Sofia Coppola Discusses ‘Lost in Translation’ on Its 10th Anniversary
A decade after its release, Sofia Coppola talks to Marlow Stern about making the modern classic.
There are a handful of films that have carved out prime real estate in the hearts of millennials. During one of your many aimless trips to the mall, you may have nabbed the movie’s poster from f.y.e. to grace the wall of your dorm room or moseyed over to Tower Records to cop the soundtrack. You may have even taken your fandom on the road, annoying the rest of your family mid-vacation with eager observations like “Oh, this is the place where _________ kissed!”
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which was released theatrically on Sept. 12, 2003, is one of those films.
Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an aging American actor who is in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial, for which he’s being paid $2 million. Bob isn’t happy. His career is on the downslope, and the fire in his marriage has long been out. Also in Tokyo is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young college graduate whose hipster husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is a celebrity photographer on assignment in the city. Much to her chagrin, he seems more interested in palling around with a young American actress, Kelly (Anna Faris), than spending time with her.
The two marooned Americans keep running into each other at night in the hotel bar, and soon a relationship begins to form. In each other, these two lost souls have found exactly what they’d been missing, and they bust out of their hotel-prison to explore the vibrancy of Tokyo. Many millennials, in particular, connected with Lost in Translation’s themes of loneliness and ennui, and the movie grossed $120 million worldwide—against a budget of just $4 million—and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Coppola winning the latter.
In honor of the 10th anniversary of the movie, Coppola spoke to The Daily Beast about the making of the film, her favorite memories of hanging out with Bill Murray in Tokyo, and much more.
Where did you come up with the idea for Lost in Translation?
I spent a lot of time in Tokyo in my 20s. I had a little clothing company with a friend, so we went there a few times a year. I was living in L.A. at the time, and I always thought about the little cultural differences between the two places. I put a lot of things in that really happened. And since I was in my 20s and didn’t really know what I wanted to be doing, I think it’s my most personal movie because it’s about what I was going through at the time. And then Bill Murray, my fantasy hero, just swooped in.
I know how hard it is to even try and nab Bill for an interview—going through his lawyer, etc.—so how did you corral him?
When I was writing it I was picturing him and he really inspired it, and I wasn’t going to make the movie without him, so I was determined to convince him. I spent about a year trying to track him down and was asking random people who knew him through golf. I was on a mission. And he didn’t have an agent at that time, so he was very elusive. I showed my friend Mitch Glazer, who’s a writer, a very early version of the script, and he thought it had something and liked that I saw Bill in that way, so he helped introduce us. We went to Japan without knowing if Bill was going to show up—he wouldn’t even tell us what flight he was on because he’s so elusive—so it was nerve-wracking, but he showed up right before we started shooting.
Also, with Scarlett, she was a relatively green actor at the time. How did you arrive at her, and what made you feel she and Murray would have such great chemistry together?
I just liked her from that movie Manny & Lo, and she was 17, but I had this idea of her being this young Lauren Bacall-type girl. I loved her low voice. You can’t really gauge the chemistry unless you do tests before you start shooting, and I don’t think they even met before we did, so I just picked someone I liked and hoped that it worked. And Bill is so lovable.
One of the film’s many accomplishments is that, despite the big age difference, the relationship between Bob and Charlotte doesn’t come off as creepy.
I’m glad! I think it’s a lot to do with the casting. There were certain actors that people mentioned for the Bill part, and if they were lying in bed, that could have been creepy, but it’s just something about how Bill is that it never came off lecherous. Maybe because he’s such a kid.
How autobiographical is the story? There have been all the rumors that Giovanni Ribisi’s character is based on your husband at the time, Spike Jonze, and that Anna Faris’s character is based on Cameron Diaz.
The character of the actress was based on a bunch of people—just that type. I could probably name eight people that she was based on, just that bubbly, extroverted blonde that you see on talk shows. It was the opposite of the Scarlett character, where I was feeling very introverted and didn’t know what I was doing. It was just a certain actress type that I was hanging around sometimes. It wasn’t a slight at anyone in particular. But the character of the husband, I was just married and trying to figure it out, so that relationship was based on what I was going through at the time.
The opening shot of Scarlett lying on the bed in her underwear is one of the film’s great images. What inspired that shot?
There’s a painter called John Kacere who does paintings of girls in different underwear, so it’s taken from one of his paintings. When I started the movie, I had a reference book of different images that came to mind with the movie. I always collect reference pictures to make a book that I can show, and they were just snapshots around Tokyo, looking out the taxi and seeing neon lights going by, and I used to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, so there were pictures of the view from the hotel bar. And the redheaded singer [in the film] was actually a singer I saw performing at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and we got the manager to track her down.
One hilarious moment is the “lip my stocking!” scene with Bob and the Japanese woman in the hotel room. Where did that come from?
That came from a story of a friend of mine who was working in Japan and had this story of, I don’t know if it was a prostitute or a co-worker, and thought she wanted some bondage thing, but it was a misunderstanding. And I was looking for stories of misunderstandings.
The “Suntory Time” commercial shoot is so hilarious. I read that it was based on a real-life commercial that your father shot with Kurosawa?
Yeah. My dad and Kurosawa did a Suntory commercial which they shot at our house in San Francisco. But going to Japan, you’d always see ads of people like Kevin Costner or someone promoting coffee. It’s this heightened, Japanese idea of Western culture. And I was cracking up the whole time during that shoot. That was a real photographer, and I was sitting with the photographer and I would say things to him and he would repeat it to Bill, so he was yelling things like, “Rat pack!” at Bill, and Bill would respond. And Bill improvised that entire scene.
Any favorite memories of hanging with Bill during the making of Lost in Translation?
He’s just so much fun. I remember he would throw the hotel housekeeper lady over his shoulder and walk around with her. He was so funny and so fun.
Bill’s been known to crash the occasional karaoke party. Did you know about his love of karaoke before making him sing it in the movie?
I knew he sang because I remember that character on SNL of the lounge singer, and we all went out with the crew and would sing karaoke. That was definitely a highlight. I feel like Bill was kind of a classic rock guy, but I can’t remember what songs we did!
I also heard that the crew was almost arrested a couple of times for filming in public in Tokyo—
We didn’t have permits and would just go into the subway or on the street, and I think there was some Yakuza mix-up at some point. Apparently, we were on some Yakuza territory that we didn’t know about. That shot where Scarlett is crossing the street, there was a Starbucks upstairs so we just snuck up there, bought a coffee, and shot it from above. Nobody seemed to notice. And we got shut down a few times on the street but just moved on.
Problems with the cops and the Yakuza aside, what was toughest scene for you to film?
The scene where [Bill and Scarlett] are lying in bed talking and the TV is on, it’s just really intimate. That was just off. I don’t know if they just weren’t in a good mood, but they weren’t getting along and it wasn’t going well. So we just stopped and tried again the next day. I just remember it being a bit tense, but it’s just such an intimate moment. And we shot the film in 27 days and it was super low budget, so the whole thing was tough, and there was a language barrier with the crew and cultural misunderstandings there as well. It was a messy adventure, but it was fun.
The film has a great soundtrack, too. It was the first time many Americans had heard Phoenix.
I always liked Phoenix, but they weren’t really known here until recently. They were just songs I liked and had been listening to, and Brian Reitzell would help me out and make me Tokyo dream-pop mixes. Phoenix’s “Too Young,” just the lyrics and the whole feeling of it, I loved it for that scene. Thomas [Mars, lead singer of Phoenix] did a song with Air called “Playground Love” that was in The Virgin Suicides, and he performed it with them at Sundance, so we met a long time ago. But he lived in France, so I didn’t get to know him until I lived in France for Marie Antoinette.
I feel like this film inspired a generation of young women to visit Japan. Are you a VIP in Japan now for life?
That’s so funny. Probably the hardest thing was convincing the Park Hyatt hotel to let us shoot a movie there, because they didn’t want a movie shot there. They would only let us shoot in the hallways and the communal places at 3 or 4 in the morning, so we didn’t disturb any guests. We were always sneaking around the hotel. But now I’ve heard they have Lost in Translation tours there. I should go back and stay at the hotel!
I heard that the kiss at the end between Bill and Scarlett was sprung on her, and she didn’t know it was coming.
It was always meant to be this tender goodbye where they both knew that they had touched each other in some way. And I remember sometimes he would always spring things on her, and it was fun to get her reaction.
Is the statute of limitations up on what Bill whispers to Scarlett at the end?
No, I still love that Bill says it’s between them!
Do you think Bob and Charlotte would ever cross paths again?
That’s so funny…I’ve never thought about that! I have different fantasies of what would happen to them, but I’d like people to form their own.
Lost in Translation gained such a huge cult following. Why do you think it’s held up so well?
For me, I was just writing these little notes about stuff that happened to me, or what I thought, and I didn’t think anyone was going to be interested, so it’s really a surprise to me that that many people have seen it and that it did as well as it did. I felt like it was really indulgent, so yeah, it was a surprise. And it’s still surprising to me.