An interview with Sofia Coppola, and an examination of her Oscar-winning screenplay.
When Sofia Coppola began writing Lost in Translation, her first original screenplay after her adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, she knew there were certain elements she wanted to build the movie around. “From the time I spent in Japan,” she told me, “I always wanted to do a movie there, and I wanted to work with Bill Murray… and also I wanted to write a story that was kind of sweet and romantic.” From these desires came one of the year’s best screenplays, a meditative film that details the burgeoning friendship of two Americans who feel lost and make an unlikely connection at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Japan.
Young Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) has just graduated from Yale with a degree in philosophy and is tagging along with her photographer husband, who increasingly seems to be drifting away from her. She is very intelligent but aimless about her future and depressed about her lack of direction. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a middle-aged movie star shilling for a whiskey company for a fat two-million-dollar paycheck when, as he himself concedes, he “should be doing movies.” He appears to be growing apart from his wife of twenty-five years and does not feel needed at home. Both Charlotte and Bob are in a crisis, one in early adulthood and the other in midlife.
As audiences might conjecture, Coppola admits that there is a lot of her in Charlotte, especially her younger self being “just out of college” and asking “what do I do with my life?” Charlotte tried to be a writer and photographer, paths that Coppola has taken through her filmmaking. (Coppola even put together forty pages of photo references and gave them to people working on the film to illustrate the feelings she wanted to convey.) But even Kelly, “the cheesy actress character,” as Coppola describes her, exhibits another side of herself, “saying dumb things to be cute,” although she relates less to that character. Coppola did not do a lot of rewriting on the script and says she did not “overthink it and map it out because I find it’s better just to go in the dark and figure it out as you go.” Like her protagonists, who are not sure where they are going and are headed on a journey into the unknown, Coppola was on her own journey, living in the moment and searching out the “details that feel like a bigger deal” to build the delicate relationship between Bob and Charlotte. She likens the experience to painting: “When you’re working on it, it just looks terrible and doesn’t look like anything, and then all of a sudden it’s done.”
Coppola’s script is anything but “terrible,” but, because it is sparse and consists of many scenes of characters staring out of windows or meandering down streets, searching for some deeper meaning that is constantly eluding them, this way of working is certainly a risk. Unafraid to luxuriate in the long silence of a moment rather than filling each scene with meaningless noise, Lost in Translation is a film that defies Hollywood convention. This is best exemplified in the following sequence in which Charlotte takes a lengthy walk on her own:
It is hard to tell from this description of Charlotte visiting a temple just how beautiful and moving the scene will be when realized on film. Coppola knew from the outset the chance she was taking and “worried that it could just be really indulgent, really boring.” But she stayed true to her vision and shot the film “for really a low budget so that if it was a total disaster, it would never have to come out.”
But if Coppola did not do a lot of rewriting at script stage, she was willing to try different things on the set. She is “not uptight about dialogue changing” and would let her actors improvise if they had a better line, and sometimes she would alter lines if they were not working. When Bob and Charlotte meet for the first time and they exchange stories about their backgrounds, Bob takes her back to his young adulthood and the strange circumstances by which he ended up with his wife:
Coppola finally felt that this story was “kinda grim” for the tone she was seeking and cut it from the script. It may have been interesting on the page, but in the context of Bob’s overall story, it adds an extra layer that is not needed and does not serve the overall story.
While Coppola does not do much rewriting, reordering scenes during editing is a kind of final rewrite that allows her to clarify her characters. For example, there is a scene of Charlotte crying on the telephone to a friend of hers back home. She is speaking of the void she feels within her, how even when she visited a shrine and heard monks chanting, she did not feel anything, and how her husband is slipping away from her. Originally, this scene appeared later in the film, but Coppola chose to move it earlier so that we would understand Charlotte’s state of mind. We would have a context for what she is going through as she is walking the streets of Tokyo and Kyoto. Improvisation played a role in the shooting of the script, but usually it was a kind of guided improvisation—a unique collaboration between writer, director and actor that captures magical moments that can only happen through the spontaneous, creative interplay of a movie set. For instance, in the droll photo shoot sequence, Coppola cast a real photographer in the role and would whisper impromptu things in his ear, which he would then repeat as dialogue once the camera started rolling so that Murray could react to him in the moment. Thus, we have Murray’s hilarious, unrehearsed send-ups of the Rat Pack and James Bond.
