How Sofia Coppola and Rashida Jones put their own family lives into ‘On the Rocks’

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LOS ANGELES — It was just another Saturday for a pair of working mothers when Sofia Coppola and Rashida Jones got together on a recent conference call. Jones had been dealing with a flat tire as she was driving from Ojai to Los Angeles. Coppola was in Northern California, concerned about nearby fires as the clatter and chatter of life with a husband and two daughters carried on around her.

They were both preparing to travel to Tuesday night’s world premiere of “On the Rocks” as part of the New York Film Festival. The picture is opening in select theaters on Oct. 2, distributed by A24, and then streaming on Apple TV+ starting Oct. 23.

Written and directed by Coppola, the film stars Jones as Laura, a working wife and mother of two young girls living in New York City. With little time to herself, she struggles to write the book she’s contracted for and generally feels stuck in a rut when she begins to suspect that her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), is having an affair with a co-worker. Enter her dashing, bon vivant father, Felix (Bill Murray), a semi-retired art dealer with a high-flying lifestyle and devil-may-care charisma, who persuades Laura to spy on Dean. Soon, Laura and Felix are sharing long meals over drinks, talking about life and relationships, as they try to get to the bottom of what’s up with Dean.

Similar to Coppola’s films “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere,” many aspects of “On the Rocks” are drawn from her own life, yet she wouldn’t call her work autobiographical. Though yes, she did once catch her father, Oscar-winning filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, watching “Breaking Bad” with her young children while babysitting, just as Murray does in “On the Rocks.”

“When you’re writing something personal or original material, I always draw on my life, and it’s a way to figure things out,” said Coppola. “I started working on (this script) a while ago when my kids were little — just that moment of trying to find my way as a creative working person … navigating a new moment in my life.”

Jones and Coppola met nearly 20 years ago when Jones read what would become Scarlett Johansson’s role in “Lost in Translation” during an extended workshop of the script. Their paths crossed socially over the years, and Jones appeared briefly alongside Murray in the Coppola-directed 2015 holiday special “A Very Murray Christmas.”

The two have more than a few things in common. Coppola is the daughter of a famous filmmaker and has two children with her husband, Thomas Mars, of the band Phoenix. Jones is the daughter of musician Quincy Jones and has a child with Ezra Koenig of the band Vampire Weekend.

“I feel like we have things in common just about stages of life,” said Jones. “The conversations that we’ve had as friends about processing certain moments in life, and the era of being a woman of a certain age who has a family on both sides, both generations, and kind of juggling identity relative to other people.

“Once you’ve gotten to a certain point in your career and you actually have these things that are seemingly wonderful surrounding you — what’s your true purpose and how is that unique to you and not connected to all the people that surround you all the time? I think it’s something that a lot of people grapple with, and certainly women.”

“On the Rocks” is Coppola’s most straightforwardly comedic film — she mentions the work of Blake Edwards and banter-fueled classic screwball comedies as reference points. Yet even while Felix and Laura speed about the city eating caviar in a convertible, their conversations are often quite vulnerable and heartfelt — the sort of exchanges you expect in the filmmaker’s work.

As a middle-age wife and mother, Laura often feels unseen in her own life. When the two of them follow Dean down to Mexico, the happy-go-lucky Felix suddenly turns melancholic as he recalls the death of his former mistress, the affair that broke up his relationship with Laura’s mother.

“The themes we’re talking about are important to me and deep, and then I was trying to do it in a kind of light, fun way,” said Coppola. “I wanted to do like a father-daughter buddy movie with martinis discussing life and relationships. And I was missing that kind of smart, sophisticated comedy that I grew up with and trying to embrace something a little sillier than my usual realm of what I know how to do. It’s sort of out of my comfort zone.”

Even after collaborating with Murray on “A Very Murray Christmas,” Coppola had long been anxious about reuniting for a film, for fear of somehow tarnishing the affection toward “Lost in Translation.”

“I needed to just get over it,” said Coppola. “I had to put my worries aside.”

When Coppola cast Murray in “Lost in Translation,” it took a year to pursue and persuade him to do the part, and she still wasn’t entirely sure he was going to turn up to the first day of shooting. This time, it was a little easier getting him to commit.

“He’s still a man of mystery, but now he’s someone that’s a friend and I know I can count on,” said Coppola. “And I think Rashida was a big draw to get him to show up. Although he was a little disappointed that he had to play her dad and not her leading man.”

Though the movie’s story has a basis in elements of Coppola’s life, Jones also found herself connecting deeply to the material.

“It was personal for me on the page. And then it was even more personal when we filmed it,” said Jones. “There’s a dynamic for sure with my dad where I grew up loving being in the bask of his love and his charm. I love my dad so much. And I had completed a six-year project directing a documentary (2018’s ‘Quincy’) about his life.

