Sofia Coppola on ‘The Bling Ring,’ Celebrity Culture, Kanye West, More
The auteur tells Marlow Stern about ‘The Bling Ring,’ our celebrity obsession, privacy concerns, and more.
Every film by Sofia Coppola, the Oscar-winning auteur behind Lost in Translation with the choice genes, is an event. Her last film, 2010’s Somewhere, centered on an aging movie star who’s deteriorated into an emotional cripple after years of celebrity pampering. Her latest film examines the other side of the tabloid—the consumers who follow celebrities’ every move.
The Bling Ring is based on the real-life tale of a clique of privileged, celeb-crazy Los Angeles teens who burglarized the homes of several stars—including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Orlando Bloom—between 2008 and 2009. With the exception of Emma Watson, who engages in some very un-Potter like behavior, from smoking heroin to pole dancing, the gang of thieves in Coppola’s film is composed of unknowns. The Bling Ring is visceral, elegantly shot, and acerbic, as it probes the dark side of celebrity obsession.
You seem to be fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous, whether it be Marie Antoinette, the disconnected movie star in Somewhere, or The Bling Ring.
They’re all different. This story’s really about posh suburban kids who are interested in this tabloid-y, celebrity culture that’s growing and growing. I wanted to explore that aspect of our culture.
You cast a group of unknowns, with the exception of Emma Watson. Did you want to have all unknowns, or did you relish the meta-nature of having a movie star as part of this crew robbing other stars?
I was actually worried about her sticking out, and I’m glad she did such a good job of blending in with them. I wasn’t trying to make a comment on that. I was really trying to make it feel real and like you’re along for the ride with this gang of kids. The casting people really liked her, and then when I met her, I would have never thought of her as that kind of girl, but she had a really strong take on how to approach the character and showed me she could transform herself.
It does seem naturalistic. Do you feel like there’s a dearth of quality fare focused on teenage characters? Most films seem to underestimate their intelligence.
I liked John Hughes movies but other than that, I felt that way growing up—that movies made for younger audiences weren’t the most sophisticated, and the actors were usually much older than teenagers so it didn’t feel real. So we tried to do it differently.
A big theme of the film, of course, is the culture of celebrity. Where do you think it stems from?
As far as how different it was from when I was growing up, I just think reality TV has become such a big thing and this idea that anyone can be famous, and tabloid culture is growing and growing. Our culture has a big appetite for it. I think it’s fun and pleasurable once in a while, but the fact that it’s so dominant and growing, I think we need to look at where that’s going.
Both Somewhere and The Bling Ring also communicate certain hang-ups you, as the filmmaker, have about celebrity. What sets America’s attitude toward celebrity apart from, say, Paris, where you’ve spent most of your time living of late?
It’s growing, and the Internet is making it more international, but it’s especially American culture. It’s something I started to think about when I was working on Somewhere, and this definitely feels like a continuation of that. Living in Paris, you have to really seek it out and go to a newsstand, as opposed to America, where it’s everywhere. It’s not the same as Hollywood or America’s fascination.
You ever find yourself slipping and flip through an Us Weekly?
Oh, yeah. I think it’s fun and a total guilty pleasure, and I like to look at that stuff once in a while. With this film, I’ve really overdosed on it so I’m definitely looking for something else, and to me, everything is OK in moderation. It’s like eating candy all the time.
I’m sure people look at the name Coppola and assume that your fascination with celebrity stems from personal experience.
I grew up very differently than the world of The Bling Ring. I grew up in a small town in Northern California—it was out in the country and not in the middle of all that. I went to the Cannes Film Festival with my dad, visited sets, and have been exposed to that a little bit, but it’s been a pretty regular life otherwise.
What’s your opinion on the real The Bling Ring? Is there anything heroic about what they did?
It’s pretty inventive that they cooked up this whole plan and carried it out, so there’s a part of you that thinks, Wow, it took some balls to do that, but then it was so lost as far as their intentions and what they were valuing were concerned. I tried to understand where they were coming from and how they really wanted to be a part of something. We all do stupid things as kids that you’d never do as an adult just to be a part of a group.
Was it tough to make these inherently vapid, Valley Girl-ish characters be compelling onscreen?
For me it was challenging to write a movie where all the characters are so unsympathetic, but then I really focused on the boy [Nick Prugo], and tried to see where he was coming from, and how insecure and awkward he felt.
What do you think made these kids the way they are?
It’s hard to believe. They’re young and trying to find their identity, and connected with all these tabloids stars, and just became so absorbed in it. My impression was that they weren’t getting culture from their family or in other parts of their life, and all that was coming from reality TV stars. We do seem to be celebrating the emphasis [on celebrity] in our culture more and more.
Are you worried about raising your two young daughters in a culture that is so fixated on celebrity and low culture?
Yeah. People will come up to me every so often on the street, and my 6-year-old will say, “Oh, Mommy, you’re famous!” and get really excited, and I’ll say, “Well, I worked really hard and that person likes the work I did.” It’s a matter of being aware, how much they’re exposed to it, and balancing it with other ideas.
Having read the court documents of the real-life case, it seems like these amateur burglars were able to gain access to all the celebrity homes because they were unsecured—alarms were off, doors were left open, etc. Do you feel like celebrities live in a bubble that makes them feel invincible, and The Bling Ring exposed that?
I think it’s a California attitude. A lot of people leave their windows open, so I didn’t view it so much as a celebrity attitude. I think a lot of these gated communities have a false sense of security, and … yeah, maybe there’s that. But I wasn’t trying to make a point about celebrities; I was just trying to capture the point of view as a kid.
The soundtrack is fantastic. I heard that you consulted with Kanye West?
I spoke with Kanye early on about consulting with us, and he was very helpful and suggested Frank Ocean to me, but then [Kanye] started touring and didn’t have the time to consult further. He was really helpful in suggesting songs. I had some music in mind that I knew, and then we wanted to find music that had the energy that the kids were really looking for. I’ve never had hip-hop on any of my soundtracks before, so it’s a whole new world.
The film also has to do with the lack of privacy these days. There are the burgled celebs and the kids who were caught because they posted pictures of themselves wearing stolen items on Facebook. And today we have the NSA monitoring our every move, too.
I’m really surprised that people would want to share so much information that I would consider private, and I feel like there’s not that many boundaries, so these kids thought they knew these celebrities because they’re tweeting about what they had for breakfast and personal details. I think kids share things and they’re not really aware of how many people can see it—they think it’s just their friends looking at it, but it can stay with them and affect them later.