‘Lost in Translation’: Sofia Coppola’s Poetic Exhibition of Love, Humor and Understanding

In the opening years of the 21st century, Sofia Coppola wanted her second feature film to be “a little funnier and more romantic” than The Virgin Suicides, the debut that got her a place among the rising filmmakers of the day. Inspired by her numerous trips to Japan in her twenties, she developed the idea of setting an unorthodox love story in the center of Tokyo, among all those neon signs, posters of Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford advertising coffee and beer and flashy karaoke bars where broken English versions of Western rock hits echoed through the night. Lost in Translation turned out to be a huge box office hit, as it effortlessly connected with hundreds of thousands millennials, who found it easy to emphasize and relate to Coppola’s protagonists’ feelings of being lost, stuck and confused. It’s not only the box office that was blown away—the critics mostly adored Coppola’s vision, seldom failing to mention the glorious performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in the lead roles. The great Roger Ebert, whose reviews continue to inspire and remind us what the film world irreversibly lost in 2013, considered Coppola’s sophomore effort to be one of the most impressive movies of the whole decade, and it’s certainly not an isolated occurrence that the film left the same mark on us as it did on the late critic. Nominated in four different categories–Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay—Lost in Translation triumphed in the latter category, earning the talented daughter of a proud father her first her only Oscar up to this point. So what’s so special about this movie?

An experienced actor whose career is in an obvious downfall comes to Tokyo to shoot a whisky commercial. Calm and half-depressed, at the same time desperately stuck and accepting this fact with dignity and stoicism, the actor spends his nights at the hotel bar in silence. There he meets a beautiful college graduate, driven to anger and disillusionment by her young husband, who prefers the company of a perky movie star over spending time with her. These two strangers, left alone and isolated in the ocean of lights, sounds and chaos that is contemporary Tokyo, connect on an inner, deep level and start developing a true friendship and affection for one another. A seasoned actor and a girl only at the beginning of her adult life share a week together, at the end of which both feel a little happier with their circumstances and with themselves. It’s a love story like no other, a romance comedy too subtle and deep to be simply put in a labeled drawer, a film that many might deem incomprehensive and slow because of its obvious lack of action. But the action is here in abundance, if you know where to look.

Coppola spent six months writing the film, which was ultimately shot in only 27 days, leading to a lengthy editing process back home. If Murray’s resistance hadn’t been broken during the full year of Coppola’s courting and harassment, Lost in Translation would have been, well, lost in the translation from Coppola’s head to the empty screen. As she put it, Murray was an elusive guy who didn’t even let them know when and how he was coming to Tokyo, and without him, she claims the movie would never have gotten made at all. His role was crucial, and the way he delivered it immediately raises the question why this genius actor never got the Academy’s attention. Johansson, on the other hand, was barely 18 at the time, and she shocked Coppola with the maturity and wisdom she brought to her character. Neither Murray nor Johansson had to audition for their parts, as Coppola knew exactly what she wanted. It’s clear that her choice was prophetic as soon as you watch these two loveable characters interact.

Shot by cinematographer Lance Acord, who insisted on using natural light and avoiding artificial literally whenever possible, edited by Steven Soderbergh and Sofia Coppola’s frequent collaborator Sarah Flack, with a delightfully melancholic score supervised by Brian Reitzell, Lost in Translation is a film so full of restrained but powerful emotion that it’s an experience we put ourselves through at least once a year. From the erotic first shot of Johansson inspired by the paintings of John Kacere, all the way to the mysterious whisper into Scarlett’s ear at the very end, this film is a poetic exhibition of humor, love and understanding.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Sofia Coppola’s screenplay for Lost in Translation [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Let’s Get Lost: Translation Talk with Sofia Coppola and Ross Katz. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Sofia, the vantage point of a young woman has been a constant in the work you’ve done so far. But here, working with Bill Murray, you explore the older man’s as well…
Sofia Coppola: … and he’s having a midlife crisis in Japan—where it’s already so confusing. In the film, Charlotte is having that early 20s, “what do I do with my life” crisis. She and Bob are two people at opposite ends of something comparable; she’s just going into a marriage and he’s on the other end, having been in one for years. There is camaraderie between them at the moment in time that they’re at. It’s two characters going through a similar personal crisis, exacerbated by being in a foreign place. Trying to figure out your life in the midst of all of that… I always do that on trips, just start to think of these issues when I’m away from home.
Ross Katz: One of the exciting things for me was what Sofia said to me when we met: “Bill Murray is my leading man.” We did not conceive of this movie without him. I genuinely believe that Sofia would not have made it if he didn’t agree to do it. He is a real leading man and his performance is, I think, wonderful.

