Lost In Translation

Sofia Coppola's Journey Into Culture Clash

BY James KeastPublished Oct 1, 2003

With Tokyo, it begins. It should be called the city of lights: neon, flashing, constant. Billboards and huge, high resolution video screen advertisements don't so much block the cityscape, they are the cityscape. To a North American eye it's disturbingly familiar, almost too. The same brands are peddled, the same famous faces are seen, but here, they meet in expensive, Japanese-only advertising campaigns. And yet nothing quite fits, for underneath this sheen of modernity lies the foundation of thousands of years of culture quite foreign from what one finds flashing above.

In the Park Hyatt Hotel comes the next step. Lavish and elegant, there's a pool on the upper floors, where you can look over the whole city, while bobbing through your Aquarobics class. Have a whiskey in the New York bar, dark and elegant, where ancient oak tables placed like careful domino tiles, lit soft and romantic; a crooner in the corner sings Gershwin and Porter. It's so close to home, it could not be farther away.

In these unfamiliar environs, alternately comforting and cold, there's a palpable sense of opportunity and a distinct possibility of loss, in a mistranslated moment, an unseen gesture. No matter how skilled your guide, or well-intentioned your efforts, you are an invited guest but not a member. Here, in the Park Hyatt Hotel, in Tokyo, Japan, meet Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson).

If there's a right way to write a small, intimate, character-driven piece like Lost In Translation, 32-year-old writer/director Sofia Coppola did it backwards. She didn't start with the character of Bob Harris, a famous actor in the heart of a midlife crisis arriving in Tokyo to film one of those Japan-only advertising campaigns. She didn't start with Charlotte, a young newlywed graduate student who's followed her photographer husband here; he has work, she has nothing better to do. Coppola started with the city. The hotel. And the music.

"I wanted it to have this romantic, melancholic feeling, when you're in an experience that you know isn't going to last," says the director, herself exhausted from a whirlwind of premieres and interviews she's been caught up in since the film became a favourite at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals. "I wanted it to feel like looking back at this week in Tokyo, as opposed to being really immediate — that's why it's shot on film and not on video. This jet-lagged, dreamy feeling, with an element of longing."

The connection that sparks this tale is familiar to any traveller. Strangers in strange lands suddenly find themselves tied together, holding the same guide ropes of common language and cultural experience, bound by the shared feeling of unfamiliar surroundings and disconnected lives.

Bob Harris, a recognisable actor in the autumn of his career, feels trapped by the week he's here to film a whiskey commercial. His only link to home feels confused by time zone differences; his marriage has sunk into the ruts of familiarity. His wife is redecorating at home and sends carpet samples by FedEx for his approval, but seems unconcerned with Bob's emotional well-being. He hasn't bought the requisite mid-life sports car yet, but accepting millions for swilling liquor isn't exactly artistically satisfying.

"At least the whiskey works," he quips in the hotel bar where he shares a couple of moments with Charlotte. In her he recognises similar feelings of instability — where he wonders where his life has gone, she contemplates where hers is going. Her stay in Japan is similarly unsatisfying; her workaholic husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is off photographing rock bands leaving her to wander the city alone.

The sparks between Bob and Charlotte are not lustful but romantic; he isn't paternalistic, yet she craves what she hopes is his wisdom. "I figured it out as I went along, but I liked the idea that this is not about two people having an affair in a hotel," says Coppola. "That's a very different movie. This is kind of a sweet, romantic relationship you have in life that's not a friendship, but not an affair." Together, Bob and Charlotte share in a Westerners view of Tokyo — unusual restaurants, late nights smeared blurry by jet-lag, drinking sake and singing karaoke.

For her first feature, Sofia Coppola adapted Jeffrey Eugenides' acclaimed novel The Virgin Suicides; Lost In Translation is her first original work. The Virgin Suicides was a similarly dreamy, elegiac memory film concerning the deaths of five young women in mid-'70s Middle America. A story in Japan, concerning a young woman struggling with her life's direction, would seem perfect for the talented filmmaker, but it wasn't Charlotte that Coppola first connected with: it was Bob.

"Maybe it's growing up with men," she reveals. "That character doesn't look as much like me, but it was very similar. A lot of his scenes were very funny to me, and I was writing it for Bill Murray, so imagining that was so fun."

Most actors, Murray included, aren't so keen on having characters written specifically for them; too often, they're derived from past performances, a caricature of work they've done before. It was no different for Coppola, who drew from the lost man of Rushmore and the hopeless romantic of Groundhog Day.

"Bill said usually it's a really bad sign. It took him a while to respond, but he really liked the character and thought it was something he could do. There's something really sincere and heartbreaking about him and he's so romantic."

Unlike many writers who also direct, Coppola's inspirations spring not from the pen but from the tools of a filmmaker: cinematography and music. "Tokyo is such a beautiful place, and unreal with those cityscapes and views. We shot it in a way that tries to reflect that — intimate, informal, with handheld cameras. All the decisions about how to shoot it were made based on the atmosphere and the music, all tied together. The tone you're going for informs all your decisions."

