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Sofia Coppola on Dressing Her Characters, Working With Her Husband, and Why We Need a Love Letter to New York Right Now

Sofia Coppola on Dressing Her Characters, Working With Her Husband, and Why We Need a Love Letter to New York Right Now

Sofia Coppola always intended for her latest film to offer a slice of breezy escapism, but she never anticipated the degree to which audiences might need it. Shot on location in Manhattan last year, On the Rocks became an unintentional time capsule of a pre-pandemic New York City. Sprinkled with references to institutions like the Knickerbocker and Bemelmans, Coppola’s eighth feature is a gin-soaked love letter to the swanky bars, maskless restaurants, and crowded sidewalks of her hometown. “I didn’t know a restaurant would be such an exotic setting in 2020,” the filmmaker says, calling from the West Village home she shares with her husband, Thomas Mars (of the French rock band Phoenix), and their two children. 

On the Rocks is ostensibly about Laura (Rashida Jones), a writer and mother who suspects her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) of having an affair with one of his younger colleagues. Enter Laura’s caddish Playboy father, Felix (Bill Murray), who reconnects with his daughter by taking her on an adventure to determine whether Dean is being unfaithful. It’s a caper comedy fused with the intimacy of a family drama, with the question of Dean’s fidelity ultimately just a means for the father-daughter duo to reckon with their own loving but deeply complicated relationship. 

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Sofia Coppola directing Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in On the Rocks (2020)

Photo: Provided by Apple TV+ 

It’s familiar thematic territory for Coppola, whose film-making career began with a segment in the Big Apple anthology New York Stories. A 17-year-old Coppola cowrote the Life Without Zoe script with her filmmaker father Francis, and the film was centered around a rambunctious schoolgirl trying to reconcile her divorced mother and father. On the Rocks further explores the intergenerational dynamics between fathers and daughters that Coppola has mined throughout her body of work, tracing the occasionally bittersweet process of a woman wrestling with identity in transition. With the film now in theaters and streaming on Apple+, Coppola caught up with Vogue to talk writer’s block, athleisure, and Edith Wharton. 

Last time we spoke, you mentioned how you’d finished editing the sound mix for On the Rocks right before lockdown.

Yeah, and I just went through some notes and realized I registered the title seven years ago, so it’s been brewing for quite some time. 

What can you tell me about the origins of the script?

It started from being at a moment in my life of having little kids and still trying to be creative during that transition. I also had a friend who told me a story about hiding in the bushes to spy on her New York playboy father. That was the initial spark for an espionage adventure inspired by movies like The Thin Man, which I love. I wanted to do a buddy story about a father-daughter relationship that explored that generational divide because I haven’t seen that story. It was my way of exploring the identity crisis of a woman in different phases of her life but also the sort of clashing relationships between men and women.

This is your most dialogue-driven feature. How did the writing process compare to something like The Virgin Suicides that communicates so much visually? 

I’ve always been drawn to finding a way to express emotion through visuals and atmosphere. I was talking to Buck Henry about this idea early on, and he said, “Why don’t you write some dialogue?” I thought I’d try writing something dialogue-driven that was almost like a play for me. On the Rocks started with just Felix and Laura sitting in different restaurants and bars having conversations. It was fun to try something I hadn’t done before and focus on the dialogue, with the story evolving from there. 

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Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks (2020)

Photo: Provided by Apple TV+

How did that approach affect the editing process? 

It was a lot harder on the edit. My editor Sarah [Flack] and I would have something like eight pages of dialogue for some scenes, and splicing them together to find the tone could be challenging. Finding that mix between the humor and more heartfelt, serious moments is one thing. It’s a completely different process figuring out how to keep interest with just two people sitting and talking in a restaurant.

Laura’s writer’s-block-induced boredom plays a major factor in her willingness to go along with her father’s conspiracy theories about her marriage. Are there any autobiographical elements there?

Part of writing is being able to meander and take your time and daydream. I used to stay up all night writing, but I wrote this when I first had little kids. I was asking friends, “How do you write when you have kids?” because it just takes a beat to figure that out when you have to set aside two hours to get something done. It’s just a different mode, and you figure it out, but at first, it’s something of a shock. There’s lots of doubt and procrastination that comes with writing, and I wanted to show a woman in that stage of thinking, How is this supposed to work? Then Felix comes in and offers an escape.

This is your second feature with Murray after Lost in Translation. What about his persona appeals to your writing and directing styles? 

Bill is just such a unique creature full of magic whenever he’s around. He’s so smart and puts so much sensitivity into what he does. There’s just always something surprising that you don’t expect in every take, and it’s that combination of heart and humor that I love about him. And the character of Felix is complicated, so I wanted him to be a character Laura doesn’t agree with while still being able to have some understanding of where he’s coming from. I needed someone like Bill who’s so lovable but can bring both of those sides. 

