The Bling Ring break-ins were case studies in reality and delusion, fame and dubious celebrity, growing up in the West Valley and making it in Hollywood.
Now, Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" movie adds whole new layers of docudrama to the discussion of why a group of Valley teens found it a neat thing to do to break into the homes of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan and other frantically followed folk in 2008 and '09.
They stole some stuff from the celebs, and some of them also boosted cars and possessions of non-public figures. Mostly, though, the kids seemed to want to just hang around their victims' unoccupied mansions and pretend they were them for a few hours.
Now, in the house of mirrors that is movieland, a group of young actors play fictionalized versions of the Bling Ring members -- in a movie that features cameos by actual Hollywood figures such as Kirsten Dunst and Hilton, who in another blurring of the true and the fake loaned her home to Coppola and company to shoot scenes in.
We asked Coppola, herself the child of one of Hollywood's best-known directors (although she spent most of her youth at dad Francis' Napa Valley vineyard), why she chose to change the names of the notorious for the movie.
"I didn't want to make a documentary and be beholden to anything," says the writer-director, who won an Original Screenplay Oscar for her "Lost in Translation" (2003) script. "Basically, I wanted to have some creative license to make it cinematic, have it move like a movie. Then, I wanted to be able to do my research, then draw my conclusions of what story elements I thought were strongest. I wanted the film to move along like you were living with these kids and in their experience, and not look at it from an outside angle.
Coppola based much of her "Bling" script on transcripts compiled by Nancy Jo Sales, who wrote a 2010 Vanity Fair article about the gang and now has a book out on the subject. Coppola also spoke to the gang's main boy, Nicholas Prudo, some female gang members and one of their mothers, and LAPD Officer Brett Goodkin, who has a small role in the film and is facing possible disciplinary action for serving as a paid consultant on the movie while related court cases were still pending.
Then there was the reality show "Pretty Wild" on which several of the Ring's key figures -- convicted member Alexis Neiers, her best friend and adopted sister Tess Taylor and their mom, Andrea -- starred. Alexis' trial became fodder for the short-lived E! Network series shortly after it began.
Recovering addict Alexis Neiers, who is now married and recently had her first child, posted the following on her blog, itsalexisneiers.com on April 5:
"When I found out last March that Sofia Coppola was making a movie about the Bling Ring, at first I was shocked, and then I became optimistic after I heard what her intentions for the film were. I can only hope that this movie does not just tell the story of Los Angeles teens robbing the homes of celebrities, because that, I don't believe, would have much impact on people, as the real cultural obsession with what the Bling Ring would (sic). In my opinion, as a society, we are so focused on which celebrity is doing what, and we have gotten distracted. It has led to teens literally killing themselves, and to a complete erosion of privacy and boundaries."
Emma Watson, a long way from the Harry Potter films' goody goody Hermione, plays the movie's version of Neiers, named Nicki. Leslie Mann is her movie mom Laurie and Taissa Farmiga plays Sam, the fictionalized Taylor.
The Ring's, well, ringleader, Rachel Lee, is named Rebecca in the movie and played by a first-timer from Chicago, Katie Chang. Another upscale Valley girl in the gang, whom Coppola named Chloe, is portrayed by another almost newcomer, Claire Julien (who had a bit part in "The Dark Knight Rises" and is the daughter of its acclaimed cinematographer, Wally Pfister).
Mississippi-born Israel Broussard plays the Bling girls' willing boy toy, Marc, based on Prudo.
Though they watched some "Pretty Wild" episodes, the actors otherwise avoided contact with their real-life counterparts.
"It would have been weird if we had gotten to know them and then had been influenced by these people," Chang reckons. "It would have stopped us from being able to completely create whatever we wanted to create within our characters."
"Yes, it could have benefited the script and our performances, but at the same time, it really could have gotten in the way," Broussard adds. "I'm not opposed to it, but I'm kind of grateful I didn't get to meet them now."
In the movie, Marc is a new transfer to Indian Hills High School in Agoura Hills when cute, outgoing Rebecca befriends him.
"I never saw myself as an A List-looking guy," the awkward boy later tells an investigator. But after a few nights out with Rebecca -- breaking into a pal's McMansion and boosting a convertible, followed by a shopping spree at Kitson and posting selfies (self portraits) from a nightclub full of at least B Listers -- he's hooked. Soon, Rebecca's hot gal pals are joining them at celebrities' homes on nights when, they've confirmed via social media, the stars won't be around.
While the attraction for Marc is self-evident, what drove the others to break-ins is a subject for much socio-psychological speculation.
"There are two different sides to L.A., really: the side that's on the inside and then the side that's on the outside," observes Julien, who briefly lived in the West Valley as a toddler. "It's not the Valley; it's all over L.A.
"I've grown up knowing celebrities and being friends with celebrities' kids and hanging out on movie sets and stuff," she adds. "Just being in that world, it's much more comfortable and it's much more normal. So these kids who don't have access into it, it's kind of alien and strange and really amazing to them. They see it as the ideal, they think, 'Wow, if I could only live like that, I'd be the happiest person in the world.' And that's not true. We put these people on pedestals who sometimes don't deserve to be and don't even deserve to be a good role model -- or a celebrity, even."
Farmiga, whose older sister Vera set an example of how to be a successful actress without falling for the fame game, says that she really didn't care about any of this stuff while growing up in New Jersey.
She's still trying to wrap her head around it.
"Celebrity is such a funny word," Farmiga says. "I could never classify myself as that, even though once in awhile, fans recognize me. That's nice, having the admiration of people. But sometimes kids -- people in general -- just take it too far about this world and Hollywood. People look so great and perfect on the big screen and they have so much money and material possessions, and they want that. In some respects it is a big deal, but this lifestyle, for me I'm not in it for the lifestyle, I'm in it because I found something I love, acting."
Why these particular Valley kids went criminal while thousands of others don't led to general consensus among the actors that, although most of the Ringers came from affluent homes, their parents were either too lenient and uninvolved or, in the case of the woman Mann plays, involved in her children's lives in the wrong way (and too lenient).
Coppola was less quick to blame parents.
"I tried not to be judgmental," the director said. "I think this speaks to how normal teenagers connect to their friends and not that much to their home life. They want to be very much with their peers and act like they're grown up, as opposed to the kids that they are with their parents. Some of the parents were less or more involved, but I wanted to stay in the kids' world and show that the parents weren't that involved with them, maybe, because the kids were in their own world."
One thing she's certain of, though.
"This story had to be set in L.A.," Coppola says. "They lived in the Valley, just over the hill and arm's reach from these stars. They're seeing them at nightclubs and they're one step less removed from that world, but they're looking in. Just living in L.A., it wasn't hard to think that they could be part of that world."