The heir to the Coppolas' cinematic throne accompanies her feature-film debut at the Opening Night of the 43rd San Francisco International in 2000.
Photo: Sofia Coppola (center) with then-husband Spike Jonze and mom Eleanor arrives at the Castro Theatre on Opening Night of the 43rd San Francisco International Film Festival. Photo by Pamela Gentile
By Caitlin Browne
“Reactionary, poetic, sparkling, ebullient, effervescent, fragrant, cold, cool, coming of age, bestowing of presence, petulant and revolutionary” reads the label composed by Francis Ford Coppola of Sofia, the sparkling wine produced by his Niebaum-Coppola winery. Bottles wrapped in pink cellophane adorned a miniature shrine, with an oversized photograph of the drink’s namesake (his daughter Sofia) surrounded by flowers. A floor below, the basement of the Regency building was decorated ’70s style, with silver inflatable furniture and a DJ spinning records.
It was April 20, 2000, and The Virgin Suicides had just screened at the Castro Theatre as the Festival’s Opening Night film. Forty percent of the films in the 43rd Festival’s program were directed by women, but at the Opening Night party all eyes were on just one—introduced by SFIFF Artistic Director Peter Scarlet as “San Francisco’s own, Sofia Coppola.”
It was the Napa-raised director’s first feature film, and no doubt many were curious to see how she would live up to her father’s impressive legacy. Some attendees remembered that after she was born 28 years earlier, her parents celebrated at their Victorian on Broadway with a screening of Francis’s footage of the birth.
Accompanied to the Opening Night party by then-husband Spike Jonze (afresh with buzz after his Being John Malkovich had wowed Hollywood the previous year) and her mother Eleanor, Coppola mingled with guests on the main floor, shunning the VIP balcony.
Also attending the festivities were an assortment of local celebrities: actor Peter Coyote, musician Tom Verlaine (who performed original scores accompanying silent films later in the Festival), documentarian Les Blank and actor Delroy Lindo (who selected the film Sugar Cane Alley for the Festival’s Indelible Images program). Lindo, who resides in Oakland, called The Virgin Suicides “a really masterful effort for a first film.”
“Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides opens the Festival like a series of Crayola-colored Roman candles whose detonation makes you rethink the way you watch the sky. It’s Coppola’s first film and it’s spellbinding,” wrote the San Francisco Examiner. Labeled by the Chronicle’s Peter Stack “black comedy fantasy,” the film was a haunting, ethereal story of teenage angst in 1970s suburban America starring James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Danny DeVito, Josh Hartnett and Kirsten Dunst.
Based on a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the film follows the beautiful, mysterious Lisbon sisters from the eyes of the neighborhood teenage boys who are fascinated by them. By the film’s end, all five sisters have committed suicide. An audience member at the Opening Night screening asked Sofia whether she had ever known anyone who had committed suicide, to which she replied that she had not. “I saw [the suicides] more as symbolic,” she explained. “It’s more about being young, and looking back on that, and heartbreak.”
Though it takes place in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the film’s look was inspired by Bill Owens’ photographs of the suburban East Bay. Asked during the question-and-answer session why it was spelled “Gross Point” in the film, Coppola confessed, “Because it was shot in Toronto, and they didn’t know how to spell it, and I was too nervous and busy making a movie to notice.”
The 28-year-old actress-cum-photographer turned fashion designer (of the Los Angeles-based Milk Fed brand) turned director grew up in Napa and attended Mills College in Oakland before switching to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. “I thought about going to film school,” she told an interviewer, “but then I figured, well, I can just learn faster from my dad.” In addition to her father and husband, Sofia has other familial filmmaking connections in her director brother Roman, and acting cousins Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman and aunt Talia Shire. Her uncle August, Nicolas’s father, served as head of the School of Creative Arts at San Francisco State.
Though she was just entering the national consciousness as a director, this wasn’t Coppola’s first time at the Festival. Her little-known first foray in filmmaking, a short called Lick the Star, made its world premiere at the SFIFF in 1998. The film, about the cruelty of seventh grade girls, featured three Bay Area teenagers and was shot at the St. Helena middle school Coppola herself attended. She appeared at its Festival screening with her cast of teenage girls in tow.
But when you are a member of the Coppola clan, chances are you have spent some substantial time at the San Francisco International. In 1987, as a mere 15 year-old, she tagged along to a reception with her mother Eleanor. In photos she is pictured embracing Yurek Bogayevicz, the director of Festival entry Anna. The Coppolas were all familiar faces at the Festival—father Francis had made several appearances, as the recipient of a Craft of Cinema tribute in 1972 and the St. Francis of Assisi Award in 1975, presented by mayor Joseph Alioto. Brother Roman’s directorial debut CQ screened in 2002, as did mom Eleanor’s short On the Set of CQ. Eleanor also filmed documentary footage during the Virgin Suicides shoot.
Coppola seems to have coped with instant notoriety like a seasoned pro. “Coming from my family and having connections definitely helps open doors,” Sofia said of her cinematic lineage. “But then once you’re there, you have to come through. I hope people will see the movie and appreciate it for what it is.”