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Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola on the set of New York Stories (1989)

Photo: Provided by the Everett Collection

You explored father-daughter relationships in your New York Stories segment and in your previous feature Somewhere. You’ve mentioned this film isn’t exactly autobiographical, but what is it about that dynamic that appeals to you? 

I think it’s just such a unique relationship that impacts the partnerships you look for in your adult life. A father is typically the first impression of a man in your life. Of course, I talk about having this kind of bigger-than-life, charismatic father, but I think—and I hope—it’s universal. Here I’m looking at making a family and partnerships but also where you come from and how that affects your perspective. Also, what you hear from men growing up has an effect on you.

What were your intentions with the costuming here compared to crafting the look of something more ornate like Marie Antoinette? 

Our costume designer Stacey Battat is so good at capturing real life but giving it style so it’s still appealing. The look is elevated but has a little fantasy that’s still based in naturalism and reality. Clothing provides the little clues that tell you who characters are, and Laura’s trying to figure out who she is at this moment. She wears a custom-made Paris Review t-shirt but also old band t-shirts from her previous life. I love all those details because you have to know who a character is really quickly. 

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Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola on the set of On the Rocks (2020) 

Photo: Provided by Apple TV+

What were some of your other visual reference points? 

I always put together visual references to try and work with our production designer and cinematographer to piece the look together. I have a picture of Bill and I from a film festival where he’s in a tuxedo and we’re holding martinis. I had that on my bulletin board for years, along with classic New York settings like the 21 Club. We wanted to embrace the romanticism of the city and that era that’s sorta barely clinging on without seeming entirely retro. A time before athleisure [laughs]. 

The way Philippe Le Sourd shot New York is eye-catching, but not overly glamorous. What did you want to visually convey about the city given it’s your first feature set here? 

The challenge was how to shoot New York in my own style so this wouldn’t feel like a watered-down version of other New York–set movies. Philippe and I found our way as we went shooting the cityscapes and finding the contrasts between Felix and Laura’s worlds: showing her walking down the street with the construction sounds then Felix shielded off in his town car gazing up into all those old uptown spots. I wanted it to look like New York but a very romantic, old film version of it. And that includes the fantasy lofts. I think for me it’s fun to indulge in a little fantasy that’s still hopefully somewhat connected with reality. 

There are so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to New York institutions. I spotted totes from the Strand, Greenlight Books, and Shakespeare and Company in Laura’s apartment, but I’m sure I missed some. 

The characters go to Raoul’s, and later on, in the last scene, they’re at Indochine. It’s filled with all these old New York places that I love and have history with. Coming to New York always made a big impression on me, and we’ve been living here for the past ten years now. I love all those big institutions, and Felix is the kind of guy who has those traditions like Russ and Daughters’ to-go caviar.

You met Thomas when he produced the Virgin Suicides soundtrack, and he’s worked on a few of your film scores since then, including On the Rocks. How would you characterize your working relationship when it comes to shaping your musical vision for a project? 

It’s great to have someone that I’m close to and gets me. I’d send him and his bandmates photos from the shoot, and they would send music options back, and I’d show dialogue, *and so on and so forth. It was so exciting when I got back the edit and added the new song they wrote for the ending. He’s a nice husband, and he helps me out on some good music [laughs]. I appreciate being with someone who’s also creative and understands the highs and lows that comes with it all. 

What can you tell me about your next project tackling Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country as an Apple+ miniseries? 

That’s in the early stages, so I don’t have much to say, but I love Edith Wharton. And that book is so bitingly funny. Plus, it’s New York in the Gilded Age, so it’s been nice just thinking and dreaming about that world. With reality being so what it is right now, I’m welcoming an escape into a beautiful Gilded Age but with themes that still resonate today. Have you read the book?

Not since high school. 

Undine is a really great character. I’m hoping to shoot on location in New York, and the wedding scene is set in a beautiful old building of that era. The fact that some of those buildings still exist means hopefully I can rediscover that era. I haven’t totally found the tone yet, but the challenge is always bringing your own style to it. 

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Sofia Coppola on the set of Marie Antoinette (2006) 

Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection / Sony Pictures

When I interviewed Kirsten last year, she mentioned that the two of you once shopped around a TV reboot of Faerie Tale Theater that never got off the ground. 

Oh, my God, yes [laughs]. Did you ever watch it?

 I only caught a few reruns growing up, but I remember them pretty vividly. Is that an idea you would ever revisit? 

We went around and pitched it years ago, and it just never got going. I forgot about it, but she mentioned it recently, so thanks for reminding me. I loved that show when I was a kid, and when I had kids, I got the DVDs because it’s not available anywhere else. I always loved the mix of fairy tales with pop culture icons like Mick Jagger. We should revisit that, but right now, I’m just thinking about Edith Wharton. And you never wanna talk about things too much before because you never know what they’re gonna turn into. I don’t have a master plan other than just being true to what I connect with. 

Source: vogue.com