Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for ON THE ROCKS

Geri chats with Sofia Coppola—writer, director, and producer of ON THE ROCKS—about how her writing process has changed over the years, how family dynamics helped shape her work, and why it’s so important to trust your instincts.

Sofia Coppola’s career as a writer and director began with her 1999 film THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. Since then, Sofia has written and directed films like THE BEGUILED, THE BLING RING, MARIE ANTOINETTE, and LOST IN TRANSLATION. Her script for LOST IN TRANSLATION received the 2004 Writers Guild and Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay.

Her latest feature, ON THE ROCKS, tells story of young New York-based author and married mother-of-two, Laura, who has become suspicious that her career-driven husband may be having an affair with a coworker—a speculation encouraged by her caddish, bon vivant father. The film was released in October 2020, and is available to stream on Apple TV+.

Season 7 of OnWriting is hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys. She also performs sketch and improv at theaters and festivals around the country.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. I’m your host, Geri Cole. Each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news, break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes and so much more. Today I’m pleased to speak with Sofia Coppola, writer, director, and producer of On the Rocks, a new film in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+. Sofia has written and directed films like The Beguiled and The Bling Ring. Her original screenplay for Lost In Translation won a Writers Guild Award and an Academy Award. We spoke over Zoom about how her writing process has changed over the years, how family dynamics helped shape her work and why it’s so important to trust your instincts. Hi, Sofia. It’s so great to speak with you.

Sofia Coppola: Hi, nice to meet you. Thank you.

Geri Cole: Nice to meet you as well. I loved On the Rocks and I want to dig deep into the writing process of the film. But first, I want to talk a little bit about the film’s release, which came out during a pandemic. What was that process like and how have you sort of been holding up during the pandemic? Have you found a creative spark during this time?

Sofia Coppola: I have to say that a writing project helped get me through just having my brain engaged in something outside of the pandemic. So that was helpful adapting a book and just to get lost in another world. I always find writing to be the hardest thing to do, but also a great kind of help and companion when you’re going through tough times. So that’s been good. I feel really lucky that we finished our film right before the world shut down, because I know a lot of people were in the middle of projects and shoots. I can’t imagine, so that felt lucky just that we had this, got to capture New York at a moment right before things all change. I just feel so lucky about and I was glad that it could come out during this time, because I felt that people, it was nice to be able to see New York in its lively state. I hope it was a comfort or brought something joyful to people when we’re at home, and can’t go out and can’t travel.

Geri Cole: Yeah. It definitely did. Felt like iconic New York, which was like, oh, New York. Hopefully we’ll be able to get back to that feeling of just going to restaurants. So you both wrote and directed On the Rocks. Can you talk a little bit about how you switch hats from writer to director, or if there’s always just a writer and director collaborating in your head? Then can we talk a little bit also about the process of putting On the Rocks together?

Sofia Coppola: I’ve always done the two together. I’ve never done it separately, so I can’t really imagine. But for me, the writing phase is just the first step of making the film. I know it’s all going to change. It’s like the blueprints and then it takes shape when you’re with your collaborators. I try to fill in the story as much as I can for the people I’m working with to understand what I have in mind. But sometimes I don’t go into too much detail because I know in my head, it’s reminders for me of how I want to do it and I know what it looks like. So I tend to write in a more sparse way, because it’s just a shorthand for me. But I do want it to illustrate enough for the actors and all the departments, to help me convey what I have in my head.

I always find the writing to be the hardest part. I started this, sadly I looked up, I registered it with the WJ maybe seven years ago, the title and a few sentences of what the story was. I’ve had it in my head for a really long time, wanting to do the story. Just it being in the back of my mind as I worked on other things. Even though it’s not that complicated of a story, maybe because it’s personal, it wasn’t totally formed. It originated from a friend had a story of spying on her husband with her debonair Playboy father. They were really hiding in the bushes and he was giving her advice about men from this very specific point of view. I thought, “Oh my God, I would love to see a father daughter buddy movie.”

It just seems so ridiculous and over the top, but that gave me license to put it in that world where they’re on this crazy adventure. Then to be able to put things from my relationship with my father, and just knowing men of that generation, his friends and in that world. Just also the dialogue between just the way they go about life and of this other era that is in contrast to today’s life in a way, but wanting to have a dialogue. Also, between men and women, but it’s so specific through a father and a daughter in a way that they can talk about things. I remember in my early twenties having martinis with my dad. I was hung up on some guy and I didn’t understand why he was blowing me off, hot and cold. I remember him like saying, “This is how it is. This is how men are really thinking.” I wanted to take all these elements and try to put them together with these characters. She’s at a different stage in her life. When I started writing it, I had little kids and struggling with how do you work and be a creative person, and also be engaged as a parent. Then I think that makes you look at your own parents and relationships and all these things.

