From Academy Award-winning writer/director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette), is a witty, moving, and empathetic look into the orbit of actor Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff).
You have probably seen him in the tabloids; Johnny is living at the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood. He has a Ferrari to drive around in, and a constant stream of girls and pills to stay in with. Comfortably numbed, Johnny drifts along. Then, his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) from his failed marriage arrives unexpectedly at the Chateau. Their encounters encourage Johnny to face up to where he is in life and confront the question that we all must: which path in life will you take?
Filmed entirely on location, reunites the writer/director with Lost in Translation editor Sarah Flack and production designer Anne Ross. Stacey Battat (Broken English) is the costume designer, and Harris Savides (Elephant) is the director of photography, on .
A Focus Features presentation in association with Pathé Distribution, Medusa Film, and Tohokushinsha of an American Zoetrope production. . Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning. Music Score, Phoenix. Costume Designer, Stacey Battat. Film Editor, Sarah Flack, ACE. Production Designer, Anne Ross. Director of Photography, Harris Savides ASC. Executive Producers, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Rassam, Fred Roos. Producers, G Mac Brown, Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola. Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola. A Universal Pictures Release.
About the Production
When he got the call inviting him to work on the new movie from writer/director Sofia Coppola, veteran producer G Mac Brown sensed that it was just the challenge he needed. Not that he had been lacking for challenges; as he notes, “My last two film projects had budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars and each shot for more than 100 days.
“I don’t want to say that was easy, because everyone worked really hard. But this was such an intimate, small movie that it was easy to stay focused on the heart of the story, which is between a father and daughter.”
Sofia Coppola’s brother Roman Coppola, who was already on board as producer of , remarks, “Keeping away extra stuff that can pile onto a movie was important for us. Sofia was modelling this project in a European, intimate style as well as in her own personal style, which is simple and no-nonsense.
“One of my duties was to encourage the notion that less is more. While it was important to save money, it was far more important to create the intimacy that Sofia wanted in the filmmaking process. The spirit of the movie meant recruiting people who would embrace it; I live in LA and Sofia hasn’t lived here in a while, so she relied on me to refer local crew to her.”
Brown offers, “There’s a saying that the two most expensive words in the movie business are ‘what if,’ and that necessitates a lot of equipment and staff to make sure you’re ready for any eventuality. We tried to remove those two words from this production’s vocabulary; Sofia is so clear about what she wants. For me, it was a sea change in figuring out what is essential to getting a movie made.”
The shoot would impact the storytelling, and vice versa; as Brown comments, “If you can have anything you want to have, it’s hard for you to decide what’s right.”
When contacted and contracted, everyone joining the production realized that they were going to be part of something different than any picture they’d done before. Stephen Dorff, cast in the lead role of Johnny Marco, states, “After making around three dozen movies, I’ve gotten a gift of a part. is special - poetic, sweet, and truly in Sofia’s style.
“The opportunity came out of nowhere. Sofia, whom I’ve known for years but hadn’t talked to in a while, called and asked if she could send me the script for her new movie. After reading it, I called her the next day to ask her if I could come to Paris immediately to meet and talk about the film. On my last night there, I got the call from Sofia that I had the part. I started bawling, because it was the one-year anniversary of my mom’s passing, and I felt her smiling in that moment; this was the kind of role she’d wanted for me. Right after I hung up, the Eiffel Tower lit up.”
The actor admits, “I know what it’s like to live as an actor like Johnny Marco. I get who he is. I’ve had times where I’ve coasted. When we meet him, Johnny is lost in a monotonous rhythm and a decadent lifestyle. He’s a nice guy, but he’s drinking and popping pills. I don’t think he’s proud of a lot of the films he’s done - like his new one, Berlin Agenda. He hasn’t gotten his yet. Then his little girl shows up, and even though he’s thinking ‘I can’t handle this,’ he spends more time with her than he has probably since she was a baby - more than just an afternoon.
