Rare is the motion picture that combines comedy, romance and drama in a unique and inviting way. Lost In Translation, from 2003, is just such a cinematic adventure. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, it was her second feature film (after The Virgin Suicides). It features Bill Murray as aging actor Bob Harris, who befriends college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in a Tokyo hotel.
The film was met with extensive critical acclaim and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Bill Murray) and Best Director. Coppola won for Best Original Screenplay. The film was a solid commercial success in its first theatrical run, grossing $119 million on a budget of just $4 million.
Much of the film’s magic is due, in no small part, to the improvisational skills of actor Bill Murray. A veteran of Second City and Saturday Night Live, Murray incorporated much of his ad-lib agility into a very nuanced portrayal of the aging and elusive Bob Harris. A mutual friend had shown Murray an early draft of Coppola’s script. He liked enough of what he read to meet Coppola at a downtown New York restaurant. According to reports, they talked for hours, Murray agreed to do the movie, but he did not sign a contract.
Legal issues aside, filming in and around Tokyo took just under a month. Lance Acord, the film’s director of photography, relied on “daily experiences, memories and impressions of his time in Japan to create a unique visual style for the film. One of the key aspects of filming was Acord’s goal of maximizing available light during production and using artificial light as little as possible. The end result on the screen evokes a homemade intimacy, almost in the manner of an old snapshot. Some scenes were shot for mood and were captured without sound.
Even the setting (The Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo) is magical. It took some convincing, but Coppola finally persuaded management to allow her to film there. One of the caveats was that the production not disturb the guests. They weren’t always successful. When one guest complained about Bill Murray’s loud singing, Murray asked the man – in Japanese – “Who do you think you’re talking to?”, which sent the guest running back to his room.
One of the real charming aspects of Lost in Translation has to do with differences in culture and language. Many of the performances were improvised and Coppola openly allowed modifications to dialogue during the production. There is also a subtle doppelgänger running throughout the much of the film. Charlotte’s relationship with her husband is based loosely on Coppola’s marriage to Spike Jonze. And the Suntory commercial inside the narrative is based on a commercial Coppola’s father shot back in the 1970s with Akira Kurosawa. A real family affair!