For Coppola, music is key to that tone; for help, she turned to music supervisor Brian Reitzell, drummer for dream-pop group Air, who scored The Virgin Suicides. "We talked about the music when I was first starting to work on the script. We talked about the atmosphere and looked at photographs. Also, instead of having one singular sound through the whole thing, to make it more like a compilation because the city is like that — it's such a combination of all different things. You walk up the street and hear music coming from every direction. We just talked about music that made us feel like driving around Tokyo late at night after drinking sake."

The melange of source music includes Squarepusher, Death in Vegas, Air, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Bloody Valentine, whose Loveless was a key to the feel Coppola was looking for. At Brian Reitzell's suggestion, they contacted MBV's enigmatic front-man Kevin Shields to write some original music. "I don't really like when you have a traditional score that has to inform the emotions," Coppola explains. With Shields, she discussed "the feeling, that melancholic crush that's good and awful at the same time. I love that feeling, and Loveless captured that. I felt just by talking to him, he totally got what I was looking for."

As she had with The Virgin Suicides, Coppola demonstrates an elegant touch when it comes to music choices, avoiding schmaltzy traps that would artificially sweeten an already romantic piece. The balancing act it requires is summed up perfectly by a scene where Bob and Charlotte, out on the town with some Tokyo friends, end up in a cramped karaoke space where Bob's selections include belting out an enthusiastic "(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding." It's undercut by a bleary-eyed, drunken rendition by Murray of Roxy Music's "More Than This," which underscores all his internal struggles.

All the karaoke selections were planned out in advance, for reasons of song clearance, except the Roxy Music fave. "Bill and I were waiting to shoot and we'd been talking about how much we loved Avalon," Coppola remembers wistfully. "I said ‘Will you please sing it for me?' He did, and it was so sweet and tender and perfect for the scene, I just asked if he would do it on camera and luckily we got the rights later."

It's just the kind of fortuitous inspiration that's required for an artistic endeavour to truly fly. Shooting on a short schedule of 27 days, in an unfamiliar country where most of the crew speaks a different language made spontaneity a challenge, but Coppola remained open to the possibilities, with some familial help.

"My brother [Roman Coppola, himself a director], is the one I really rely on, with all his technical expertise. He ran around and shot some things and I didn't have to explain it to him because he knew what I was going for. He knows me so well and we have similar tastes."
It was a family affair all around — her father, director Francis Ford Coppola, is an executive producer on the film, and it was set up through the "family company," American Zoetrope. But make no mistake, Coppola is a talented filmmaker with a singular vision, no daddy's girl playing with daddy's toys.

Whereas The Virgin Suicides held viewers at arms length, Lost In Translation draws you in with its perfect balance of possibility and inevitability. It's summed up perfectly by Coppola's final script note: "Bob gets into a limo and heads towards the airport, happy he came to Tokyo, happy to be going home."

My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields
An Enigma Emerges

By Michael White

Much like, say, a homeless man prophesying the end of the world, or a news item about Elvis being spotted at Burger King, an offer to interview Kevin Shields is something one should take with a grain of salt.

Since the slow, troubled dissolution of his legendary former band, My Bloody Valentine, sometime during the mid- to late '90s, the man that many predicted would become the Brian Wilson of alternative guitar rock instead seemed to become its Howard Hughes. Shields has rarely spoken to the press since the release of MBV's final album, 1991's Loveless, and the precious little music to bear his name since then — either in the form of remixes or as an auxiliary member of Primal Scream — offered only teasing, frustrating glimpses of a still vital talent. Given that Loveless was the product of almost three years of work, 19 studios, and a reputed half-million dollars — and was finally finished only because its expense was about to bankrupt the band's label — it might not have been unreasonable to suspect that Shields was simply incapable of satisfying himself.

So when word began to circulate that Shields had completed his first original music in 12 years for Sofia Coppola's new film, Lost in Translation, eyebrows didn't arch so much as vault over the scalp to touch the nape of the neck. One of the greatest examples of unfinished business in the history of music was back — and, more amazingly, he was willing to talk.

When Shields answers the phone at his London home, it's hard to reconcile this friendly, talkative man with the supposedly reclusive, damaged individual that's spent the past decade-and-change hunkered down in an endless succession of recording studios, making music that no one else will ever hear.

Even without seeing Lost in Translation, Shields would seem a perfect choice to score any number of film projects. My Bloody Valentine's music was always characterised by an oddly bewitching emotional ambiguity — huge washes of amorphous guitar and disembodied, impassively sighed vocals — that engenders a gut-level response without communicating specific ideas or feelings. Surely the group's chief sonic architect had received dozens of propositions from filmmakers in the past?

"No," Shields says. "My reputation is somebody who doesn't finish anything, so the film world is probably the least likely place to ever involve me in it. As it happens, since about '98, any work that I've done with anyone, I've always done on time and on schedule."

Although Coppola and the film's music supervisor, Air drummer Brian Reitzell, provided an ideal directive ("I wasn't asked to do much; it was this nice opportunity for me to be involved in the process but not have any pressure"), Shields admits that his induction into the world of soundtracks involved an unexpectedly sharp learning curve. A huge fan of John Barry, the groundbreaking soundtrack composer best known for his James Bond scores, he says his respect for the art form has increased exponentially.

