Critic Hannah Strong’s new book Sofia Coppola: Forever Young surveys all of the writer-director’s films, from 1999’s The Virgin Suicides through 2020’s On the Rocks. The section on 2003’s Lost in Translation, in which newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) forms a connection with actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray), details how the film was inspired by Coppola’s own loneliness and experiences in Tokyo. In the following exclusive excerpt from Forever Young, Strong details Coppola’s state of mind after she starred as a teenager in her father’s 1990 film The Godfather Part III, her lengthy campaign to find and cast Murray, and the significance of Johansson’s pink underwear in the film’s unforgettable opening shot. –MM
In the summer of 1979, on the set of Kagemusha in Hokkaido, Japan, Akira Kurosawa and Francis Ford Coppola appeared in a series of commercials for Suntory Whisky. They sip glasses as they look over storyboards; Kurosawa directs an epic battle sequence while Coppola observes from the sidelines. “There’s no stronger friendship than between these two men,” the Japanese voiceover states. Coppola was certainly a major influence in bringing Kagemusha to the big screen, stepping in as executive producer alongside his friend George Lucas, who helped Kurosawa secure the budget from 20th Century Fox. Coppola had only recently won the Palme d’Or for Apocalypse Now; the following year, Kagemusha would share this accolade with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (which would eventually inspire Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette). The memory of her father’s trip and his brief foray into whisky commercials stayed with Sofia; Japan would have a lasting impact on her life.
“I spent a lot of time in Tokyo in my twenties,” Sofia recalled to Little White Lies in 2018. “I really wanted to make a film around my experience of just being there. That was the starting point.” Her fashion line Milk Fed was popular in Japan and she would frequently visit, staying at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo in the upmarket Roppongi Hills neighborhood whenever she was in town. This was prior to her making The Virgin Suicides, when she was still experiencing feelings of directionlessness: “I’d had my share of hotel room malaise,” she told Sight & Sound in 2003. Fifteen years later, she recalled the inspiration behind her debut feature with poignant clarity: “I got married not long before and kind of felt isolated. I was in this stage where I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right choices or what I was doing in the postcollege beginning of my adult life.”
After her grueling experience with The Godfather Part III, Sofia shied away from film, reluctant to reenter a world which had shown contempt for her. “I became a dilettante,” she admitted. “I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know what it would be.” Her mother had encouraged her to study photography at the California Institute of the Arts, but it didn’t stick; her foray into television with Hi Octane was equally brief. But the success Sofia found with The Virgin Suicides was encouraging. She began to work on a short story about her experiences in Japan, eventually developing it into a screenplay that explored the young adult-anxieties with which she was intimately acquainted, while centering a perspective quite different to her own.
The role of Bob Harris, a middle-aged movie star who arrives in Tokyo to shoot — what else — a commercial for Suntory Whisky, was written with Bill Murray in mind, though the advertisements themselves were inspired by similar ones she had spotted in the city featuring Harrison Ford. Sofia had never met Murray, and was well aware how difficult he was to contact, but she was adamant the role had to go to him. “People said, ‘You need to have a backup plan,’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to make the movie if Bill doesn’t do it,’” she told the New York Times in 2003. “Bill has a 1-800 number, and I left messages. This went on for five months. Stalking Bill became my life’s work.” But to be a Coppola is to be connected, and Sofia was friendly with screenwriter Mitch Glazer, who had worked with Murray on 1988’s Scrooged and remained one of his closest friends. She asked him if he could grease the wheels, or at least pass along her ten-page treatment. “When she was pursuing Bill, I talked to her more than I talked to my wife. She talked to me a thousand times. In that sweet way, but persistent,” Glazer said. “In more than twenty years of friendship, I never said anything was perfect for Bill, and this time, I did. But Bill is difficult. He wouldn’t give anyone an answer.”
Sofia enlisted another pal: Wes Anderson. She had suggested her cousin Jason Schwartzman to the director for the lead role in Rushmore a few years earlier, which he ended up starring in alongside Murray. Anderson was only too happy to repay the favor. The three of them had dinner in New York the evening after Sofia had been introduced to Murray by Mitch Glazer. “It was one of those patented Bill evenings,” Anderson recalled. “He was driving. He went through a red light, reversed the car and then ducked into this Japanese place that only he could see. By the time the sake came, I knew he would do the movie.”
Even so, with no formal contract signed, Sofia worried that Bill would be a no-show when it came time to shoot in Tokyo. “If he says he’s going to do it, he’ll show up,” Anderson assured her. She didn’t have the same concerns about Murray’s costar, Scarlett Johansson, who plays newlywed college graduate Charlotte. (She turned eighteen just after filming). Coppola had approached the actress after remembering her performance as a tearaway preteen in Lisa Kruger’s 1996 dramedy Manny & Lo, and Johansson said yes to Lost in Translation as soon as they discussed the part. “She had that husky voice even then and seemed mature beyond her years,” Coppola remembered. “There was some quality about her that stood out and I connected with. She’s able to convey a lot without saying anything. I had a feeling about her.”
It’s Johansson who provided the film’s enduring image, lying on a hotel bed in a sweater and pink, semi-sheer underwear. It was inspired by the painter John Kacere (particularly his 1973 piece Jutta) and reflects Coppola’s interest in the cusp between girlhood and womanhood. Charlotte’s baby blue sweater is a soft contrast to her suggestive undergarment, but the peach color is deliberate; where Kacere often painted his models wearing lacy stockings and negligees in sultry black or virginal white, designed specifically to appeal to men without much consideration given to the wearer’s comfort, Charlotte’s underwear suggests an element of practicality and playfulness over seduction.
The extended length of the shot invites us to focus on Johansson’s body, but there’s something serene about her posture. With her back to the camera, she seems to exist in her own world; our voyeurism is accompanied by the arched eyebrow of Coppola, who acutely understands the pressures of being a young woman observed by strangers. “I was afraid to wear the underwear,” Johansson told the New York Times. “Sofia said: ‘I’m going to try on the underwear and show you what it looks like. Then, if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to.’ Well, I’ve been directed by Robert Redford, who is very handsome, but I can’t imagine him suggesting that. Only a female director could get me to wear the underwear. And we shot it.”
This image lasts less than a minute, with the intro to Kevin Shields’s “City Girl” briefly fading in and out before the film cuts to the soundscape of an airport and the melancholy shoegaze of “Girls” by Death In Vegas. From the backseat of a taxi, Bob Harris stares out at the neon wonderland of downtown Tokyo (passing a billboard of himself in the process). This brief establishing scene succinctly captures what it’s like to arrive in the Japanese capital for the first time as an outsider. By night the inner city is illuminated by technicolor signs and towering billboards; crowds bustle with salarymen heading home, teenagers heading out, and tourists snapping photographs. Tokyo feels at once familiar and foreign, a sprawling metropolis all but designed to give weary travelers a sensory overload. It is mesmerizing as much as it is overwhelming; a place where the past, present and future converge. Traditional Shinto shrines nestle between imposing glass skyscrapers; patrons cram into tiny bars in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai district, formerly a hub for sex workers prior to its 1958 criminalization; tourists drink in dancing robots and women posing in traditional kimonos. It’s perhaps the easiest place in the world to be surrounded by people and still feel completely alone.
Excerpt from Sofia Coppola: Forever Young, by Hannah Strong, published by Abrams, available today. Text copyright © 2022 Hannah Strong and Little White Lies.
Main image: Sofia Coppola recreates a moment in Lost in Translation in which Bill Murray wheels Scarlett Johansson through the hospital. Courtesy of Moviestore Collection LTD / Alamy Stock Photo