Becoming Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola followed in the footsteps of her larger-than-life father, forging her own path as an award-winning filmmaker

In the Coppola clan, filmmaking is a family business. Sofia Coppola chose to follow in the footsteps of her father, Francis Ford Coppola, and through the feature films she has directed, she has made her own way, winning the Oscar for best screenplay for Lost in Translation (2003), the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Somewhere (2010) and the Director’s Award at the Cannes Film Festival for The Beguiled (2017).

Coppola’s atmospheric, dreamlike films explore women’s intimate life experiences. Her characters’ haunting inner worlds always seem full of secrets and unspoken tension. She mixes subtle, ingenious humor with the unabashed pleasure of being girly – her term – while never shying away from a certain melancholy. Her obsession? The enigmatic father-daughter relationship, an endless source of inspiration, whether she treats it symbolically, as in Lost in Translation, or deals with childhood (Somewhere) or confrontation (On the Rocks). In the following interview, she describes how this defining relationship courses through her œuvre and talks about her own father, her out-of-the-ordinary childhood, the #MeToo movement and her singular creative process.

SARAH LASRY Your film On the Rocks, centers on the father-daughter relationship. What did you feel had not yet been explored onscreen in this relationship?

SOFIA COPPOLA There’s a particular buddy/love story between a father and a daughter that I hadn’t really seen in films before, unlike the mother-daughter relationship, which is more often explored. My dad is such a central, big character in my life, and I was thinking a lot about that generation with everything that’s been happening in the last couple of years: the #MeToo movement, the fact that things switch so much, and they’re really in a different era. The women of my generation and [lead actor] Rashida Jones’s – we grew up with a certain idea about women and guys, and I wondered how that’s affected us. Some of the things my dad and friends of his generation would say, things I heard my whole life and never thought twice about: now as an adult I realized that I was raised with this very specific idea about women – how you should be a woman from a male point of view. I thought it was interesting to look at that dynamic between men and women of that generation and younger women, but through the father-daughter relationship.

SL Is the father-daughter relationship always an impossible love story?

SC Your relationship to your father as a little girl has a big impact on your romantic life as an adult. I remember in my 20s going out and having martinis, just me and my dad, and it was the first time I felt like an adult, talking about relationships, with him telling me what men are really thinking, from his very specific point of view. It’s like Psychology 101, but your relationships romantically are based so much on what your relationship was with your father – if you have a father. It helped that Rashida had a similar dynamic with her father [Jones is the daughter of musician Quincy Jones].

SL In Somewhere, the daughter played by Elle Fanning totally admires her father, whereas in On the Rocks, Rashida Jones’s character confronts her father and voices her disagreement with the way he speaks about women.

SC I forgot that Somewhere was so much about the father-daughter relationship! And also the magic of the “bigger than life” character that was my experience. But yes, in [On the Rocks], she’s coming into her own, probably a little late, because she’s middle-aged, but I wanted to use where I was at that point when I started writing.

SL Growing up with such a strong, charismatic father who was also a director, was it difficult to find your own voice as a filmmaker?

SC [When I was] growing up, my dad and all his filmmaker friends were these macho guys who would go out in the jungle and make movies. My dad is a sensitive person, but these 1970s filmmaker guys have a macho quality. And my mother [Eleanor Coppola] was making her art in a very different way – she was making drawings, conceptual art – and so my dad’s voice was just a lot louder. But I was influenced by both of my parents. In a way, my dad is very masculine, but he was always talking to me the same way he spoke to my brothers about filmmaking and encouraging my point of view. I was interested in fashion as a really young kid, which was unusual back then. Now it’s part of our culture, but back in the ’70s, it wasn’t a mainstream interest, so my parents always encouraged that. But I grew up with all boys. I had two brothers [Roman and Gio], and all my cousins were boys, so I grew up with nine boys. I really protect and cling to my femininity. When I started making films, I wasn’t thinking about being a filmmaker, but when I read [Jeffrey Eugenides’s] book The Virgin Suicides, it made me want to make a film because I wanted to protect that story. I loved it so much, and it was so girly. I guess I felt like the films that I was seeing – especially movies for teenagers in the ’80s when I grew up – were not very sensitive to girls. I didn’t always feel like I could relate to them, and the photography was always cheap, so I wanted to make something that I felt spoke to what the experience of being a teenage girl was. In that project, I was really unabashed about being girly and feminine. All the women directors at that time dressed like men, and it wasn’t so much a place to have a feminine outlet, so I really clung to that. I wanted to express femininity and that side through film. I wasn’t seeing it around me, and that’s what I wanted to see. I’m sure it was a reaction to the world I grew up in!

