Having spent large chunks of her life around her father's movie sets, Sofia Coppola dove into "The Virgin Suicides" -- her first feature film as a writer and director -- with an uncommonly encompassing vision. Even while writing the first draft of her screenplay she'd thought extensively about such details as cinematography, costumes and soundtrack music.
Throughout the process, her intention was to give the finished film -- about an enigmatic quintet of innocently seductive teenage sisters who form a suicide pact in the mid-1970s -- the same consistently dreamlike quality she gleaned from the 1993 Jeffrey Eugenides novel, narrated by a handful of neighborhood boys, smitten and spellbound by the sisters as teenagers and still haunted by their inexplicable deaths 25 years later.
"That's what I liked about the book," she says. "That kind of etherealness. It's (about) memory and not reality."
Visiting her native San Francisco in preparation for the film's opening night debut at the city's influential International Film Festival, the diminutive Coppola -- who now lives in L.A. with new husband Spike Jonze, director of "Being John Malkovich" -- talks with soft-spoken conviction about tweaking her adaptation toward a more feminine viewpoint without losing that intangible mystification the boys built around these the irresistible and unattainable all-American girls.
"A lot of it was shooting it from afar," she sites as an example of her deliberate technique. "The camera was really simple. It wasn't aggressive."
Astutely aware of how music can generate a mood or set a time and place, she also employed period-apropos tunes from Air, ELO, 10cc, Styx, Al Green, Heart, The Hollies and the Bee Gees with surgical precision. "The Air music really helped a lot. They have that kind of dreamlike sound. I listened to their music a lot when I was writing the script."
Curled up in the wooden arms of a plushly cushioned chair in her hotel room, legs in capri jeans tucked sideways underneath her and absent mindedly toying with the strap on her sandals, the 29-year-old Coppola seems at once girlish and grave, like a Soho art scene type with a lingering inkling of teenager skipping around in her soul.
That youthfulness is apparently the part of her that latched on to the pubescent jumble of intellect and emotion Eugenides' book captures so well.
"I just thought it was beautifully written and it seemed accurate about being a teenager," Coppola says. "It had an epic feeling of first love, obsession, and melancholy. There's not too many things I've read or seen (about) being a teenager that I relate to. I think Jeff Eugenides really understood that."
The key to creating the same atmosphere was the casting of the sisters, which became an exacting task. They had to be beautiful, pure and approachable, yet perplexing. Four of the girls, who are not explored in great depth, are played by virtual unknowns (Hanna Hall, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain, younger sibling of "Lolita" star Dominique Swain). But the film centers in on Lux, the middle sister whose rebellious flirtations makes her the center of the boys' attention and the focus of her apprehensively strict parents' ire. And for that part Coppola needed someone special.
"The writer talked about some girl he liked that was the prototype for Lux. I know stories about guys and the girl they loved in second grade and they've never found anyone that compares," the director says, adding as an observational aside, "Boys who don't understand girls grow up to be men who don't understand women."
After "a million" unsatisfactory auditions, Coppola's mind kept drifting back to the unaffected and wholesomely magnetic Kirsten Dunst ("Dick," "Drop Dead Gorgeous"), whose intrinsic understanding of her sweetness and budding sexuality is exactly what Lux was all about.
"I thought of her when we were first casting but she wasn't available. She works all the time," Coppola says. "And then she was in Toronto doing a movie, and it worked out that maybe she was going to be free. As soon as I met her I knew that she was right. She's really a kid, but she's also womanly."
Dunst found room in her schedule to take the part, and it's a good thing, too. The movie is anchored by her subtle, pitch-perfect performance.
Coppola also landed James Woods and Kathleen Turner to give lovingly autocratic and subtly sympathetic performances as the girls' parents, and cast aging stallion Michael ParÚ to play an adult version of Trip Fontaine, the GTO-driving neighborhood rebel dreamboat who has never been able to shake his dreams of Lux.
"I had a crush on him when I was little in 'Streets of Fire.' And we saw him somewhere in L.A. and we got really excited," Coppola recalls.
Before succumbing to the inevitable and trying her hand at father Francis Ford Coppola's trade, Sofia Coppola dabbled in other careers in the arts. She acted in several film throughout the 1980s (most notably -- or most notoriously, depending on who you ask -- as Mary Corleone in her dad's third "Godfather" installment) and had a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in last year's "Star Wars" prequel as one of Queen Amidala's handmaidens. She's been a photographer for Interview and other magazines. She's been a costume designer, too, styling duds for papa's installment of "New York Stories" (for which she also wrote the screenplay) and "The Spirit of '76," a cult comedy about time travelers headed for the signing of the Declaration of Independence who land in the far-out 1970s instead.
"That was really over the top," she remembers with a smile. "It was really campy. It was fun to work on. It's like junk food."
Directing, however, may be where she finally settles, and not just because she and her soon-to-be husband enjoyed working on their directorial debuts in tandem.
"We were both trying to get actors and financing at the same time, waiting for people to call you back...excited to make a movie, but it could fall apart at any minute."
More importantly, Coppola says, filmmaking satisfies all her creative instincts at once.
"It combines all the things I like -- photography, design, music -- and in a way that I love. (As a director) you can have everything the way you want it, which you can't have in real life."
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