Inside ’The Bling Ring’ with Sofia Coppola and Emma Watson
"The Bling Ring" doesn’t sound like the typical Sofia Coppola movie. Her films, like "The Virgin Suicides," "Lost in Translation" and "Somewhere," are quiet, contemplative dramas. This story of a group of teenagers who rob celebrities’ homes sounds way more high concept, not that far removed from Harmony Korine’s "Spring Breakers" (released earlier this year). But unlike that film’s bad girls on a crime binge, this is based on a true story.
Emma Watson stars as Nicki, a home-schooled teen whose friend Rebecca (Katie Chang) learns when celebrities are out of town and plots to loot their glamorous homes with a little help from her friends. Nicki may seem like the innocent one, but there’s much more to her in Watson’s character than meets the eye. And in preparing for the role (which is fictional -- the names have been changed), Watson did a lot of research.
"I had a lot of work to do to try and get into character," Watson said. "I watched a lot of the Kardashians, I watched a lot of Paris Hilton, I watched a lot of ’The Hills.’ And then really it was just trying to understand her psychology more than anything.
"Somehow I had to understand and empathize with her. I didn’t want her to be a parody. That was really my biggest challenge. The second was getting the accent down. It’s quite a specific dialect so that took a bit of time. I was left thinking about what her parenting might have been like, what she might have been brought up believing and just also thinking about L.A. as an environment that would’ve impacted her."
Watson is the most well-known actor in the cast. Chang, Israel Broussard, Taissa Farmiga and Claire Julien make up the rest of the teen gang, whom Coppola chose carefully.
"My casting team spent a year meeting young actors and helped me put together this group," Coppola said. "It was important that they all worked together as a group. They suggested I met Emma. Like she said, it was really important to me that the characters not feel like a spoof or a cartoon -- that they feel real.
"I wanted to really tell the story from their point of view and understand how these kids could’ve gotten carried away to such an absurd end. So it was important to cast real kids that are really the age of the characters in the movie to make it real and naturalistic. Also for Emma, it was I think really interesting to see an actress that you’ve seen in other things really transform into a completely different character that’s so different. All of them are so different than their characters in the movie. It’s always exciting to see an actor transform."
What Watson and her costars concluded was that "The Bling Ring" was less of a crime story and more of a fantasy. "It wasn’t so much about the stealing," Watson said. "It wasn’t so much about the heist aspect. It was more about the fact that they wanted to pretend for two hours that they were Paris Hilton or that they were living that kind of lifestyle for real. Sometimes they would go to the house just to party so in their heads, it didn’t have a criminal feel to it in a way."
Beyond Harry Potter
As Coppola suggested, Nicki is a far cry from Watson’s most popular character, Hermione Granger in the "Harry Potter" movies. But Watson is just beginning to make a name for herself in movies outside the franchise, such as last year’s "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." This may still be new to her fans, but to Watson she’s been away from Hogwarts for years.
"It’s strange for me because ’Harry Potter’ feels like such a long time ago," Watson said. "So much has happened over the last three or four years, but obviously it’s still very present. I feel that in people’s minds. It’s still being played in people’s living rooms and things, so I’m not trying to run away from it. I’m very proud of the work that I did. I just had such an amazing three or four years, I’m really, really enjoying having the chance to transform into new roles and work with new creative people. So I’m very lucky."
Though "The Bling Ring" is based on a true story, it doesn’t necessarily feel any more real to Watson than her wizard movies. And it would certainly be difficult for other kids to copycat these crimes.
"I think it relates an extraordinary set of circumstances," Watson said. "Just speaking from my character’s perspective, Nicki is home schooled, her sister’s her best friend. She has this kind of insular existence. I don’t feel that she’s really in touch with her reality. I think there’s a real dreamlike feeling to what they were doing, as if almost nothing can really go wrong. It just doesn’t feel real, so I think there’s a certain extent to which it didn’t feel like it was really happening. They didn’t really think it through."
Is That Paris?
Some celebrities do appear as themselves in the movie. The girls spot Paris Hilton at a club before they break into her house. Hilton actually cooperated with Coppola, although maybe didn’t know that the director would film in her actual house.
"We did shoot in Paris’s real house," Coppola said. "We weren’t supposed to, but yes. So yeah, it was really interesting to be in one of the real locations where the burglaries took place. She showed us security footage of the kids there. Her house is very exotic. I’ve never seen any place like that before so it was really interesting to see that world that I’d heard so much about."
Audiences will notice some pillows emblazoned with Hilton’s image in the house. Coppola verified that those were real, but also explained the context in which Hilton owned them.
"She didn’t commission the pillows. She told me that a friend made them," Coppola said. "She has a sense of humor and thought they were funny."
Social media plays a large part in "The Bling Ring" as well. Coppola included montages of Facebook posts to capture how the girls shared their adventures.
"I tried to make the film in the style of the world that we were portraying through using Facebook and internet images of these pop celebrities (these) kids are into," Coppola said. "So I tried to use a collage-style that conveyed a kind of ADD -- no attention span -- in which we incorporated lots of information with the media tools that are integral to the world the film is encompassing."
Social media may make fans feel like they are closer to celebrities than they actually are. Whether celebrities share their own photos or paparazzi catch them, Watson illustrated an important caveat to the impressions you may get from a seemingly candid portrayal of your favorite star.
"What’s really interesting about the still image is you can capture it any way you like," Watson said. "These images really capture the imagination of young people, and to an extent they come to embody whatever they project onto that image. So people really feel invested. They feel connected to whatever that person or whatever that world or story that paparazzi shot is telling. It often has very little to do with the reality. I was thinking, it’s interesting, if you look at OK magazine or any of these tabloids, they start to look a little bit like comic strips, illustrating a narrative that our society and our culture’s just really become obsessed with. It’s just another way of telling a story."
The internet is also a useful tool for the girls in tracking celebrities’ travel plans and the locations of their homes. Though set in Los Angeles, Watson doesn’t see celebrity culture as being limited to that entertainment hub.
"I think certainly London’s sort of catching up with Hollywood almost," Watson said. "Certainly it’s on the rise. I think there are celebrities who create a brand and create a business, a whole job - a whole life out of other people’s interest in their lives. There are also celebrities or people who don’t so much, who have a craft and a trade. I think as long as people understand the difference, then it’s okay. But there’s definitely a difference."
A New Celebrity Culture
While the Coppola name is synonymous with celebrity -- from granddad Carmine to father Francis Ford to aunt Talia Shire and cousins Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman -- the family does not court the same kind of spotlight as Hilton, the Kardashians or Lindsay Lohan. Growing up in the Coppola family did not lend itself to invasive attention, said Sofia.
"I feel this film really talks about this aspect of celebrity pop culture (that is) from the tabloids and reality TV. And that’s a part of celebrity that I don’t feel is familiar to me or my upbringing," Coppola said.
"So I think it’s something I was curious to look at because it’s such a big part of our culture today. It seems like it’s growing and growing. I was curious to try to make this film from the kids’ point of view and understand how they’re being influenced by this trend. How it might be affecting them and let the audience experience it from that point of view."
Was she afraid that by chronicling these teenagers escapades in a Hollywood film that Coppola was playing into making them celebrities and glamorizing their exploits?
"One of the reasons I changed the names of the characters is I didn’t want to make those kids more famous than they already are for what they did," Coppola said. "That was something I was thinking about, so decided to make a fictional version. I definitely didn’t want to add to their celebrity for what they did."
"The Bling Ring" opens June 14.
Watch the trailer to The Bling Ring: