On Movies: Coppola at last cared about 'Bling Ring'

Israel Broussard, Claire Vivien (center), and Katie Chang as the Bling Ring bandits. Victim Paris Hilton actually let filmmakers use her home to make the movie. "She was really helpful," Coppola says.
Israel Broussard, Claire Vivien (center), and Katie Chang as the Bling Ring bandits. Victim Paris Hilton actually let filmmakers use her home to make the movie. "She was really helpful," Coppola says. (MERRICK MORTON)
Posted: June 24, 2013

Sofia Coppola was on a plane when she read the Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Wore Louboutins," about a gang of teenagers from the San Fernando Valley who went around burglarizing the homes of celebs - Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom. The story, by Nancy Jo Sales, was full of rich (literal and figurative) detail: capacious abodes crammed with designer gowns, Birkin bags, shoes, shoes, and more shoes, rings and watches, rolls of cash, stashes of prescription drugs . . . all for the taking. At many of the houses, tucked along pricey byways in the Hollywood Hills, the alarms were off, doors or windows unlocked.

The kids would scan TMZ or some gossip blog, see who was out of town shooting a movie or attending an event - and head over. Before their 10-month "shopping spree" came to an end in August 2009 - arrests, court cases, a reality TV deal - the so-called Bling Ring had lifted more than $3 million worth of high-end goods.

It was a great story. But Coppola, no stranger to celebrity excess ( Lost in Translation, Somewhere, even Marie Antoinette), wasn't sure it would make a great movie.

"When I first looked at it, I thought, 'How do I make a movie with such unsympathetic characters?' " says the director, on the phone from New York recently. "Would anyone care about them?"

But Coppola reconsidered. She met with Nick Prugo, the shy boy befriended by the gang of high school heisters.

"I heard his story and I could see how he wanted to be a part of this group, and I could see that awkwardness that everyone has as a teenager," Coppola recalls. "It was the same thing I felt as a teenager: Kids pretending to be grown-ups, but they don't know who they are.

"And then they have all of this stuff that they are exposed to, all of this information that I didn't have when I was a kid.

"So, yeah, I could feel for them. Especially the boy."

In The Bling Ring, which opened Friday, Coppola changed the principals' names - Nick became Marc, played by Israel Broussard. Katie Chang stars as the group's blithe mastermind, renamed Rebecca. Harry Potter'sEmma Watson, sporting a spot-on Angeleno accent, and Claire Julien and Taissa Farmiga also star. Leslie Mann is Watson's character's ex-Playboy-model mom, spouting new-age aphorisms and handing out the Adderall.

And when the gang go to Paris Hilton's house - and when they go a second time, and a third - that really is the Hollywood heiress' place. The pillows and posters with Hilton's glammy airbrushed likeness on them? Those are for real.

"She was really helpful," Coppola says of her hostess. "I don't know how we came to ask if we could film there, but somehow we did, and she said yes. And she was really cool and open to us. And that was all her stuff - in her bathroom and in her closet."

Lots of stuff.

"All the swag that celebrities are getting, the promo stuff that is sent to them," says Coppola, who, as the daughter of a well-known movie-biz figure - not to mention a filmmaker in her own right - has been the recipient of such goods, too.

"Yeah," she acknowledges. "I get stuff sent to me. Too much stuff."

Coppola, 42, the mother of two girls, says she's a little disturbed by what the kids in The Bling Ring represent.

"There's this feeling in the culture," she says, "this importance placed on being famous, and the idea that everybody can be famous . . . there's such an emphasis on that."

And while Coppola acknowledges that people have long been fascinated by fame, by wealth ("it's always been like a fun, guilty-pleasure part of life"), priorities are out of whack. It's a trend, fed by the tabloids and television, Facebook and Twitter, that she doesn't see fading away any time soon.

"There has to be a reaction at some point, doesn't there?" she wonders, laughing. "Perhaps my daughters' generation will have a reaction. Or is it all going to keep growing until it combusts?"

Scahill's "Dirty Wars." Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill isn't accustomed to putting himself out there, up front and personal. But in Dirty Wars - a documentary examining the secret U.S. military missions of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and other stealth outfits working in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere - the George Polk Award-winner becomes not only the movie's primary fact-finder, but also its star.

"At the start, the idea was that we were going to do a film about Obama's war in Afghanistan and the role of these secret night raids," Scahill explains. "But then we realized we were actually investigating this powerful secret entity called the JSOC, and suddenly we had a much bigger story."

That much bigger story, directed by Richard Rowley, was much bigger: The initial rough cut clocked in at more than four hours.

"We asked a friend, David Riker, a feature film writer and director and a brilliant guy, to come in for a few weeks to help us edit this thing down," says Scahill, on a recent visit to Philadelphia.

Riker ended up working on the project for a year, reshaping the film as a real-life reportorial thriller, with Scahill as its lead.

Although he has been a frequent guest on The Rachel Maddow Show, Real Time With Bill Maher, and other shows, this was not an idea that Scahill readily embraced.

"I was totally against it, and argued and argued with David and Richard," the war correspondent from Wisconsin says. But eventually he gave in, and the film is the better for it: Dirty Wars functions as both a riveting exposé and a personal journey. Dirty Wars opened Friday at the Ritz Five.

"I still feel weird about it, though," says Scahill, who has a companion book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, out now, as well. "It's strange to see my face on a movie poster."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629, srea@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.

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