What was the genesis of the idea for Lost in Translation? Did it come from a specific trip?
SC: It was inspired by spending time in Japan in my early and mid-20s. I went there six or seven times over a couple of years. Just from spending time there, being in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, I wanted to do something set in Tokyo, and I liked the idea of how, in hotels, you keep running into the same people. There’s this sort of camaraderie even though you don’t know them or even talk to them. And, being foreigners in Japan—things are distorted, exaggerated. You’re jet-lagged and contemplating your life in the middle of the night. Also, I love Bill Murray and I really wanted to write something for him showing his more sensitive side—what you felt a little bit of in Rushmore, I wanted to see more of that side. And there’s just something funny about being stuck in a situation that you don’t really want to be in.

The Park Hyatt hotel that you stayed at, that’s the one in the movie, right?
SC: Yes, although I didn’t stay there when I was younger because it was expensive [laughs]… I stayed there a few times later on. There’s something very specific and odd about that hotel. The city is so chaotic and here’s this silent floating island in the middle of Tokyo. They have the “New York” bar and a French restaurant—but it’s the Japanese version.
RK: The pool is pretty amazing too. And the view—we would often sit by windows, look out at Tokyo from 40 stories above and say, “How the hell are we going to make this movie in a few weeks?”

Ross, when and how did you come aboard the project?
RK: We were brought together. I was finishing up The Laramie Project and was in L.A. on behalf of In the Bedroom, and Bart Walker—Sofia’s agent—thankfully put us together for a meeting. Bart had asked me, “Would you be interested in meeting Sofia?” I said, “Are you kidding? She’s one of the most exciting filmmakers around.” I had just loved The Virgin Suicides so much. We met and it was a little bit like asking someone to the prom. I left our meeting thinking that she has a great sense of humor and perspective. She really understands the movies that she wants to make. Every nuance is so clear to her. I wanted to help her realize that. I waited by the phone and then she called—the best call you could get. When we were talking about Lost in Translation it was clear that she would evoke Charlotte’s (Scarlett Johansson) journey. In addition, she really had the Bob Harris (Bill Murray) character down. She saw the film in terms of those special times in your life where you make a connection, and it doesn’t make any sense and it doesn’t fit into your world but somehow you connect with someone. Everybody comes from different places in their lives yet a lot of things are the same. Sofia talked about a memory of something that only lasts a short time yet stays with you forever—and I thought it was a great way of describing the movie.

Sofia, had you gone to Japan to write the screenplay, or for further inspiration?
SC: I didn’t write it there. I’d been there a lot and had my photos. A lot of the places in the movie are places I’ve gone. My friend Charlie Brown always takes me around. That’s his nickname; his real name is Fumihiro Hayashi. I met him a long time ago and he has a fashion magazine there. Charlie is in Lost in Translation, he sings “God Save the Queen”; he always sings that, and that was one of the first images I wanted to make a movie around. I did go back a year before we shot, with friends, and videotaped anything that looked interesting and worked on the script after that. Some of that stuff I did put into the script: staying in the hotel and seeing the “aquaerobics” in the pool and having the shabu-shabu dining experience. Then there are these advertising campaigns that you see in Japan: American actors endorsing products and being a little bit embarrassed about it. I’m affectionately poking fun at it; I don’t look at it as hypocritical. It’s just so weird to be in Japan and to look up and see Brad Pitt selling coffee, and see a Brad Pitt head floating in a vending machine. It’s one of those out-of-context things in Japan, like a replica of a French café.

