Sofia Coppola’s First Works (1993-1998)

The old adage that “first impressions are everything” is especially true in the world of cinema.  Chances are, if the first film an average moviegoer sees from a given director leaves a bad taste in his or her mouth, there won’t be much in the way of eagerness to see that director’s other work.  Some even take their criticism to a personal level, dismissing the director outright on terms of character and artistry.  For instance, the first film I ever saw from director Sofia Coppola was 2003’s LOST IN TRANSLATION.  I was captivated by the quiet sensitivity of her characters and the evocative melancholy of the Tokyo setting, and as such, I’ve come to regard her as an accomplished filmmaker with a uniquely sensitive worldview worth expressing.  However, I know plenty of other people who saw the same movie and have written her off entirely as “boring”, “out of touch”, “over privileged”.  As is the case with all forms of art, beauty is in the eye of beholder, and to my mind, Coppola’s films are all filled with an ethereal, ephemeral beauty and deftness of touch that’s exceedingly resonant in our increasingly-mechanized modern world.  


The highest-profile and, perhaps, most serious, charge leveled against Coppola’s artistic character is the charge of nepotism.  Nepotism courses through nearly every profession, naturally, but it’s an especially-visible phenomenon in Hollywood– after all, when you live in a town where a key barrier to success is “who you know”, having legendary New Hollywood auteur Francis Francis Ford Coppola as your father gets you a pretty serious leg up over the competition.  The film industry is full of such privileged and meagerly-talented royalty with which one could credibly argue for a case of actual nepotism, but the Coppola clan proves the exception to the rule.  From immediate offspring like Sofia, Roman, and Gia, to extended family members like Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, visual artistry clearly runs through Coppola blood like a hereditary trait.  Sofia in particular has had a steeper uphill climb than the others– not only did she have to contend with charges of nepotism from an early age, she also had to overcome the inherent challenge of simply being a woman in an almost-exclusively male profession– indeed, she’s only the 3rd woman in Oscar history to be nominated for Best Director.  She’s never disavowed her admittedly privileged upbringing, which has given her an unique, well-traveled outlook on life that many find to be uncompelling at best, and hopelessly out of touch at worst.  It’s easy to dismiss her work as a series of shoegazing portraits about the white leisure class, but look again, and you might see a biting self-awareness that adds layers of subtle nuance and humanizing depth.  Over the course of five features (as of this writing), Sofia Coppola has proven her bonafides as a director with her own distinct stamp, and has stepped out from under the overbearing shadow of her father’s legendary career to forge her own path.


Born in New York City on May 14th, 1971, Sofia Coppola was the youngest child of father Francis and mother Eleanor.  She quickly earned her status as an artistic figurehead of Generation X by getting herself involved with film and fashion at an exceedingly early age.  She made her film debut only a year after her birth, standing in for Michael Corleone’s infant son during the iconic baptism scene in her father’s 1972 classic, THE GODFATHER.  Her childhood was well-traveled, often accompanying her parents on Francis’ film shoots around the world– including a long stretch in the Philippines while her father was making APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).  In the 1980’s, she made efforts to cultivate an acting career by appearing in several of her father’s films from that decade: THE OUTSIDERS (1983), RUMBLE FISH (1983), THE COTTON CLUB (1984) and PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986).  She even appeared in Tim Burton’s 1984 short FRANKENWEENIE under the name “Domino”– a stage name she adopted for what she perceived to be its implications of glamor.  At fifteen, she began exploring a lifelong interest with fashion by interning at Chanel (1).  1989 saw her professional writing debut, having collaborated with her father on the script for LIFE WITHOUT ZOE, a short film contained within the larger omnibus feature NEW YORK STORIES.  Following her graduation from St. Helena High School in New York in 1989, she moved to Oakland, CA to attend Mills College.  After her disastrous, Razzie Award-winning supporting performance in THE GODFATHER PART III (1990), Coppola abandoned her budding acting career altogether in favor of one behind the camera. She would transfer to Cal Arts in Valencia before dropping out altogether to start a fashion line called “Milkfed” (which is still sold exclusively in Japan)(3).


Coppola’s first official credit as a director is for a music video– a format that served as the entry point into the industry for many members of her generation.  Created for Walt Mink’s track “SHINE” in 1993, the video marks the first appearance of several themes and images that would come to define Coppola’s distinct aesthetic.  “SHINE” seems to foreshadow the central approach Coppola would take for her 1999 debut feature, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: a dreamy, shoegazing feel with a pastel color palette and a warm, summery setting.  The piece is mostly shot as a conventional performance video, intercut with handheld footage of teenagers napping in the grass and swimming in the pool.  It’s obvious that Coppola is depicting a world she knows quite well– one of suburban privilege and leisure (that’s also exclusively white).  Notably, the video was shot on the Coppola estate, and edited by filmmaker Spike Jonze, who Coppola would marry in 1999.  A simple concept with little structural shape to speak of, “SHINE” nonetheless hints at the artistic style Coppola would come to be known for: an observational and nostalgic gaze spiked with a punk edge.


