Lost in Translation - A Film by Sophia Coppola - Reviews (Continued)
This Pending Cosmic Elegy


Lost In Translation. Actors: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris Director: Sofia Coppola Theatrical Release: 09/12/2003


"Lost in Translation"
Sofia Coppola's stealthy romance about two Americans stranded in Tokyo is a work of marvelous delicacy -- and offers the performance of Bill Murray's career.
By Stephanie Zacharek,

Sept. 12, 2003  |  Sofia Coppola's magnificent and delicate "Lost in Translation" is a love story but not a romance, a picture that fits into no identifiable genre because there's no category fluid enough to properly cradle it. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a Hollywood action-movie star who's been flown to Tokyo to make a whiskey commercial, giving him a respite from his kid and his wife of 25 years, with whom he's settled into either a wobbly holding pattern or a businesslike truce that prevents them from killing each other -- it's hard to say which. Scarlett Johansson is a quiet, bookish young woman named Charlotte, who has come to the same city with her hotshot photographer husband (played by Giovanni Ribisi). She clearly cares for him, and yet the two float in parallel spaces that never intersect. They're like strangers who wake up in a rumpled bed together only to realize they've been married for two years.

Charlotte and Bob meet in the bar of the Tokyo Park Hyatt. The two of them have drifted there after spending sleepless hours' worth of channel clicking in their respective rooms, like zombies who can no longer bear the boredom of being undead and need to at least go through the motions of feeling alive.

And after that meeting, everything and nothing happens in "Lost in Translation": The picture's muted intensity isn't just a vague mood -- it's a subtle but very specific type of narrative drive. Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay) is a stealth dramatist: Instead of unfolding in precise pleats, her movies unfurl like bolts of silk. There are no handy place markers between scenes to help us tick off how many minutes are likely to pass between this or that point of conflict and the denouement. Revelations don't click into position; they swoop down, seemingly from nowhere, and settle in quietly, like a bird coming to roost.