Geri Cole: I feel interpersonal relationships are a theme that we see a lot in your films and writing the nuances of those relationships. Do you set out to tell these kinds of stories or do they just unfold as you’re writing them?

Sofia Coppola: I guess I’m just drawn to that and interested in them. This one, I definitely wanted to look at first that relationship between a grown daughter and also this kind of a man having a grown daughter. It’s probably the only woman in his life that he has that kind of relationship with. It’s so different than the other ones and what that must be like for him, although I’m more of her point of view. So I was starting with that. Then it branched out to looking at her marriage and context to her parents and these things. I don’t know. I feel like as you grow up and get older, you look at these different aspects as you start to embark on them. I don’t know if I usually set out … I guess, relationships and the way people communicate and connect always interests me. I always find that in life, people don’t spell out their feelings. I love how it’s conveyed in gestures or what you don’t say or the subtext. I think that always interests me.

Geri Cole: So what is your process like? Do you have a specific place that you write? You said it starts as just shorthand. Do you work off cards or have any rituals that you feel comfortable sharing?

Sofia Coppola: Oh yeah. It’s fun. I’m friends with Tamar Jenkins who’s also director and a writer, and it’s fun. Our kids go to school together and sometimes we have coffee after dropping them off and complain about writing or share. I think it’s really nice to have the camaraderie of other writers.

Geri Cole: Absolutely.

Sofia Coppola: I think she told me about just having a box with cards where you just write down ideas. You don’t know where they’re going to go and then you can always just pick one up and put it in somewhere. I think there’s something nice about before you’re writing in a format, just to be able to have a place to put ideas. So I adopted that from her. I try to write sometimes just in script form, just little moments of scenes and a little impression or dialogue, and then go to more of a final draft.

I love working in final draft because it starts to look like a script. I find that so encouraging because it’s like, oh it’s looking like a script because it’s formatted that way. I have a little office at home above our apartment where we live in New York in the West Village. So I spend a lot of time there procrastinating and trying to write. I used to always write at night. I would stay up all night writing and I’d love that time because it feels like everyone else is asleep. It doesn’t feel like a time to work. It’s like free, creative, dreamy time. So then having kids and having to get up early, I had to restructure that. Just finding times. I find it easier when I really have to get stuff done, to go away and go stay at a hotel or somewhere else if you can, and just spend a week just totally immersed in it where you don’t have to think about anything else. I remember my dad used to go to Las Vegas to write.

Geri Cole: It seems like it has the most distractions.

Sofia Coppola: It seems like the most distracting place, but I think his thinking was that you could just order service at any time of day. It was just time was in a weird blur. But I do think it’s nice when you can get out of your regular life and responsibilities, and just get lost in your story. I find that helpful, but can’t do that all the time. So that’s more like trying to finish it. I went away for a couple of days. I’m close with my brother who is also a writer and filmmaker, and so it’s really helpful. He’s always the first person I show things to. He is always helpful, to help me figure things out because he knows so much, I guess my voice or how I like to express things. He doesn’t try to put his way of doing it. He’s very helpful and just to have that person that you’re close to and trust, that you can share things with, without it being scary. I think that’s so helpful. Also, I feel like visuals always really help me, like starting to collect images of what the story looks like and music. I think just starting to have the mood. It feels like just busy work or procrastinating, but I think subconsciously it’s brewing. So I find that helpful.

Geri Cole: You just led me to my next question, which is music. I feel like music is always so vital in your films. The band Phoenix, which is led by your husband, did the soundtrack for On the Rocks. So you start with a soundtrack in a way. How does it affect your writing process and then your filmmaking process?

Sofia Coppola: I like to listen to music when I’m writing. I think it always ends up informing what the movie feels, the atmosphere or sometimes that particular music ends up in the movie. I was listening to Chet Baker because I was trying to think of the mood of Felix and what his world sounded like. I always find it helpful to have music that feels like the mood of what you’re writing. Then sometimes those songs creep in the movies because you get attached or it evokes a feeling you’re looking for.

