I try to just make what I want to make or what I would want to see. I try not to think about the audience too much.Sofia Coppola
In the last 14 years, Sofia Coppola has become one of America’s most singular filmmakers by perfecting the cinematic art of haunting, emotional passivity. In her first four feature films, she has created evocative dream worlds of languishing arrest—an art-house anodyne to all of the muscle-bound blockbusters full of rage and speed. The Virgin Suicides (1999) depicts a small Michigan suburb and its reaction to a string of incomprehensible teen-girl suicides. (The suicides that afflicted the Lisbon family seem even to transpire without their victims’ full participation or understanding.) In Lost in Translation (2003), the plot revolves around the emotional swells of a young woman drifting around Tokyo, her own hotel room, and Bill Murray without a sense of purposeful direction. Marie Antoinette (2006) also focuses on a young woman whose fate was sealed by forces far larger than her. And in 2010’s ode to the Chateau Marmont, Somewhere, an actor passes through his own immobility and fracturing career—as well as his stilted relationship with his 11-year-old daughter—like a wanderer in a mildly inhabitable desert.
Now, at 42, Coppola has made a frolicking, frenzied, pop-cultural, Los Angeles-and-San Fernando Valley picaresque called The Bling Ring, and this time her film centers on a rogue group of privileged kids—the underpinning of the fashion-celebrity complex—who are anything but passive. The five teenagers (played by Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, and an unforgettable Emma Watson) parade and pose and take a fair share of selfies in front of Coppola’s lens, quickly evolving into a band of criminal outlaws by breaking into the houses of their favorite celebrities (after determining when they’re on vacation via gossip sites) and stealing millions in clothes, guns, shoes, and cash.
The inspiration for Coppola’s hyperfluorescent trip through the designer dream world of ethical whatever is writer Nancy Jo Sales’s 2010 Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” which recounts the true-crime teenage burglary ring that raided the homes and closets of Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, Audrina Patridge, and, naturally, among the bold-faced names, Paris Hilton. (Coppola not only got Hilton to do a cameo in the film but also filmed inside her Beverly Hills mansion.) Their activity spanned 10 months, but in Coppola’s propulsive, Top 40-infused 98-minute film, the club-hopping, celebrity-obsessed, Facebook-updating, well-to-do teenagers of the last cultural superpower rise and fall on their own shocking sense of apathy, greed, and all-in-the-name-of-fun-and-new-dresses, belatedly wondering what exactly went terribly wrong. While the real delinquents eventually faced the United States legal system (and, for three of the participants, prison sentences), in Coppola’s impressively hypnotizing pacing and editing and her wry sense of black comedy (actress Emma Watson may have forever shed her Harry Potter appeal as the gang’s amoral center), the characters become cautionary tales of a culture so widely celebrated and slavishly followed that pointing blame seems utterly elusive.
Artist Richard Prince, a man who knows a lot about the fine art of appropriation, had Coppola over to his Manhattan studio the day after he’d attended a Bling Ring screening to discuss art, film, and the fascination of a Hollywood crime spree. —Christopher Bollen
SOFIA COPPOLA: I’ve never seen these cowboy paintings before. They remind me of your nurses.
RICHARD PRINCE: I just started them last July. They come from the same source as the nurses. They’re from the covers of cowboy books.
COPPOLA: I love my little cowboy that I have of yours. I have a new place here in New York and have it right next to my wood Judd bed. It feels very cowboyish.
PRINCE: I saw The Bling Ring yesterday. I’m not that familiar with going to a theater to see a movie anymore. I used to go to the theater all the time when I lived in the country; I’d go by myself to a matinee at noon at the mall. I loved it because it was empty. But yesterday, I saw your film in a screening room, and I was very taken with the opening sequence. Even when the title came up, I didn’t immediately connect it to the story of those kids in L.A. I wondered how the idea of making a film out of that material got started.