An American in Japan, Making a Connection

The director Sofia Coppola's new comic melodrama, "Lost in Translation," thoroughly and touchingly connects the dots between three standards of yearning in movies: David Lean's "Brief Encounter," Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" and Wong Kar-wei's "In the Mood for Love." All three movies are, in their way, about a moment of evanescence that fades before the participants' eyes - as is "Translation." ("Translation" also exhibits the self-contained, stylized lonesomeness found in post-punk, like New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle.")
Ms. Coppola's movie also happens to be hilarious - a paean to dislocated people discovering how alive they are when they can barely keep their eyes open. The sexiness comes from the busy, desperate need-to-impress heat of a flirtation, an unrequited love communicated through a filter of sleep deprivation.
"Translation," which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, is also one of the purest and simplest examples ever of a director falling in love with her star's gifts.
And never has a director found a figure more deserving of her admiration than Bill Murray. He plays a vodka-and-bitters version of himself and the persona that made him famous. His character, Bob, is an American movie star who is in Tokyo to participate in the celebrity not-so-secret shame: he's picking up a boatload of dough to perform in commercials for Suntory whiskey. He arrives in Japan just in time to gaze, slightly embarrassed, at the sullen billboards of himself that are starting to appear there. While blinking sleeplessly around the lobby of the majestically hermetic Tokyo Hyatt, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who has been abandoned by her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi); he's off shooting a band.
The movie follows the twists and connections in Bob and Charlotte's relationship - like some trans-Atlantic phone calls, their feelings reach each other on a five-second delay. The lag time only embellishes the comedy, and the heartbreak.
It's the first grown-up starring part that Mr. Murray has had, and he inflects every facet of public awareness of Bill Murray with a sure, beveled determination. That may be because he has never really had a leading role that has asked him simply to pay attention to the other actors instead of guide the scene or save it.
Lean and physically witty - because he has dropped the awareness of the audience's demand for mainstream comedy - he even seems to be standing taller, perched on Bob's courtliness. Generally, Mr. Murray has given performances worth paying attention to in movies that no one sees, like his physical inhabitation of Hunter S. Thompson in "Where the Buffalo Roam," perhaps the only film example extant of Mr. Murray's ability to depict vulnerability and physical threat simultaneously.
Here he supplies the kind of performance that seems so fully realized and effortless that it can easily be mistaken for not acting at all. The corollary of this is that Ms. Coppola's direction is so breezily assured in its awareness of loneliness that the film could potentially be dismissed as self-consciously moody rather than registering as a mood piece. But it's bound to be recognized as a movie worthy of the kind of Oscar attention occasionally given to films that challenge audiences subtly. Mr. Murray could collect the Academy Award that he didn't get for "Rushmore."
Here, his capacity for absorbing everything around him has taken a toll, and the visibility of that burden is what "Translation" is all about. The psychodrama in the phone calls from Bob's wife adds a chilling layer of passive-aggressive horror that makes you understand why he had to flee to Tokyo. But thanks to Ms. Coppola's gracefulness, those conversations don't overwhelm the movie; instead, they add texture.
As does Ms. Johansson's Charlotte. At 18, the actress gets away with playing a 25-year-old woman by using her husky voice to test the level of acidity in the air. Charlotte's husband has already stopped listening to her, and we can see that her pain is dulled by her exhaustion level. Ms. Johansson is not nearly as accomplished a performer as Mr. Murray, but Ms. Coppola gets around this by using Charlotte's simplicity and curiosity as keys to her character.
Being shut away from experience has made Charlotte even lonelier than Bob, and their relationship flowers because he is eager for experience, too. Ms. Coppola gives Mr. Murray a scene that actors dream of; he falls definitively for Charlotte as she struggles through a karaoke version of "Brass in Pocket," a wisp of a smile flitting across his face as he watches her perform in a frosting-pink wig. She is his dream of an uncomplicated future, and Ms. Coppola lovingly shoots Ms. Johansson's wary, lazy eyes and lush lips - almost as a parody of Japanimation.
Music is a big part of the director's life; Ms. Coppola's previous feature, a screen adaptation of "The Virgin Suicides," was informed more substantially by the score by the group Air than by the narrative. She also allows Bob a chance to croon some karaoke, including a cover of Roxy Music's "More Than This."
Certainly we anticipate Mr. Murray's trashy sarcasm when he steps in front of a microphone, but we cringe slightly; if he whips Bryan Ferry's doomed narcissism around his throat like a scarf, the kind of thing he did when he invented this routine in the late 1970's on "Saturday Night Live," he'll get his laugh and demolish the movie. Instead he renders the song with a goofy delicacy; his workingman's suavity and generosity carry the day. And "Translation" already has a joke of a hotel lounge singer, played by Catherine Lambert, who is used for a bigger laugh later.
A joy of filmmaking pervades the movie, and an instinctive understanding of the medium is evident. Sound is used so beautifully it takes your breath away; in a scene where Bob carries the dozing Charlotte to her room, the hotel corridor is gently dusted with aural density; the noise of air conditioners and fluorescent lights becomes a part of the milieu.
The director is more than ably complemented by her sound designer, Richard Beggs, as well as the cinematographer Lance Acord and the editor Sarah Flack. All of their skills can be glimpsed in a scene that ends with Bob and Charlotte fleeing a karaoke bar as a friend fires a toy pistol that shoots lighted pellets at them, the gun's rat-a-tat fading into the jangling of a pachinko parlor.
The movie conveys dislocation and the hungers it causes more than just visually. Perhaps because of that, "Translation" exists more as a film rendering psychological colorations than as a script. Obviously, Ms. Coppola placed all her trust in her actors. Anna Faris, who barely registers in the "Scary Movie" pictures - and she's the star - comes to full, lovable and irritating life as a live-wire starlet complicating Charlotte's life. Ms. Faris has already had work; this movie will secure her a career.
But as a result of Ms. Coppola's faith, this is really Mr. Murray's movie, and his respect for his director couldn't be more visible.
In the handful of films she has done - including her short, "Lick the Star" - Ms. Coppola has shown an interest in emotional way stations. Her characters are caught between past and future - lost in transition. Perhaps her films are a kind of ongoing metaphorical autobiography, but no matter. The important point is that there's a lot up there on the screen, plenty to get lost in.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company



