Sofia's Choice


    Sofia Coppola on the set of Lost in Translation

    Francis Ford Coppola knew his only daughter would become a director by the time she was 3. "My wife and I were driving in the car with Sofia," he says, "and we were having a typical silly marital argument that was going on a little too long. All of a sudden this little voice in the back seat said, 'Cut!' She knew how to use that word at a very early age."

    Later, when Sofia was about 6, on the set of her dad's film Apocalypse Now she would draw elaborate pictures of palm trees and helicopters and tell stories connecting the pictures. "She was a very imaginative child," says her mother Eleanor Coppola, a documentary-film maker. "But when she played with her friends, she always wanted them to play her way — her story, her costumes. And I would have to say, 'Sofia, not everyone wants to play your way.'" But the kids, inevitably, did want to play Sofia's way. Says Eleanor: "She had that pattern of somehow gathering everyone's enthusiasms, which is very much like a director."

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    As almost everyone in Coppola's family is a director — from her father to her husband Spike Jonze , who directed the indie hits Being John Malkovich and Adaptation , to her brother Roman Coppola, who directed CQ — it would have been weird if she had become an accountant or a cardiologist. But it's almost as surprising that Coppola became not just a director but one with a poignantly romantic visual style so distinctively her own.

    Coppola's new movie, Lost in Translation , was the most buzzed-about entry at the Venice Film Festival, where it snagged two prizes last week. Granted, it's easy to generate buzz when you've got family connections like hers. But waiflike Sofia, 32, with her soft, spacey California surfer-chick talk (expressions like "Yeah, right?" and "Oh, cool" punctuate every sentence), hardly plays the part of the Hollywood brat.

    "People think it's easy for me," she says, "but I stalked Bill Murray for eight months!" After sending him letters, leaving messages on his voice mail and soliciting the help of mutual friends like The Royal Tenenbaums director Wes Anderson, Coppola finally persuaded Murray to star in her film. "If someone says no, I like to keep working to find a way to do it," she says, referring to the fact that she had no alternative choices for Murray, nor did she have a backup for Tokyo's Park Hyatt hotel, which provides the main location in Lost in Translation.

    In the movie, a dreamy meditation on midlife crises and the nature of transient connections, Murray plays Bob Harris, a disillusioned movie star in Tokyo to shoot a Japanese whiskey commercial. Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte, a newlywed accompanying her workaholic husband (Giovanni Ribisi) on a job. Coppola shot the film in 27 days and stuck to a relatively minuscule $4 million budget. For some of the scenes, she recorded with no sound and rolled the cameras just to capture a mood. And she purposely used high-speed film to give the movie a homemade intimacy. "She waited for us to have a moment instead of cutting to it," says Johansson. "She knows what she wants, and she's not going to move on until she gets it. You're in the hands of someone who has a vision."

    Coppola definitely draws on input from the men in her life: her father ("He was always talking about screenwriting when we were little kids," she says), her husband (Lost's cinematographer, Lance Acord, also shot Jonze's Being John Malkovich and Adaptation ) and her brother (he went to Tokyo to shoot some scenes for her when she was running out of time). But much of Sofia's visual style — from costume design to art direction — has evolved out of what she calls her dilettante years. Though she was baptized into the family business, literally, as an infant, playing Vito Corleone's newborn grandson in the final scene of The Godfather, Coppola decided to check out other career opportunities after being excoriated, at age 18, for her portrayal of Michael Corleone's young daughter Mary in The Godfather Part III (audiences cheered when her character was killed). She got a job answering Karl Lagerfeld's phone at Chanel. She enrolled at Cal Arts and dabbled in painting. In her early 20s she enlisted a photo agent and started taking pictures for magazines like Paris Vogue and Allure. Eventually she wandered into fashion design when an old friend from California's Napa Valley, where Coppola grew up, suggested they start a line of T shirts and dresses. The line, called Milk Fed, still exists as a lucrative Japanese franchise that supports Coppola, allowing her to make creative decisions independently of financial ones ("something I also learned from my dad"). There was also a foray into cable TV with a Comedy Central talk show, Hi-Octane , which she hosted with her good friend Zoe Cassavetes, daughter of director John Cassavetes. "I felt like I wasn't really good at one thing, but I had all these interests," says Coppola. "That's what I like about directing. You have all these experts around you, and you can explore many interests."

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