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Sofia Coppola at the L.A. premiere of The Bling Ring earlier this month.

Perhaps one shot defines the cool, melancholic view of the youthful kicks in the new Sofia Coppola film The Bling Ring. The scene shows a couple of teenagers robbing the home of reality star Audrina Patridge (The Hills).The camera is stationary, placed at a high angle and to one side, overlooking the isolated modernist home on a hilltop, a kind of cockeyed God's-eye view. The lights of Los Angeles glitter like jewels on a velvet box as the two furtive robbers race from room to room, almost like panicked silent-film comedians, turning on lights, rifling, grabbing and shoving loot into bags.

The scene, which is static and long, was almost cut from the film, producer Youree Henley said at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It was cinematographer Harris Savides, who had to quit the film because he was battling cancer, who insisted the shot stay in. "I think now it's the key shot in the movie," said Henley. "Even when he couldn't work, he was very much the guiding spirit of the film."

Savides was also a key to the resurrection of the career of Sofia Coppola. In 2003, the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola achieved a couple of milestones when her film Lost in Translation became a commercial hit, and was nominated for four Academy Awards. She became the first American woman (and only the third woman ever) to receive an Oscar nomination for best director. Coppola, who dated Quentin Tarantino and married (and since divorced) Spike Jonze, who created her own fashion line and modelled for Marc Jacob, was the girl who climbed into the tree-house gang of hip nineties' directors.

But seven years later, when she brought her next film to Cannes, the $40-million Marie Antoinette, it was booed. A deliberately anachronistic historical movie, it alienated many critics and did poorly at the box office. Almost immediately, her career seemed to be reduced from next-big-thing to one-hit wonder. After Marie Antoinette, she told The Hollywood Reporter, she was "over movies."

What turned her around was meeting Savides, who died of cancer at 55 last October. A cinematographer known for his poetic and patient approach, Savides had worked with Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Milk) and David Fincher (Zodiac).

"Meeting Harris had a big impact on me," said Coppola in an interview at Cannes, where The Bling Ring had its premiere. At 42 and the mother of two daughters, Coppola still seems girlish, dressed in a dark blazer and white blouse with hair down around her shoulders. She shows the same minimalist tendencies in person as in her films, rarely answering questions beyond a direct reply.

"Harris had a lot of integrity and artistry and he always reminded me of trying to get the most beautiful shot possible. He always viewed it as an art form and we worked with a small crew to focus on what was important."

She first collaborated with Savides on Somewhere (2010), starring Stephen Dorff as an actor recuperating from a minor injury at L.A.'s Chateau Marmont hotel who suddenly finds himself responsible for caring for his 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). At the Venice Film Festival, the modestly minimalist Somewhere proved to be a vindication, winning the top prize, the Golden Lion. She describes the film as an "experiment in making something as visually simple as possible."

Simplicity is obviously a cherished quality. She doesn't tweet or have a Facebook page and rarely follows celebrity gossip. She learned about the real-life Bling Ring on a plane ride when she read a Vanity Fair article, Nancy Jo Sales's The Suspects Wore Louboutins, about a group of fashion and celebrity-obsessed suburban Los Angeles teenagers who robbed about $3-million in cash, clothes and jewellery from their favourite celebrities in 2009 and 2010.

The five perpetrators, four girls and one boy (played by the Harry Potter films' Emma Watson and lesser-known actors Taissa Farmiga, Katie Chang, Claire Julien and Israel Broussard), went on celebrity-robbing sprees they called "shopping trips" using the Internet to determine when the stars would be away from home, where they lived, and even the best access routes into their homes. Their victims included Paris Hilton, Patridge, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan.

"I thought it was such an interesting thing, how they had so much information, so much pop culture and how caught up in it they were," said Coppola.

The fact that three of the girls were actually on an E! reality show called Pretty Wild (cancelled after one went to jail) is not mentioned in The Bling Ring. As well, the culprits' names have been changed because, says Coppola, "I didn't want to make the kids more famous."

The young cast members say she sent them on "bonding" exercises – a group mani-pedi and then a secret raid, in which they were sent to "rob" a pre-selected house, finding a way to break in and then steal a set list of objects. She got them to watch films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Thomas Crown Affair to get in the spirit of "the romance of the break-in."

"It was really fun," said Claire Julien, the young actress who is the daughter of cinematographer Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight Rises). "Just as it was fun for the kids. Of course, when you step back from it you realize it was really messed-up, destructive fun."

"I tried," says Coppola, "to show what this was like from the kids' perspective. Now it's up to you to decide what that means to you."