Sofia Coppola: ‘On the Rocks’

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Sofia Coppola. Photo by Pamela Hanson.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis sits down with director Sofia Coppola, whose new film "On the Rocks" stars Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. Coppola won an Academy Award in 2004 for best original screenplay for her film "Lost in Translation." Her other films include "The Virgin Suicides," "Marie Antoinette" and "Somewhere." In the conversation, Coppola discusses the similarities between Bill Murray's character in "On the Rocks" and his real life persona, and how his character is a vestige of a bygone era of New York City.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest is writer-director Sofia Coppola. Her newest piece of work is "On The Rocks," which stars Rashida Jones and Bill Murray. Let's talk about the title. Where does that come from?

Sofia Coppola: I was just thinking of what the title would encapsulate. The feeling and the beginning of the story was the idea of a father and daughter having martinis and discussing relationships and men and women from two different perspectives. Also the main character is feeling wobbly in her relationships. So I just came up "On the Rocks" as something with more than one meaning. 

KCRW: It's also kind of an old world title; it doesn't seem quite contemporary, that turn of phrase.

Coppola: The main character feels like an old world gentleman, so I wanted to kind of be in the mood of his world. Bill's character and that kind of a bygone era and these uptown bars like Bemelmans.  Bill and Rashida, we had fun shooting it, and we were saying we have to continue the series because it was inspired by films like "The Thin Man" movies, which I love. So we're thinking that the sequel will be "Make it a Double." 

KCRW: One of the things I like about it is that they drink a lot in the movie, I mean, especially whenever he sits down, a glass turns up in front of him.

Coppola: Yeah, I think that's just part of his character. He always has a martini handy. And I'm glad that we can do that without judgment.

KCRW: I think these days, we all need a martini. But it's also her reaction to the first time we see them together when he orders.

Coppola: I love that he's ordering her a martini, like in the middle of the day, when she's gonna pick her kids up for lunch. And it's part of what I love about their clashes that she's tractable, and he is the opposite.  And Bill has an element of that in his spirit that is always living life to its fullest.

KCRW: Yeah, one of the great things about the movie is it's one of the rare films that captures people's idea of what he's like, in some ways, but in a refined movie version of it. And that, whenever he appears, generally, some kind of celebration appears with him, or the energy level gets ramped up in some way or another.

Coppola: Wherever he shows up, it does change the energy in the room and will make people do things that they would not think of and always bring some kind of magic and fun. He loves to shake up people that are rigid, and I wanted a sense of that in the character too, because she's very uptight and locked into all the mundane details of domestic life. And he's good at shaking that up.

KCRW: You basically played on to some extent, who Bill Murray is in real life, which is something that generally tends to not happen in movies, and he doesn't often get a chance to use the power he has in real life. He's playing somebody who, when he enters the room, people pay attention to him, that sense of ease that he's immediately able to create, that almost Zen wry sense of his comes into play, too, and he's often reluctant to be that kind of person in front of the camera. 

Coppola: We didn't really talk about it. I just picture him a certain way, and I know he brings that effervescence that I hope to bring to the character. I think there are elements of him that are similar, but then of course, he's not that guy at all. So it was fun to see him inhabit that role and bring his joie de vivre to that character. 

 I feel like in life, when Bill gives a speech, a toast or something, it's always so poignant and touching. He's so sincere when he puts his heart into something. So I wanted to have that quality come through. I remember in my late 20s, doing "Lost in Translation" when I was going through a divorce. And I remember talking to him, and him opening up in this sincere way, in this kind of big brotherly advice way. That side always stayed in my mind. 

KCRW: One of the things I like about this and "Lost in Translation," and what they have in common is that he is playing characters who lead with their hearts, and that's kind of what he's like in real life in that he's skeptical, but not cynical, but he often plays cynical characters. Having him be somebody who's really so open to what he's feeling at the moment is a really interesting thing to get to see him play and not comment on it, but just actually feel it.

Coppola: It's true, he doesn't always show that, and that's just one part of the quality that I love about him is how he really puts his heart and sincerity out there as a person and then I wanted him to also connect with them emotionally and see his vulnerability. When we shot the scene in Mexico, and he's talking about this relationship and heartbreak, it was really startling because you don't see him make that switch in such an extreme way, and it felt like he was really talking about someone important to him.

KCRW: There's a beat in the last third of the movie, where he's talking about his relationship with his kids and his mother and what happened when suddenly he was a father, and his needs weren't being met. And it is a startling moment because it seems to come out of nowhere. He hears her but doesn't actually answer anything that she asks him so that he becomes suddenly really forthright and direct about what he's feeling. It's a big moment.

