Hannah Strong on ‘Sofia Coppola: Forever Young’

Filmmaker Sofia Coppola has created a filmography and aesthetic so iconic that she hardly needs an introduction. The mention of her name conjures images of sullen teenage girls, cotton candy skies, and a kind of loneliness that sparkles with the luxury and excess of a music video. Hannah Strong distills that girly, glamorous essence into Sofia Coppola: Forever Young, a 286-page send-up of Coppola’s filmography and artistry. The book, produced in part with help from film magazine Little White Lies, is part critical analysis, part valentine to the filmmaker herself.

Strong, herself a die-hard fan of Coppola, spoke with me about her extensive research process, her personal connections to Coppola’s films, and of course, interviewing Coppola’s muse, actress Kirsten Dunst.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Screen Speck: You have so many different elements [critical and comparative essays, interviews] in the book. What was your process for putting that all together?

Hannah Strong:  The first decision was how we [were] going to present her films to the reader. I had conversations with David Jenkins and Adam Woodward (at Little White Lies) about how I might like to present my thoughts on her films. And eventually we came to the conclusion that doing it chronologically wasn’t necessarily the best way to talk about her work, but instead thematically. I think she jumps around a lot in her filmography between themes and ideas, and she revisits [them]. There were a lot of kind of parallels between something like The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled.

I think there are so many great criticisms about Sofia and her films already, but [I] was thinking, ‘How can I add to this conversation in a way that does justice to her films but also is within my skill set?’ and trying not to overextend myself. Because I think too sometimes when I read film criticism, particularly film books, I think they can be too beginner for someone who really loves films. You know, sometimes you’re reading [a] book and it feels like, ‘This book thinks I’ve never watched a film before?’ Or it’s kind of the opposite – particularly when I was at university, when I was reading some of the texts, I was just like, ‘I feel like I need another text to explain this text to me!’ The primary audience of Sofia Coppola’s films are teenage girls. As a teenager getting into her films, I would have loved to have this resource available to me—someone kind of guiding me through her films and getting to the heart of them. I was very conscious of kind of having a narrative structure to the book and having it feel like you’re sort of building towards something. Hopefully it feels like that.

SS: It definitely did feel like it had this very nice rhythm to it. I like what you said about [someone] being a teenage girl just discovering her movies for the first time and sitting down with this encyclopedia of her work.

Strong: That was definitely what my goal was. I am very conscious of film criticism. Often times there are so many [critics] just scrambling to sound intelligent, or [worrying about] not sounding well-read enough. I wouldn’t want anyone to read the book and feel like they were being spoken down to about her films. I don’t know more about this than anyone on the planet, I’m just someone who feels very passionate about it and wants to share that. I hope that it’s an accessible sort of criticism. 

SS: You interviewed a handful of people for this. I have to imagine you’re a fan of Kirsten Dunst. Was it exciting to talk to her? She seemed like she was a fantastic person to interview.

Strong: God, yeah. She was so generous and so delighted to speak about her work with Sofia. I think they have such a great partnership. I’m kind of dying for them to work together again. She said [that] whenever Sofia says that she’s got something, she’ll be there—which is very reassuring as a fan. But I can’t really stress enough what a delight she was. She’s clearly someone who just really loves the job, and loves Sofia. I think they understand each other and to me, it’s one of the great actor-director partnerships. We all talk about Paul Thomas Anderson and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, those kinds of partnerships—I do think that [Coppola and Dunst] are the gold standard for me. Those two. There’s such an understanding and artistic synergy between Kirsten and Sofia. 

Dunst, who starred in Coppola’s feature-film debut, The Virgin Suicides, is a frequent collaborator of the filmmaker’s. (COURTESY: Paramount Classics)

SS: It might be because I’m an American and we tend to be this way, but there’s something so American about the way she portrays teenage girls, conflict, and/or loneliness. Even Marie Antoinette feels like such American excess. Do you think there is anything different about you watching her movies as a young girl in the United Kingdom versus in the United States?

Strong: Definitely. I didn’t visit America for the first time until I was 21, so I was watching her films through the lens of growing up not just in very different circumstances, but [on a] a different continent. There’s a lot of things I think didn’t really click for me necessarily until I went out to Los Angeles, or I went to Tokyo for the first time. It sounds really cheesy, but I think tracing her footsteps did give me the American feeling that is so present [in her films]. They were these films about another world for me. They seemed like these sort of fairy tales. They were these stories about wanting to escape from a place and be somewhere else and that to me is something that is incredibly universal. I was all over that as a teenager.

There was also this element of glamour, which even in the depths of despair of something like The Virgin Suicides or Marie Antoinette, there’s such opulence to it all. I think that appealed not only to me, but to a lot of young girls. This idea of if I’m going to be sad, I may as well be sad in this very expensive dress. I may as well be surrounded by these beautiful cakes or beautiful people. I think that growing up as a teenager on the internet as well, that [behavior] was kind of overromanticized. Especially on websites like Tumblr. There was this aestheticized version of depression and sadness. I definitely think now I’m far more kind of critical of that and understand that in a way you’re kind of being sold a dream of mental illness and fragility being very stylish and glamorous when that’s not the reality. I think I always just wished that my unhappiness could be in the name of something greater. Even in The Virgin Suicides, these girls because kind of legend, these figures of mythology. I always felt like if anything happens to me, no one’s gonna care. So they were these kinds of aspirational stories, in a way.

