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Not Really A Romance

August 27th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Lost In Translation, 2003, poster Lost In Translation, 2003, DVD

Lost In Translation (2003)
Written by Sofia Coppola
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Produced by American Zoetrope/ Elemental Films
Running time: 101 minutes

So, What’s This About?
In the Park Hyatt Hotel towering over Tokyo, two Americans meet. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a movie star drawing a $2 million paycheck to appear in a commercial for Suntory Whiskey. The deal includes jet lag, forgetting his son’s birthday and the realization that his wife — who Bob can barely hold a phone conversation with anymore — has learned to take care of the house without him being around. Unable to sleep, he hangs out in the bar, where Bob meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a melancholy young woman who accompanied her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) — a well meaning but attention deficient photographer — on assignment to Japan.

Bumping into each other over the next several days, Bob and Charlotte find a respite from their mutual loneliness. Charlotte reveals that she gave photography a try, then writing, but really hasn’t decided what she wants to do with her life as a post-graduate. She invites Bob to join her for a night out in Tokyo, where the language barrier with Charlotte’s Japanese friends doesn’t keep them from drinking, dancing, singing karaoke and feeling closer to home. After a bewildering experience on a Japanese talk show, Bob is set to return to the States, but finds his time with Charlotte more difficult to walk away from than he anticipated.

Lost In Translation, 2003, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson

Who Made It?

Sofia Coppola first came to the attention of moviegoers in 1990 when her father — director Francis Coppola — cast her as Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III after Winona Ryder had to decline. Following her ill-fated acting debut, the 19-year-old Coppola took the advice of her mother Eleanor and enrolled in Cal Arts. She would drop out and pursue photography for a while before co-creating, co-writing and co-hosting (with Zoe Cassavetes) a short-lived, tongue-in-cheek news magazine for Comedy Central called Hi-Octane. Coppola then launched a highly successful clothing company called Milk Fed with her friend Stephanie Hayman. When in Tokyo, the women were fond of staying at the Park Hyatt Hotel.

By the age of 30, Coppola had a short (Lick the Star, 1998) and a critically praised feature film (The Virgin Suicides, 2000) under her belt as director. She’d written a mere 70-page script she wanted to shoot in Tokyo. Producer Ross Katz ignored the major studios and chased financing from overseas distributors. Unwilling to make the film with anyone other than Bill Murray, Coppola spent five months pursuing the prickly and reclusive star, using a social network that included her friend Wes Anderson and screenwriter Mitch Glazer to land the Bob Harris of her dreams. Lost In Translation would make history on its way to becoming a sleeper hit with audiences and a sensation with critics.

Lost In Translation, 2003, Bill Murray

How’d They Do It?

Sofia Coppola was in her early 20s when a friend invited her to Japan to help produce a fashion show. Once there, she met Fumihiro Hayashi, a young writer and editor for Dune Magazine, who hired Coppola as a photographer. She’d visited the land of the rising sun with her parents as a child, but returning to Tokyo once a year for eight consecutive years provided the spark for Lost In Translation. Coppola recalled, “That was really the starting point for the story that I wanted. Just when I had spent time in Tokyo, I thought, ‘Oh, I really want to film this, and I love the way the neon at night looks.’ That was really the starting point of the story though. I never thought about setting it somewhere else.”

After finishing the promotional tour for The Virgin Suicides in 2000, Coppola returned home to Los Feliz, California and spent six months writing Lost In Translation. Her brother — director Roman Coppola — provided feedback on 20 pages she’d finished before Coppola returned to Tokyo to soak up the atmosphere. “It helped to remember what I had liked. I always loved the Park Hyatt. I wanted to shoot a movie in that hotel. I like the way you keep running into the same people over and over again, the camaraderie of foreigners.” The brief but intense dynamic between Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall in the 1946 classic The Big Sleep provided additional inspiration.

