“I never thought I would be a film-maker. It wasn’t something I ever planned. I had so many interests but I just couldn’t find one medium that really clicked for me. Then I made a short film, Lick the Star in 1998, and it brought together all the things I loved.”
Sofia Coppola, The Guardian
It seems hard to believe that Sofia Coppola may have never gone into filmmaking, considering just how great she is at crafting masterpieces such as Lost in Translation, Somewhere and The Bling Ring. But prior to the release of her 1999 film debut The Virgin Suicides, Coppola wasn’t really sold on the idea of being a film director.
In her recent interview with The Guardian, Coppola explains how she had a lot of interests from music to art, and was never really tied down to one particular passion, but filmmaking is in her blood, she is the daughter of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola after all. Up until her debut, Sofia Coppola was perhaps best known for her acting roles in various projects by her father (she famously played Mary Corleone in The Godfather: Part III in 1990), but she wasn’t born to be in front of the camera, it was her destiny to be behind it. In an interview with Trey Taylor from Interview Magazine, Coppola disclosed that she “never really wanted to be an actress. I just did it when my dad asked me to.”
In Coppola’s own words she found acting to be something she never really enjoyed but didn’t set out to become a director either. As she explains to Lisa Krueger back in 2000, “It’s weird, because I never studied directing and I never really thought about doing it, and then I just found myself in that situation and tried it. I like to be observing everything else, and I get self-conscious in front of the camera.” There was something about filmmaking that Coppola was drawn to but it wasn’t until she stumbled across the best selling debut novel of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, that she became inspired to bring the story from the page onto the big screen. As Coppola discussed in an Interview with The Cinema Review, “I really didn’t know I wanted to be a director until I read The Virgin Suicides and saw so clearly how it had to be done. I immediately saw the central story as being about what distance and time and memory do to you, and about the extraordinary power of the unfathomable.”
Coppola wrote the script for the film in 1998 after the project was already greenlit at another studio, and another script had already been written by Nick Gomez, but the production company that owned the rights at the time, Muse Productions, were dissatisfied with the script. It seems hard to imagine anyone else writing the script for this film because Coppola manages to capture the very essence and tone of the novel. And she manages to effectively capture the feeling of loss, and loneliness that many teenagers face growing up. As she discusses in her interview with The Guardian, the book spoke to her and she connected with it due to the tragic loss of her brother Gio (who died in a tragic boating accident), and she states that “Often, movies about teenagers are dumbed down with cheap photography. There aren’t a lot of quality art films made for young audiences. But I wanted to treat them with respect, to look properly at that deep, emotional time.”
Often adaptations lose a personal connection between the reader/viewer and the characters, however Coppola doesn’t sacrifice story and character development for action, and we can tell that she is a fan of the source material. The film deals with some taboo subjects, especially teen suicide but it does so in a sensitive manner. As Sofia puts it in her own words, “It’s about the big themes in life: about mortality and obsession and love. It isn’t about romanticizing suicide. I never saw the Lisbon sisters or their acts as real and I don’t think they were intended to be. The Lisbons are the figments of memory, these lovely mythical creatures of the imagination who are more beautiful than reality can ever be, so of course they cannot last.” In less capable hands, the film could have relied heavily on gruesome suicide imagery and explicit sexual content, but Coppola manages to treat in a sensitive, reserved and considerate manner. In his review, film critic Roger Ebert praise Coppola for this and noted that, “She has the courage to play it in a minor key. She doesn’t hammer home ideas and interpretations. She is content with the air of mystery and loss that hangs in the air like bitter poignancy.”
One would assume that with a father like Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia could find herself having many doors being opened for her. However, her father refused to help her secure the rights to Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, so she adapted the screenplay herself. That’s not to say that Sofia was completely abandoned by her father, as she discussed in her interview with The Guardian, her father encouraged her and he “really talked to me.” And perhaps he wanted her to do her own adaptation as Coppola confides that her father “always said the most important thing about a movie is the acting and the writing.” Adding that “Although he wasn’t there on set very much, he really mentored me.”
Adapting the novel was a walk in the park compared to financing the film, as Sofia Coppola has discussed in previous interview, the financing fell apart the week before they were meant to begin shooting. And considering it was a period piece (set in the 1970s) it had been a challenge getting financial backing, especially as it was her first film and she was using many unknown actors, although she did have acting legends James Woods and Kathleen Turner, on board which was a blessing. The pre-production was tricky but the young director still had to face the challenge of actually shooting the film. As Coppola discusses in her Guardian interview, “the hardest thing about making a movie, something I still find a challenge, is planning all the shots and how they’re going to cut together. You can get carried away and do way too many shots that don’t fit together. Eyelines have to match and you have to be really focused on whose point of view each shot is. It’s like a maths equation.” Filmmaking may seem easy and straightforward to the average cinemagoer, but as Coppola so perfectly sums it up, it is a challenging task which is mathematical in nature.
All Coppola’s hard work paid off in a way, and despite the film not being a huge commercial success, it won her a lot of critical praise. Indeed critic Richard Crouse called the film “one of those rare occasions when a film surpasses the book it is based on,” and he book’s writer supported the film. Despite the film becoming lost at the box office, it went on the gain a cult status and helped put Sofia Coppola on the map as one of the most exciting and interesting filmmakers that we have working today. The film helped give Coppola a sense of direction and as she sums it up in her own word, “I don’t know if I would have a film career if it wasn’t for that book. It was scary directing a film, but I was so connected with the material I felt like I had no choice. The Virgin Suicides made me a film-maker.” If we can take anything away from Coppola’s journey to adapt The Virgin Suicides, it will be that sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith and give it a shot, because if The Virgin Suicides teaches us anything, it’s that life is just too damn short.