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‘Lost in Translation’: Sofia Coppola on the Movie’s 20th Anniversary

Acclaimed filmmaker talks about her classic Tokyo-set film, including Bill Murray hijinks, the age gap, and how she somehow didn’t make money off it

Sofia Coppola interview Lost in Translation

Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection

One of the most talked-about movies at this year’s Venice Film Festival was Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s vividly realized portrait of how 14-year-old Priscilla Presley fell under the spell of Elvis Presley, the rock & roll icon who was 24 when they first met. The filmmaker has earned her best reviews in years for the drama, and its star, Cailee Spaeny, took home the fest’s Best Actress award.

This wasn’t Coppola’s first gondola ride, of course. Twenty years ago, her sophomore feature, Lost in Translation, took the Italian festival by storm, with Scarlett Johansson winning Best Actress and Coppola the Lina Mangiacapre Award, thus solidifying her stature as one of the most exciting young directors around — and forever releasing her from the shadow of her legendary father, Francis Ford Coppola.

Coppola’s film tells the tale of Charlotte (Johansson), a twenty-something college grad accompanying her boyfriend, John (Giovanni Ribisi, an exaggerated version of Coppola’s ex-husband Spike Jonze), a celebrity photographer, on a trip to Tokyo. Since John is preoccupied with his job, as well as Kelly (Anna Faris), a bubbly, airheaded Hollywood actress with whom he’s maintained a flirty relationship, Charlotte is left to her own devices, wandering the vibrant city and her luxury hotel, the Park Hyatt Tokyo, while contending with jet lag, loneliness, alienation, and fear of the future. At the hotel, she runs into Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a faded film star who’s in town shooting a $2 million ad for Suntory whiskey. Despite their significant age difference — Johansson was only 17 and Murray 52 during filming — the two form a unique bond that neither will soon forget.

Lost in Translation was released in U.S. theaters 20 years ago today, on Sept. 12, 2003, but remains a modern-day cinema classic. Made for only $4 million, the film grossed over $118 million at the global box office and was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay, with Coppola winning the last one. Coppola became the first American woman to be nominated for Best Director, and only the third woman ever at the time. And its shoegaze-y soundtrack, featuring the likes of My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Air, and Phoenix (whose lead singer, Thomas Mars, Coppola would later marry), made Rolling Stone’s list of the 25 Greatest Soundtracks of All Time.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Lost in Translation, Coppola spoke with Rolling Stone about the making of the film, wild card Bill Murray, that age gap, and how she “didn’t get much” from it money-wise.

How do you feel about Lost in Translation now? Have your feelings evolved over the past two decades?
It’s hard for me to say, because I can’t really look at it objectively. It just brings back the memories of being there together, and I have such good memories of that time. I showed it to my kids a few years ago when we were going to Tokyo and staying at the Park Hyatt, and that was the first time I’d watched it in a while, and they were like, “Why is she so young and he’s so much older?” I had made it when I was closer to Scarlett’s age and didn’t think that much about it. That was something that they noticed the most.

Was that the first time the Mars-Coppola gang had gone to Tokyo and stayed at the Park Hyatt?
Yeah. It was when Phoenix was playing there. It was before the pandemic, so maybe it was … five years ago? They did a residency in Tokyo. I have so many memories of that hotel, so it was fun to be back there with them.

Are you basically royalty at the Park Hyatt Tokyo now? Do they have the Sofia Coppola Suite?
[Laughs] No. What I love about it is that it hasn’t changed at all — I don’t know in the last couple of years, but they kept all the décor exactly the same, though it doesn’t look run down. It’s all fresh and perfect. They must have tons of that wallpaper in storage. It’s exactly the same. I kept thinking I was going to run into Bill around the corner. And I stayed in the same room that I remember shooting Scarlett in. It was surreal, in that way. And they were very welcoming to me.

I know how difficult it can be to track down Bill Murray. And I’d read that you’d enlisted Wes Anderson in your quest to get Bill to do Lost in Translation.
I spent a year trying to track him down and asked anybody who might have known him. I’m sure I asked Wes, but I remember Bob Costas, who’s like … a sports guy? I remember seeing him on an airplane and being so desperate that I was like, “Should I talk to him?” I was so obsessed and desperate to track him down. I was leaving messages on his famous 800-number. And then Mitch Glazer, who’s an old friend of Bill’s, I asked him to look at these [script] pages that I had, and he was the one that helped get Bill to look at it.

I heard that until Bill arrived on set there was still a lot of anxiety over whether he’d actually show.
I didn’t know if he was going to show. We didn’t have a contract, and I was there spending money just on good faith that he was gonna show up. And he wouldn’t even tell us his flight number — he booked his own travel, because he didn’t want to have us do it. I had no idea until I got the message: “The eagle has landed.” I was like, “Thank god!” We had a kickoff party, and there’s a picture somewhere of him with a sake cup, and I was just so relieved that he was there.

And how did you land on Scarlett Johansson, who was only 17 at the time?
The character is supposed to be in her early twenties, and so Scarlett is younger than the character is supposed to be. I can’t believe she was only 17! She seemed so mature. Also, her husky voice makes her seem older. I just loved her from Manny & Lo. And I was kind of thinking about Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in the back of my mind, and her voice reminded me of Lauren Bacall.

