Girls on Film
Writer and director Sofia Coppola’s movies excel at capturing young women on the brink—whether Marie Antoinette or suicidal suburban teens. Her latest film, The Bling Ring, does it again.
Aside from a short film she made when she was 12 years old called Domain, in which the lead character turns into a cookie-dough monster, the first movie Sofia Coppola wrote and directed was 1998’s Lick the Star, the story of a seventh-grade girl, the queen bee of her junior high clique, who decides to poison the boys in her class. “She didn’t want to kill them,” Coppola told me. “She just wanted to weaken them so they would bend to her will. Lick the Star was about peer pressure and how teenage gang dynamics work. When I shot it, I was in my 20s, and it was the first time I felt like something clicked professionally for me. Movies incorporated all the things I liked: clothes, music, photography.”
And girls. Coppola’s subjects have always been female characters caught up in the turmoil, excitement, innocence, and mistakes of youth—from the romantic, doomed sisters in 1999’s The Virgin Suicides to the yearning newlywed stuck in a Tokyo hotel in 2003’s Lost in Translation to the spoiled, sweet child-monarch in 2006’s Marie Antoinette. In The Bling Ring, which opens June 14, Coppola echoes the darker tones of Lick the Star. The film is based on the true story of four post–high school girls (and two guys) who used the Internet to track the whereabouts of their favorite celebrities—like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan—and then broke into their houses when they knew the stars were away. However misguided, the crimes were more about a chance to capture the aura of fame by wearing Paris’s fake jewels or Lindsay’s designer duds than anything violent. The members of the Bling Ring, as they called the group, loved to document their newfound fabulousness; they took selfies—self-portraits on their phones—which they posted online to boast about their exploits. “I remember being that age and how you get sucked into things you wouldn’t do as an adult,” Coppola said. “But this case was just so much more extreme.”
We were sitting in the basement kitchen and dining room of Coppola’s townhouse in Manhattan’s West Village. She recently moved there with her husband, Thomas Mars, the lead singer of the French band Phoenix, and their two daughters, Romy, 6, and Cosima, 3. While we talked, Cosi was having macaroni and cheese for lunch at the end of the white marble counter that flanked the kitchen area. The dining room table, with its large black padded swivel armchairs, was characteristic of the house’s furnishings. Though they looked simple, most pieces had a notable provenance, revealing a particular, fully realized intention. For instance, the two cream-colored squared-off couches in the living room upstairs were created by the legendary interior designer Jacques Grange in the style of Jean-Michel Frank. The art on the walls—by, among others, Elizabeth Peyton, Tracey Emin, and William Eggleston—was not only striking, but it also evoked the visual mood of Coppola’s films. The Eggleston, especially, which hung over the dining room table, looked like an outtake from The Virgin Suicides: A girl is sprawled on the grass in a state of youthful abandon.
It is difficult to think of Coppola, 42, as a grown woman with two children. She has long legs and a narrow torso and is slim in the way girls are before they go through puberty. The long cashmere V-neck pullover she was wearing that day was just the right shade of navy, and her jeans were not too tight, not too loose. Coppola is an avid student of fashion, and a few years ago, when she couldn’t find what she was looking for in stores, she started designing clothes and bags. Her 2008 line for Louis Vuitton—a capsule collection that included soft leather satchels in colors like oxblood and dove gray, and an evening clutch in black suede—was such a success that in 2012 Louis Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs, a longtime friend of Coppola’s, invited her to design the house’s resort collection; Coppola combined masculine pajama tops with bohemian maxidresses. More recently, she asked Louis Vuitton to make her favorite shearling vest into a coat; the result, in reversible fur and leather, is now part of the brand’s pre-fall collection.
“I think the way I dress is pretty boring,” Coppola said as she wrapped a black and white scarf around her neck and got ready to leave for lunch at Buvette, a small bistro in the neighborhood. “It’s flattering that people like the way I dress, but it’s funny to hear that I’m on best-dressed lists. I like fashion. I’m into it. But I don’t think of myself as a fashion role model.” As we left the house and headed up Seventh Avenue, I asked Coppola if she ever went online to read about herself. The Bling Ring is forgiving of the gang’s behavior, but it casts a harsh judgment on the Internet. “I don’t go online. I don’t want to see what people are writing about me,” Coppola said flatly. “I feel a little cut off from the modern world, and I like that. I don’t want to get too self-conscious—and how can you not become self-conscious if you’re seeing and hearing things about yourself?”