Other times it was a matter of tweaking a line or two. One of the things that appealed to Coppola about Murray was that, if something was not working, she could have him try something else. She might ask him, for example, to create a line as Bob that would make Charlotte laugh. In one of their early encounters in the hotel bar, they hint at the mutual feelings they have of being trapped—Charlotte in her husband’s shadow and Bob in his celebrity-centered existence. In the script, Bob asks in mock desperation, “Who do I have to fuck to get off this planet?” But in the film, Murray improvises a line that better suggests a conspiracy between them, thus making them allies standing against the world at large: “Can you keep a secret? I’m trying to organize a prison break, and I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We’d have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in, or are you out?”
Coppola appreciates “meandering mood pieces,” films like Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, which details an intense friendship that does not become sexual, and classic works by Godard and Fellini. She even references La Dolce Vita when Bob and Charlotte watch it on TV (Coppola recalled seeing La Dolce Vita in a hotel in Japan with Japanese subtitles and wanted to include it in the film). From Charlotte’s participating in the ancient art of Ikebana floral design with some older women who guide her in the ritual, to writing a wish on a piece of paper and tying it to a tree, many scenes in Lost in Translation revolve around, as Coppola beautifully puts it, “honoring a moment.” She enjoyed the idea of “looking at something…when it’s at its peak or at its most beautiful moment” before it is gone. This idea may be summed up best when Charlotte and Bob are up late talking in his hotel room and she tells him, “Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.” She is being playful and perhaps a tad melodramatic, but she is also expressing something serious about the experience she is having—she knows intuitively that their time together, just the two of them, could never be duplicated in another time and place because real-world concerns would impinge on the little world they have created for themselves. Charlotte has, in Coppola’s words, come to “appreciate that moment because you can never recreate it in the same way.”
This idea of “honoring a moment” can also apply to one of the most fun and entertaining scenes in the film, the karaoke party. The script is sparse about what exactly would happen in this scene. Coppola knew she wanted both characters to sing but was not sure at script stage what those songs would be. The script has Charlotte singing “Happy Together,” but this must have been a placeholder for Coppola, who finally chose the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” for Charlotte because it is a karaoke standard and it is the kind of song that would allow Charlotte to put on a show for Bob and be flirtatious, thus revealing a different side of her. This was important in rounding off the character so that the audience would see that Charlotte, as Coppola puts it, “isn’t this mopey girl in a hotel room, that she has some life to her when she’s in a situation that’s interesting to her. She does have a spark to her.” At the same time, it becomes a “vulnerable moment” for Bob. Coppola, then, is an intuitive writer; even though she does not do much formal rewriting, details that have not yet been nailed down can be addressed creatively once shooting begins.
For Bob, Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was chosen to show he is from a different generation, and “More Than This” was selected during rehearsal because both Coppola and Murray love Roxy Music and the tender lyrics (courtesy of Bryan Ferry) worked so well in the scene:
This is yet another example of an unscripted, improvised moment that nonetheless did not come about haphazardly. The lyrics speak of transience in nature (the unpredictability of the leaves, the wind, the sea), which evokes the spirit of the fleeting yet languorous moments Bob and Charlotte share together.