Geri Cole: I feel like loneliness is also a theme that run throughout some of your work. Is that intentional? If so, what fascinates you about loneliness or being alone, especially in the face of comfort or being alone in big places?

Sofia Coppola: I think it’s the mode I’m in when I’m writing, because I feel like … I don’t know. When I’m writing, I’m more in my introverted mode and I’m looking inward. When I’m feeling connected to the world and having fun, I don’t want to write. That’s the time I’m participating in life. When I’m writing, I’m more being introspective. I feel like writing is lonely because you’re alone, and you’re full of self doubt and looking at all these things. So I think I’m in that mode. I think it’s more interesting to write about things that are challenging and you’re struggling with because of those times when you’re not, you want to enjoy it. You don’t want to, I don’t know, reflect as much or you’re engaged in having fun. So I’m not in that mode all the time, but when I’m writing, I tend to be in my more introspective, introverted world. I think that’s why maybe that creeps through into the characters or a respond to that. I think also it’s when I’ve been in big transitions of my life, personally that’s when I’m drawn to writing to help understand that. So they tend to be about characters going through some transition and looking at that and how to connect.

Geri Cole: Let’s talk a little bit also about the watches, the symbolism of watches in the film. The one that she gets from her dad and then that she then gets the new one from her husband at the end.

Sofia Coppola: I love when she puts the watch that her father gave her in a box and it closes. It feels like a little coffin, like she’s putting him to rest. I thought the idea was just a visual to show that she has to put her daddy’s girl persona aside, and grow up and commit to being partners with her husband fully. I like when you can have a visual metaphor for that. Hopefully it’s not too corny. Someone else was like, “Why didn’t she save the old watch? That’s so much cooler.” To me, I wanted to show that she was closing that chapter and fully committing to her husband in a way.

Geri Cole: And that she has to, in order to be fully present in the relationship with her husband.

Sofia Coppola: Yeah, she has to put that role aside. But then also, I like that she’s finding herself between all of them. She’s going into it as hopefully a more full version of herself and not just in the context of the different men, or work, or motherhood; looking at all these different roles that we kind of juggle.

Geri Cole: Do you feel like this is reflective of your own life, of having to move out of certain ways that people see you so that you can move into a new one?

Sofia Coppola: Yeah. I think the daddy’s girl thing I went through when I was younger, not at this stage of my life, but it’s definitely something that Rashida and I both talked about and I was thinking about. Just about all the different roles. I think there is a lot of pressure to do it all, and to be a great mother, and a great cook, and fit and an artist. I know my friends and I are like, “Oh my God, I feel like a failure at all of them.” Because you can’t do them all at one time. I guess you just try to juggle different things at different times. I love Esther Perel. Do you know that she’s a couples therapist who has a podcast? [inaudible 00:14:16] I tried to put some of it in the movie, but we ended up cutting it out. But just talking, it’s called Mating in Captivity. How you keep yourself as a desirable person, but in domesticity and. Just thinking about all those roles, I definitely was thinking about how you define yourself.

I think after having kids, you’re pushing a stroller and like, “Who am I?” There’s an identity crisis moment and you’re in this foreign world of elementary school, these people that you would never know otherwise. Now to me it seems normal because my kids are older, but there’s that first moment I think, where you’re in a foreign land and finding your footing. Then you hopefully reconnect with yourself outside of that. That’s what I wanted to show her character was in a rut. So I felt like then it would be believable that she would go along on this crazy adventure that a stable person would not do. But because she’s so vulnerable and lost, and her writing isn’t going well. I don’t know about you, but I feel like my writing, if I’m stuck on something, it’s hard to keep that out of the rest of your life. When you’re writing is going well, it bleeds over in how you feel about yourself.

Geri Cole: Yes, very much so.

Sofia Coppola: We’re so connected to how our creative life is connecting.

Geri Cole: This is a question that I like to ask lots of people, which is what success looks like for you. I feel like success never looks like what you think it looks like. You find yourself in moments and you’re like, is this success? I can’t tell. Is it happening right now? So I was wondering what it looks like for you and how that may have changed over the years.

Sofia Coppola: Oh yeah. That’s a really good question because you never really feel like that, but then there’s glimpses of it. But I think you always have to remind yourself. I feel like as artists and creative people, you’re never satisfied. That’s what makes you keep making things. So I think it’s important to try to stop and be like, “I finished my project that I worked on for so long and some people connected to it.” You weren’t torn apart for it, because it’s always so vulnerable to put yourself out. Especially if you have your heart into it and something personal. But I feel like it’s that thing you always have to remind yourself, that you did it because, I don’t know. At least my nature is always to be like, okay now onto the next. Because it never turns out the way exactly how you imagined. So it’s always striving to make what you have in your head. I guess for me, success is having people that I care about connect with my work or just having people connect with it. I think that’s always gratifying and why you make things; just to feel connected to people. If you can bring something to them, I think that feels like success.