"I thought I kind of knew what it was all about; then, when I got involved with this thing, I started watching films and listening to the soundtracks and thinking about it, and I realised that I did not have a clue," he says. "What I discovered is that a lot of music that you do is good music by itself, but it's taking away from the film — it's not giving it something, it's distracting you. Which is probably why some of the greatest musicians that have ever existed haven't been involved in films, because it doesn't necessarily go hand in hand. But it can do, and when it does I think it's one of the most powerful things in the world. It's the two main mediums that I've grown up with, just films and music. It's my way of viewing people's emotions, more than books or anything."

The Lost in Translation soundtrack album (on Emperor Norton) features four Shields tracks. As with The Virgin Suicides, Coppola and Reitzell were uncharacteristically thoughtful about the music they chose; both films contain relatively little dialogue, so the soundtrack is often crucial in evoking what the actors leave unsaid.

"Films are really delicate things, and if you actually care about what you're doing, you have to be really careful," says Shields. "I know that Sofia had seen me play live in San Francisco years ago, in My Bloody Valentine, and she was a fan of the Loveless record. But although Brian was the guy who thought of me [for the soundtrack], Sofia's got really strong ideas about what she likes. She came to the studio and we had done a bunch of music, and I was quite impressed with the way she could quite honestly say, ‘That's too weird.'"

Although Shields' three instrumental contributions are intriguing and lovely (albeit gallingly brief), the indisputable highlight of the soundtrack is "City Girl," which sounds like an almost fully realised outtake from Loveless. Performed by Shields with Reitzell on drums, long-time MBV fans are understandably ecstatic about it. It's astonishing, then, to discover that it was recorded in a contrary manner to Shields's infamously painstaking methods.

"Imagine if a [guitarist] was showing the drummer how it goes and then playing slightly over-exaggerated strokes on the chords — that's what you're hearing," he explains. "It was literally us working out how to play it, and then, the second we got it, we said, ‘We don't want to redo that, actually.' It's quite nice the way it kind of speeds up a bit; you could hear [Reitzell] getting enthusiastic as he realised he knew where he was. It was all a slapdash approach because you don't know what's going to work, so what's the point in labouring over something?"

Shields is adamant that Lost in Translation represents neither a creative rebirth nor a brief aberration in his extended disappearing act. Recently the victor of an extended court battle in which the rights to all of My Bloody Valentine's key recordings will revert to him in the coming years, he hints that the band may be reactivated in some form before too long. Wavering between quiet confidence and self-deprecation, he also adds that his newest recordings have indeed whetted his appetite for the possibility of more soundtrack work.

"I realise that people like John Barry and all the greats, what they did is they managed to make music that totally suited the film, totally complemented it, yet at the same time transcending it as well. That's a rare thing, and to achieve that at some time in my life would be a great thing, but who knows. In the end, I think I'll probably have to do something that insinuates to some kind of film director that…"

He pauses for thought, before concluding, with a chuckle: "I mean, I'll probably make my own damn film. That's probably how it'll happen in the end."

Fifteen Years Gone By: The Legacy of My Bloody Valentine

You Made Me Realise EP (Creation, 1988)
Following several years of lucklessly searching for their niche, this five-track EP — My Bloody Valentine's debut for the then-struggling Creation label — introduced the band's sudden, astonishing reinvention as an incomparable collision of merciless guitar squall and hyper-melodic, disembodied vocal harmonies. The title track's justly famous middle section of noise crescendo was reputed to be a mischievous joke.

Feed Me With Your Kiss EP (Creation, 1988)
A consolidation of the previous EP's promise — alternately harsher, prettier, sparser and more ornate than its predecessor.

Isn't Anything (Creation; Sire/Warner, 1988)
As blurred and ambiguous as its overexposed cover photo, MBV's first post-metamorphosis long-player still resonates with frightening, revolutionary sonic invention, in spite of its muffled production. Ride, Lush, Slowdive, Swervedriver, Pale Saints, et al, would shortly follow in its mighty wake.

Glider EP (Creation; Sire/Warner, 1990)
Brian Eno declared this EP's focus track, "Soon," the vaguest piece of music ever to become a charted British hit. A seductive, elegant progression that marries the band's signature sound to a shuffling dance-floor beat.

Tremolo EP (Creation, 1991)
Yet another envelope was pushed here. "To Here Knows When" is arguably the most insular, otherworldly track MBV ever produced; when Creation president Alan McGee first heard an advance cassette, he insisted the tape must be faulty. It wasn't — it was simply unlike anything anyone had heard.

Loveless (Creation; Sire/Warner, 1991)
Quite simply one of the most original rock albums ever made. But despite its inimitable, densely layered atmosphere, pure pop melodies lurk beneath. Its Heart of Darkness-like genesis almost destroyed the band and its label, and rendered its supposed contemporaries all but irrelevant. Seemingly impossible to follow up, and so it would prove.

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