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6 Filmmaking Tips From Sofia Coppola

She comes from a famous Hollywood family, but she has advice for those who don’t.
Sofia Coppola Shutterstock
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By  · Published on June 27th, 2017

Hollywood is rife with nepotism, and Sofia Coppola is obviously a beneficiary of her family’s fame. She became known through her acting in father Francis Ford Coppola’s movies, especially when her performance in The Godfather Part III was so harshly criticized. Later, she ventured into filmmaking and had a lot of help and advisement from her parents and other relations in the industry. But she quickly came into her own as a writer and director of unique and indispensable talents. And she’s got tips of the trade that are applicable to anyone, whether they’re Hollywood royalty or not. Here are six:

Go Your Own Way

Early on, Coppola did receive advice and mentorship from Dad, but she also learned quickly to ignore some of it. One of the first things he told her on the set of her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides, for instance, was to be louder so the cast and crew knew she was in charge. “I thought, OK, you can go now,” she told the New York Times in 2003 of her reaction. “As long as you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to be loud,” she explained three years earlier to FilmCritic.com. Even before she started on the project, she went against her father’s advice and wrote her adaptation despite not owning the movie rights to the source material.

In a recent Q&A after a screening of The Beguiled at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, she was asked about what she had to unlearn from her family’s influence and instruction. See her answer in the below video (and watch the rest for more valuable discussion of her work):

Be the Filmmaker You Want to See in the World

After quickly finding her own voice as a filmmaker, outside of her family’s shadow, Coppola continued to do what she wanted to do, nothing else (even if you’ve spent a year working on, say, Disney’s The Little Mermaid before realizing it’s not a right fit). And she’s been telling aspiring film directors to do the same — it’s actually her most frequently offered tip. Here’s one instance, quoted from a Q&A at Yale University in 2005 by the school’s daily newspaper:

Make something you want to see. Now that there are video cameras, it’s easy to get together with friends and make things you’re into.

And here she is again in a Reddit AMA she participated in just this week, talking not just about doing what interests you but what you wish was being made:

I think it’s important to tell the stories you want to see and make the films you feel aren’t being made. And to express your personal experience.

Oh, and she also told us something similar last month ahead of the Cannes Film Festival. Here she defended herself against criticisms that she sticks too much to writing what she knows:

I feel that’s really all you can do. I want to make something authentic so I feel more comfortable. I worry sometimes that [my characters] are too privileged, but that’s the world I know about. I feel I can only write what I know and hopefully, there are some universal, human aspects that everyone can relate to. I think you have to write about what interests you, what you want to express. It doesn’t have to define your whole identity.


Study Acting

At the Yale event, Coppola also urged aspiring filmmakers to “take an acting class.” Of course, she got some acting experience by appearing in her father’s movies, but she also studied the craft despite having no desire to pursue it further as a career. Instead, that education has informed how she works with her actors as a director. She explains in a 2013 DGA Quarterly article:

Having been in front of a camera, knowing how vulnerable that can be, I am sensitive to that vulnerability in my actors … By going to [acting and dialogue coach Greta Seacat’s] classes when I was younger, I learned how to talk to actors. Instead of saying, ‘Act tired in this scene,’ I’ll say, ‘You’ve been up all night and you want to go home,’ to set the mood for them.”


Always Look Forward

Coppola’s work as a writer is also something to recognize, but it’s not always given as much attention as her achievements as a filmmaker overall. Of course, she did win her single Oscar for writing Lost in Translation the same year she became the first American woman nominated for Best Director. When she is asked about the writing process, she often talks about how much she’s a procrastinator. And that’s not necessarily a flaw. “Procrastination is part of the writing process,” she told the Yale audience in 2005.

At a recent screening of The Beguiled at NYC’s Angelika Film Center, she talked about her writing process and how she beats writer’s block and procrastination by always finding a way to look forward to the next day of work (another tip she got from her father) and by always moving forward without getting stuck re-reading or looking back.

Here’s an excerpt from that Q&A event:

Don’t Be Deterred

Another piece of advice Coppola gives in the recent Reddit AMA is “don’t take no for an answer,” and we know she follows that tip herself because of her experience with her father before making The Virgin Suicides. Interestingly enough, the best advice she ever received from her father, as acknowledged in the below magazine video from 2016, is to not wait for permission.

She also is just relentless about doing things the way she wants to do them. She wouldn’t make Somewhere without being able to shoot it at the Chateau Marmont. And she wouldn’t make Lost in Translation without Bill Murray, who was very difficult to get ahold of and secure for the movie. She talks about her determination on that, as well as the need to be persistent as a director, at the start of the following 2003 Charlie Rose interview:

Now she gives related advice to other filmmakers, particularly women. From a recent interview for Parade magazine:

I want to be encouraging. Hopefully my work will encourage other filmmakers to do good work, and to get it out there. I know many young women are in film school, and I want them to not be deterred.

On the set of ‘The Beguiled’ (Focus Features)

Create a Comfortable Family Atmosphere

Yes, Coppola comes from a filmmaking family and does often get support from them and even regularly works with some of them (her brother Roman, in particular, who she says in the DGA Quarterly article is “like having my clone working on another scene” when he’s doing second-unit for her). But she’s also made strong family-like bonds and relationships with her non-blood collaborators, from members of her crew, most notably her longtime editor, Sarah Flack, and production designer, Anne Ross, to recurring actors such as Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. Dunst recently shared what she learned about directing from Coppola to Entertainment Tonight Canada, stating:

I like the way she creates such a family atmosphere on set. She has so many friends that work together with her and collaborate on her movies. And she’s very inclusive. Theres’s a comfortable familial kind of quality there, and I think when people are comfortable they do their best work, in an open, nice environment.

Another of her collaborators, The Virgin Suicides cinematographer Edward Lachman, had this to say about Coppola, as quoted in the DGA Quarterly article:

The best director is one that gives everybody the feeling that they are really helping to make the film in partly their own vision, but it’s really the director who is engineering it. Sofia makes everybody feel like they are the really important one.

As for Coppola herself, she says in the Parade interview:

It’s really important to me that we have a nice atmosphere on set and that people feel comfortable, because we’re asking actors to be vulnerable. You spend so much time on set, and it can be stressful, so it’s really important that the crew keep a nice atmosphere, especially on a film like this when we’re working with such young girls.

On the Set of ‘Somewhere’ (Focus Features)

What We’ve Learned

Coppola could probably just relay career advice she’s been given over the years (she shared a tip from Anjelica Huston with Marie Claire recently). When she does reveal her own personal secrets, they’re often very brief (she also tells Marie Claire she owes her success to her “stubbornness, strong work ethic, and basic manners”), but when she does have more substantial lessons to impart, they’re good ones. Most are inspired by the specific background she’s had, with her family, through her acting experience, and the fact that she is a woman in Hollywood, famous name or not. And they mostly have to do with being true to yourself and your interests as an artist and as a collaborator. These tips won’t necessarily get you a prize at Cannes, but if you’ve also got the talent, they might get you somewhere.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.