This film was made entirely on-location in Japan. How does a purely American filmmaking team plan on and prep for such an adventure in an exotic break from the familiar—especially as an independent feature with a modest budget?
SC: It was a big adventure. One of things I love about Tokyo is that it’s so different than being in Europe—much more foreign and unfamiliar with regard to the culture, the language. Everything’s different, even getting the groceries. There’s different rules and traditions that you learn as you go. We got there a little bit in advance. There were about eight of us from the U.S. and the rest were local.
RK: Very different than what I’d been involved with. You can’t really embark on this kind of a journey without a total willingness to have your plans change, your ideas thrown back in your face, and reinvent your plan on a daily basis. The only way you can do that is with a true partner, and that’s Sofia; she was really up for the adventure. It was completely exhilarating—and terrifying at times. It’s not as simple as a language barrier. A lot of people work with language barriers. More than 90% of our crew was Japanese, many of whom were non-English-speaking. In Japan, there’s a different kind of cultural protocol, there’s a different way that things are done, including on the filmmaking side of things—the structure of a crew and how a crew works. So, there were a lot of big adjustments on both sides. Sofia and I didn’t want to jump into Japan and make an American movie, American style. I think a lot of people plop down in their location and say, “Well, we’re just going to do it the way that we do it.” But there were certainly examples of the language barrier. One night, we were shooting the fire alarm sequence that comes toward the end of the movie and takes place in the middle of the night. Our casting folks were great—mainly non-English-speaking. They had arranged for us to have about 50 extras there. When the extras arrived, we were ready to shoot, the camera was there, everything was set, great night for shooting—and all of the extras were dressed in business suits. We looked around and went, “Uhhhh… it’s the middle of the night…?” And the casting people, through the translator, were saying, “Yes, yes, we’re ready!” And we’re saying, “Well, in the middle of the night, people are generally in their pajamas, nightgowns…” So our costume designer, Nancy Steiner, had to make a mad dash to the wardrobe van. We went into the Park Hyatt and pulled every robe, nightgown, casual attire, kimono that we could get and basically re-dressed all of our extras in the parking lot. Those kind of things happened a lot. But I think the other thing that happened to us, which is probably more exciting, is that the experiences and extremes of making the film were just like the experiences in the film. A lot of what was happening in the film was pure for us.
SC: Respect and honor are central to Japanese culture. We wanted to do it more Japanese style, not walk in and say, “Well this is how we do it in America.” However… I remember when we were at the shabu-shabu restaurant, we were only permitted to shoot ‘til 4:00 P.M. We went about 10-15 minutes over, and the owner pulled the plug—pulled the lights out. We were disrespecting the owner because we weren’t done. The location manager felt we had dishonored him, too.

