Strangers in the night - but without the clichés

On a Sunday in a mid- Manhattan hotel, reporters squeeze elbow to elbow around a large table that fills a windowless room.

Almost imperceptibly, director Sofia Coppola slips into the only empty chair. As she fields questions, her voice trails off at the ends of sentences as if preoccupied - yet she's highly attentive. When one of the recording devices clicks off, she thoughtfully pauses so that its owner can flip the tape.

She may seem like the most low-key of directors, but Coppola has been able to do what director Terry Zwigoff couldn't: get comedian Bill Murray to act in her new film. "Lost in Translation," which has been entered at the Venice, Toronto, and Telluride film festivals and debuts next Friday, is a delicate, moody romantic comedy set in Tokyo.

"I wrote the movie with Bill Murray in mind," says Coppola, who is the daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola. "He's a great improviser and added a lot to the role. He approaches everything with 'how can we make this more fun?' "

The impetus for "Lost in Translation," came primarily from Coppola's strong visual impressions of Tokyo and her experiences working there in the '90s as a fashion designer and photographer.

In 1994, she launched her teen fashion line, Milk Fed, which was marketed in Daikanyama, Tokyo's hip neighborhood, as California Cool with a pink-and-cream logo. She later did photo shoots there for a Japanese fashion magazine and met Fumihiro Hayashi, a man nicknamed "Charlie Brown" who introduced her to the city. She cast him as Charlotte's friend Charlie in "Translation."

The simple story, about a chance meeting of two lost souls who strike up a friendship, is set in Tokyo's fortress-like Park Hyatt Hotel. There are echoes of Jacques Tati's classic "Playtime" in the contrast between the hotel's ultramodern architecture, which isolates human beings, and the exaggerated, almost anthropomorphic quality of devices like loud faxes piercing the silence.

Murray plays a cranky, washed-up TV actor, Bob Harris, who's there ostensibly to shoot a very well-paid Suntory whiskey commercial. His height and casual deadpan manner make him stand out even in Tokyo's most frenzied situations, as does the contrast between his insouciance and Japanese formality - generating much humor.

His potential soulmate is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), married for two years to a workaholic photographer. Charlotte combines the dreaminess of a philosophy major with the social assurance (and superciliousness) of a recent Yale graduate.

"What I love about Tokyo is this weird mix of Western influences," says Coppola. "Like suddenly finding a New York bar with a jazz singer singing 'Scarborough Fair' on the 10th floor of a Japanese office building."

Recent Suntory commercials have starred Sean Connery, but Coppola says that the idea for that scene came from a Suntory commercial her father did with Japanese maestro director Akira Kurosawa in the '70s. "They were both on camera," she says. "It was at a point in Kurosawa's career when he didn't have any money."

Unlike her successful 1999 debut feature, "Virgin Suicides," which she adapted from a Jeffrey Eugenides novel, Coppola wrote the original 75-page screenplay of "Translation" herself. "It was scarier, because you don't have anything to fall back on like the novel," Coppola says. "But I knew the material so well I didn't have to learn a lot about the environment."

For the mood and pacing of the film, Coppola says she was affected by Italian films such as Antonioni's "L'Avventura" and Fellini's "la Dolce Vita," which her characters watch on TV with Japanese subtitles in a hotel room. This is the only dialogue in "Translation" that's subtitled, leaving non-Japanese audience members to share the characters' linguistic and cultural estrangement.

"I don't speak any Japanese," Coppola says. "It's really difficult [to learn]. I was in the Park Hyatt during a promotion for 'Virgin Suicides,' doing interviews with a translator. I would answer in a brief sentence, but her translation would take five minutes."

In the film, Bob gets dragged into an increasingly surreal media circus of photo shoots and TV shows. An insomniac, he spends his few off hours at the hotel bar or having desultory, disjointed long-distance phone conversations with his wife about practical matters such as choosing the rug for his study.

With a shooting schedule of only 27 days, Coppola says the most challenging aspect of making the film was physical. "The hardest part ... was running around shooting all night and then shooting day scenes in the morning," she says.

Unlike most films, the scenes were shot in chronological order, so the actors would get to know each other as their characters did. "Scarlett and Bill had just met a few days before shooting - I was hoping they'd hit it off," Coppola says.

Bob and Charlotte do noticeably warm to each other, but the film never loses its sense of humor or propriety. (The 50-plus actor gives the 20-plus philosopher a stuffed owl as a present.)

"They go their separate ways and are affected by each other, but they're going to go on with their lives," Coppola says. "The whole idea was that you can have a valuable exchange with someone who doesn't have to become a part of your life. It may be that right now there's a place in the romantic canon for restraint."

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