Sofia Coppola on Pictures
The acclaimed director reveals the photographs that inspired her films.
By Philip Gefter
“I never thought I would be a filmmaker. It wasn’t something I ever planned,” Sofia Coppola recently told the Guardian. “I felt frustrated at art school. I had so many interests—design, photography, music.” By turning to film she no longer had to choose. The form allowed Coppola to engage all her passions, especially photography, which has been central to shaping her cinematic language. From Coppola’s debut with The Virgin Suicides (1999) to Lost in Translation (2003) to Marie Antoinette (2006), the filmmaker has turned to the history of photography for inspiration for the interiors, costumes, and atmosphere of her films. Storyboards, replete with photographic references, were key to Coppola’s most recent—and controversial—film, the Civil War–era The Beguiled (2017), for which she won the Best Director Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Each of her six feature-length films is visually distinctive, and yet it’s possible to identify in all of them a directorial signature, one that might be characterized by visual calm and compositional clarity.
One sunny morning in early January, writer Philip Gefter sat down with Coppola at her home in Lower Manhattan to discuss the influence of photography on her filmmaking. On the walls hung a number of framed photographs: a William Eggleston of a girl lying in the grass holding a Brownie camera; a Tina Barney from the series Theater of Manners (1997); a Lee Friedlander nude; an Andy Warhol polaroid of Tina Chow. These pictures provided clues not only about Coppola’s knowledge of photography, but also about the subtlety of her sensibility—and became a starting point for their conversation about the look and feel of film.
Philip Gefter: I wonder if you think that there is a tension between photography and film—the still image versus the moving image. Is photography threatened by film? Will video render the still image extinct?
Sofia Coppola: For me, photography and film are two totally different things. My filmmaking begins with images from photography, so I think of it as a starting point for making a film. I love photographs.
Gefter: Yes, I can see that by looking around the room. You mentioned, too, that you have a print upstairs by Helmut Newton of Charlotte Rampling, nude, sitting on a table; also, a picture by Larry Sultan of his father swinging a golf club indoors. So, obviously, you collect photographs.
Coppola: But not in a serious way.
Gefter: Did you study photography or film?
Coppola: I went to CalArts in the fine art program. I wanted to be a painter but I wasn’t good at it, and my teacher wasn’t encouraging, so I went to ArtCenter, in Pasadena, where I met Paul Jasmin, who taught photography. I sat in on his classes. Then I started spending time in Japan, where a kind of girly snapshot photography was popular in the early ’90s. A friend of mine had a magazine called Dune, and he would hire me to do little fashion jobs in Tokyo—snapshot-like pictures of my girlfriends. I never had the patience to learn very much technically, but I could take snapshots. That’s the extent of it.
Gefter: Your first film, The Virgin Suicides, was about teenage girls. How did you make the transition from taking snapshot-like photographs to making movies?
Coppola: Paul Jasmin encouraged me. He thought I had a point of view that was worthwhile, and Dad [Francis Ford Coppola] was always talking about writing. I wasn’t planning on being a filmmaker, but when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides (1993), I loved it and thought I would try adapting it. I ended up writing the script and putting a book of visual references together—photographs—to show how I wanted to make the film.
Gefter: Where did the visual references come from?
Coppola: My relationship with photography started as a teenager in the ’80s, looking at fashion magazines. I would also go to art fairs with my mother. Mom encouraged me to start collecting photography because it was the more affordable art at that time. At one art fair, I first saw the photographs of Bill Owens—his series on suburbia—so when I started working on Virgin Suicides those Bill Owens pictures became a reference. I bought one print—an image of girls at a school dance with stars hanging from the ceiling. That picture was definitely in my mind when I worked on the film.
Gefter: And, so, the book of photographs you put together—how did you use it for the look of the film?
Coppola: I made these color-xerox books, which included Bill Owens’s photographs from Suburbia (1973); also ’70s Playboy photography, with the nature girl, soft style; and Eggleston colors. The story in the film is a memory, recreated in faded snapshots. I worked with Ed Lachman, the cinematographer, showing him photographs of what I wanted the film to feel like. That’s how I start every movie, sitting with the cinematographer and the art department, looking at photographs, and saying, “This is the look or feeling,” so everyone is informed by it. It’s always the starting point for me, the images.
Philip Gefter, the author of Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe (2014), is at work on a biography of Richard Avedon.