Anne Thompson muses on the loneliness of the long-distance filmmaker with Lost in Translation's Sofia Coppola, Scarlett Johansson and Ross Katz.

ofia Coppola knows from jet lag. And she knows Tokyo, quite well she used to fly there once a year for Milkfed, her clothing design company.

Jet lag makes you contemplate life in a different way, she says. Youre far removed from all the distractions of your normal life. Perched on a sofa in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont Hotel, shes in navy blue (T-shirt, jeans, flip-flops) except for her toenails, which are baby pink.

Between working her clothing line, shooting her music videos and promoting her first film, The Virgin Suicides, Coppola has spent a fair amount of time in hotels. So during the past two years of travel, she found herself concocting a romantic story about a pair of culturally alienated Americans knocking about in a hotel in Tokyo. I thought it would be funny to see Bill Murray in that context, she recalls.

When she arrived back home in Los Feliz from promoting The Virgin Suicides, Coppola spent six months writing Lost in Translation. Its about misunderstandings between people and places, she says. Its about things being disconnected and looking for moments of connection. There are so many moments in life when people dont say what they mean, when they are just missing each other, waiting to run into each other in a hallway.

She labored through the first 20 pages with support from her brother Roman, also a director (CQ), and then returned to Tokyo for further inspiration. It helped to remember what I had liked, she says. 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.

In Lost in Translation, 20ish Charlotte, whose photographer husband is on a job, keeps running into Bob, a 50ish movie star who is in town to shoot a whiskey commercial. They are both lost and vulnerable, and despite their age gap, they bond in a romantic though not sexual way. Coppola says she was inspired by the dynamic between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawkss classic noir, The Big Sleep. I wanted the movies structure to have all the different parts of a relationship condensed in a few days, she explains. They meet, they break up.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson
in Lost in Translation.

Precisely observed and with a luxuriously languid pace, Lost in Translation captures the loneliness of a young wife seeking her identity, the loneliness of a married man in midlife crisis and the way two strangers can come together to supply something that is missing in each of them. As a director, Coppola takes the time to observe tiny real-life details; remarkably, in this music-video age, she lets the movie breathe.

Once Coppola finished her script, she and her ICM agent, Bart Walker, decided to seek financing for the film Jim Jarmusch style. In this model, the filmmaker licenses distribution rights in various overseas territories individually, cobbling together enough foreign presales to make the film without the controlling influence of a single territory or U.S. domestic distributor. I didnt want to make something Id have to change, Coppola remarks. I had an idea of what I wanted to make, and I wanted to not have a boss. Its hard to get final cut, but it was very important to me to have the freedom to do [the film] the way I wanted.

The problem with the Jarmusch method, though, is that few American filmmakers possess the international appeal to completely finance their films from foreign distributors. And typically these distributors are more comfortable financing an American indie knowing that a U.S. distributor is also on board to launch the film in North America. And then there was one other problem: Coppolas script was only 70 pages long, causing some potential financiers to worry that the finished film would not be feature-length.

