In the trailer for upcoming film The Bling Ring, about a group of teens that rob celebrities, Emma Watson's character gives a speech as cameras flash. "I'm a firm believer in Karma," she says, her voice dripping with Southern California vocal fry. "And I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I want to lead a country one day for all I know." Those are not the words of Sofia Coppola, who has shown a knack for writing dialogue for lost young women in prior films like The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette. They were originally spoken by Alexis Neiers to Nancy Jo Sales' for her Vanity Fair account of the "Bling Ring": "I’m a firm believer in Karma," she told Sales, "and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being....I want to lead a country, for all I know."
And it's not the only thing that's in the upcoming film drawn from Sales' extensive reporting. While Coppola fictionalized the movie, which opens the Un Certain Regard slate at Cannes this week, she drew dialogue from Sales' article and transcripts. "You can't make this stuff up," Sales told the Wire in an interview. "This is why journalism is still so important too, because the raw material that comes from life is often so remarkable and startling and wonderful."
The so-unreal-it's-real magazine story that turned into a film, is nothing new. Joshuah Bearman, the author of the Wired piece that inspired Argo, told the Wire back in February that he turned in his extra research on the subject to the people behind that film. But, according to a Hollywood Reporter profile of Coppola, Sales' work helped convince Coppola to direct the movie. "At first, she optioned the underlying material for her family's company, American Zoetrope, without planning to direct," Stephen Galloway wrote of Coppola. "But the more she learned about the case — helped by transcripts of interviews with the teenagers and police records Sales sent her — the more intrigued she became."
Sales, a veteran journalist who has written myriad pieces on celebrities themselves, has spent a lot of time reporting on and thinking about the Bling Ring, the group of teens who became TMZ regulars around 2009 after they burglarized the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan. Sales' book on the subject, also titled The Bling Ring, is on sale May 21 and not only tells the true story in detail, but also explores the kids' place in a history of teens and celebrity obsession in America. Leopold and Loeb are reference points alongside Puff Daddy. Sales described the book as the "story of a story" and a "meditation on pop culture and where we are and who we are as a culture in terms of obsession with celebrity."
The members of the Bling Ring wanted to emulate celebrities as much as they wanted to target them. Sales was drawn to the story as soon as she saw reports about it because of the way it encapsulated a brand of teenage celebrity obsession: "I just said, 'Oh my God, you cannot make this up, and I have to do this story because it's like this distillation of everything that's wrong.'" "You cannot make this up" was a theme when we talked to Sales in our phone interview.
In the trailer you also hear one of the characters talking about the Bling Ring's desire for the "lifestyle." That also is derived from an interview Sales had with Nick Prugo after she asked him about the motives of his friend Rachel Lee. The full quote comes on page 33 of her book. (Sales was never able to interview Lee.) "Sofia has that in a voiceover in the movie," Sales said. "She said that she thought it was really important to get that in there because it's really the key to the whole thing. I've been interviewing teenagers for almost 20 years, and that's a word that’s come up so much in interviewing teenagers over the last couple of decades."
But using the real life words is one thing, for Sales the story of the Bling Ring was not just about their ridiculous statements, but about what their actions meant. Sales told us she and Coppola talked about what must have provoked the Bling Ring. "We had talked a lot about why, why they did it, what the reasons were behind it," Sales said. "As you know, I had just written a whole article about that. I think about that in words. She captured it in images so beautifully."
One of those images, is a moment that's doesn't come from Sales, reporting, she said: the image of the character of Rebecca—based on Lee—robbing Lindsay Lohan's house, looking at herself in Lohan's mirror, using Lohan's perfume. "To me this image was so evocative of everything we had talked about: the mirroring of one's identity with a celebrity, the creepy way they were invading their space and even their very essence, which is your scent, the narcissism of looking into the mirror, and being in the bedroom which is also—there's something sort of intimate about this crime," Sales said.
And that requires no dialogue at all.