At the end of 2009, sirens blared across Indian Hills and Calabasas, California, when the “bling ring” – six young thieves from LA’s affluent suburbs – were arrested for a ten-month robbery spree. They had burgled $3 million worth of designer clothing, Rolexes, cash and jewellery from the homes of such high-profile icons of excess as Paris Hilton (who was ransacked multiple times for over $2 million of her possessions), Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom and Ashley Tisdale. Using sites like TMZ, celebrityaddressaerial.com and Twitter, the couture-hungry thieves were able to track the celebrities’ every move (as well as their every home-security camera, thanks to Google Earth). They ultimately got caught because they couldn’t resist bragging about the robberies at college parties and posting endless photos of themselves wearing their stolen goods, and were charged with sentences that ranged from probation to four years in jail.
Director Sofia Coppola gravitated to the story when a Vanity Fair article (“The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales) surfaced in March 2010, just ahead of the court verdicts. Featuring the gang’s first in-depth interviews, it revealed fascinating dialogues with Alexis Neiers, who would become the slippery, self-obsessed Nicki Moore in Coppola’s script (played by Emma Watson). It also brought in the more apologetic voice of Nick Prugo, a shy teen who fell under the hypnotic influence of his media-obsessed best friend, chief bling-ringleader Rachel Lee (Rebecca, played in the film by newcomer Katie Chang).
Aside from Watson, the film’s stars are all fresh-faced relative unknowns. “It’s fun working with them at that age,” says Coppola. “They’re so enthusiastic and open to trying things. I had a few interviews with the real kids, so it gave me an idea of their mindset. I had to imagine how they got into it. I met Alexis once and Nick twice. To me, Alexis is such a product of that part of culture. She had a reality TV show and you know, it’s this idea that anybody can be famous and anyone can have a fashion line. She was so into that world; I think she’s an example of how that can be affecting.”
The film captures the effervescence of that world brilliantly: bright lights, red carpets, red-bottom shoes, wild nights with bottle service and sparklers, but also drink-driving and copious drug use. The club scenes paint a pretty grotesque portrait of the younger generation: posting pout-faced selfies of themselves enveloped in designer logos and fanning their faces with dollar bills.
Everybody has that guilty pleasure of looking at the trashy tabloid part of life. With The Bling Ring, we just totally indulged
“I think everybody has that guilty pleasure of looking at the trashy tabloid part of life once in a while, in small doses,” says Coppola. “With The Bling Ring, we just totally indulged. For me it was fun because it was so different from my regular life.” While the 42-year-old director’s clear-eyed approach avoids judging her subjects, does she worry about the effects of celebrity culture and social media? “I feel like it’s something to talk about because it seems like it’s dominating our culture – or growing, and having an effect,” she says. “I definitely feel like that side of our culture is really imbalanced. But I’m curious; I wonder if there’s going to be a reaction? My hope was that I could make the movie fun and seductive but that by the end of it the audience could decide what’s important to them – without being preachy.”
Fun and seductive is right – The Bling Ring is a smorgasbord of pop imagery, with cameos by the likes of Kirsten Dunst and Paris Hilton, who allowed a few scenes to be filmed in her mansion (with its baby-pink accessories and cushions depicting her own face). The soundtrack is dusted with an of-the-moment pop sheen, featuring Rick Ross, Azealia Banks, Reema Major, M.I.A., Chris Brown, Sleigh Bells, even two songs from Kanye West. “The music was fun because it’s not my usual kind of world,” Coppola says, “and Brian (Reitzell, formerly the drummer for Redd Kross) – who’s done all of my other soundtracks – got into it. Emma Watson was into that Azealia Banks song, that’s why the ‘212’ track ended up in the movie. I wanted the later music to get darker, so we used this really random German atmospheric music – it’s (electronic music pioneer) Klaus Schulze. The music was all over the place but I liked the way it mixed.”
Unlike most of her films, where dialogue is sparse and the story unfolds slowly, Coppola’s latest is fast-paced, witty and peppered with colloquialisms and slang. The cast throws around lines like “You OG motherfucker!” and it’s a bonus to hear Emma Watson saying, in her best Valley-girl voice, lines like, “Your butt looks awesome.”
“‘OG motherfucker’ was in the script – that was just me channelling someone I know,” Coppola laughs. “It was fun to write that kind of dialogue. My friend’s teenage daughter would give me tips on slang. But it wasn’t that different from the way we talked in the 80s – kids are kind of into the 80s now. The cast were my consultants.”
On a slightly grey Saturday morning, the Bling Ring crew stand outside a timewarped motel in Beverly Hills. It’s been a year since Taissa Farmiga (19), Israel Broussard (18), Katie Chang (17) and Claire Julien (18) first terrorised Hollywood for Coppola. “When I first read the script I didn’t think I could play my character, Sam,” says Farmiga of her wild party-girl role. “I didn’t understand her. Someone suggested I watch The Hills to get acquainted with these types of people.” LA native Julien – who plays bad girl Chloe – is looking quizzically at Broussard. “Are you doing your model face?” she asks sarcastically as the camera lights flash.
