From 2008 to 2009, a spate of burglaries on an assortment of Hollywood stars – from the bona fide (Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan) to the low-fi (Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge) – generated reams of media coverage and led to the christening of the mysterious perpetrators as “the Bling Ring”. When it transpired that the thefts were carried out not by seasoned criminals but middle-class Valley teenagers, some so brazen they posted pictures of themselves in the stars’ homes and even wearing their clothes, it became the perfect cautionary tale for our social media and reality-TV-obsessed times. A year later Nancy Jo Sales published an article in Vanity Fair entitled The Suspects Wore Louboutins, which provided the basis for Sofia Coppola’s latest film The Bling Ring. And it is with an almost forensic, journalistic eye that Coppola follows the kids as they descend, pack-like, on the homes of their idols and pilfer from their excess of belongings. Like most reality TV, it seems too scripted to be true, the perfect movie: often the doors of these multi-million-dollar mansions were left open and the whereabouts of their owners easy to track on social media. One of the gang, Alexis Neiers (played by Emma Watson) even had her own reality TV show and the cameras were rolling as she arrived in an LA court for her arraignment. In a further irony, their victim Lindsay Lohan was herself later arrested on suspicion of stealing a necklace. As Baudrillard once pointed out, once you turn reality into an art object, “it becomes a kind of gigantic surrealistic object”; but what Coppola gives us is a cool, refreshingly un-moralising take on a tale striking for being so implausibly plausible. Here, the Oscar-winning director of Lost in Translation and Somewhere talks to AnOther about how her love of teen movies informed the making of the film, and how she got to shoot in Paris Hilton’s home.
What initially drew you to the source material?
I was on a plane, looking at Vanity Fair, and I started reading the article and it just sucked me in as a fascinating story that seemed so of our time. It was also the first time I had heard the perspective of the kids. The article felt like a movie, it had so many elements of a popcorn comedy but it also had a dark side, so I thought someone would be making a movie of it. When I looked into it though, the rights were available so I optioned it and when I met Nancy she gave me all her transcripts and the more I read, the more I knew that it would stay with me. I’d never done anything based on a true crime story before, so I knew that it would pose a challenge to me.
Did you have the chance to meet any of the protagonists?
I met the main boy (played by Israel Broussard), one of the girls and the detective, which was really interesting, hearing their perspectives on it. I met the boy twice and I felt that he was the most sympathetic, the one I could relate most to and through him really understand the story. He’s the character the audience can really feel like they’re on the ride with. There’s so much eccentric behaviour from the more unsympathetic characters, and I felt that he was the heart and that you can connect with him. You can understand how they got involved, as something to do with being part of the group, wanting to be a part of something.
In the film’s notes, you mention that when you were fleshing out the characters you took from some of your own experiences and I wondered what these experiences were and how they fed into the characters?
I grew up so differently from them but I think there is a universal ‘teenager’ and I can remember being that age – the things you go along with that you would never normally do, because you want to be a part of something. It’s just the dynamic of being a teenager and not being confident in yourself. The film is an extreme version of that.
"I grew up so differently from them but I think there is a universal ‘teenager’ – the things you go along with that you would never normally do, just because you want to be a part of something"
Often in your films, the point of view is from within an inner sanctum, be it a cosseted Hollywood star stuck in a hotel room, or Marie Antoinette in Versailles. What was it like to change the perspective to people who desperately want to get in?
That was different for me in that they were living in the valley over the hill, just beyond Hollywood. They were within arm’s reach and even if the story couldn’t take place anywhere else, there is this American culture of fascination with that world. But the fact that they were so close to it therefore meant that they felt they were a part of it. The lack of boundaries with things like Twitter meant they must have felt they knew these people. Like with Paris, they went five or six times to her house, a lot of the times they just hung out there. I was curious to look at them trying to be a part of this world. Pop culture seems to be growing and growing and growing, so I wanted to look at how it can be affecting you if you’re immersed in it right now.
