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'Somewhere' writer-director Sofia Coppola: I wanted a really short, sparse script

December 21, 2010 |  4:30 pm


If there’s been an uncomplimentary rap in many of the early reviews of Oscar-winning writer-director Sofia Coppola’s "Somewhere," it’s that few American films in recent memory feature less dialogue and less action (at least in the typical sense) than this episodic drama about fatherhood and celebrity, which reaches theaters Wednesday.

Nearly 15 minutes elapse before a character utters a single word on screen. A Ferrari goes around and around a racetrack for a full three minutes in the opening sequence. And in a totally wordless scene that must mark a first in cinema, leading man Stephen Dorff –- as a dissolute B-list star living at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont -- is shown smoking a cigarette from start to finish in one long, drawn-out static shot.

Coppola’s stated intention with such filmmaking sounds reasonable enough: “To see how simple you could make a movie. To not be aware of the camera and have it not feel like a movie. To make a portrait of this guy at this moment in his life,” she said. (In a Calendar section story, the writer-director also explained "Somewhere's" personal and family resonances.)

According to Dorff, who was still puffing away on a Camel Light during an interview at Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel earlier this month, the process of making such a stripped-down film began with an equally bare bones script –- a screenplay he describes as “a 47-page pamphlet.”

"Most scripts are over-written and then you have a first cut that’s three and a half hours long,” Dorff said. “Sofia goes in the opposite direction. From what she explains to me, she doesn’t want to put everything in there. ‘Lost in Translation’ was only 60 pages and she won the Oscar for that one.”

The movie follows his character Johnny Marco as he’s jolted out of a state of advanced emotional detachment when his 11-year old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is thrust into his care. To hear Coppola tell it, she wanted to key in on the details -- the two eat gelato in a Milan, Italy, hotel room in contented silence, for instance -- and not the grand narrative gesture.

“I feel like there’s moments in your life that can change you, that have a big impact,” she said. “They can be small little things that make you look at yourself or inspire you to change. You don’t have to be held hostage or [suffer through] a big disaster for you to make a change in life.”

Nevertheless, when Dorff first read the “Somewhere” script, he recalled initially being somewhat dubious.

“I felt like I knew the movie,” he recalled. “But I felt like, ‘Is it going to be long enough? Where’s the breakdown scene? Shouldn’t he crumble here?’ ‘Oh yeah, of course, Stephen. But we just don’t want to write that down.’ She uses the screenplay as a template. She wants to discover things as she goes.”

Apparently, Dorff wasn’t the only person struck by the script’s scant page count. As he recalled it, Coppola’s dad, “Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” auteur Francis Ford Coppola, was similarly surprised by the brevity of her original screenplays.

“Francis said to me too, ‘Can you believe my daughter gets away with writing these short little scripts for these movies?’” Dorff said. “These are European, ballsy movies that Sofia is making.”

-- Chris Lee

Photo: Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in "Somewhere." Credit: Franco Biciocchi / Focus Features