Lost In Translation, 2003, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray

Coppola and ICM agent Bart Walker ignored the major studios and sold off distribution rights in various overseas territories instead. Creative control was one reason. Coppola explained, “I didn’t want to make something I’d have to change. I had an idea of what I wanted to make, and I wanted to not have a boss. It’s hard to get final cut, but it was very important to me to have the freedom to do the way I wanted.” After successfully selling the film to distributors in Japan (where The Virgin Suicides had been a hit), France and Italy, producer Ross Katz hooked Focus International to provide the rest of a roughly $4 million budget. Katz had entered the film industry as a grip on Reservoir Dogs and ascended to the rank of producer in 2001 with the critically acclaimed In the Bedroom.

What Coppola and Katz didn’t know was whether Bill Murray was going to do their movie. Coppola knew one of Murray’s close friends, screenwriter Mitch Glazer. She showed Glazer a 10-page treatment and asked him for help. Glazer recalled, ”Sofia is amazing because she’s such an artist, but she grew up in a family that gets things done. She knows how to be relentless. She’s completely genuine, but she is as driven and tough as anyone I’ve met in Hollywood. And she wanted Bill. She had written it for him.” He added, “In more than 20 years of friendship, I never said anything was perfect for Bill, and this time, I did. But Bill is difficult. He wouldn’t give anyone an answer.”

Lost In Translation, 2003, Bill Murray

Coppola recalled, “People said, ‘You need to have a backup plan,’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to make the movie if Bill doesn’t do it.’ Bill has an 800-number, and I left messages. This went on for five months. Stalking Bill became my life’s work.” Director Wes Anderson joined the recruitment drive and in July 2002, Coppola met Glazer, his wife Kelly Lynch and Murray in New York for dinner. The actor had some concern about the script. Murray recalled, “The whole thing felt slight, which was a little troubling. But she had a way of saying her dream wouldn’t have come true unless I did the movie.” He added. “I got reeled in from way, way offshore, but Sofia’s very good on the phone, and she spent a lot of time getting me to be the guy. In the end, I felt I couldn’t let her down. You can’t ruin somebody’s dream.”

To play opposite Bill Murray, Coppola had in mind an 18-year-old who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the filmmaker: Scarlett Johansson. “I first noticed her in Manny & Lo. I just thought she had a kind of a striking quality and that low, husky voice. There was something unique about her I liked so I wanted to work with her. When I was working on this I wanted to meet with her and see if she would play the part. Although she’s younger, you know the character’s in her early 20’s, I think she pulls it off because she has a sort of maturity. She’s not like a hyper kid. I just like the way that she’s able to convey feeling without doing much. She’ s subtle.”

Lost In Translation, 2003, Scarlett Johansson

Lost In Translation commenced a 27-day shooting schedule September 2002 in Tokyo, where Coppola discovered a culture very accommodating to location shooting. Her crew was able to take handheld Aaton cameras into the streets and subways without permits or without Tokyoites gawking at them. Ross Katz mixed American crew members — director of photography Lance Acord, production designer K.K. Barrett, costume designer Nancy Steiner, line producer Callum Greene and a New York based assistant director named Takahide Kawakami — with a largely Japanese crew, which Kawakami translated English to. Roman Coppola contributed second unit photography.

Screenings at the Telluride, Venice and Toronto film festivals were quickly followed by a limited theatrical release September 2003 in Los Angeles before Lost In Translation opened nationally in October. It was far and away the most critically acclaimed film of the year. The Return of the King — the eventual Academy Award winner for Best Picture — was up there, but The Austin Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Hollywood Reporter, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post all named Coppola’s film the best of 2003, while The New York Times and The Onion A.V. Club were among the many publications placing it on their annual Top 10 lists.

Lost In Translation, 2003

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “I loved this movie. I loved the way Coppola and her actors negotiated the hazards of romance and comedy, taking what little they needed and depending for the rest on the truth of the characters.” J. Hoberman, The Village Voice: “Coppola evokes the emotional intensity of a one-night stand far from home—but what she really gets is the magic of movies.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “The connection between Bob and Charlotte, as Coppola shows it to us at the end of Lost in Translation, is a moment of intimate magnificence. I have never seen anything quite like it, in any movie.” The critical accolades and the awards buzz for Bill Murray propelled the low budget film to box office of $44.5 million in the United States and $75.1 million overseas.