SS: The introduction to the book includes this story of how you watched The Virgin Suicides when you were going through a depressive spell in high school. I know that there was an essay you wrote [for Little White Lies] that was kind of the germ for this whole book. What was that like to write something that is so personal in something like this?

Strong: It’s a very strange feeling. I think when I wrote that essay, it was a very cathartic experience. I was very glad to have written it but in a way, it was like, ‘Ok, I’ve said my piece on this now.’ For me, the most interesting writing—and this goes for all writing, not just criticism—is that which makes me feel like there’s a connection between me and the writer. My favorite critics to read are those that even if they’re not talking about themselves, you can kind of feel their voice. I think that’s something with Sofia’s films. They’re not all autobiographical, but we’ve come to know her style and tone so well it feels like there’s a personal connection between yourself and her as a filmmaker.

I think I was a little worried about putting so much of myself out there. I think this is something that a lot of writers worry about in the modern age, because there’s so much extremely personal writing that’s out there on the internet, and there is this worry that we’re giving so much of ourselves over to the public and kind of trading our traumatic experiences. If we trade enough of them, we’ll get a career out of it. There is something kind of voyeuristic about it in a way – the fact that these are the types of stories that tend to go viral and get the most [online] traffic. I was worried about being too personal. I didn’t want to make it all about me, because I think that can be alienating sometimes, but I also thought, I don’t want people I know to treat me any differently because of what they’ve read about me. Since her films have had such a strong impact on me as a person, it felt like I had to get that in somewhere. It felt like it would have been a very difficult task for me to write a book about Sofia Coppola without relating it back to my own experience.

SS: The movies you cite as [Coppola’s] inspiration feel very proto-Coppola. How [many movies] did you have to watch in preparation for this? Had you seen it all and it was a refresher course? What was the research like?

Strong: I broke it down into chunks. I had each theme and then within the themes, I had two films (apart from the [theme], which is one film). I tried to do it bit by bit. Because if I [tried] to watch everything at the beginning, I [would] get overwhelmed. I’m not going to remember stuff. I think that’s why it kind of feels like within the book you’re building to something, because I myself [watched] it all in the order it’s in in the book. I was learning throughout, I was learning new things, I was finding new films to watch. Particularly the films she talks about. Because she—and I think this is something that doesn’t get talked about with Sofia—I feel like she’s incredibly film literate. 

SS: I feel like to make movies like hers you have to be.

Strong: Exactly. When you watch her in interviews, she’s always talking about the films they watch before they start production. That was very fun to me, being able to watching something like Amadeus and being able to follow her thought process. She’s a great magpie for picking things out. It doesn’t feel like she’s stolen them, it feels like they are the fabric of her films.

SS: What is your favorite film of hers?

Strong: I think my favorite is actually Somewhere. It doesn’t necessarily get as much love as the others. I don’t think people necessarily dislike it, but I think in the process of writing the book, I was like, ‘Actually, I think Somewhere is really where my heart lies.’ Which is such a funny thing to take away, as well, because it’s like, [I] pick the one that’s about a guy.

I think it captures something about being an adult and going out into the real world that a lot of us kind of experience but don’t always articulate the best. It’s not even about being depressed in the same way as the girls in The Virgin Suicides are depressed. It’s this kind of malaise that’s just like, is this it? Getting up and working a job I don’t care about and kind of looking for these fleeting connections. I think it’s just an incredibly well-crafted film. Every time I watch it, it just makes my heart soar.

Father and daughter duo of Johnny (Stephen Dorff) and Cleo (Elle Fanning) steal Strong’s heart in Coppola’s Somewhere. (COURTESY: Merrick Morton/Focus Features)

SS: What would you say is your favorite needle drop in one of her movies?

Strong: That is hard! I go back and forth on this so often. But I think at the end of the day, it’s probably “Cool” by Gwen Stefani in Somewhere, when Cleo is ice skating. I can’t even really articulate why it’s my favorite. I think the whole film consistently has incredible usage of music. The pole dance to “My Hero” (by Foo Fighters) I think is just so, so funny. But that scene to me, the point it comes in the film when Johnny and Cleo reconnect, is a very poignant scene. The combination of that with this song, which is an incredibly melancholy song about reconciling yourself to a kind of future friendship with an ex. You could take it as a very positive, like oh, everything’s cool now, or you could take it as the kind of longing for more, that kind of yearning. I think it’s that kind of ambiguity within the song itself. And the fact that it just is kind of the perfect choice for the kind of song a young girl would pick. The way music [in movies] can oftentimes feel like it’s just been picked because the filmmaker likes it. I think [Coppola] understands that there should be a relationship between what’s happening on screen and what we’re hearing.

SS: I know that she is working on the Custom of the Country miniseries for AppleTV+, but that aside, what would you like to see Sofia Coppola do next?

Strong: I really like her adaptations. I think that she would have done such a great job with the Anna Delvey case – it’s such a shame we had the miniseries [Inventing Anna] because I think she would have done such a great job with that, [this] tale of how ridiculous the upper crust are. I’d love to see her do something like the book Nightbitch (by Rachel Yoder) – something a little darker.

I’m very intrigued to see how Custom of the Country will push the boundaries of her style and writing as well, because Edith Wharton is very biting, and I don’t think her films as cutting in the same way. So I’m very intrigued and I can’t wait to see it. But I’m constantly waiting for a new feature film. I’m glad she takes the time between them. 

Sofia Coppola: Forever Young is available online on May 17th through Abrams Books and wherever books are sold.

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