“Sofia and I talked about Johnny’s back story, so I was able to plan where he starts [out] and where he goes [in his relationship] with his daughter, who is becoming a little lady. We filmed so much of it in sequence, which was a joy.”
Dorff confides, “I always get a little nervous before I start a movie. But I’ve got to say that on this one, I felt that I knew what I had to do. I felt it when I [had first] read it. My mom always wanted me to play a Steve McQueen-type character. She would say, ‘He’ll be flawed, a ladies’ man, but he’ll have heart.’ That’s who I saw in Johnny, as Sofia had written him.”
The already-cast Dorff was screen-tested with Elle Fanning, then the front-runner for the role of Johnny Marco’s astute pre-teen daughter Cleo. In keeping with the production’s aesthetic, Roman Coppola operated film and video cameras recording the duo and Brown wielded the boom microphone, while Sofia Coppola gave direction to the two actors and took photographs of them. The only other crew member with them was a hair stylist who gave Dorff a cut beforehand, and then left. “We got right to the core of how Stephen and Elle would work together, without any pressure or tension,” notes Brown. The young actress was officially offered the part later that same day.
It was important to the writer/director that the on-screen father and daughter relationship play out authentically, so she arranged for Dorff and Fanning to spend time together before the start of production. Fanning reports, “Stephen and I have a lot in common. He went to the same school that I go to. We both bite our nails. We’re both from Georgia, and we both like our food well-done - really crispy! We now have a father/daughter-type relationship outside of the movie.”
Though only 11 years old at the time of filming, Fanning has been making movies since around the time she learned to talk. In reading the script, she saw as “a movie where everything felt real, including Cleo’s relationship with her dad.”
Like Dorff, Fanning still wonders about just how things will go when she steps onto a film set. But on , she “was never nervous, never felt rushed. If you had something to say or an idea, you could tell Sofia and she would listen to you. If Stephen and I had an inside joke or something, we’d ask her if we could incorporate it into a scene. She’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and she doesn’t put pressure on. She gets things done without yelling.”
When asked how she would prepare for the film’s more emotional scenes, Fanning says simply, “I just do; I put myself in the character’s place. Acting is making believe, then being natural - and going with whatever happens.”
To train for the rink sequence early in the movie, Fanning took to the ice from 7:00 to 8:00 AM for six weeks. “I was excited,” she remembers. “I had started learning for another movie, but [in that one] I didn’t have to be that good; for this, I learned to skate backwards. Now I can show off to my friends.”
Former competitive figure-skating champion Renee Roca was engaged to teach the young actress, and can be seen on-screen as Cleo’s instructor. “The day I met Elle, an hour later we were on the ice working hard,” marvels Roca. “Sofia got [what would be the accompanying] music [, the song, “Cool,”] to me and told me she wanted for the scene - for Elle’s skating to be dreamy and free and elegant.
“Once Elle had learned to skate, and could do jumps and spins, I choreographed what Elle would be doing. We did it several times every single day until it became muscle memory [for her]. Elle was a perfect student; she was determined to get it right, and she never complained.”
Dorff credits his relationship with his younger sisters as helping him to get a handle on Elle and her character. He comments, “My sisters are, or have been, near Cleo’s age and I’m very close to them. I pulled from that a lot for my scenes with Elle - who is a brilliant little thespian and also a real, sweet girl.
“Being around Elle was a change for me, since I don’t have a child. I felt this when was driving her in my car one day [before filming]. Now, usually I’m in my car smoking and cursing when someone cuts me off - because we do have the worst drivers in LA - but I had to stop doing all that. [Instead,] it was ‘Seatbelt on!’”
En route to playing the role of Johnny Marco’s friend Sammy, Chris Pontius remembers getting “a phone call that Sofia wanted to meet with me. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, and after we started to talk and catch up, she said she thought that I might be the one for the part of a wild man who’s not too bad. I met with [executive producer] Fred Roos and the casting people, and I could tell Fred was a big-timer. I looked him up online when I got home - and was glad I hadn’t before I went because I would have been anxious! A week later, they told me I’d be in the movie, and I was psyched.”