Lost In Translation was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Its sole Oscar went to Coppola for her script, but she became the first American woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, following Italy’s Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties, 1976) and New Zealand’s Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993). Coppola summed up her genre defiant sophomore success by stating, “Well, I think it’s romantic in feeling. It’s not really a romance. It’s, I guess, more of a friendship. But I like those kind of relationships that are sort of in between and that you do have these memorable relations with people that don’t ever become a real thing.”

Lost In Translation, 2003

Should I Care?

I don’t know which section Lost In Translation ended up in at Blockbuster Video. It might have created a few new categories — short film, tone poem, travelogue, meditation — but whatever you call this, long after Blockbuster has bitten the dust, Sofia Coppola’s dreamy, romantic ode to gaijin will still be relevant. This isn’t a movie I loved at first sight and even now I hesitate to call it a “movie”, not in the sense that Peter Weir or Quentin Tarantino make “movies”. Light on dialogue, mysterious in intent, what Sofia Coppola knows well is jet lag in Tokyo, the moods, feelings and images of which are expressed with a precision and deep affection that is nothing short of brilliant.

The humor is so understated, but over time, appeals to me more and more. There’s something deviously witty about watching two fakers discover that they can drop their act and just be themselves around each other. Bill Murray has called this the favorite among all his films, and it’s hard to argue he’s ever given a better performance. The woozy and romantic vision Coppola seems steeped in when it comes to international travel serves her script well by refusing to follow a straight line. It leads to an ending that will stay with me longer than the tidy conclusions of so many other films. Lance Acord captures both the exhaustion of travel and its inherent wonders beautifully.

Lost In Translation, 2003, Scarlett Johansson

Where’d You Get All of This?

“The Coppola Smart Mob” By Lynn Hirschberg. The New York Times Magazine, 31 August 2003

“Sofia Coppola on Lost In Translation
By Fred Topel. Screenwriter’s Monthly. 23 September 2003

“Tokyo Story” By Anne Thompson. Filmmaker Magazine, Fall 2003

“Behind the Scenes of Lost In Translation with Sofia Coppola”
By Rebecca Murray.

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Bathtub scene · Midlife crisis · Road trip · Surprise after end credits · Train · Unconventional romance

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Sep 7, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    I thought I recalled seeing comments here, but I guess not? Oh well, I love the story of how this film got made. It’s clear that Coppola’s hard work and effort paid off. I wasn’t sure either whether I would like it, since the detractors were fairly vocal, but it worked for me and was very engaging.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Amanda: I was put off by the hype as well and had a “Where’s the Beef?” moment when I first saw Lost in Translation. The movie has grown on me over time. It’s not the best of the decade but you’re right, it is very engaging in its off-beat way. Coppola’s path again demonstrates that there’s no one way to finance your own movie.

  • 3 Robert // Oct 14, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Hi Joe,

    Catching up on your pieces and thought I’d check in about Lost in Translation. I’d enjoyed The Virgin Suicides and had been a fan of Bill Murray’s work (Ground Hog Day & Rushmore in particular) which got me into the theater to see this movie. I was instantly won over by it.

    The contrast you make between this movie and a movie movie seems right on point. I think I find it close to David Lynch’s work more than anything else. The sensibility is obviously radically different, but there’s a way in which the heart, the inner core of the movie seems to guide everything from the scene progression to the visual composition within the frame to the casting. It seems less about life as we live it than about life as we remember it lived. For whatever reason, I’m reminded of something like Mulholland Drive when thinking about Lost in Translation. There’s a fuzzy inner dream logic that I think they share.

    There are probably other films like this, but I’d really have to think about it. Maybe something by Terry Gilliam? Baron Von Munchausen? Something by Michel Gondry? I’m wondering if it has something to do with the fact that these directors came into film with a visual arts rather than writing framework. I recently heard Tarantino on Fresh Air and he described his Inglorious Basterds as a novel on film (hence all the “chapters”), something that you couldn’t say about a 70 page script. It would be interesting to see a list of film directors who have a visual arts background vs. writing background. Wonder if there’s any pattern. Thanks, as always, for the post!

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