SL What memories do you have of being on film sets as a child?

SC I was always on set because my dad liked having his kids on set. And the people he worked with, their kids were there, too, so it was this real family atmosphere because we would all go on location and live in these places for years. When we were in the Philippines [for the shooting of Apocalypse Now, in 1979] the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro also had his kids there, so we grew up in this circus family atmosphere, which was really fun. All the people who worked for my dad were like my aunts and uncles. I would hang out in the costume department, and they would make little army uniforms for my teddy bears. And it’s funny to see my mom’s great documentary about that experience [Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse] because I was having the best time – more than anyone – and they were having so many struggles, but I was riding helicopters to work with my dad! I just saw him following his dream, making it happen, never taking no for an answer and never giving up. So I think he made a big impression on me. When making stuff, you just have to start and make it happen, not wait for permission, so I really got that from him. And I lived in Oklahoma during Rumble Fish and The Outsiders [both 1983]. I would hang out on set and didn’t realize until later that I was learning about how to make films. When I made my first short film [Lick the Star, in 1998], I was at an age where I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I liked lots of different things, and I was frustrated about choosing, and when I made my short film, I realized that it’s actually good to know a little bit about different things. I was surprised that I knew how to do it. It just came easily, but of course I had been learning my whole life.

SL You cowrote the short film Life Without Zoë in New York Stories, directed by your father, in 1989.

SC He wanted to cowrite that with me because it was based on when we lived in The Sherry-Netherland hotel, and he would see me walk to school at that age, but a lot of it is based on his childhood. So he asked me to write it with him when I was 14 or something. It was mostly for him to teach me how to write a script, but it was more his story. I learned from the process. I was the costume designer on it, so I think it has some of my style mixed in there, and I did the animation of the title sequence. I definitely had a lot of input. In the end, he was the director, and I was really a kid, but it was an opportunity for me to learn.

SL What was the first film that had a strong impact on you as a spectator?

SC My dad was always watching old movies and Kurosawa films, so I grew up seeing all those movies, but I feel like the first movie that really made an impact on me was Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard [when I was] a teenager because it was so cool. I love the photography and how they shot it. It feels unique and is something that stays in my mind that never feels tired and has energy to it. I loved Lolita by Kubrick, his editing is really funny: how he cuts from the horror film to the girl. And Purple Rain made the biggest impression on me! Not for proper filmmaking but seeing Prince when I was 12; that was a big moment.

My dad and all his filmmaker friends were these macho guys who would go out in the jungle and make movies. Sofia Coppola

SL I think Michelangelo Antonioni is also an important influence in your work.

SC I just love the atmosphere and how he gives it time. I grew up with my dad always saying that filmmaking is the same as poetry but in a visual way, expressing something you can’t say with words, and that’s what I love about Antonioni. I love La Notte especially. There’s a great moment when Jeanne Moreau leaves the party in the car, and it’s raining. You don’t hear what they’re saying, but it says so much, and by the time she gets out of the car, she’s gone through a whole experience, and you know how she feels without ever hearing anything. I love that kind of visual storytelling.

SL That scene reminds me of Bill Murray’s whisper to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation. The spectator never hears what he says.

SC I like not explaining everything and letting the viewer fill it in. When I was starting to make films, and especially Lost in Translation, I realized that in real life people don’t ever really express what they’re feeling. It comes out in behavior or what’s “not said.” I always think about the subtext of a scene and how people don’t express themselves, how it comes out in the way we interpret things.

SL The melancholy of La Notte is also present in your films. Where does this feeling comes from?