Speaking of the age gap between Bill, who was 52, and Scarlett, who was 17 while filming, do you think that would fly if it were made today? I know you said your kids seemed confused by it.
Yeah … I don’t know. I’m not going to think about it. I was just doing my thing at the time it was made. I did notice that watching it with my kids, because they’re teenagers and they were like, “What’s going on with that?” But Bill is so lovable and charming. Part of the story is about how you can have romantic connections that aren’t sexual or physical. You can have crushes on people where it isn’t that kind of thing. Part of the idea was that you can have connections where you can’t be together for various reasons because you’re at different points in life.

The opening shot of the film, which is a close-up of Scarlett’s behind, was based on a painting, right?
It was based on a John Kacere painting. His work all looks like that. It was supposed to be this glimpse of her alone in the hotel room. I probably couldn’t do that today, either.

I had heard that there was some sort of mix-up with the Yakuza while filming and things got pretty dicey for a moment?
Yeah. It was something on the street. Maybe we were on their turf or something? And we had our Japanese crew translating. I wish I had a better story for you, but there was some mix-up where we crossed paths because we were maybe on their turf, and there was some sort of misunderstanding. I didn’t see it, but I believe Lance [Acord, the cinematographer] was off shooting something and it happened.

It’s a recurring theme in your films — young women who are quite taken by older men with Peter Pan Syndrome. Like your recent film Priscilla and her relationship with Elvis.
Maybe she’s more mature and he’s still connected to his child side. Yeah, I definitely think [Elvis] was stunted, but there’s a darker side of it. But … I don’t know. I can’t analyze myself. I think it’s romantic when you have a connection with someone that you can’t be with for so many reasons, but they still see a side of you that maybe someone of your generation doesn’t.

Do you see any kinship with Groundhog Day at all? It’s almost like Bill’s character is trapped in a Groundhog Day-esque scenario in the hotel with his daily routine, and it takes Scarlett’s character to snap him out of it.
I hadn’t thought about that, but I guess there are some existential similarities there.

Could you talk a little about including Phoenix’s song “Too Young” in the film, and introducing a lot of new people to the band at the time?
I just was a Phoenix fan and love that song, and it seemed to capture that feeling, and that night, and that moment. Thomas sang the song at the end of The Virgin Suicides, so then it became a good-luck thing. I met Thomas on Virgin Suicides, and then my brother Roman did some videos with Phoenix. But I didn’t get to know Thomas well until I lived in Paris while shooting Marie Antoinette.

I read this story about Bill, and I’m not sure it’s true, that during filming he had this book of dirty phrases in Japanese, and he would go around saying them to random people.
Oh yeah! He had a book called Making Out in Japanese, and it was for, like, sailors abroad — pickup lines. He would try them out on the waitress, or someone working at the hotel, and it was funny to watch their reactions. He was a lot of fun. We shot it really quick, and were working crazy hours. We had to move really fast, and he was helping pick up equipment and move it along.

You seem to be fascinated by the idea of a young woman trapped in a gilded cage, whether it’s the Park Hyatt Tokyo, or Versailles, or Chateau Marmont, or Graceland. There’s a fairy-tale element to that.
For hotels, I like that it’s a universe unto itself. You start to see the same people and are suspended from real life in this alternate world with a cast of characters. I always find that interesting. I grew up living on location in hotels, and that experience became its own little world. As far as the gilded cage, I’m interested in the façade and the trappings and then the reality that comes with it.

The autobiographical nature of this one is well-documented, as far as the Spike Jonze of it all, but I’m curious if you ever got an angry call from Cameron Diaz about the movie?
No. It really wasn’t based on her. It was a combination of a bunch of people. It was a type, so it wasn’t a diss on her. Someone else was more the personality of [Anna Faris’ character].

Michel Gondry once told a story once about how he angrily confronted you over the film in defense of Spike Jonze. What happened there?
He apologized to me about that. He scolded me at my premiere, but he apologized. I think he was being a good friend. He thought he was defending Spike, but he was putting me down at my premiere. It came out of him trying to be a good friend to Spike.

I have to ask what you thought of Her, which very much seemed like Spike’s not-so-subtle response to Lost in Translation.
Well, yeah … I never saw it! From the trailer, it looks the same too. We have the same production designer. But I haven’t seen it. I know people really like that movie, but I haven’t seen it. I don’t know if I want to see Rooney Mara as me. [Laughs]

I interviewed Richard Linklater once, and we discussed how Dazed and Confused has become such a cult classic, yet he didn’t make a dime off it due to some funny studio math.  
I didn’t get rich off Lost in Translation.

Do you feel you were fairly compensated for it? This is a movie that cost $4 million and made over $100 million at the box office, as well as countless millions in secondary sales. Its poster is in college dorm rooms across the country.
Yeah, I didn’t get rich off it. I didn’t get much from it. That studio system doesn’t work out for the filmmaker so well — for me, anyway.

It’s wild that you can write, produce, and direct a film and still get cut out of the profits.
Yeah. It’s the way that it’s set up. It’s not conducive to the creative team. They deduct marketing forever and it never makes any money “technically.” It’s really frustrating. I would like to figure it out, but I’ve just resigned myself to having other ways to make a living so I can make films for creative expression. I learned that from my dad.

From Rolling Stone US