Coppola: That kind of guy is always slipping out before he can really have to face things and is always on the move and having fun, and I think only with his daughter, will he open up that slide, and I was curious about that. That relationship is unlike any other woman in his life, and now her being an adult and looking at her relationship, he can talk about that in a way that he hadn't ever before. 

When we shot that scene, it really took Rashida and me by surprise, because, you know, I knew that he would go for it. But it was really touching in the moment when we were filming.  The tone of the movie kind of flops back and forth, and I hope that you can just go with it. It was tricky in the edit,  finding the tone between more silly moments and the more heartfelt, but I always like when you can have both. Life is like that.

KCRW: As I was watching it, I found myself thinking about your dad's movie, "The Conversation," which is how casual the violations in somebody else's life are. Also in that movie observing that couple because you're with somebody who's investigating at the same time observing her own life, and there are lots of echoes in character moments in that movie.

Coppola: Wow, I never never thought of that. Maybe in my subconscious. I love the ending. That's one of my favorite endings of all time. I was thinking more about "The Thin Man" kind of screwball comedy, "The Awful Truth" and the premise of infidelity. My brother Roman told me about "My Favorite Wife."  In the spirit of those kinds of comedies, and also I was kind of missing romantic comedies, those sincere romantic comedies and sophisticated comedies and was trying to do something in that vein.

KCRW: One of the things that I think for people who love movies and romantic comedies is that "The Thin Man" movies are romantic comedies about a married couple rather than people who are trying to get married. That seems to me to be like a really adult difference to delineate that some romantic comedies are about the pursuit of romance. And this is about finding the romance in your own life. 

Coppola: I was like, Oh, I'm gonna try to make a romantic comedy, and then in the edit, I'm like, this is not romantic. It didn't feel comedic, but I like that she kind of felt like her marriage was in a rut or falling apart and just being in that moment of him swooping in to save her, but really just an excuse to get her on this paranoid adventure.

KCRW: What's evident in the movie and becomes more so by the end of the movie, is that her husband loves her. So the idea of making a romance for people who love each other, rather than about people trying to find this impossible ideal and trying to keep all these plates in their lives spinning and then questions being asked about their romance by somebody who's again a skeptic but not a cynic, her dad. I think there are a bunch of really interesting ideas going on in this that make it feel almost like you're reacting to what romantic comedy has become and trying to find a way to get into it yourself.Coppola: That's interesting. Yeah, thanks. I guess I was thinking about that whole world but wanted to look at when you're in the midst of it, as opposed to trying to pursue it, and I wanted to do something sweet and sincere but hopefully not too sappy,

KCRW: What could be a very sappy moment is the scene where Felix is telling his daughter where her name comes from, which becomes this sweet grace note that goes throughout the movie. 

Coppola: My husband's uncle was a German film critic and wrote a lot about cinema. He loved the movie "Laura," so I took the idea from that. My dad sings a lot; he loves show tunes, so it was kind of an homage to that aspect of my dad. So, you know, those connections between a father and a daughter.

KCRW: I'm sorry, your dad likes showtunes?

Coppola: Is that not known about him? I was talking to someone that was writing at the Bemelmans bar. All the pianists there were talking about all the obscure show tunes that my dad was requesting. He comes from the musical theater.

KCRW: I like the scale of the movie because it's a really intimate film, which also made me think of "The Conversation" because for the most part, that's a fairly intimate movie, too. It's set in New York, but it's also about really how small a place New York is, especially when you're sitting in bars or restaurants, and I wonder if these things all came into play for you too.

Coppola: I didn't think about that aspect of it, but I thought about that she's downtown and Felix is kind of uptown, which feels like a whole different city, and it's loud and there's construction outside for her. And then she feels his power in this little bubble, and it kind of drifts into his world, to old New York. Trying to have the romantic aspect of how I remember, as a kid going to the Russian Tearoom and 21. But I did want to be in her world and the two of them, and feel going around New York with them. 

KCRW: Bill does like out of the way places and places that people won't know about, and he'll take you to some restaurant in the financial district that has like four tables at it, and he knows everybody there. Again, there's a part of it that makes this movie feel the most like a real Bill Murray movie I've ever seen. I just wondered how he responded to it when he saw it.

Coppola: The character has so many elements that are so different from who he is, but I agree that there is that kind of magic of traveling around New York that he can do with confidence in a way that no one else can, kind of like the mayor of the place. I feel like everyone has someone like that in their life.