Inside the motel lobby, Chang stands by a bookshelf exploring its random selection. “I love books,” she says, thumbing through an Agatha Christie paperback. “I don’t really care about fashion. And I’m not really enamoured by celebrity culture. I’m more enamoured by Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath, that’s my cup of tea.” While Emma Watson has been getting the majority of column inches for her first significant role since Harry Potter, Katie Chang’s portrayal of Rebecca undoubtedly steals the show.
She was raised in a conservative suburb outside of Chicago and calls her character “my polar opposite. I’d never smoked a cigarette before filming. I’d never really seen a cigarette in real life! Claire had to teach me how to hold a cigarette, and how to snort the powdered milk.” Chang, who has just been accepted into Columbia University for a screenwriting degree this autumn, feels right at home in the Dream Factory. “Being my first film, it was the perfect movie to make, because I was in Hollywood making a movie full of mischievous social commentary about Hollywood. We were surrounded by the lifestyle but were constantly reminded by the script of what our priorities should be. Fame is not something I seek. I just want to do good work.” She smiles. “It’s fantastic and exciting, but I’m still completely content with buying my clothes at Target or The Gap.”
“It definitely helped that we were great friends with each other, too,” Taissa Farmiga adds. “It was just a bunch of friends having fun on set. We’re all really different but we really click.” Farmiga fell into acting without any expectations. She was cast by her older actress sister Vera (The Departed, Up in the Air) – to play a younger version of herself in Higher Ground, her 2011 directorial debut. The performance turned heads at Sundance, and she has three more films this year, but it was her Bling Ring role that pushed her into what she deems “an out-of-body experience. I had a good time because it was interesting to jump into this lifestyle and be this person for ten hours a day, then go home and be me.”
That 'girl' exists so frequently in LA. That false sense of entitlement – her thinking that she has this star quality – that really, really bothers me.
Having grown up in the heart of LA, Claire Julien, who plays brassy badass Chloe, has seen a little of the Bling Ring attitude. “The character that I found most despicable was Emma’s character, Nicki. That girl exists so frequently in LA. That false sense of entitlement – her thinking that she has this star quality – that really, really bothers me.” Though Julien’s only role prior to The Bling Ring was Maid #3 in The Dark Knight Rises, she’s been in the film world by osmosis her entire life – her father is Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister.
“I changed my last name as one way of saying, ‘I am my father’s daughter but I’m a separate person, let me be me.’ I also changed it because of where people’s minds go when they hear the name ‘Pfister’... They won’t think I’m an actress – they’ll think I’m a porn star!”
“It was hard to relate to being in high school in the film,” says Israel Broussard, the sole male in the gang, “because I was home-schooled after Hurricane Katrina. I never went to high school. I took what I learned from my three older sisters growing up. I’m used to being the only guy! With The Bling Ring we’re a nice little family but then it gets ripped apart.” Unlike his character, whose world revolves around social media, Broussard has a few more learning curves to face in that regard. “Lately I have been getting more into social media because I kind of have to. If it were up to me I would leave it all alone. I’m a really private person.” He had only a few parts (Rob Reiner’s Flipped, 2010, and Stephen Herek’s The Chaperone, 2011) under his belt before The Bling Ring, and is likely to be in LA much more frequently after Coppola’s film starts gaining heat. “It’s taken a while to realise that things are about to change,” he says. “I’m definitely ready for whatever’s thrown at me.”
Since the film’s recent premiere at Cannes – which coincided, like some well-timed publicity stunt, with a real-life jewel heist in the city – the young cast have scattered across the US to weigh up new film offers. And the real bling ring? All have now emerged from their various sentences in varying degrees of repentance, having tasted the same tabloid fame as their victims. “I’m not too concerned with their reaction,” Coppola told assembled press at Cannes. “The reason I changed the names of the characters is that I didn’t want to make these kids any more famous than they are.”
The Bling Ring is out on July 5
Taissa Farmiga: Hair Alex Polillo at The Magnet Agency using Bumble and Bumble;
Make-up Mai Quynh at Starworks
Katie Chang: Hair Alex Polillo at the magnet agency using bumble and bumble;
Make-up Roz Music at The Magnet Agency using Lancome.
Israel Broussard and Claire Julien: Hair Nikki Providence at Jed Root;
Make-up Kristina Brown at Jed Root using Dior Cosmetics
Photographic assistant Gregory Brouillette
Styling assistants Alison Isbell, Jenna Wyman
Special thanks to Hotel des flores Beverly Hills