Sofia Coppola Makes It Look Easy. It Isn’t.

Young women let the director know how influential she is. But it’s still a battle to make films like her acclaimed “Priscilla.”

Article by Kyle Buchanan

Sofia Coppola priscillaSofia Coppola in Beverly Hills, Calif., Oct. 16, 2023. The veteran film director’s new release is “Priscilla,” about the young Priscilla Presley’s tumultuous relationship with Elvis. Photograph by OK McCausland/The New York Times.

Sofia Coppola is so drawn to the idea of becoming that she sometimes finds it hard to grasp that she became. Over eight feature films — including her latest, “Priscilla,” about young Priscilla Presley’s tumultuous relationship with Elvis — she has delved deeply into the liminal stage that is a young woman’s coming-of-age. So, you can hardly blame Coppola that after staying in that head space for so long, it comes as a surprise that 25 years have passed since filming her debut feature, “The Virgin Suicides.”

“It’s weird to reflect back at having a body of work,” she told me. “Like, ‘Oh, you’re a grown-up now and actually established, not just starting off.’”

It was a sunny October afternoon in Los Angeles, and we were sitting on a restaurant terrace at the Academy Museum, where the 52-year-old director had come to tout “Priscilla” and autograph copies of “Sofia Coppola Archive,” a new art book assembled from the boxes of letters, photographs and reference images she had collected throughout her career. After the signing, she participated in a conversation moderated by members of the academy’s teen council, who asked Coppola questions about screenwriting and style as a form of self-expression.

Teenagers and young women are still her demographic sweet spot, and Coppola, who is now the mother of two teenage daughters, met the young moderators’ queries with encouragement. “These are such good questions from the teen council, right?” she said to the audience. Many of the people attending the panel had come dressed to impress her, although Coppola was simply attired in a navy T-shirt with black trousers and ballet flats, her fingernails painted the same light-pink hue as the cover of her book.

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The director has released an art book, “Sofia Coppola Archive,” that compiles letters, photos and reference images. She herself has become an inspiration for younger artists. Photograph by OK McCausland for The New York Times.

In a profession where so many directors are chatty, high-strung neurotics, Coppola is the picture of placidity. But her even keel shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of caring. In a letter to actor Bill Murray included in “Archive,” Coppola describes a low moment when it seemed Murray couldn’t be reached to star in “Lost in Translation” (2003) and friends coaxed her out to dinner to consider other options. They soon found that her personal investment in Murray’s casting was more fraught than they could have known. “I broke down in tears at the restaurant (something I never do),” Coppola wrote.

This is all to say that Coppola is so serene — and her films, at their best, so sublime — that people may assume it all comes easily to her. (That she hails from a filmmaking family led by a titanic father, Francis Ford Coppola, can only further that notion.) But over the course of our lunch, Coppola was candid about the issues she faces this far into her Oscar-winning career. Making movies the way she wants remains so difficult that all the recent genuflection — such as the moment early in our lunch when a young fan with a “Virgin Suicides” shoulder bag came over to praise Coppola for being “such a light” — can still catch her off guard.

“To be treated with that kind of respect, it’s surreal,” Coppola said. “Maybe that’s why I’m surprised when I’m in this context, because I’m still fighting to get movies made and getting budgets cut. I don’t think I’m professionally treated in the way that I am when I encounter these young people.”

Early in her career, she was told that although women would go to a film starring men, the reverse wasn’t true. Although the prevailing attitude in Hollywood has evolved somewhat since then — or at least executives have learned to stop saying the quiet part out loud — Coppola still faces plenty of skepticism when trying to budget any female-fronted project. “The people in charge of giving money are usually straight men, still,” she said. “There’s always people in lower levels who are like myself, but then the bosses have a certain sensibility.”

On the press tour for “Priscilla,” young women keep telling Coppola that they plan to be filmmakers, too. Their ambition gives her hope, although it’s tempered by 2 1/2 decades of experience, including the tough battles she fought to save her new movie.