So, rather than shop a sparse script to the usual suspects in the U.S., the filmmakers went first to Japan, where The Virgin Suicides was a crossover hit. The films success there enabled the filmmakers to start in what would be their production home base on terms more advantageous than those customarily granted a U.S. indie. Theatrical distributor Tohokushinsa prebought the territory and then, with producer Ross Katz reassuring everyone that the film would time out at 90 minutes (Something that is half a page in the script Charlotte walks alone in Kyoto is a four-minute sequence, Katz would explain), the French distributor Pathe boarded the project. At this point, the team entered discussions with Focus International hoping the foreign sales company would commit to selling the rest of the world and close the gap on the $4- million budget. To convince Focus of the films appeal, the filmmakers closed one additional territory by selling Italian rights themselves to Mikado. Focus then committed to the remainder of the financing, and when Coppola finished her first cut, the domestic releasing arm, Focus Features, bought the U.S. rights as well.

From the start, Coppola had her heart set on Bill Murray for her lead. Sofia wrote the movie for Bill, Katz says. She wasnt going to make it if he didnt do it. But there were two problems. First, the film couldnt afford to pay Murray anywhere near his Hollywood quote. And second, Murray is notorious for being hard to reach and pin down. Its almost like a challenge to get through all the obstacles when someone tells me I cant do something, Coppola says. It makes me try even harder. For five months it was like a full-time job, contacting Bill Murray.

A mutual friend, screenwriter Mitch Glazer, encouraged Coppola and showed Murray her treatment early on. And he helped me with my stalking, she says. Bill had all these big movies that were offered to him. It was this long-shot thing: Was he going to do this little movie for no money? It would have been definitely heart-rending if he didnt want to do it.

Murray finally indicated that he was interested in playing the lead. Coppola got a cell phone call one night asking her to join Murray at a downtown New York restaurant where he was dining with friends. In her sole meeting with the actor, she spent five hours with Murray, connecting with him but barely discussing the film. But even though Murray said he was prepared to play the lead, the production was unable to obtain a signed contract from him before production. For an international production stitching together three foreign distributors, one U.S. sales company, a completion bond company and the French bank Natexis, not having your lead actor signed was yet another obstacle. But director Wes Anderson, who worked with Murray in Rushmore, told Coppola, If he says hes going to do it, hell show up.

So, with cash flow from trusting Tohokushinsa, Coppola and Katz spent $1 million in preproduction costs without knowing for sure that Murray was going to arrive on set. It was nerve-wracking, Coppola says. Finally, one week before filming, she received a call from Katz, who had just greeted Murray at the airport: The Eagle has landed!

Any worries about Murray evaporated once shooting started. Bill was such a good sport about it, she recounts. He was sweet. He said, I thought if you were going to put yourself on the line, I would too. In the film he gives a devastating performance, both hilarious and tragic, that could wind up earning him an Oscar nomination.

To play her younger alter ego, Charlotte, the lonely tourist left alone by her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi), Coppola cast Ghost Worlds Scarlett Johansson, who turned 18 during the shoot and bears a striking resemblance to her director. Coppola admits that shes embarrassed by how much she and Johansson look alike. Its narcissistic. I relate to her. I liked her demeanor; shes understated, not extroverted and hyper. Theres a part of me in that character. Shes in her early 20s, having a breakdown, like the girl Franny in Franny and Zooey. Its a culmination of different stages of my life in that character.

You can see the film is very personal, Johansson adds. Sofia bleeds through the character her ironic sense of humor, that feeling of being lost and disillusioned and trying to figure out what direction you want to take with your life.

For the shoot, Coppola arrived in Tokyo loaded down with maps, blueprints, sketches, snapshots (she is an accomplished photographer) and an iPod, ready to communicate what she was looking for. She knew the movie upside down and backward, Katz comments. She spilled it right from her head onto the screen.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.

Those references included music like the dreamy noise-pop of the Irish band My Bloody Valentine (whose reclusive leader, Kevin Shields, wound up contributing four songs to the films soundtrack) as well as some of Coppolas favorite films. Wong Kar-wais In the Mood for Love has the feeling of being on the verge of something happening, Coppola says. She admires the way director Bob Fosse reveals his personal life in All That Jazz. I enjoy movies when theyre sincere, from personal experience. Fosse got away with his girlfriend playing his girlfriend. Its not an all-romanticized idea of himself. Its honest. And though Antonionis LAvventura has no plot, it isnt boring. I like taking your time meandering with the music. Theres so much that isnt said in a look. I like observing things. Im not interested in a lot of dialogue.

