Sofia Coppola loves stories of atmospheric ennui. A director of tone poems rather than straight narrative films, her latest offering, Somewhere, delves into the tormented soul of Johnny Marco, a hard-partying actor (Stephen Dorff) holed up in L.A.’s legendary Chateau Marmont. Adrift in a world of empty adulation, he begins to reassess his life after an unexpected visit from his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). The movie won Coppola the top honor at the Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion, earlier this year, making her the first American woman (and only the fourth American filmmaker) to earn the prize, leading many to believe an Oscar could be next.

Speaking with Coppola at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, a venue she used in her film for a fictional press day, the director is a sea of quiet calm in the middle of a media maelstrom. Wearing a navy and forest green plaid shirt and black skinny jeans, loose shoulder-length brown hair tucked behind her ears and a thin gold wedding band glinting from her finger (She married Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars in December 2009, and the band’s music serves as the film’s soundtrack.), Coppola says she wanted the film to follow in the footsteps of “Shampoo and American Gigolo. I wanted to do like an L.A. movie of today.”

That meant incorporating a number of driving shots, palm trees, mini-malls, harsher bright lighting and a 1990s, Helmut Newton version of the Chateau, before it got Lohan-ed and became a paparazzi mecca.

“When I was writing, I was thinking about when I’d spend time there when I was in my 20s,” Coppola says, her quiet, deliberate speech lulling the room into an easy silence. “I feel like in a lot of ways it hasn’t changed, but there weren’t weekly tabloid magazines and so people didn’t go there to be photographed and stuff. I think of the Chateau Marmont as being this iconic Hollywood place with so many interesting people staying there and lots of stories. It has this decadent feel.”

In an effort to fully embody his character, Dorff moved into the hotel and lived whatever experience the script called for leading into the next shoot day. “He stayed in a room, the same room that we shot in just a floor up, so he was in character the whole time,” Coppola smiles. “It was funny, in the morning he’d come to set and tell me all the Johnny Marco moments that he was living in the hotel. He would stay up late and be kind of trashed in the scenes that we needed him to be. But then, as he evolves, he’s fresher and you can really see it.”

Coppola says while writing Somewhere, Dorff sprang to mind.

“I knew him a little over the years, and I just thought that he would be the right guy for this part. He’s such a great actor, but we haven’t seen the more sensitive side to him. I also knew from life that he’s such a sweet guy and the character is so flawed that he could be unlikable. It needed someone with a lot of heart to make you want to watch him for a whole movie.”

As for Fanning, Coppola says Elle came in during casting and, instantly, “I was taken with her.”

Asked if she felt the need to direct a child actor any differently than an adult, Coppola shakes her head and replies, “I don’t think so. I think with actors, you want to be sensitive to them because you’re asking them to be vulnerable, and she’s smart so I never felt that she was a kid. I guess you’re aware. You don’t want people to be talking about something inappropriate around an 11-year-old, so I felt protective, but I felt protective of Stephen and all my actors.”

When the subject of the film’s quiet sense of internal struggle as opposed to overt conflict is raised, Coppola offers a happy nod of the head and says, “A lot of times in movies it takes a big, dramatic event, like a disaster, being held hostage, for the character to change, and I feel like in life that there are moments that seem like small things that strike you and motivate you to change.”