Geri Cole: Another question that I like to ask folks is any hard won lessons. So things that you appreciate greatly now, that you wish you had appreciated earlier.

Sofia Coppola: I just felt like all of my twenties, but I don’t know specifically. That’s a good question. I always feel like I really learned to trust my instincts and that when you’re working on a project, especially like when you’re writing or editing, there’s a moment it just looks like a mess. Then somehow magically, it shapes into a script or a movie and you don’t know exactly when that happens. But I think just having that faith that even though it looks like a mess, it is going to turn into something. I think you just get that from experience, kind of trusting your instincts. Even if you think no one else is going to care about it, that there’s something in it that interests you and to follow that. You have to have some blind faith. I don’t know if that answers the question.

Geri Cole: Faith and trust in yourself, I think are huge things too. Once you feel them and own them, they’ll continue to serve you very well. But until then, it’s a tricky time.

Sofia Coppola: I learned a good thing from my dad. Never reading what you’re writing, just keep going forward. Because when you start looking at it, you start criticizing it and then you don’t want to keep going. So I try to just keep going forward and writing. Then when I get to a point, stop and look at it. But if you’re always looking at it while you’re writing it, it’s hard to not be self-conscious. So I find that helpful.

Geri Cole: That’s really good advice actually, to just trust that you need to get as much of it out.

Sofia Coppola: When you’re being creative, you want to try to not be critical and just go in that dreamy, creative mode.

Geri Cole: Was there a favorite line that you wrote for On the Rocks or anything that stands out to you?

Sofia Coppola: It’s hard to say. For me, I wrote more dialogue this time than I ever have. So that was interesting and challenging for me. The great Buck Henry was like, “Why don’t you buy some dialogue for once?” I was like, “Okay, I’m going to try to write dialogue.” So it was fun. It was just a different mode. I was like, there’s a lot of people just sitting there talking. But I got into that rhythm and I wanted it to have that rhythm of old comedies where they had a snappiness, but still feel naturalistic. One of my favorite moments is when Rashida’s tear, Laura the character, her tear falls in the martini glass. She’s just having a moment alone with her dad. It was fun to watch the two of them read the dialogue and have these conversations, but I can’t think of a particular moment. Bill has so many moments. Also, the expression on his face when he drops these little bombs, always amuses me.

Geri Cole: You had two pretty fantastic actors there in Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. Did you write this with them in mind?

Sofia Coppola: I did, not at the beginning. But then as I started working on it and it really helps me a lot to picture them, because I can picture his expression and also just her delivery. Also, the way she can say so much with just a look because some of the things he says, you just can’t say anything in response to. It really helped me a lot to picture them.

Geri Cole: Awesome. There seems to be a theme of trust in this film, of Laura’s not having … Her trust wavering in herself and also in her marriage, but then blindly trusting her dad as you do, I suppose with parents. If that was a theme that you were really trying to put across in this film.

Sofia Coppola: That’s a good point. I didn’t actually specifically think of that, but that totally resonates in the story. It was about her, I guess, trusting herself and finding herself in all these roles and men in her life. I didn’t think specifically that way, but yeah. It is about that.

Geri Cole: Which actually goes back to that hard one lesson that you said earlier, of just trusting your instincts and trusting that it will turn into something.

Sofia Coppola: Yeah, definitely.

Geri Cole: Is there an alchemy you try to achieve with each new project?

Sofia Coppola: It’s always like some kind of weird hazy dream or something nagging at you that you have to get out, I feel like. I guess I’m just trying to get out and articulate what this thing is floating around in my head. I saw a documentary where [Fellini 00:21:30] was talking about it. It’s like trying to remember a dream. It is this, you have these abstract images and feelings, and then how do you articulate them? So I always feel like it’s, you just have to follow it until it comes out and it feels like what was floating around in your head. I don’t know. It’s pretty mysterious to me.

Geri Cole: I often think of writing as like wizardry in a way, where it feels like you have to wretch something out of the ether, and then pull it down, and then through yourself and get it out onto a page that it’s like-

Sofia Coppola: Totally.