“If it’s so hard for me to get financing as an established person, I worry about younger women starting out,” she said. “It’s surprising that it’s still a struggle.”

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“I’m still fighting to get movies made and getting budgets cut,” Coppola said. Photograph by OK McCausland for The New York Times.

Coppola first thumbed through Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, “Elvis and Me,” as a vacation read years ago. Expecting little more than a fun page-turner, she found herself unexpectedly riveted by Priscilla’s predicament: Like the title character of Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” she was a teenager who married into royalty, then found herself trapped in a palace that offered everything and nothing. To Coppola, who was just 18 when she gave a harshly criticised performance in her father’s film “The Godfather Part III,” Priscilla’s feeling of being scrutinised by an entire country at such a formative age was all too relatable.

Still, it took some time for the story to click into place. Coppola had gone into 2020 readying her biggest project ever, an adaptation of “The Custom of the Country,” Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel, as a five-hour limited series for Apple TV+. But although the streamer has a reputation for spending big on prestige projects, Coppola said executives there weren’t keen on the lead character, ambitious social climber Undine Spragg, and began to tighten their purse strings accordingly. (Apple did not respond to requests for comment.)

“The idea of an unlikable woman wasn’t their thing,” Coppola said. “But that’s what I’m saying about who’s in charge.”

A friend prodded her to find something new to direct, and while laid up in bed for a week with COVID-19, Coppola took another look at “Elvis and Me” and suddenly saw with crystal clarity how it could work as a film. Even though Baz Luhrmann had just gone into production on the glitzy biopic “Elvis,” Coppola was undaunted: She figured if his version became a hit — and it did, grossing $288 million worldwide and earning eight Oscar nominations — then it would only juice interest in Priscilla’s side of the story.

Coppola called up Presley, who had been a fan of hers since “Lost in Translation,” and after careful wooing, the 78-year-old came aboard the project as an executive producer. On the advice of her frequent collaborator Kirsten Dunst, Coppola hired Cailee Spaeny, best known for “Mare of Easttown” and “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” to play Priscilla from ages 14 to 28. Casting Elvis was harder: The real-life icon left impossibly big shoes to fill, and Luhrmann’s leading man, Austin Butler, was about to be Oscar-nominated for his robust spin on the role. Coppola wanted her film to show Elvis’ darker, domestic side, and to play him, she selected fast-rising Australian actor Jacob Elordi from the HBO series “Euphoria.”

The project was coming together quickly, but on a tight budget that allowed little room for error. Luhrmann had made “Elvis” for $85 million and Coppola had less than one-fourth of that to spend on a lavish period piece that would span a decade and a half and re-create 1960s Memphis, Tennessee, in wintry Toronto. Then, just before the film’s start date last October, a key piece of financing fell through. To save “Priscilla,” which was now $2 million short of its budget, Coppola and producer Youree Henley were faced with an impossible task: An entire week would have to be cut from the film’s already slim shoot. With so little to work with, would “Priscilla” fall apart just as Coppola’s Apple series had?

“We were like, ‘If we hold hands and jump out of the plane together, we’ll just figure it out as we’re descending,’” said Henley, who huddled with Coppola to slash 10 pages from the script.

“It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” Coppola said about the mad scramble to make “Priscilla” work in just 30 days. Although the completed film feels refined and delicate, the shoot was anything but, since key locations were only briefly available and hairstyles, clothing and character ages changed radically between scenes. On the first day of shooting, Spaeny played Priscilla as a teenager graduating from high school; on the second, she shot the final scene as a single mother in her late 20s emerging from the gates of Graceland.

It’s a wonder any of it tracks, except that Coppola’s sensibility is so specific, and her actors so eager to please her, that each scene feels distinctly of a piece. At its Venice Film Festival premiere in early September, the film received strong reviews and secured Spaeny the Volpi Cup for best actress, while an emotional Priscilla Presley told Coppola, “You did your homework.”