Emma Watson has described reality TV stars as actors themselves – how did you approach that constant self-consciousness of the camera with your actors?
That was a big element of it, that sense of their being so aware of their audience. People are always photographing themselves in different places to supply their audience. That’s just part of the culture that I wanted to show. Someone got arrested because they were posting pictures of themselves on the steps of one of the homes online. When people go to clubs, concerts, they’re always texting, photographing… It’s this contemporary idea that whilst they’re interested in these celebrities, everyone sort of is one.
When you met some of the kids, how did they feel about their lives being made into a film?
I think the boy has this kind of romantic idea of it. They were kind of sceptical and tentative of how they would be portrayed. I think they felt a little burned after all the media came out. With the girl (Alexis Neiers), her side of the story is very different from the other ones out there so I went with the other side. I don't think she's portrayed the way she’d like to be. But I tried not to think too much about how they were going to feel and just research it as much as I could instead.
The casting is fantastic, and I especially loved Gavin Rossdale as the sleazy nightclub manager who pawns their stuff. How did he get involved?
I was trying to find that character (Ricky) and my friend said she saw him on CSI. I just thought he was really funny. He’s such a nice guy so it was funny to have him be that sleazy.
"I read the story of the Bling Ring as being about teenage bad behaviour but then there’s this sweetness to it because they’re awkward and trying to find their way"
There’s an undercurrent of seediness in the film, particularly where the characters steal a gun and it accidentally goes off.
Definitely. I felt that I was looking at them as kids and that there is this dangerous element that they don’t realise. We see it differently but they’re just not thinking it through. It’s fun being that age, so I wanted to have the exhilaration of that but also the danger and the scariness of it as well.
Do you feel at home writing from the perspective of that age range?
Well, I like the tradition of teen movies. When I started doing The Virgin Suicides, that was closer to my age at the time and I remember feeling that there were not that many films that realistically spoke to me when I was that age – except for John Hughes, whose movies I liked, except it always felt like adults playing teenagers. It didn’t really speak to me so I wanted to make movies about that age that felt authentic. There is this tradition of teen movies, like when I started doing this film I thought about Over the Edge (1979) and Foxes (1980). I was nostalgic about those movies, about being that age and wanting to be grown up, so I tried to bring some of that in there. I read the story of the Bling Ring as being about teenage bad behaviour but then there’s this sweetness to it because they’re awkward and trying to find their way.
With the actual stolen goods, do you think the characters just saw them as “beautiful things”, or were they more totemic, representative of their idols?
It definitely represents that world to them and I think they’re trying to find their identity, so by wearing the clothes of these people I think that they thought it would make them into somebody. They even wore their underwear, which is deeper than this stuff just being shiny things. I wanted to show them as bon-bons, as really glossy and appealing at the beginning, so you could understand how they could be seduced. To me that kind of bling fashion they were into comes from reality TV stars and hip hop; I felt these were the sorts of things they were aspiring to because their heroes were into them.
Paris Hilton makes a cameo, and you even filmed inside her house. How did that come about?
Well, Steven Dorff (who played the lead in Somewhere) knew her from LA and that I was interested in the story so he said, ‘There’s a party at Paris Hilton’s, do you wanna come?’ So I was like, ‘Yeah I have to see that.’ I had heard about her nightclub room and it was really exciting to see ‘Paris World’. I don’t even know how we came to asking her to shoot there but I was really excited that she let us and that she did her cameo. It made it feel more authentic, so you could really understand how the ring was so close to this world. I mean, that setting is just so… unique!
My last question – I read an interview a few years back with Courtney Love where she talked about having stolen a lipstick from you at your sixteenth birthday party. I was wondering if you’d heard that story and if it had any bearing on the film?
From me? (Laughing) No, I never heard that story. I remember Kurt and Courtney were at my 21st birthday, so it must have been that. That’s so funny! I remember it was a very 90s moment, when they just showed up and crashed the party.
The Bling Ring opens on Friday.
Text by Laura Allsop