Study Guide

Lost in Translation Screenwriter

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Sofia Coppola

Lost in Translation was borne out of writer-director Sofia Coppola's desire to do two things:

  1. Make a movie in Japan.
  2. Make a movie with Bill Murray.

We don't know about you, but those seem like some pretty solid goals to us.

Sorry, Spike

Before Lost in Translation, Coppola had just one feature length film credit to her name: 1999's The Virgin Suicides, which she both directed and adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides's novel. Lost in Translation was a change of pace: a wholly original idea with more than a dash of autobiography to it according to Coppola, who was married to director Spike Jonze at the time of filming:

[…] The character of the husband, I was just married and trying to figure it out, so that relationship was based on what I was going through at the time" (source).

There was a lot of Coppola in Charlotte, in other words. She even thought that 18-year-old Scarlett Johansson looked shockingly like her.

Coppola and Jonze divorced in 2003, the same year that Lost in Translation hit cinemas.

Famous Famiglia

Coppola is Hollywood royalty. Her dad, Francis Ford Coppola, directed The Godfather trilogy, amongst other things, like Apocalypse Now and the Captain E.O. film at Walt Disney World.

Her mom, Eleanor, is an accomplished author, artist, and documentary filmmaker. Her brother Roman co-writes movies with Wes Anderson, and she counts Jason Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage amongst her cousins. Oh, and Talia Shire is her aunt.

Yep, Aunt ADRIAN from Rocky.

Sofia was already crushing it in showbiz as a newborn, with her bold and transgressive portrayal of Michael Corleone’s baby nephew—that’s right, nephew—in the climactic baptism scene in The Godfather.

Unfortunately, her acting chops didn’t age well. Cries of nepotism were heard from film critics everywhere about her widely-panned performance as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary in The Godfather Part III. (She’d had a small role in Part II as well, but she didn’t have to act.) All the bad reviews torpedoed her acting career and didn’t help Francis’s career, either.

Still, if Sofia Coppola wanted to write and direct movies, it wouldn't be that difficult for her. She'd definitely have an extra level of scrutiny based on her famous family (see previous paragraph) but it wouldn't be hard to get a project rolling. So after her disastrous turn as Mary Corleone, she decided to get on the other side of the camera.

That extra scrutiny could account for the insane amount of preparation she put into Lost in Translation. She showed up on set with maps, sketches, an iPod full of music, and a photo album full of pics to use as references for the feelings and ideas she wanted the film to convey (source).

Kinda makes you feel bad about only putting 12 minutes into that PowerPoint you slapped together for your psych class.

It's All in the Details

Coppola's Academy Award-winning script is simple and straightforward, but her obsessive preparation shows in the scene descriptions, which read like full-blown prose instead of the usual brief and practical place settings.

Check out how she sets up the scene where Bob and Charlotte mock Sausalito, the hotel lounge band, from across the room:

Bob, still in his tuxedo and make-up from the shoot, sits alone having a drink. A JAZZ BAND FROM SAUSALITO performs. The SINGER is a middle-aged woman with red wavy hair, dressed in red, and takes her singing very seriously. She sings a slow version of "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme."

C.U. – a golden beer is poured very slowly.

Bob drinks his scotch, hoping it will all go away.

Across the bar, Charlotte sits with JOHN, her husband (he is in his late twenties and sloppy in a fashionable way), and some FRIENDS—super stylish, weird Japanese fashion people (all smoking). One of them, CHARLIE, in a shiny suit, keeps taking pictures, and showing them magazine layouts.


Yeah, Coppola had a pretty clear vision of what she wanted. She used the Bogart-Bacall film-noir The Big Sleep as a reference point, telling Filmmaker magazine:

“I wanted the movie’s structure to have all the different parts of a relationship condensed in a few days,” she explains. “They meet, they break up” (source).

For all her prep work, Coppola wasn't against letting the actors improvise, though. The most noteworthy example of this comes at the very end of the film, when Bob whispers something to Charlotte that the audience can't hear—a top-secret message that has driven movie buffs absolutely bonkers since the film was first released on September 12, 2003.

Coppola wrote lines for that scene, of course. Originally, Bob was supposed to say, "I'm going to miss you, too." In the end, Bill Murray improvised his own parting words for Charlotte. It was cool with Coppola, even though, allegedly, Murray didn't even tell Coppola what he said.

Asked in 2013 if the statute of limitations is finally up on what Murray whispers, Coppola told The Daily Beast, "No, I still love that Bill says it's between them!"

Fine. If the film's actual writer can be cool with not knowing what Bob says to Charlotte, so can we. Probably.

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