Because the script was so spare, there was room for spontaneous maneuvering. A lot of dialogue was added at the spur of the moment, Johansson remembers. She allowed us to improvise, and shed pull some ideas, lines, deliveries, movements; silly things like, Id come in my slippers and shed say, Oh, you should put those on. She was perceptive while we were rehearsing.

Much of the movie was shot Dogme- style. Ironically, Coppola discovered that it was easier to run and gun in a foreign country, where the laissez-faire attitude of the Japanese toward location shooting made things easy. In fact, it was the Americans who asked the Japanese to supply paperwork for every extra and location. With a handheld Aaton camera, the filmmakers made impromptu forays onto subway trains and teeming Tokyo streets, where the Japanese reluctance to make eye contact was a plus. And during the shoot, Coppolas brother Roman grabbed second-unit shots of blurry neon around the city.

Although there was initial pressure to shoot on less expensive video, Coppola opted, somewhat sentimentally, to shoot on film instead. Her videophile father, Francis Ford Coppola, had told her, You might as well shoot film. Its not going to be around very much longer, and Coppola herself thought film would help to evoke a fragmented, dislocated, melancholic, romantic feeling. [Lost in Translation] is the memory of an enchanted few days. Video feels more immediate, in the present.

Production Format
Shot on 35mm.
Camera Manufacturer and Model
Aaton 35.
Film Stock
Kodak 5263.
Editing System
Color Correction Process
Conventional film answer printing.
While cinematographer Ed Lachman filmed The Virgin Suicides with formal, locked-down, voyeuristic cameras, Lance Acord (who had shot Coppolas first short and knew Tokyo well) photographed Lost in Translation on the run, blending off-the-cuff shots of Tokyo streets or hotel window views with intimate close-ups of the characters. Some scenes were almost entirely improvised, like one in a glass karaoke booth, where Coppola staged a party-like atmosphere with friends singing along to pop songs that she would try to clear later. She asked Murray to sing Roxy Musics More Than This, setting up a delicious musical in-joke as Murray visibly reacts to having to grasp for the impossible high note that Bryan Ferry hits in the songs opening line.

On another day, Coppola reversed the usual movie protocol of heading to an indoor cover set in bad weather. As a hazy rain made the city foggy and atmospheric, Coppola scrapped the interior she was shooting to grab a sequence with Charlotte walking outdoors. In the course of 15 minutes we broke our plan and shot exteriors in the rain, Katz says. We shot Scarlett walking through the Shibuya with hundreds of translucent umbrellas, steam coming off the rooftops and the noodle shops. Afterward we had to deal with losing a location, but it was worth it.

For the production, Katz blended American key crew members a U.S. line producer, production designer, costume designer, d.p., sound recordist and a New Yorkbased Japanese a.d. with Japanese seconds and thirds. The a.d. translated for the Japanese crew, but some cultural differences werent so easily glossed over. Respect and honor are central to Japanese culture, Coppola notes. We wanted to do [the movie] more Japanese-style, not walk in and say, Well this is how we do it in America.

However, when we were at the shabu-shabu restaurant, we were only permitted to shoot till 4 p.m., she continues. We went about 10 or 15 minutes over, and the owner pulled the plug pulled the lights out. We were disrespecting the owner because we werent done. Coppola finished the take in the dark (and printed it too). But as they wrapped, the films location manager resigned. We had caused him to lose face with the owner, Katz says.

In the end, Coppola had both the confidence and flexibility to immerse herself deep in a foreign culture and figure out how to blend the best of the American and Japanese styles of filmmaking. And her Tokyo filmmaking adventure made the 32-year-old director even surer about what shes doing with her life. I cant imagine, she says, doing anything else that could be as much fun.

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