The karaoke scene works first as an emotional release, a party where the characters can let loose after so many quiet scenes in which they have turned inward, unable to speak their minds even to the people closest to them. Charlotte’s husband is so self-absorbed that he hardly listens to her, and Bob’s wife seems so immersed in her redecorating schemes that she cannot fathom the melancholy side of her husband. When Bob tells Charlotte about marriage from the vantage point of twenty-five years and explains that he used to have fun with his wife, his words are a gentle reminder to himself of that fun side he has ignored. And yet in a roomful of strangers, in a foreign land, they can express an aspect of themselves that they would not be comfortable showing to their closest loved ones, and can act out a liberated, idealized version of themselves. At the conclusion of the karaoke sequence, Bob and Charlotte sit quietly together in repose, and she gently leans her head against his shoulder. The script has a few lines of dialogue in which Charlotte observes that Bob bites his fingernails, but the filmed version has no dialogue at all, just the intimate gesture of Bob taking a drag off her cigarette. Delicate, intimate gestures define Bob and Charlotte’s relationship.
After the karaoke scene, we are treated to a subtle hint of Bob’s growing affection for Charlotte:
Thus we see his sense of longing, quietly portrayed by Murray in the film but already suggested in the script. In another scene, they grow closer verbally, discussing the life’s problems that Bob may be able to help Charlotte with:
From encouraging her in her career, they go on to talk about marriage and the difficulties he has encountered. It is a tender scene in which the older generation offers some advice—not wisdom that will magically solve Charlotte’s problems but just a little assurance that she is not alone, that other people have gone through the same doubts and anxieties that she is experiencing at such a young age. At one point, his hand softly touches her ankle—a subtly erotic gesture that hints at his attraction but does not push it too far. At other times, the heartfelt gesture between them is playful, as when Bob rushes Charlotte to the hospital for her injured toe—it is not a life-and-death matter, but pretending it is allows Bob to care for her:
Bob is obviously being funny and serious at the same time, but Charlotte enjoys his concern and their mad rush to the emergency room that follows, a kind of wild adventure that makes her feel special, a feeling she does not seem to get from her husband.
The power of a simple gesture reaches its apex in the film’s concluding sequence. Bob is departing for home after having experienced a kind of minirelationship with Charlotte all compressed within a week’s time, a notion that appealed to Coppola. They have met, gone out together, had fun, and shared their most intimate feelings about life and marriage. He has “cheated” on her in his one-night stand with the hotel’s lounge singer, which has hurt her, and they have subsequently made up. So their farewell scene had to be special and intimate. Coppola admits that she “didn’t have a solution in dialogue that gave that feeling,” and indeed the script’s version of the farewell is rather mundane considering the well of emotions that have built up in this couple:
So, to enrich the ending, Murray held Johansson close and improvised a whisper in her ear. The sound was muffled, but Coppola knew that she could add the words later in postproduction. However, she chose not to add the dialogue, feeling instead that it was better that it “stays between the two of them.” It is a beguiling ending that can frustrate audiences looking for a statement that sums it all up, but to take the obvious way would be to deny the uniqueness of their relationship. No simple statement could possibly be as powerful as the unknown, which mirrors the sense that we really do not know where they are headed.
Coppola also knew that she wanted a final gesture in which Bob “acknowledges that there was something between them, that she’s attractive to him.” So during one take, she asked Murray to kiss Johansson, and, caught completely off guard, Johansson reacted genuinely when Murray gave her a passionate kiss on the lips. The fact that the main scenes between Bob and Charlotte were shot in order and the farewell was filmed on Johansson’s last day of shooting helped heighten the emotion for her. It has a sexual undertone, of course, but it does not suggest that Bob wants something more from Charlotte. Rather, it suggests closure for this chapter in her life as she walks away, seemingly fortified by this gesture of love.
Coppola’s screenplay for Lost in Translation is deceptively simple, but behind it is a writer who knew what she wanted in the broad sense but was open to trying out different ideas as she shot the film. Through this method, she has created a film whose accrual of details and small gestures, such as a look of wistful longing, can be just as effective as a whole page of dialogue. In this way, Coppola’s method is a reflection of the journey her characters take. A relatively loose, intuitive style of working has produced a lovingly detailed portrait of two wandering souls who share a special rapport just in acknowledging that each is not alone in searching for something deeper in life. Coppola not only honors the little moments that compose their journey but honors the larger moment that is their week together, showing the bond that can form when two seemingly incompatible but kindred spirits meet and touch something deep within the other.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 11, #1