COPPOLA: I was on an airplane and there was this article in Vanity Fair. I remember hearing about those burglaries on the news, but I didn’t pay it that much attention. I was caught by the article, though. I always love stories about teenagers getting into trouble … [laughs] And this one seemed so absurd. The quotes of what the kids were saying in the article seemed so out there and interesting. I thought, Someone’s got to be making a movie of this—it’s such a pop movie. My family has a film company, so I thought, We should get the rights if someone hasn’t already. I never thought that I would make the movie. But the article stayed in my mind, and I finally met the journalist and she gave me all of the transcripts from her interviews. Just reading all of these pages along with the police reports … I’ve never worked on anything that was based on a crime before—it was a different experience for me. So I tried making it into a script. I’d just finished my last movie, Somewhere, and had a few things in mind for my next project already. But this sort of grabbed all of my attention. That happens to me. I have a few different ideas on the table and one takes over. In this case it was the transcripts and the quotes from the kids. I used a lot of it as the dialogue for the movie. I was really struck by how everything got so out of control.
PRINCE: Was it hard to get clearance to tell a story involving real people?
COPPOLA: You mean legally?
PRINCE: Yes, I guess those issues have been on my mind lately.
There are always things that I wish were different, or I feel like I’ve made mistakes. But it’s just part of it. I don’t mind that it’sa little homemade. Sofia Coppola
COPPOLA: It’s funny, the whole clearance thing reminds me of your work. I was at some gallery opening recently and a lawyer was talking to this pretty, young woman saying, “I work with Richard Prince.” It’s like you’re the poster person of that kind of idea of who owns an image.
PRINCE: Obviously, you had to do some legal maneuvering in order to tell this story.
COPPOLA: It’s annoying that now in movies you have to clear it if you want to use a Coke bottle. In the old days, you didn’t have to worry about that. So we had to be careful to change the names. It’s based on the real kids so we had to get the life rights from some of them. But I wanted to be able to have the freedom to change it and not have to stick to the events. I didn’t want to make a documentary or even a biopic.
PRINCE: So as long as you say it’s based on a true story, you have a little bit more leeway?
COPPOLA: Yes. It’s fiction but inspired by true events. There were a lot of phone calls with lawyers, though.
PRINCE: It’s similar with my work. Now we have to work on getting permission. In the past, no one paid any attention.
COPPOLA: Right. You used to just take any picture you wanted—like the Brooke Shields photo [Prince’s Spiritual America, 1983].
PRINCE: Nobody cared in those days. Nobody was watching.
COPPOLA: Because it’s art. But then when you are selling it …
PRINCE: Right. It’s all about the money. If there’s a perception that there’s a lot of money involved, then other parties get interested. Anyway, I really loved the way you depicted each heist—I’ll call them heists. Like every time you took us into Paris Hilton’s house, which was a couple times, it had a different feeling. And when they broke into Audrina Patridge’s house, and it was all shot from the outside, and the characters were silent … Obviously those were conscious decisions. The sound is married so incredibly well to the images in the movie. I know you are married to a musician, but were you aware from the start of all the different music you were going to add to the film?
COPPOLA: No, I got help with that. [both laugh] There are songs that I was into, but for instance there’s the blond girl driving her Lexus, playing Rick Ross, that kind of gangster rap. My friend’s 12-year-old son is really into Rick Ross, and I was like, “What’s the most thug song that would be the most poseur-ish for this blond girl to be playing?” My music supervisor is my friend Brian [Reitzell]; he played me a bunch of hip-hop, which was fun because it’s not my usual genre. And some of it was improvised. Like, Emma Watson liked this one song that plays in the club called “212” [by Azealia Banks]—it was a hit in London that she liked.
PRINCE: And was it contemporary to the time, or did that not matter? Because the story happened three years ago …
COPPOLA: I remember people asking me, “Is it a period film or is it contemporary?” To me, it didn’t really matter. It’s sort of all a part of that tabloid world.
PRINCE: I was really curious about your casting. Like the male lead [Israel Broussard]—he was so physically perfect for that part.
COPPOLA: He has a little baby fat.
PRINCE: He had an issue about his looks, and he was almost handsome. Emma Watson was also perfect. And the blond [Claire Julien] who is just so cold—she didn’t even crack a smile.
COPPOLA: She was tough. [laughs]
PRINCE: So how did you go about casting the film?
COPPOLA: My casting people looked for like a year, and they met every young actor. One of our executive producers, Fred Roos, is the casting expert who worked with my dad when they found all the kids for The Outsiders . He helped me find these kids. Claire, the blond, she was a real L.A. party girl. When I met her, I thought she had such natural charisma.
PRINCE: Besides Emma Watson, had these kids acted before?
COPPOLA: The blond girl hadn’t. This was her first real movie. And the main girl, Katie Chang, who is Korean-American, this was her first movie, too. The boy had done a few things before but not much.
PRINCE: Even Emma Watson was kind of unrecognizable.
COPPOLA: That’s important because I don’t like when actors stand out. I find it distracting when there’s a famous actor in a film. So I’m glad she blended in.
PRINCE: What was the project that got pushed aside to make The Bling Ring?
COPPOLA: I had just worked with Elle Fanning, and there was a book that I was looking at that had two sisters in it, and I was thinking of doing it with Elle and Dakota because I wanted to work with them. But that story was so sad, and the article in Vanity Fair took my attention.
PRINCE: Does it ever happen that you read a book and think it would make a great movie and try to buy the rights but they are already taken?
COPPOLA: When new books come out, there’s always a frenzy of people swooping them up. When I first read The Virgin Suicides, I loved that book but someone else had the rights to it. I had to convince them to consider letting me do it. So that was about getting the rights. And people buy the rights to magazine articles, too. I bought the one in Vanity Fair. But I guess after I finish a movie, I’m always thinking and looking out for what I’ll want to do next. I always feel like it’s a reaction to the thing I just did. Like the movie I did before Bling Ring was really slow and quiet, so I was just in the mood to do something obnoxious and faster, and something kind of in bad taste. Because I feel like that’s not something I get to exercise in my life usually. [laughs] And the story seemed to say so much about what’s happening in our culture today—all the interest in reality stars and kids posting pictures on Facebook all the time. This idea of having an audience all the time. And the kids get busted because they were posting pictures of themselves with all of the stuff they stole.
PRINCE: Social media is not something that I grew up with, but my kids have grown up with it. There’s the scene in the film where they are in the nightclub and they are all taking pictures of themselves with their phones. It’s the idea that the phone has become everybody’s camera and everybody’s a photographer, and the immediacy of that is translated out into the public. It’s so fast, and the ramifications of that quickness can sometimes get you into trouble. I guess some of these characters were expecting to get busted, but were most of them just clueless?
My friend’s 12-year-old son is really into Rick Ross, and I was like, ‘What’s the most thug song that would be the most poseur-ish for this blond girl to be playing?’â?? Sofia Coppola
COPPOLA: When you’re a kid, you’re not really thinking.
PRINCE: But also at the end of the film, I didn’t feel like, “You got it coming.” I wouldn’t say I felt sad for them, but I didn’t feel the opposite either. I think you’re right: when you’re that age, you don’t think ahead. Sometimes it’s best not to think. That’s how things get done.
COPPOLA: [both laugh] That’s true.
PRINCE: I felt some sympathy for the victims, though, especially the idea of someone being in your home, going through your stuff.
COPPOLA: Going through your underwear drawer … It’s creepy.
PRINCE: You showed them going through the little locked keepsakes, the little boxes, the personal stuff.
COPPOLA: Yeah, the fact that one of them stole Paris Hilton’s bra and was wearing it …
PRINCE: Obviously you talked to Paris Hilton about it because she’s in the film. What did she say about it? Was she pissed off?
COPPOLA: Yeah. They went to her house maybe five or six times.
PRINCE: I got why they went to Paris Hilton’s house, and Lindsay Lohan’s, but why Orlando Bloom’s?
COPPOLA: I think Orlando Bloom was because his girlfriend was a Victoria’s Secret model, and one of them said, “I want Victoria’s Secret-model clothes.” I think it was more about these kinds of tabloid-style icon girls.
PRINCE: What interested me architecturally in the movie were the different claustrophobic cabinets of the clothes and the shoes.
COPPOLA: I wanted it to feel like you were with them in the closets and rooms. That was really Paris Hilton’s place. She let us come into her house.
PRINCE: She really has all those images of herself up on her walls?
COPPOLA: Yes, on every wall. And she really has a nightclub in her house.
PRINCE: Wow. And these kids became something of celebrities themselves for a moment. Do you think ultimately that’s what they wanted?
