Sofia Coppola had her 21st birthday party at the Chateau Marmont, a fact that she had forgotten until Phil Pavel, manager of the hotel, reminded her while she was there shooting her new film, Somewhere. (The film is due next month in Kansas City.) It's the first feature to be granted clearance to shoot extensively inside the rooms and on the grounds of the infamous Sunset Boulevard hideaway, where John Belushi and Helmut Newton died and Scarlett Johansson allegedly had sex with Benicio Del Toro in an elevator (an event nodded to in Somewhere). In contemporary pop culture, the Chateau offers a concentrated dose of a certain fantasy version of Los Angeles' secret life.
When Coppola first became a hotel regular, in the early '90s, the Chateau had just been purchased by superstar hotelier Andre Balazs and was on its way back from a period of decline. Coppola was on the comeback trail, too. In 1990, at age 19, she had disastrously co-starred as Mary Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, written and directed by her father, Francis Ford Coppola. Sofia, who had no formal acting training, was pinch hitting for Winona Ryder, who had dropped out at the last minute. Her performance was decimated by critics.
By the mid-'90s, though, Sofia Coppola seemed to be everywhere. With her long caramel hair and red pout, waiflike body in hip-hugger skirts and kitschy baby tees (which she designed and marketed herself, through the fashion line Milk Fed), she was a poster girl for that decade's brand of cool. She studied photography while modeling for alt-fashion and teen magazines. She vamped in music videos for the Black Crowes, Madonna and Sonic Youth. She later admitted to People magazine, "There was a year I did nothing but go out. I was pretty flaky."
Now, over lunch in the lobby of the Chateau on an unseasonably sunny November day, she says, "I was really frustrated that I wasn't really great at one thing, but that I had a lot of interests in different areas." She looks much younger than 39. Her hair in an unpolished bob, she's petite in an oversized sweatshirt and jeans, paired with an expensive-looking tennis bracelet that seems ready to fall off her tiny wrist.
By reading Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides, Coppola got the push she needed to focus her different interests into filmmaking. "There are people who want to be a director and then think about what they wanna do," she says. "Or it comes from something that you want to express."
In 2000, she wrote and directed an adaptation of the book. Her first feature, it's a visually stunning, 1970s reverie of bikini poster meets homeroom-notebook doodle that nails an ineffable adolescent blend of lust, obsession, depression and awkward connection.
Four years later, she won an Oscar for writing her second feature, Lost in Translation.
By then, Coppola and her husband, the director Spike Jonze, had announced that they were filing for divorce. The split fueled speculation that Translation's portrait of a bookish young wife neglected by a toxic hipster husband was a memoir of Coppola's own marriage, if not a cry for help.
Coppola moved to New York and then, after winning the Oscar, headed to Paris to prep her third feature, Marie Antoinette. Infusing the story of the French queen with the pop-punk spirit of her own mid-'80s teen years, Coppola presented Versailles as a dizzying adolescent fantasy, with the last years of the French monarchy an all-consuming house party.
"I knew it was sort of obnoxious and ballsy for me to make that movie, but for me, that was part of the fun of it," Coppola says, "to do it in that spirit of being a rebellious teenager." With its hordes of extras, extravagant set, costumes, and shooting at Versailles, the film reportedly cost $40 million (about what Lost in Translation made at the domestic box office), bankrolled by Columbia Pictures. In the United States, it grossed just a quarter of its budget.