I think it comes from being an observer and an introvert in a busy, social, extroverted world. I’ve always felt like I’m a part of this insider world, but I’m still stepping back and looking at it, as opposed to totally feeling a part of it. In America or California, everyone is supposed to be an extrovert, so if you’re not, it’s like there’s something wrong with you. There are billboards where it’s like, “Take medication if you’re an introvert!” But what’s wrong with being an introvert? I also think it’s connected to the moment when I’m writing: I feel lonely because I write alone. It’s the moment when you’re filled with self-doubt, so I think that comes through in my films. People think I’m a melancholic, sad person, but I’m not always in that mode. When you’re writing, you’re looking at the more vulnerable sides of yourself. But when I’m having fun and connecting with my friends, I’m not going to make a movie about that because it would be boring. I always feel like when you’re making any creative thing, you’re trying to figure something out. Usually I don’t understand until later what it is, but it’s a healing process, so it definitely feels like I use films to do that. It’s cathartic.

I grew up with my dad always saying that filmmaking is the same as poetry but in a visual way, expressing something you can’t say with words. Sofia Coppola

SL The theme of entrapment is present in Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled. Why do you write about women who feel trapped, who want to be somewhere else?

SC I do love that. I love – especially with women – the idea of the lonely trophy wife or something about women finding themselves in a life that they didn’t choose for themselves, and how they’re going to define themselves within it. I guess that probably comes from something in my upbringing. I am interested in that because it parallels how we all see ourselves in situations that maybe we didn’t choose for ourselves. How do we define ourselves within that?

SL You film the experience of “being a woman” through different ages and different time periods in all your films – what is expected from a woman, her femininity, her sexuality, how she should act in society. What interests you in that exploration?

SC I guess I think more about women’s roles. I was starting out in a very male-dominated business, which it still is, even if there are so many more female filmmakers. The Beguiled was fun because Southern women are like the exaggeration, the epitome of how a woman is supposed to be, but there’s still a lot of those rules today. And even with giving money to women, it’s different than for men. I think it’s still part of our culture. And probably growing up with my mom who was a young artist when my dad suddenly became so successful – she found herself having this big house and life that wasn’t really her choosing. Subconsciously, I grew up seeing my mom struggling in this life that she didn’t really ever expect. How could she have her own voice with my dad being such a large figure? I’m sure that growing up seeing that made that idea interesting to me.

SL How has #MeToo affected your work and your writing?

SC With the #MeToo movement, there was so much anger between men and women, understandably. When I started to work on On the Rocks five years ago, it was at its height. Now it seems to be dissipating. I was thinking: could you look at those differences between men and women, but not through rage? How do you deal with not agreeing with someone but still having a relationship with them? I think the #MeToo movement gives a sort of validation: it’s okay to ask for things. I’m friends with the director Tamara Jenkins; we’re from the same generation, and we’re always like, “Is it okay to ask for this? We don’t want to be pushy…” Whereas when we see women directors of a younger generation, they’re not shy about asking for what they want or saying, “It’s my turn to speak!” We were always waiting for our turn to speak, so I think there’s definitely a shift, but I am a product of my generation. A lot of the executives are still straight men whom I have to get financing from and who aren’t really interested in the topics I’m interested in, so even now that things have shifted, I still have to ask these men for financing, but I’m more aware of the different
points of view, and that’s a challenge.

I remember people being surprised that I’m funny or have a sense of humor; they think that I’m like some serious Italian mafia. Sofia Coppola

SL You’ve brought to light so many important actresses at a young age, including Scarlett Johansson, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. What do you look for in an actor?

SC It’s something I can’t really define. It’s funny because friends of mine said, “I met this actress, and she’s a real Sofia girl,” like I have a type! I’m interested in a not-obvious beauty, even though sometimes they can be, but I think it’s really a personality thing, a click, or contrast, in the same way you click with certain people when you find something intriguing about them.

SL There’s a lot of subtle humor in your films: the language barrier and the physical comedy of Bill Murray in Japan in Lost in Translation; the satire in The Bling Ring; and the very dark humor in The Beguiled. On the Rocks is inspired by screwball comedy.