You were on a tight shooting schedule of 27 days, including 6 days a week.
RK: “Stamina” is the word that best describes it. We pushed hard to make sure we got the movie that Sofia wanted to get. First, we had a sensible director who’s not only assured but understands her actors. She has incredible intuition yet was incredibly adaptable. Second, we had a remarkable cinematographer in Lance Acord, who’d worked with Sofia on her short film Lick the Star. Lance is this great guy who you can drop from a helicopter into the middle of wherever with a camera and he’ll be climbing up a tree and finding the best angle and constantly be excited and enthusiastic, always fighting to get the best shot.
SC: Lance and I had both spent time in Tokyo and like the look of the city. There’s a spontaneity that we wanted to include—I wanted the informality of running around and taking snapshots. My memories of being there are snapshots. He wanted to be quick and non-invasive, and not to have to light it. We were stealthy; we relied on people in the streets being our extras. The camera was very small and portable. You’re not allowed to shoot in the subway; we had to keep moving so we wouldn’t be stopped—to get those shots it was just me, Lance, Scarlett, and 1-2 other people.
RK: Sofia always said, “I want to be able to move, I don’t want to be burdened with having so many people that we can’t actually run out and get a great shot.” It was very run-and-gun, for two reasons: (1) in terms of the amount of time we had, and (2) we also wanted to have an openness to where we were. In other words… a lot of times, when you make a movie everything is so rigid in terms of “you can only shoot at this point, this is what the schedule is, and on this day we’re shooting this.” We wanted the ability to throw away the map and go and get what we wanted.
SC: We did steal a lot of shots on the streets. But, one day, my brother Roman was shooting second unit and ran into some Yakuza. They said we’d have to pay up, because they have their neighborhoods. And that was the end of that neighborhood for us. Our crew helped us navigate and steered us away from other Yakuza neighborhoods.
RK: One day, we had an entire interior sequence planned. And it started to rain in a very interesting place—the intersection with the elephants and the dinosaurs and all of that. And Sofia really wanted to see Charlotte in the midst of hundreds of Japanese people heading to work, heading to lunch and carrying umbrellas. We wrapped up at the arcade we were shooting in and scrapped everything, grabbed the equipment, ran several blocks away and started shooting in the rain. We completely reworked the plan because the weather was really unreliable and we just knew it was never going to look this good again, so let’s get it. I’m really happy that we did, and you can see it in the film.

Many independent filmmakers would have opted for DV or HD. But you remained committed to film. How was that discussed?
SC: We were encouraged to consider DV, but I wanted the movie to feel romantic… like a memory. Film does that. With the high-speed film stock [Kodak’s 5263] that we were using, we could go anywhere, not light it and just shoot. Film might not be around that long, so we wanted to shoot on film while we still can. It has the nostalgic and romantic feeling of the past; that’s how I remember things, through film and photos. Film gives a little bit of a distance, which feels more like a memory to me. Video is more present tense, there isn’t that stepping back.
RK: None of us wanted to shoot on video. We just didn’t want to do it. Basically, the philosophy going in was, let’s be lean and mean in terms of the size of our crew and our ability to move. And on top of that, we wanted beautiful lighting in our film without the standard lighting package that you would use for a scene in a big movie. We didn’t want the hassle and time of that many people and that many lights. There were some people on Lance’s crew that were saying—in Japanese—“There’s not enough light, it’s not going to be bright enough…” Lance said to them, “You’ve got to trust me on this.” And it looks stunning; we basically used less light on this movie than I think any of us have ever used. It’s glowing, it’s beautiful.

What with all the Japanese crew, liaisons, featured actors, et al., were there alternate modes of communication?
SC: It was like that scene in the movie where Bill’s doing the commercial and it takes 10 times longer because of the translation. And we were always in a rush, so just talking to an extra in the background became a project.
RK: There was also a lot of Pictionary and Charades. We’d be trying to describe something and, if there wasn’t a translator around, we’d go up on the big grease-pencil board, we’d make a picture and we’d point to it, and everyone would go, “Ah! Hi, hi, hi, hi! O-kay, o-kay, o-kay!” There was an understanding through eye contact, through pictures, through animated hand-waving, through bits of broken Japanese and English—and a mutual desire to make the same movie. We had a really terrific gaffer, Yuji Wada, “Wada-san”—he’s worked with Godard and others. He’s Japanese but his English is very good. Many times he served as an on-set translator for everyone. Our first assistant director, Takahide “Taka” Kawakami, has lived in New York for 16 years but was born in Osaka, Japan. He’s fluent in both languages, so poor Taka had to not only AD the film but also, every time someone said, “OK, the next shot is a close-up,” he would yell out the English, the translation, and then get the responses back from all the various parties and filter them back to us. People can find ways to communicate when they’re rallying around the same thing.