COPPOLA: I’m going to assume that there’s this idea of, “Yeah, when I have my lifestyle brand …” There’s not an idea of hard work. It’s more, “When I get my own brand just like everyone else has …”
PRINCE: They’re not going to put in 30 years of obscurity.
COPPOLA: Exactly. They just want to get that lifestyle brand. Something that struck me was when one of them was doing the Vanity Fair article, the girl’s lawyer said, “Oh, she won’t talk about the crime, the robberies.” I thought, “Why does she think that Vanity Fair‘s doing an interview with her?” I really believe she thinks it was because of her style and how she wants to do a fashion line and all her opinions.
PRINCE: Was the mother really like that?
COPPOLA: They were in a reality TV show called Pretty Wild, which I watched. That’s where I got the ideas about the homeschooling.
PRINCE: Were they into a religious offshoot of Scientology?
COPPOLA: No, I don’t think it’s related to that. It has a kind of culty feeling, but it was based on that film The Secret. So that was the background they were coming out of.
PRINCE: And I guess people do leave their keys under their mat.
COPPOLA: Paris really did; hopefully she doesn’t anymore. And in none of those houses were the alarms set.
The movie I did before Bling Ring was really slow and quiet, so I was just in the mood to do something obnoxious and faster, and something kind of in bad taste. Sofia Coppola
PRINCE: It can be a pain to go through a big house and make sure everything is closed—and usually thefts are inside jobs. It’s a contractor who worked for you. No one is worried about a group of kids. I have heard stories, though, where people scan the obituaries in the paper to see which family is going to be at a funeral that day and that’s the house they break into.
COPPOLA: That’s very similar to how these kids did it. They were just looking online at who was hosting a party out of town. “Paris Hilton is hosting a party in Las Vegas …”
PRINCE: My grandfather always told me, “Never tell anyone when you’re going on vacation!” [laughs] Have you ever heard of the Barefoot Bandit? He was a 16-year-old from an incredibly broken home. He started stealing things, and at a grocery store he robbed, he drew the outline of his bare foot on the floor before he left. He eluded the police for over two years. He read manuals to learn how to fly planes and broke into airports and flew them.
COPPOLA: No way!
PRINCE: Isn’t that a great story? When you make a film today, do you think about all of the multiple ways it will be viewed? Not just in a movie theater, but on computer screens, on phones. I like to watch films in the privacy of my own environment.
COPPOLA: I was in a lab doing color timing on this huge, beautiful screen, and then I figured people are probably going to be watching this film on their phones. But I like watching films at home, too, which is probably where most people view films. Films look good on iPads, too.
PRINCE: Most of the movies my kids watch are on their computer. They don’t watch TV anymore. It’s all about the computer screen.
COPPOLA: It’s funny because we were doing the sets for the kids’ rooms, and we put TVs in them, but the kids were like, “Nobody has TVs in their room anymore. You watch everything on the computer.” But I watch films at home all the time. I do think that a film in a theater is more engaging. It’s too easy to get distracted at home. And there is the idea of a communal audience in the theater.
PRINCE: But all of that is radically changing, especially the attention span it takes for a feature film.
COPPOLA: Yeah, I wonder if movies will have to be at least 90 minutes anymore. Maybe you could do a 15-minute one.
PRINCE: One of my favorite films is Andy Warhol’s Empire . It’s an eight-hour movie. It’s just a continuous shot of the Empire State Building.
COPPOLA: Do you ever sit and watch it for hours and hours?
PRINCE: It’s a movie you don’t have to watch. That’s what’s so interesting about it and makes it perfect for this day and age. You can just look at it when you want to. You can leave the room and come back and you’re not going to miss very much. That was a radical idea for a film. But your movie was about 90 minutes, right?
PRINCE: It felt shorter. I like the part where Marc is dancing in front of his computer.
COPPOLA: I wish there was a clip of the real boy shaking his booty for the camera. He posted it on his Facebook. It was him smoking his bong, singing and dancing to that song, posing. You could tell he felt really cool.
PRINCE: He was really accepted by those girls.
COPPOLA: I think he was excited to be in a world that he wanted to be a part of. It was his idea of an in-crowd, which was very different from their actual home lives.