SC My sense of humor is more under the radar. I remember people being surprised that I’m funny or have a sense of humor; they think that I’m like some serious Italian mafia. I think you have to have a sense of humor to get through things.

SL Your films also explore the male perspective and how men perceive women, whether it’s in The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring or even The Beguiled.

SC With Beguiled, I was interested because the 1970s Clint Eastwood version portrayed these women as crazy because they had desire. I was really focused on the sexual tension because it’s like a house full of women, and these teenage girls are coming into their sexuality, but there are no men around, and when this man comes, it rocks their world! But to me it made sense that he would cause havoc in that world, and also genteel southerners are so repressed anyway. And in Virgin Suicides, I loved that it was looking at the girls through a boy’s point of view and playing with the idea of how confused these boys are with girls, and the mystery. I always thought that was fun: playing with the perception that girls can create.

SL The Beguiled is also a very sensual film, more sexual than your previous work.

SC It was fun to have that divide between male and female. Philippe Le Sourd, the cinematographer, would shoot Colin Farrell in more angular lighting, to make him look more “masculine,” and the women are all soft and gauzy, so there’s the contrast of this male world coming into this feminine world, which has been removed from time, where they’re living like ghosts, and all the men have left to go to war.

SL You’re currently adapting Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country for an Apple+ mini-series. What drew you to the book?

SC I love her writing, and I love this book about a social climber. It’s funnier than her other books; it’s a satire. I love her point of view, and I relate to the idea of an insider looking with objectivity at this closed world. The themes are so connected with our culture today, about marketing yourself, ambition and status. I just love the story, and it’s never been made because it’s a five-part book. I’m excited to tackle something from American literature; it’s challenging.

SL Do you have paintings or photographs in mind when you begin writing?

SC Yeah, definitely. It’s always a starting point for me, even before the script. I start collecting images, certain photographs, putting together mood boards. Sometimes I’ll listen to a certain kind of music, and then I’ll start writing the script. This project is set in 1910 in Europe and New York, so I’ve been looking at a lot of paintings of that time: the John Singer Sargent portraits of the people. I imagine what they looked like. I have a bunch of collages of photos that remind me of a moment, an attitude or random stuff. There’s this one photograph [Woman with Blue Bow by Jo Ann Callis] that I love and use – it’s a woman leaning her head back; it has that beautiful frustration. I also used it for The Beguiled.

How did you become interested in photography?

SC I think I got into photography from fashion because when I was a teenager, I looked at fashion magazines. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I looked at French Vogue and thought they were really sophisticated. I would dress up and hold cognac glasses and do Polaroid fashion shoots. I loved Helmut Newton and the idea of these glamorous women. If my house was on fire and I could grab anything, I have a print from Helmut Newton of Charlotte Rampling sitting on a table. He signed it to me. I love his photos.

SL Music is also an essential part of your work. Your grandfather, Carmine Coppola, was a composer, and your husband is Thomas Mars of the group Phoenix, of course.

SC It is one of the things when I’m starting a project that’s so important because it’s about atmosphere. When I made my short film, that was the fun part: I got to put music in that I like, photography, and combine all these things. I learned how to use music in film from watching Scorsese’s films, this idea of contrast with the image.

SL Are you scared before you start a new project?

SC I’m always scared before a project. A friend was telling me the other day, “If it’s not scary, it’s not worth doing.” Nothing in life is worth it unless it has some challenge or is scary. The thing I’m most afraid of is doing something that’s not challenging, something that I know how to do. Right now I’m just fighting to get enough financing to make it right, so I’m so focused on that. And when you’re making a project, there’s always a hurdle. You get through that, and then you get to the next hurdle. I’m still trying to get it all together.

SL Why do you keep making films?

SC I feel like we need hope and beauty. I think beauty and art are so important, in the same way that we need nature. I think it feeds us. I feel that art is vital to our culture.

Art by Fanny Ourevitch. Hair by Orlando Pita for Orlo Play. Makeup by Dick Page at Statement Artists. Manicure by Eri Handa at Home Agency. Production by Dyonne Wasserman. Photo assistance by Nick Brinley and Guanchen Liu

This interview appeared in issue 10 of Mastermind.

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