year-old daughter, Cleo ( Elle Fanning). Although he has her name tattooed on his arm, he hasn’t been a big part of her life, and when they end up together for an extended time the closeness seems to subtly shift his priorities. She orders groceries up to their room to cook, and they hang out around the grounds together. Her presence brings out the sleepy romanticism of the Chateau, the undercurrent of innocence often hidden by the hotel’s more notorious reputation and recent tabloid-scarred renown.
Coppola, winner of an Academy Award for writing “Lost in Translation,” knows the world of the Chateau Marmont from up close. When Philip Pavel, general manager of the hotel, began working there some 15 years ago, one of the first events he worked on was a birthday party for Coppola. It was that familiarity and close relationship to the hotel itself that gave her an insider’s eye for specific details — such as singing waiter Romulo Laki performing in the lobby (he has retired since the film was shot last summer) and the distinctive wicker-weave of the patio furniture. It also got her production in the door.
“People ask all the time,” Pavel said of requests to shoot there. “It was specific to Sofia’s relationship with the hotel. She’s been a member of the Chateau family as long as I’ve been here. When she approached André Balazs, the owner, there was an innate sense of trust that her project would have integrity and reflect the true nature of the hotel.”
For the better part of a month, the film crew took over the entire fifth floor of the hotel, with rooms for each production department. Cinematographer Harris Savides used natural light whenever possible to keep the amount of equipment and crew to a minimum, which was essential when shooting in the hotel’s public spaces.
“I liked it because it forced us to pare down our crew and shoot in an intimate way that I think served our story and approach,” Coppola noted.
Room 59 was used as Johnny Marco’s suite, and during the shoot Dorff stayed one floor up in Room 69, which had the same essential layout. Living there, he says, was like “dress rehearsal for a lot of the scenes,” he said. He also was in a position to keep the film real. “I was able to give some gossip to Sofia in the mornings,” Dorff said. “She always wanted to know what happened that night after we shot, and I would give her some stories and sometimes she’d really like them and we’d include some stuff.”
One of Dorff’s off-hours encounters led to the dialogue in a scene in which he runs into Benicio Del Toro (who appears uncredited) in an elevator. The presence of Del Toro, in particular, is also a wink to the long-denied bit of Chateau lore that he and a young Scarlett Johansson once had a liaison in one of the hotel’s elevators. Another subtle nod to the hotel’s storied history has Dorff pulling out of the driveway and passing a car that has smashed into the low retaining wall on the opposite side of the street — a scene reminiscent of the crash and death of photographer Helmut Newton in 2004.
“I wanted to put in those details that give it its personality,” wrote Coppola of the nods to infamous chapters from the Chateau’s history, while also noting her desire “to have them in the background, details that make that place unique.”
And although Pavel admits that it was a “nightmare” trying to juggle the needs of a film shoot with the demands of his hotel’s guests, Coppola was conscious that the production was in a sense a guest of the hotel as well.
“The staff was very friendly to us,” Coppola added, “and we tried to stay out of the guests’ way as much as we could and not annoy them.”