“I still can’t believe our movie came together,” Coppola said now. And although mounting it was difficult, she recalled that while on set, she was in her element like never before.

“In the beginning, I was just kind of figuring it out,” she admitted, speaking of her career. “And now, making this film ‘Priscilla,’ I felt like, ‘Oh, I know how to do this.’ All the years of experience start to gel.”

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“I don’t think I’m professionally treated in the way that I am when I encounter these young people,” Sofia Coppola said. Photograph by OK McCausland for The New York Times.

Later in the lunch, we were interrupted by a 25-year-old who hoped that Coppola would sign her book. She had on the sort of frilly dress that Marie Antoinette would have gone gaga for, with a constellation of arm tattoos that snaked out from underneath her lace sleeves.

“My name is Sofia,” the fan said shyly. “I’m named after you.”

With a quavering voice, the young woman explained that when her parents emigrated from Panama, Coppola’s movies were among the first they watched. That’s how she got her name and accrued, over time, the desire to follow her idol into filmmaking. “You have no idea the impact you’ve had on my life,” the second Sofia said, a tear running down her cheek.

Coppola, who said she lived and worked in a “little bubble,” is always surprised when she meets people who connect this strongly to her work. “A lot of those movies didn’t get seen, and that they are so watched now by a young generation, it’s cool that they speak to them,” she told me.

She remembered that Paramount Classics was cautious about releasing “The Virgin Suicides” in the spring of 2000 — “They thought girls were going to kill themselves if they saw it” — and that for a while after it came out, she watched her male contemporaries (including her then-husband, Spike Jonze) book plenty of jobs she wasn’t getting.

Maybe it took the world some time to catch up. Although “Archive” is full of photos that Coppola has used for inspiration, Coppola’s own work now seems like the mood board for any number of artists, from photographer Petra Collins to singer Lana Del Rey. On television, you can detect the influence of her anachronistic take on “Marie Antoinette” in high-spirited historical remixes such as “Bridgerton” and “The Great,” while Coppola often trends on TikTok, much to the annoyance of her daughters, Romy and Cosima, the only teenage girls who aren’t especially impressed by her oeuvre. “They think I’m lame,” Coppola said, although when 16-year-old Romy posted a clever viral TikTok this year, many wondered if she might follow in her mother’s footsteps as a filmmaker.

A line can also be drawn from Coppola’s early work to the films of Greta Gerwig. They are two of only seven women to be nominated for the best director Oscar, and both got those nods early in their careers: Coppola was nominated at 32 for “Lost in Translation,” which won her the Oscar for original screenplay, while Gerwig got her directing nomination at 34 for “Lady Bird” (2017). Does Coppola think the blockbuster success of Gerwig’s “Barbie” could help more female-fronted projects find financing?

“I’m sure it’ll make things easier, but that’s a very specific kind of filmmaking with, I would imagine, a lot of executives involved,” she said. “So, that’s a different thing.”

Coppola isn’t especially interested in directing blockbusters, although she once tried to mount a big-screen take on “The Little Mermaid” for Universal and was briefly courted for the final “Twilight” film. “I’ve never expected to be mainstream,” she said. “The culture that I always liked growing up was the side culture.” All she really wants is the ability to tell her stories with the budgets that befit them, and with people around who support her sensibility.

But in the era of the comic-book tentpole, even that modest ask can be rejected as too much. Coppola meets frequently with director Tamara Jenkins — she calls their friendship a “two-person ‘women in film’ coffee group” — to compare the battle scars they’ve earned from trying to get movies made: “We’re like, ‘It’s so hard. Why do we do this?’”

Maybe that’s a question with no answer. Or maybe it’s an answer Coppola just has to keep relearning.

“When you finish a project, you’re like, oh,” she said, as a Mona Lisa smile appeared on her face. “You have to do it, because it bugs you until you do.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.