PRINCE: I liked that there wasn’t really any sex or making out in the film. Instead, it was all about stealing, getting excited when they found a wad of cash and drugs.
COPPOLA: Yeah, I didn’t feel like sex excited them. It was about the stuff—and dressing sexy and getting attention in clubs, and maybe being discovered. But it was never about sex. It was about being sexy to get where they wanted to go.
The story seemed to say so much about what’s happening in our culture today—all the interest in reality stars and kids posting pictures on Facebook all the time. Sofia Coppola
PRINCE: The scene where the adopted sister finds that gun and waves it around was so menacing. I kept thinking, “Oh, man, that gun’s going to go off. I just know it’s loaded.” And it was loaded! How many takes did you do to get that scene right?
COPPOLA: Just a couple. But it made me tense even to watch it. Do you remember a film called Over the Edge ? It was one of Matt Dillon’s first films. It was about bad rebel kids in a bland community. It’s a classic teen film. There’s a scene where a girl dances around with a gun to the song “Surrender” by Cheap Trick. That’s where the idea for that scene came from. That one wasn’t dangerous—it was more cute. But for mine, that’s the moment where either they’re just being kids or it could go a lot darker.
PRINCE: Do you ever think of your audience when you’re making a film? Like, “I am directing this toward this group of people or that one …”
COPPOLA: I try to just make what I want to make or what I would want to see. I try not to think about the audience too much. But for Bling Ring, I did want it to appeal to about the same age as the characters. I also hoped that people my age would be into it in the same way I was interested in the story. I wanted the audience to get into it and then not until later kind of stand back and think, “Maybe there is something else going on here …” I wanted it to be seductive at the beginning.
PRINCE: It was interesting that one of the things that the kids stole in the film was artwork by Ed Ruscha.
COPPOLA: Oh, yeah. We put it in because my dad had that and we thought the Hollywood sign would bring that feeling and aesthetic to the film.
PRINCE: It’s at the beginning of the film and it’s the first thing I noticed. They carry the Hollywood piece through the gate. I like the texture of the night that you captured. That green surveillance footage. There was a sense of them getting excited to go out at night, returning in a different car …
COPPOLA: And wearing someone else’s clothes.
PRINCE: That almost crossed the line into Charlie Manson territory. It could have gotten really messy, going into these people’s house. Of course, Manson’s whole thing was a little different than the Bling Ring.
COPPOLA: But they were on a mission.
PRINCE: You know, I wrote a screenplay once. I’ve been trying to sell it. It’s a shoot-em-up sci-fi.
COPPOLA: Not a cowboy film?
PRINCE: No. It came about because every time I flew into St. Barts for Christmas, I’d imagine that when we landed, there would be all of this commotion, and we’d get out of the plane and someone would tell us that there’s been a nuclear holocaust. You know, it’s Christmas and you’re with the family and all of a sudden there’s a nuclear event. It’s kind of like The Beach meets Lord of the Flies meets 28 Days Later. That’s the pitch.
COPPOLA: And you’re stuck in St. Barts? So there’s all these society people? Like Ron Perelman and Marc Jacobs?
PRINCE: Yeah, and a bottle of water becomes more important than a Rolex. You know, suddenly a Rolex watch is meaningless. Water becomes really important_and weapons. And I made up this weird story that … First of all, there’s little police presence in St. Barts, so you’re not worrying about that, but it’s all about becoming tribes. It’s all about survival. The college crowd gets killed off right away—they just start partying. And then there’s those huge cruise ships on the bay that are filled with 75-year-old geriatrics. They all get thrown overboard. It becomes a nightmare. A Rasta band escapes and gets to shore and people are forming their tribes at the different hotels.
COPPOLA: Where are all the New York socialites?
PRINCE: They’re in there. And cut to a year later, my main character, who arrived kind of overweight—he’s an architect—suddenly looks like G.I. Joe. He’s learned how to run a generator and operate a rifle. It’s like he turns into Bruce Willis. His family has taken over Eden Rock. The movie is called Eden Rock. And these Amazonian lesbians have taken over a different hotel. And there’s a bad tribe that has taken over the Isle de France hotel. They are really bad and you don’t mess with them. They are always raiding for supplies.