In addition to Bill Murray, Sofia has been able to elicit something from young actresses that we haven’t seen them express previously onscreen.
RK: Scarlett has a worldliness, a sense of having lived a life that is well beyond her years. She was the most exciting candidate; she connected to the material and to Sofia’s work in general. It was great watching all three of them—Scarlett, Sofia, and Bill—all immensely talented and all from very different walks of life and points of view. Scarlett embodied the role of Charlotte, and she’s playing a young woman in her 20s, which people haven’t seen her do.
SC: For the shots where Scarlett is alone in the room, I tried to keep it to as few people as possible, to keep it intimate, more like a photo shoot. I can shoot a girl sitting around in her underwear and it’s not creepy because I’m not some big guy. There’s an understanding between us because I’ve been that age. There’s a shorthand.
RK: The role called for a certain complexity. Scarlett brings out what Sofia had written very specifically about this character.

What was it like working with Bill Murray?
SC: It was everything I hoped for—fun to be in Tokyo with him. He’s enthusiastic, great with the crew, hung out with everyone. He’s great at improvising, and added so much to the scenes.
RK: I remember we were having trouble with an owner of one location, and Bill ran over and was very funny, literally scooped the guy up in his arms and swung him around and said, “C’mon, c’mon! We just need another hour! C’mon!” He was incredible, and he was a big part of why we were able to make the movie in the way that we were able to make it. I was awed being around him. On the personal side, he’s generous and kind. He’s also one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, articulate, and literate people that I’ve ever met. He’d wrap up equipment with the crew. And for those of us who were exhausted from shooting all night, he’d ask us to come down to his room and enjoy some eggs and bacon and champagne, and watch the World Series game.
SC: Breakfast and the World Series, that was fun.

Giovanni Ribisi had worked with you before, as the narrator of The Virgin Suicides.
SC: Yes, and I’ve always wanted to do something with him in front of the camera. To me he’s fun in this part because usually he plays more serious roles. He’s one of my favorite actors.

What were Giovanni and Scarlett told about their characters’ marriage?
SC: We did some rehearsals together in L.A. so they would have a familiarity between them. I talked to them a bit about it in our rehearsal.

And what were the parameters set with Bill and Scarlett for Bob and Charlotte’s friendship? Is it just a friendship?
SC: It’s supposed to be romantic but on the edge. Those relationships you have in real life—a little bit more than friends but not an actual romance. They get each other and it’s flirtatious. They both know it’s not going to go anywhere. To me, it’s pretty un-sexual between them—innocent and romantic, and a friendship.

The karaoke selections in the film are so specific. Who chose them?
SC: Brian Reitzell and I picked these together. It was hard to find songs for Bob, especially as he’s letting loose for the first time. At a karaoke booth, Bill Murray and I were talking about Roxy Music, and I asked him to sing “More Than This.” He did, and I thought it was so sweet I asked him to sing it as Bob in the scene. Luckily, we got permission to use the song.
RK: Music is one of Sofia’s signatures in her films, in terms of creating mood and tone. We were in a real karaoke joint, in the Shabuya area of Tokyo. Watching Bill singing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” and “More Than This” was surreal and funny and moving.

At the other extreme, Anna Faris’ rendition of “Nobody Does It Better” lays waste to the song—did she have to be talked into that?
SC: No, and that’s why I’m impressed by Anna—she’s totally up for anything. She cracks me up; she’s fun to watch.

The music for the film is unusual in that it’s two musicians doing it. How are they working together?
SC: We didn’t really end up having a composer. Brian Reitzell and I had worked together on The Virgin Suicides; he plays drums with Air. He made me “Tokyo dream-pop” compilations to listen to while I was working on the script. We ended up using a lot of that in the film.
RK: Brian got involved at the script stage because he gets what Sofia is trying to relay. It’s something that is hard to capture on the page, but Sofia knows exactly how to shoot it and Brian knows how to help find the sounds. There are a couple dozen distinctive pieces of music in the finished film. It was a real coup for us to have Kevin Shields, of the band My Bloody Valentine, write original pieces for the film.
SC: I’m a big fan of My Bloody Valentine and of Kevin’s original work.