While acknowledging that he is best known for his participation in the Jackass TV programs and movies, and as the host of his own reality adventure show, Wildboyz, Pontius muses, “What I do on Jackass and Wildboyz is mostly improvisation and us playing off of each other, though we have things planned out that we’re going to film. In the script, my character would only have one or two lines written, so a lot of my part was improvised. I did make up histories in my head and remember stories to have in mind.
“Sometimes I would go in with an idea of where to take [a scene], but then when we started filming, all of that would go out the window because of something someone else said. I got a kick out of shocking Elle sometimes; I said extra-crazy stuff to her in some scenes. But I know when to be vulgar and when not to be.”
Pontius found that he and Dorff had friends in common, “so we hung out. We had a blast; whether we were filming or not, it didn’t feel much different.”
To play out more provocative scenes opposite Johnny, Playboy models Kristina and Karissa Shannon were cast after being brought to Sofia Coppola’s attention by a friend. When the writer/director met with the twin sisters, “she didn’t tell us anything about the roles,” says Karissa Shannon. “She just said it was [roles written] for twins. We were excited to [be asked to] work with her.”
Kristina Shannon adds, “She asked us if we could dance. We love dancing, and we’re good at it. Because I’m more girly and Karissa’s more of a tomboy, that’s how we got our [respective] parts [assigned by Sofia]. I get to kiss Stephen Dorff, and Karissa gets to smack him.”
The Shannons had to spend a minimum of three hours a day for three weeks prior to production training with choreographer Robin Conrad and learning their two demanding pole-dancing routines. Kristina Shannon remembers, “We had bruises from head to toe, with all the climbing up and down.”
was the first feature for the twins, and Karissa Shannon notes that “working together on such a small production, we got to see everything that goes into making a film. Kristina and I would love to do more [movies].”
The Shannon sisters filmed their scenes during the first three weeks of shooting - all of which was done on location at the celebrated Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, playing itself for the first time at length on-screen.
“The Chateau doesn’t allow a lot of filming,” comments Brown, who entered into negotiations with the hotel early and often. “If and when they do, they can charge a very high location fee and it probably has to be done in the middle of the night. None of this was the case with .”
The Chateau’s general manager Philip Pavel elaborates, “There have been other major motion pictures shot at the Chateau, but they were limited to one or two short scenes. Sofia Coppola approached the owner of the hotel, André Balazs, and he had an inherent trust of her deep knowledge of what makes the Chateau so special, and that it would be brought to her movie.
“What spoke to me was Sofia’s appreciation for Romulo Laki. He’s been at the Chateau for well over 30 years and is known as ‘the singing waiter.’ He loves to serenade the guests with his guitar. Sofia had a memory of him singing ‘Teddy Bear’ to her in the lobby, and incorporated that into her script. I’m excited for people to see that in the film, because they might not know about the Chateau’s sweet side. I believe it’s what makes the place so special; there is a homey feeling, and a feeling of safety.”
He adds, “The Chateau was originally built as a deluxe apartment building, so we have large suites and full kitchens. Each room feels like a great old New York or Los Angeles apartment. So it’s understandable why someone coming into LA to shoot a film or record an album would want to stay here.”
Roman Coppola reflects, “The Chateau is such a beautiful place. I have affectionate memories of it. The place is its own little world, peaceful and very European. It’s charged with history and personality.”
Dorff remembers living at the Chateau for “four or five months; I had my 21st birthday there. I remember it always being trendy, but I don’t remember it being so popular. It’s now quite a hot spot at night.”
Sofia Coppola felt that the actor would be more immersed in his character’s world if he again took up residence at the Chateau. Dorff says, “It was kind of a trip to be back staying at the Chateau, not going back to my own home every night. By living there, because people might know or recognize me, I experienced a lot of what Johnny would have; every night, I would wonder, ‘Do I go out to dinner, should I play piano, should I go downstairs, go out to a movie?’ Many times I would think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see anybody; I’m going to order room service.’”