COPPOLA: What happens at the end?
PRINCE: Well, that was the problem. We hired a ghostwriter, we wrote it out. I always thought Hollywood would fuck up my idea. That’s why we never even thought it would get made into anything that I’d want to see. But I love the idea of survival. Like, what would you do in that position? Would I survive three days? That’s why we were going to make a movie. But I’m not sure I’d feel very comfortable on a set. Does it ever freak you out?
COPPOLA: Ever since I was little, I’ve felt very comfortable on a set. The time is stressful—being creative under time constraints. But there is an excitement and energy that you only have a certain amount of time to get what you want.
PRINCE: How long did it take to film The Bling Ring?
COPPOLA: It was about six weeks. We do everything low-budget, so we do it as quickly as possible just to have more freedom.
PRINCE: It’s kind of like cooking, right? You do all of your prep work ahead of time and that takes a lot of time. The actual cooking doesn’t take very long. And then there’s the editing. Did you see something after the fact where you said, “Oh, man, I wish I had another take?”
COPPOLA: There are always things that I wish were different, or I feel like I’ve made mistakes. But it’s just part of it. I don’t mind that it’s a little homemade. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Do you think about the audience or their opinions when you make a work?
PRINCE: You know, sometimes I have. When I watch a movie, I like knowing that the director has already made the decisions. I don’t have to make any. But on the flip side, I know how to be the director or the artist. And sometimes I try to make works where there is no mystery at all about how it’s made. I think what’s great about Basquiat’s work is that thousands of people can walk into a show and there’s no mystery as to how a Basquiat is made. It’s mark-making. Anyone could do it. It’s very primitive. And people really enjoy that. He drew a crown; he made a word. It’s true with Warhol, too. Maybe there is still a little bit of mystery about the silkscreen even to this day. But his idea of repetition is so fucking brilliant and so stupidly simple. Two weeks ago I had another audience experience that has parallels to The Bling Ring. I went to see Spring Breakers.
COPPOLA: I haven’t seen that.
PRINCE: They are incredibly different films, but it’s interesting that they are both in the world around the same time. I consider myself a fan of yours: I am very familiar with The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation and even the sneakers in Marie Antoinette. It’s one of my family’s favorite films. But it’s interesting to have that personal connection before going to see a film like The Bling Ring. Just like experiencing Harmony [Korine]’s latest film after knowing his background.
COPPOLA: I showed it to a friend’s teenage daughter and she said, “Oh, it doesn’t look pretty like your other work.” And I wonder about that. When people see you a certain way, you always want to challenge yourself and do something different. But you also want to do what you’re into. An artist can do both maybe because you can make series of different works. Is that something you think about?
PRINCE: I’m the most confusing artist on the planet because I would rather be Christopher Wool at this point. I would rather be Robert Gober. I would rather be Charlie Ray. I wake up in the morning and I kind of go with whatever I feel that day. This morning, I was stapling rubber bands into different shapes using a staple gun, and it’s really punk. It’s the stupidest thing in the world, but it looks great. You kind of do a test run and then go, “Gee.” But I think the audience wants a signature. I think you, for example, are doing what all really good artists do, and that is something not similar to what they’ve done before. I think repeating, what’s the point? I think that’s working for a living. I don’t want to work for a living. It’s not labor, you know? That’s what’s interesting about [Stanley] Kubrick: he did horror, he did a period piece, he did a war movie, he did a sex movie. He did what he wanted to do. I guess I relate to that more. Or a Bruce Nauman or [Sigmar] Polke or [Gerhard] Richter. They’ll just wake up and go—like Man Ray! It’s like what you were saying about the nature of the subject being tacky, but you took something tacky and made it elegant.
COPPOLA: Oh, thank you! That’s good! It becomes something pretty.
PRINCE: It’s like taking something elegant and making it tacky. I like that idea too. I mean, personally, Paris Hilton is not my taste. I just don’t get it. But I love that I don’t.
COPPOLA: Yeah, I thought it was fun because, in a way, it’s exotic. You want to see a different world.
RICHARD PRINCE IS A NEW YORK-BASED ARTIST.