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Coppola definitely draws on input from the men in her life: her father ("He was always talking about screenwriting when we were little kids," she says), her husband (Lost's cinematographer, Lance Acord, also shot Jonze's Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) and her brother (he went to Tokyo to shoot some scenes for her when she was running out of time). But much of Sofia's visual style--from costume design to art direction--has evolved out of what she calls her dilettante years. Though she was baptized into the family business, literally, as an infant, playing Vito Corleone's newborn grandson in the final scene of The Godfather, Coppola decided to check out other career opportunities after being excoriated, at age 18, for her portrayal of Michael Corleone's young daughter Mary in The Godfather Part III (audiences cheered when her character was killed). She got a job answering Karl Lagerfeld's phone at Chanel. She enrolled at Cal Arts and dabbled in painting. In her early 20s she enlisted a photo agent and started taking pictures for magazines like Paris Vogue and Allure. Eventually she wandered into fashion design when an old friend from California's Napa Valley, where Coppola grew up, suggested they start a line of T shirts and dresses. The line, called Milk Fed, still exists as a lucrative Japanese franchise that supports Coppola, allowing her to make creative decisions independently of financial ones ("something I also learned from my dad"). There was also a foray into cable TV with a Comedy Central talk show, Hi-Octane, which she hosted with her good friend Zoe Cassavetes, daughter of director John Cassavetes. "I felt like I wasn't really good at one thing, but I had all these interests," says Coppola. "That's what I like about directing. You have all these experts around you, and you can explore many interests."
The film breakthrough came several years ago when Coppola read Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides and was so taken with it that she set about writing a screen adaptation Sofia-style--which is to say under the radar--without telling anyone and with no clue as to who owned the film rights to the book. With a bit of help from someone at American Zoetrope, her father's production company, she ended up writing and directing it as her first feature film. The critical success of 2000's The Virgin Suicides--a poignant look at adolescent longing through the eyes of suburban teenage boys--gave her the confidence to write an original script.
Tokyo had been lingering in the back of Coppola's mind after several trips there to work on her clothing line and shoot for a fashion magazine called Dune. "I remember having these weeks there that were sort of enchanting and weird," says Coppola. "Tokyo is so disorienting, and there's a loneliness and isolation. Everything is so crazy, and the jet lag is torture. I liked the idea of juxtaposing a midlife crisis with that time in your early 20s when you're, like, What should I do with my life?"