She paused to look in the window of Marc Jacobs’s bookstore on Bleecker Street. Coppola, who is the leader of her daughter Romy’s Girl Scout troop, was planning to have the girls sell cookies in front of the shop. She went inside and asked the store manager if she had received the necessary clearances for the sale, and once Coppola was sure that the corner had been secured, she continued with her thought: “I look at the Internet from a parent’s point of view. With The Bling Ring, I tried to make the characters’ lives fun and exciting, but the idea of social media—having an audience and taking pictures for people to see—that’s a scary thing. When I was young, things were simpler.”
Coppola grew up among men. The family members—her father, Francis Ford Coppola; her mother, Eleanor; and her two older brothers, Roman and Gian Carlo (who was known as Gio and died in a freak boating accident at age 23)—all played some part in the family business. Sofia’s first role was as the infant in the christening scene in 1972’s The Godfather, and she has a tendency to remember her life in reference to what and where her father was shooting. The family lived in Oklahoma during the filming of 1983’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (in which a pigtailed 12-year-old Sofia stole scenes as Diane Lane’s bratty younger sister). Some of her happiest memories are from the shoot of 1979’s extremely fraught Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. “I was the only girl of my generation in my family,” she recalled as we sat down at Buvette. “It was me and eight boys. I think that’s why I’m comfortable on a film set. All these guys taking care of me reminds me of being around my big brothers and cousins.”
Francis Ford Coppola always stressed to his children the importance of hard work. In addition to making films, he published a literary magazine and ran a movie studio, a vineyard, and, eventually, a group of boutique hotels. (Two summers ago, Sofia and Mars married at one of them, in Bernalda, Italy.) “My father always talked about how important it was to have many interests,” Coppola continued. “But growing up, I was really frustrated that I couldn’t focus on one thing. I didn’t want to be a dilettante, dabbling in this and that.” She went to high school in Napa Valley and remembers wearing a black-leather-and-lace Chanel dress (a gift from Karl Lagerfeld, for whom she interned in Paris) to her junior prom. In 1991, at the urging of her mother, who is a documentary filmmaker, Coppola briefly attended CalArts in Los Angeles, where she studied photography. With her childhood friend Stephanie Hayman she started Milk Fed, a clothing company that specialized in girly, vaguely Eurocentric clothes that looked like they belonged in a ’60s Nouvelle Vague film. She starred in a TV show called Hi-Octane with another close friend, Zoe Cassavetes, but nothing really stuck until Lick the Star. In 1995, her friend Thurston Moore (of the band Sonic Youth) gave Coppola a copy of The Virgin Suicides, the first novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. “I loved how the book talked about something that was lost,” Coppola said. “I wanted to make a movie that felt authentic to being that age. High school was a hard time for me, and maybe that’s why I’m always interested in it as a subject. I’m drawn to projects that help me understand something about myself.”
The Bling Ring is, in many ways, the flip side of The Virgin Suicides. Instead of being restless souls who see no way out, the kids in The Bling Ring feel too confident, too certain that the world will applaud their existence. One of the actors, a great-looking blonde named Claire Julien, has the words fuck you tattooed inside her lower lip. “During filming, Claire said her parents hadn’t seen the tattoo yet,” Coppola said. “So they will know soon!” Coppola hesitated before casting Emma Watson as Nicki, the would-be actress who joined the Bling Ring and as a result became the star of a reality show. Watson, forever known as Hermione Granger, the straight arrow from the Harry Potter opus, fought for the part. She filmed herself and sent the audition to Coppola. “Emma wore a lot of lip gloss,” Coppola recalled. “She had the Nicki attitude down. Who knew that Emma had this hot-rod body? Or that she’s a hip-hop dancer? Her greatest dream is to be in a Kanye West video. It’s Hermione gone bad.”
Perhaps it’s motherhood, but with The Bling Ring, Coppola feels less tolerant than in her previous movies—as if she wanted to make a cautionary tale. “I was scared about glorifying what the kids do in this movie,” she said. “I know I sound like a grandmother when I talk about the Internet, but I do have strong feelings about the online life, and I worry about the impact it will have on my kids.” In her films, Coppola’s obsessions have always been revealed in the small details—a glance, a chance encounter, the cut of a dress—that can provide a sudden understanding of a particular world. But this is the first of her movies in which the clothes, the demeanor, and the mood she creates are nothing to emulate. “When you direct, it is the only time you get to have everything be exactly like you want it, and I guess what I usually imagine is more wonderful,” she said. “Maybe I’m growing up: The world in The Bling Ring is no longer my own.”