“So all of that kind of intensity and of feeling, and also really being able to put that on screen in a way where I was like, ‘OK, you know what? I think I’ve done a good job as a daughter, whatever happens, that’s forever immortalized, that I made a movie about him,’” Jones said. “And now I can try to be my own person in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s completely tied up in him and his success and his love for me and his love for the world and all that stuff.”

But it wasn’t just feelings about her father that she found herself dealing with. Jones’ mother, actress Peggy Lipton, died in May 2019, not long before “On the Rocks” went into production.

“Just in terms of processing, there’s something kind of sad about this character. And I think she’s really searching and confused,” said Jones. “And to be really candid, I lost my mom right before I started shooting, which is one of the most difficult things that’s ever happened to me. And I still have waves of intense grief. I certainly did when we were filming, and Sofia and Bill were so tender and sensitive to that and to whatever I needed to do to kind of process that.

“But to show up and be this character who does have this sadness and ‘What’s the point of life?’ and ‘What’s it all for?’ and ‘How am I my own person?,’ just the timing of that, it was very bittersweet,” said Jones. “But it was a very nice, safe place for me to be really, really, really grief-stricken.”

When Coppola’s adaptation of “The Beguiled” came out in 2017, it sparked criticism and controversy for the decision to excise a Black female slave character from its story of a group of women surviving on a Virginia plantation during the Civil War. Coppola says her decision to focus “On the Rocks” on a Black couple was not a direct response to that.

“It’s not related or intentional,” she said. “I always wanted to work with Rashida. And then looking at Rashida, I wanted to build a family around her and make a portrait of this attractive American family.

“With ‘Beguiled,’ that was hard, and I’m glad to have that discussion. But no, it wasn’t a reaction to that. I had started working on this before.”

For Jones, “On the Rocks” marks only her second leading role in a film. Her first, 2012’s “Celeste & Jesse Forever,” was one she had to write for herself. It was meaningful to her to see a Black family at the center of the picture and to have her character have biracial parents, as she does. (Former model Alva Chinn plays her mother in the movie.)

“We talked about it a lot — because my family is so blended, I wanted it to feel like my family and also I’m aware of the fact that representation is important,” Jones said. “That’s not something that’s lost on me. At the beginning of my career, I didn’t have a lot of say as to how I was portrayed, what my family looked like.

“And it was important to me to have a Black family. We had a lot of discussions about what that meant,” Jones said. “We wanted to build a real family and a real relationship that felt like it could exist right now in a way that felt complex and complicated, but you know that they love each other. And that, to me, is part of filling in the spectrum of representation. It doesn’t always have to look exactly the same to be Black on-screen.”

The picture was shot on film by cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd, who also shot “The Beguiled”; much of the creative team for “On the Rocks” had worked with Coppola before, including producer Youree Henley, costume designer Anne Ross, production designer Stacey Battat, longtime editor Sarah Flack and music by the band Phoenix.

On the subject of Coppola’s father and his work, the elder filmmaker announced this month that he would be releasing a new edit and restoration of 1990’s “The Godfather: Part III” to be retitled “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.” Sofia Coppola, who had appeared in small roles in many of her father’s movies while she was growing up, took on her most substantial role at age 19 as Michael Corleone’s daughter, Mary, stepping in for Winona Ryder, after she had to drop out of the picture.

Asked if she is ready for a new round of conversations about her performance in the film, which was widely panned and ridiculed when the movie originally came out, Coppola replied, “Not really.”

“I don’t really want to relive ‘Did she ruin her father’s movie?’ and having to go through all that again,” she said. “But I’m at such a different point in my life. I don’t really care, because I don’t want to be an actress. And it’s weird to have all my young awkwardness on film again.”

Coppola is an Oscar winner for writing “Lost in Translation,” won the Golden Lion in Venice for “Somewhere” and the Cannes directing prize for “The Beguiled,” yet for all her successes, the filmmaker can still be a startlingly controversial figure. Some see her work as empty exercises in style and unexamined privilege, while a 2019 New York Times headline asked the question “Why hasn’t Sofia Coppola gotten the respect an auteur deserves?” When asked about the divisive response to her work, she demurs.

“I don’t really think about it,” she said. “I’m happy that I get to make my work and I get to work with great people that respect me enough to work with me. And I feel like I get to put my voice out there.”

Yet for all Coppola’s unassuming quiet and polite reserve, there is obviously a well of strong-willed vision that allows her time and again to make movies that are 100% unmistakably her own. She seems to know the secrets to get what she wants.

“I’m still trying to figure that out,” Jones interjected. “I’m literally studying and trying to figure that out. How to say little and get everything — a great skill that she has.”

“I mean, I’m very stubborn,” said Coppola. “I have something in my mind and I’m determined to get it made the way I want it to be done. But like all creative people, I’m filled with self-doubt, and even with the movie coming out, I was like, ‘Oh, now I have to show people.’ You know, it’s always scary. I think that keeps you from getting too full of yourself.”


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