With an assist from the production, Dorff reports that he “also got my own Johnny Marco/Chateau Marmont stationery, since Johnny is in residence there. So I started sending notes to people and I got mail at the hotel - as Johnny. On this movie, I tried to live the part more.”
Production designer Anne Ross was reteaming with the writer/director, and reveals that “Sofia and I always work from the details out, and she is very specific on those; [before production,] she will assemble a book with images that tell the story. These are things and ideas that she pulls together; with people helping her implement them, it’s what the film ends up looking and feeling like. Some of them show up on-screen, and some of them don’t. There are threads in her work[s] visually, which is one reason I love collaborating with her.
“The goal with was to maintain the iconic feeling of the Chateau, so that no one would know that we did anything [in the way of adjustments to the interiors], that they would say ‘They just went in and shot.’ Now, there were things in the hotel that we had to change only because they weren’t conducive to filming. But whatever was done, we did with an eye towards keeping things true to the essence of the hotel. It is, after all, a character in itself. While we were there, we found out different pieces of history about the Chateau.”
The “renovations” were subtle. “When you’re in your hotel room, you want a big TV,” notes Ross. “But on film, you need something a little smaller or it will eat up the frame. We had to change all of the art in Johnny’s suite because none [of the existing pieces] is cleared. We picked ones that were in the spirit of the artwork.
“We also reupholstered some of the furniture with fabric that’s reminiscent of the lobby. We wanted to bring some of the beautiful, lush look of the lobby in there because the rooms at the Chateau are often stark and sparse; they’re painted all white, and I love that, but that can be too harsh for filming in such an intimate space. We didn’t change a thing in the lobby.”
With the colour palette at the Chateau’s interiors so neutral, Ross relied on pops of colour to break up the space. She notes that the production dubbed one colour “ yellow; it’s an electric, acid-y yellow that we tried to bring into the sets themselves or with the props throughout.”
In introducing more colour into the hotel settings, Ross closely coordinated efforts with costume designer Stacey Battat. Ross reports that “even though Stacey and I hadn’t known each other [prior to filming], because we both know Sofia so well there was a shorthand. Sofia knows what she wants; she will calmly give a concise opinion about why she likes or doesn’t like something.
“Stacey would show me what she planned to dress Cleo in, and my team would try to complement that with the luggage we chose for the character. When Cleo shows up, things get more colourful - in a literal way. Because we were not building [sets or rooms], the palette was in many ways dictated by space [within the Chateau].”
Battat says, “Anne and I showed each other our reference books to collaborate. Working with a production designer is like building a doll house; the production designer builds the house, and I make the dolls.”
For Johnny Marco’s sartorial style, Sofia Coppola asked Battat to look to Bruce Weber photos and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho for inspiration. The costume designer offers, “We knew we wanted Johnny to wear work boots, and the brown boots we ended up using were vintage Red Wings from the 1940s. We wanted him to recall Marlon Brando, wearing T-shirts and vintage Levi’s jeans. Even though he’s a movie star of today, he wears classic clothes.
“His wardrobe is reflective of his personality, but also that he is messy. He will sleep in his clothes, and doesn’t own pyjamas. When he goes to Italy with his daughter, he realizes he needs pyjamas - so, in my imagination, he went to the fancy shop and got the polka-dotted ones you see in the movie.”
With the character of Cleo, Battat took even more artistic license. She remarks, “Though the character is in part inspired by a certain girl of that age, Sofia and I decided that Cleo should be our concept of an 11-year-old. She carries herself as an adult in some ways; it’s not that she looks or dresses like one, but she’s more styled and chic than a typical kid. So, for example, she wears a little Hermès bracelet.”
Battat cites the twins’ matching costumes as “my favourites of the movie. It was a challenge to make them be sexy but not trashy. For the tennis outfits, we searched around until we finally found what we wanted, with sneakers that look like tennis shoes but are high-heeled.