Geri Cole: It really feels like …

Sofia Coppola: That’s why it can be these great moments when you feel like it is coming through you, and then the most frustrating thing when it’s not. I totally agree. It’s always fun to talk to other writers, because it makes you feel less crazy and alone. It’s like a specific thing.

Geri Cole: Very much so, especially I feel like the more I talk to the writers some more. I’m like, oh, procrastination is okay.

Sofia Coppola: I know. I feel so good knowing that you can build that into your schedule. That’s just part of it. That’s part of your process, then you don’t feel so bad about it. I think it is. I think it’s important, all that putter time just. I always feel like if you’re stuck, going for a walk or doing something else is always helpful.

Geri Cole: Yeah, to get out and get moving. Did the script change much from first draft?

Sofia Coppola: Oh yeah. I think in my original, I have an early draft where he turned out that he wasn’t such a good guy. It was based on this friend’s story and it was too depressing. I was like, I want to have a positive message. So it went through a lot of different drafts. It took a while to get its final shape.

Geri Cole: Actually my husband and I had a bit of a debate about whether or not he actually was cheating at the end still. We were like, “Wait, he was still cheating?”

Sofia Coppola: That’s funny. My teenage daughter is like, “I can’t believe you think he’s innocent. He was definitely up to something.” I’m glad to leave it for interpretation, but I like to think he’s a good guy. Marlin is so charming that he could be slippery. So I think so much of that is helped by the actor. That’s another thing. That character wasn’t so much on the page. I wanted him to be charming, but Marlon I knew would really fill it in with his personality. I’m always grateful to actors.

Geri Cole: Absolutely. Do you feel like On the Rocks marks a new direction for your work?

Sofia Coppola: I don’t see going in that direction. It was fun to do something different for me, but it’s not like I want to continue on that. I like each time doing something different from before. It’s usually a response to what I just did. I really wanted to do something that felt light and playful. I just felt like things have been so heavy the last few years, so it’s something that can feel a little bit like escaping into this little bit of fantasy, aspirational world, but still rooted in real themes. Hopefully deep connections, but served up in a pretty way and a fun, light way. But underneath it, had depth I hope. I miss those smart comedies, which I feel like I grew up with. Then it seems like more lately, they’ve become really low brow, which I think I love too, but I was missing a sophisticated smart comedy.

Geri Cole: There’s something very comforting about it.

Sofia Coppola: I was trying to do that. It’s funny because when I was living in France with my husband, there was a channel there called the comfort channel. It was just romantic comedies. You just knew you could put it on and it wouldn’t be anything harsh. I was like, “We need the comfort channel.”

Geri Cole: We do. Can we get that in the US? That’s a perfect idea. I guess it’s called Lifetime now. I feel like actually Lifetime only does women in danger films.

Sofia Coppola: I don’t know.

Geri Cole: I very much appreciated the comforting factor of this film. So what’s next? You said you’re adapting a novel?

Sofia Coppola: Yeah. I’m adapting an Edith Wharton novel that I love called the Custom of the Country. It was originally written in five parts for a magazine. So I’m trying for the first time to do a five-part series. It’s been really fun and challenging, but fun to have a quarantine project. It takes place in the gilded age of the early 1900s New York, and society and about a social climber. So it’s really fun to get lost in that world.

Geri Cole: So do you have any advice for aspiring writers that you feel comfortable bestowing?

Sofia Coppola: I guess just to follow what you’re interested in, what you see and not get deterred by what you think other people are interested in. When I was writing Lost In Translation, I just thought it was so indulgent and like, who cares? But I kept writing it because I was trying to express something. Then I was surprised that so many people connected with it. So I think it’s just really important to write something that is important to you and not worry if it seems like no one else will connect to it.

Geri Cole: That’s really good advice.

Sofia Coppola: I hope.

Geri Cole: I feel like certainly as a writer, that you’re always trying to fill what think people want, but it’s maybe not that.

Sofia Coppola: Or sometimes I’ll think of one particular person that I want to write it for, but not to try to please too many people, I guess. To do just whatever you’re interested in and to not feel bad about procrastinating, that’s all part of it.

Geri Cole: This is my favorite advice. Don’t feel bad about procrastinating. Well, Sofia, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Again, we very much loved your film and are very excited to talk with you.

Sofia Coppola: Thank you. It’s really nice talking to you. Thank you.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East You can follow The Guild on social media at WGA East. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening and write on.

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