Oscar-winning screenwriter/director Sofia Coppola gravitates to stories of characters living cool, privileged, troubled lives. "Lost in Translation" cast Bill Murray as a fading film star finding comfort in a stranger's company half a world away from his difficult marriage. Kirsten Dunst was a temperamental teen queen in "Marie Antoinette."
Coppola's new dramedy "The Bling Ring," starring Emma Watson, tells the true-crime tale of affluent California high school kids who burglarized the likes of Paris Hilton, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan, stuffing Birkin bags with wads of cash and mounds of jewelry.
Like the recent "Spring Breakers," "Pain & Gain" and "The Great Gatsby," the film follows amoral characters who want the good life so much they just steal it. "I guess that idea is in the air out there," Coppola said in a recent phone interview. "It's just been growing in our culture, this interest in flashy status."
Coppola was aware of the 2008 news reports about the Hollywood break-ins, but she didn't immediately see it as a film. "It was an odd story, these kids doing a burglary ring, but I didn't pay that much attention," she said. It wasn't until she read Nancy Jo Sales' detailed 2010 Vanity Fair article that the story's possibilities intrigued her.
"The whole thing was kind of absurd. Hearing them talk about themselves from their perspective, I found them horribly fascinating. It felt so contemporary about things that are going on right now," she said. "To most of us that kind of tabloid-y world is a guilty pleasure, like candy. But now there's so much emphasis about getting stuff in our culture, it's just growing and growing."
As stars increasingly use social media to interact and engage with followers, fans feel a new sense of intimacy with their idols, Coppola said. "With Twitter, they have a communication with them. They know what they eat for breakfast. There aren't the same boundaries." The robbers "felt they could hang out" in the celebrities' homes "almost like they're friends," and boastfully dropped the names of the stars and socialites they ripped off.
The teen burglars "were definitely the fans of the people they were robbing. They felt closer to them by wearing their clothes. They were kids trying to figure out who they are, and it seems like that's who you're supposed to want to be like. I remember being that age and wanting to be part of a group and doing things you normally wouldn't do."
While "The Bling Ring" is frequently funny, the film has moments of moody moral complexity. There's a terrific nighttime raid on starlet Audrina Patridge's hillside home. The camera fixes the glass-walled structure in an unbroken stare as the intruders move room to room like goldfish in an aquarium. The big see-through box is eerily empty, a shrine to deluxe alienation. "In real life she had this kind of bland condo, but we made it more heightened for a fantasy L.A. celebrity. This world that we were showing was all shiny and surfaces," Coppola said.
Paris Hilton was repeatedly burglarized by the crew because, as the film shows, she left her front door key under the welcome mat. Nevertheless, she invited Coppola to film inside her real home, with its stripper pole, disco ball, epic closets and custom throw pillows featuring screen prints of the socialite's pouting face.
"We were lucky that she opened her private home," Coppola said, since there was no way an art director could top the Paris World reality of the place. "That was all her stuff."