“One of my favourite sequences overall was the Telegatto Awards, for which we watched a DVD of the [actual 2008] ceremony. At the Telegattos, Cleo is sitting in the audience and there’s such a contrast between her and the people sitting around her. She looks natural, while with their sequins, glamour, and tans the others don’t; to me, they represent the excess in Johnny Marco’s life, while Cleo is there as this pure soul.”
Of working with director of photography Harris Savides, who on was also camera operator, Ross states, “He makes everything you do look better, look so much better than you even thought it would because he’s so talented.”
Battat adds, “You always have to factor in that some things won’t work on-camera. But with Harris, nearly everything does because he’s a great DP; he can light a scene in a way so that the white is not too bright or so that stripes don’t waver.
“Sofia was so good at steering us to make the visual elements line up exactly how she wanted them to.”
The departments’ coordination was made that much easier because the production had bought out the whole fifth floor of the Chateau to set up shop on for the three-week shoot; there you could find, as location manager Stephenson Crossley recounts, “the camera room, the grip and electric room, the production room, the art department room, the hair and make-up room, and the [Johnny Marco] room that we were shooting in. There was a balcony around the outside, so we could move from room to room along the balcony.”
Crossley found the Chateau to be “amazingly quiet for being so close to the Sunset Strip. Even room to room, it’s quiet; with the thick floors and ceilings, we wouldn’t hear each other. It’s a little island unto itself. We always felt protected; the staff was amazing. Many of them have worked there for decades and are like a family.”
With the production pared down and largely filming in Johnny Marco’s room, the movie got made while the hotel remained open and operational the entire time. Stephen Dorff’s room, with a layout almost identical to Johnny’s, was one floor up.
Pavel admits, “Having a production crew in a 24-hour, fully functioning hotel was not without its difficulties. Despite that, we loved having Sofia, Roman, Mac, and their team here.”
Following shooting at the Chateau Marmont and at various locations around Los Angeles and California, the unit decamped to Las Vegas for one day of shooting. The final leg of production took the unit all the way to Italy.
Fanning says that she “had never been to Italy, and I had been told that Milan is the fashion capital of the world, so I was excited to go. I liked visiting the places that were from another era - and the pasta and pizza were so good!
“Many of the crew there didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Italian, so we had to get someone in to translate. It felt like we were always playing the game of Telephone; you’re telling someone what to say, they’re repeating it...”
Roman Coppola describes Milan as having “a certain amount of chaos that’s just part of the culture there, and we were far away from home turf.”
Yet the spirit and the letter of the production remained intact. Brown says affectionately, “Everything in Italy starts out ‘impossible!’ and then it becomes ‘maybe’ and eventually they give you the go-ahead. I think the Italians learned a lot from us because we were a smaller production. I kept telling them that we didn’t need so much.”
As the project’s veteran of big-budget productions, Brown feels that is a film of moments rarely found in movies these days. He explains, “There’s a scene where Johnny lights a Camel Lights cigarette and smokes it, in real time, all in one shot. It comes at a point in the movie where we’re on board with this character and understand where he is at in his journey.
“I know that Harris and Sofia and [film editor] Sarah Flack all agree that when you call out ‘cut,’ or make a cut, you’re controlling the emotion rather than letting the filmgoer experience it. The style of filmmaking, and of telling the story, on was to let the emotions go and to let the scenes roll out in a natural way. That frees everybody up.”
Dorff reflects, “There were these moments that Sofia wanted to be in real time. I’ve smoked in movies before, but I’ve never smoked a whole cigarette [straight through]. To sit in a room on-camera for minutes on end and not get self-conscious was a challenge. Sofia was there and crew members were there, yet it felt like I was alone with my own thoughts. It was an enlightening way of working on film, one I’d never experienced before as an actor.
“The emotions in are real, but subtle. Sofia, being both open and precise, created a foundation where Elle and I could get to them. It had been a long time since I’d been on a set where there wasn’t a bunch of monitors being watched; Sofia would always be watching us.”