KCRW: Yeah, we've talked about this before: in your movies there's this pairing of somebody who's kind of an observer who's watching somebody who's larger than life, who's kind of their own planet, and the people around them. That's a big part of this one too, isn't it?

Coppola: Yeah, definitely. I'm sure that comes from my upbringing, but I think there is something about her being more internal, and he's more out there in the world and the contrast.

KCRW: So often in your movies, you've cast people who have grown up being observed. I mean, going back to your long relationship with Kirsten Dunst, who's been acting since she was a kid, and then Rashida who also has grown up in that way, too. You seem to connect to people like that.

Coppola: I definitely connected to Rashida and the fact that we both have big charismatic dads, And I think that kind of makes you act the other way when you're around that. You're reined in more when you're around that.

KCRW: I want to talk about Rashida's character and performance, too. You can sense she's trying to make a place for her own creativity in her life and between the outside influence of her father or deal with her marriage and also getting her kids around the city. It's like she inhabits a real world; she's on the ground, and her father lives in some sort of dream, literally seems to be living in some castle somewhere. There's this really interesting schism between their two worlds.

Coppola: Yeah, I think she is so bogged down by all the practical details that she's kind of lost a sense of her spirit and creativity. With him showing up, she has to look at all her roles and who she wants to be and reconnect with that spark. I think she is so great at conveying that. He says these things, and she could answer with just a look or eyebrow. You know exactly what she's thinking. I know it's harder to be the straight man, but I loved how they played off each other.

KCRW: You were talking before about him being the last vestige of an era, and the film doesn't judge him at all. And in a lot of ways, she doesn't either, because she's clearly got past all that stuff. So this isn't about her trying to hash out her relationship with him because in that way, she knows who she is. It's just that her father and her husband have these creative lives. You can see that she feels the need to claim that in her way, for herself, too, which for me, is where the drama comes in.

Coppola: Yeah, definitely. I feel like she's trying to find her footing, that thing of having little kids, which, when I was starting to think about this idea, I was trying to figure out like, how do you write when you have to wake up early in the morning. I used to stay up all night writing. So I tried to put that in the character like in all the different roles that you're supposed to all of a sudden be great at all these different things. Marlon, Rashida, and I talked about how when his kids were little, he went off and worked to kind of get out of the pressure. How their life gets turned upside down as it does when you have babies, little kids and so yeah, I was thinking about that and her trying to find her way and reconnect with her creativity.

KCRW: We're talking about Marlon Wayans, who is really good in the movie. There's been so much in your movies about the exotic versus the real world. I mean, that's a really big part of "Marie Antoinette" but also that line between what's exotic and what really is in your life is this thing that you pursue. He's somebody who's trying to let her know that her life may be wearing on her, and she's feeling all this pressure but that he believes in her, but he's so distracted. It's a really great and felt performance. 

Coppola: Yeah, I'm so glad that Fred Bruce, my producer, legendary casting advisor, mentioned him, and I love that we don't see him play that kind of role very often. He's so talented, but more for being broader. He's so charming and brought so much to it, and I wanted to make sure that he wasn't like the token husband, that it was someone that you really cared about. 

KCRW: So funny, the token husband, because generally that kind of guy, we're supposed to really think that he's evil or he must be conniving, or he must be faithless, and you have to create a context where he both loves his wife, but we have to ask ourselves, is he cheating on her or not? Because he is so confident and winning and charming. We have to wonder and ask ourselves early on: did she marry her father?

Coppola: Yeah, that's the question that comes up, as you go into relationships as an adult and think about how you react. Are you being drawn to someone that's the opposite of them or reliving that episode, like psychology 101? But I definitely wanted to make that connection that she's looking at her relationship and looking at her parents' relationship and how her father shaped her and how she looks at her husband. And it's all so connected. 

My daughter Romy, who's 13, thinks he's guilty. She thinks it's naive to think he's not, but I don't want to spoil it because there's very little mystery in the film, but I hope that people go along with what happens.

KCRW: That's why I guess I'm trying to talk about it in broader strokes, because I don't want to give too much away. But I do think there's a lot going on. A lot of what Rashida has is reactions, rather than saying things. She's doing a lot of takes with Jenny Slate and with her kids and with Bill. That clearly gets to the amount of trust you had in her as an actor.

Coppola: I relate to these characters that are more internal and taking it all in and then trying to figure it out, And she does that so well. I knew that she had that side, which I don't think you see as much as she does more broad comedy, so to see her more internal side of that is interesting. Because I know she has that, and I hope audiences can mull it over and process things along with her.




Rebecca Mooney