With Lost in Translation, you’re taking audiences to an exotic and teeming city in a very private manner. Often hushed and intimate despite all the hubbub. Were you able to steal moments like that for yourselves during production?
SC: Friends would take us to little hidden bars and alleyways. That’s the fun of Tokyo, if you know someone who lives there. There are little hidden places that change all the time. I enjoy finding new places there and looking around. I haven’t been back since we finished shooting. Looking at the movie now, finishing it up, makes me want to go back. I look forward to showing the movie to our crew there.
RK: All of us that were in relationships were calling home at really odd times of day—when it was night for them, it was day for us—you’re in sort of this weird oasis where your real life doesn’t exist, the only life that exists is the one of making the movie and the one of living in Japan. It’s odd but also wonderful. We didn’t stay in hotels and hide from where we were, we really lived in Japan and had a great, great time doing it, meeting people, befriending people, having wonderful nights out and really experiencing being there.

When the cab leaves Tokyo at the end, the camera goes with it and you sense that it was goodbye for the filmmakers too.
RK: There’s a beautiful line in Sofia’s script which sums up Bob Harris’ experience and probably a lot of ours: “Bob gets into the Presidential limo and heads towards the airport, happy he came to Tokyo, happy to be going home.” The experience can’t last but it wouldn’t be what it is if it was something that could last. There was so much friendship born throughout the process, we ended up actually having three wrap parties because people didn’t want to let go or say goodbye. On Bill’s last night of shooting, we had assembled the American crew and the Japanese crew, and we had a party at a funky Chinese restaurant. We had the best time. The vibe was so great, the energy was so great, everybody wanted to be there to say goodbye to Bill. It was Bill and all of us dancing until 4:30 in the morning. We all went home, showered and changed, and about 40 minutes later Sofia and I and a small amount of the crew got on a train to Kyoto to shoot the entire Kyoto sequence.

Q: What would you like audiences to take away from their experience of watching the film? A mood? A moment? A specific emotion?
RK: I hope that people relate to it in the way that I do. I think it doesn’t matter if you are the Charlotte character or the Bob character, or neither. Everybody, at a certain point, is a little lost and sometimes we just find a connection to someone that helps to re-inspire or center us. And it’s something we’ll never forget. I feel that, with Lost in Translation, in addition to making a very funny movie, Sofia has crafted a film that is very specific—warm and contemplative—with experiences we can all relate to.
SC: I can only say why I wanted to make the movie: to convey what I love about Tokyo and visiting the city. It’s about moments in life that are great but don’t last. They don’t go on, but you always have the memory and they have an effect on you. That’s what I was thinking about.

LOST ON LOCATION

Partially shot by director Spike Jonze (he and Coppola were married from 1999-2003), the documentary features cast/crew interactions, glimpses of Coppola’s directorial methods, various scenes from the movie in the process of shooting, and plenty of entertaining footage of the always great Bill Murray—including more than a few instances of his favorite phrase to recite in Japanese: “who do you think you’re talking to?” —The Seventh Art


Open YouTube video

Must See Film’s Darren explores the characters of the film and the cinematic techniques used to enhance the story. He also discuss it’s magical quality which is hard to define and is responsible for the film relate-ability and success.

Lick the Star is a 14 minute long black & white 16mm film. It was the first film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Peter Bogdanovich appears in a cameo as the Principal. The director of photography was Lance Acord. Coppola’s own eye appears in one dream-like shot. The film’s themes also appear in Coppola’s later work, such as the feelings of isolation; in addition, the film begins with a car journey, just like her later films The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Somewhere.


Open YouTube video

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Production still photographer: Yoshio Sato © Focus Features.

 
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