Coppola’s second music video, for The Flaming Lips’ “THIS HERE GIRAFFE”, further embraces the rough-hewn punk inclinations of its predecessor.  She again adopts a loose, cinema-verite approach that utilizes handheld photography to capture fleeting moments instead of staged setups, while embracing the imperfections of the format by keeping in light leaks and other filmic aberrations.  When combined with the punches of bright pastel colors dotting the otherwise monochromatic, blue-collar suburban environs, the overall effect reads as an avant-garde twist on the mundane.  The video, which also delightfully features literal giraffes, further explores Coppola’s aesthetic interests in the iconography of suburbia as perceived by the teenage female.  A substantial amount of attention is paid to what is undoubtedly a girl’s bedroom– festooned with cats, rock band posters, and a plentiful splash of pink.  Coppola’s unpolished technique echoes the rough, crunchy quality of the Flaming Lips’ track, making for an effortless match between sound and picture.


At the age of twenty seven, Coppola made her narrative debut with the 1998 short film, LICK THE STAR.  She wrote the script in collaboration with Stephanie Hayman, spinning a story about a clan of vicious teenage girls who hover obsessively around their queen bee while hatching a juvenile plot to poison the boys at their middle school.  Whereas most burgeoning filmmakers must make their first narrative efforts on a truly independent scale, her status as a second-generation Coppola filmmaker availed her of some admittedly enviable production resources.  LICK THE STAR was produced by Andrew Durham and Christopher Neil through Francis Ford Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope, as well as through her own directing representatives at Director’s Bureau.  She even got such cinematic luminaries (and family friends) as Peter Bogdanovich and Zoe Cassavetes to make brief cameos as a principal and a PE teacher, respectively.  Despite these considerable helping hands, Coppola’s work on LICK THE STAR ultimately asserts itself, reinforcing the strength and competence of her own unique voice.

LICK THE STAR was shot on black and white 16mm film by cinematographer Lance Acord, who would go on to become a regular collaborator of Coppola’s on her feature work, in addition to the work of other directors in their wider social circle (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, etc.).  The decision to shoot in this format is undoubtedly an aesthetic one as opposed to a pragmatic necessity– Coppola’s handheld, observational approach effortlessly melds with the grainy monochromatic film stock and various needle drops from various garage bands like Free Kittens, The Amps, and The Go-Gos to create a tone that’s unequivocally punk rock.  The compositions are mostly functional and close-up, rather than deliberately artistic and cinematic.  At the same time, however, Coppola punctuates her fairly straight-forward cinematography with impressionistic flourishes like languid slow-motion shots at key beats in the story.  

While the rough-hewn cinematography may stand in stark contrast to the dreamy beauty of her feature work, the narrative themes on display in LICK THE STAR are part and parcel with her core aesthetic.  The most obvious of these is the singularly feminine perspective, detailing the exploits of a squad of proto-Mean Girls who have managed to grip their entire school in a stranglehold.  They inflate the superficial dramas of middle school with life or death stakes, injecting a heavy dose of existential angst into the world of white suburban privilege.  Coppola delicately walks the fine line between empathy and self-awareness, giving the plight of her characters serious weight while never losing sight of the larger social perspective– these girls aren’t inherently bad people, they’re just conditioned that way by the materialistic culture they were born into.  Their disaffected style of talking isn’t simply bad acting (although that may indeed be the case for some), it’s a deliberate decision employed to illustrate how complacency can lead to a severe detachment from reality and emotion.

Beneath its choppy surface layer, Coppola’s first short evidences a substantial degree of directorial promise and raw talent.  It would go on to screen regularly on the Independent Film Channel, but has otherwise been little-seen by all but her most die-hard fans.  Nevertheless, LICK THE STAR accomplished its purpose of opening a path for Coppola to espouse her own distinct voice– one that has made American independent cinema all the richer.  

1. Via Wikipedia: Armstrong, Lisa (June 4, 2008). “Sofia Coppola: I’m more interested in looking than being looked at”. The Times. London. Retrieved June 3, 2008
2. Via Wikipedia: Menkes, Suzy (October 14, 2008). “Sofia Coppola: Discreet, chic and grown-up”. The New York Times. Retrieved July 29, 2009
3. Via Wikipedia:  Lee, Helen (November 5, 2007). “Did you know Sofia Coppola has a fashion line called MilkFed?”. Retrieved July 29, 2009