Why Priscilla director Sofia Coppola nearly auctioned off an afternoon with Jacob Elordi

At 52, the filmmaker behind Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette tells The National she is still fighting to tell personal stories

Director Sofia Coppola, left, with actress Cailee Spaeny, right, on the set of Priscilla (2023). Photo: Stage 6 Films
Powered by automated translation

Making independent cinema never gets easier, even if you’re Sofia Coppola. That’s the one sad truth about being a director.

If you’re doing it for love or for art, even if you’ve directed films such as Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette – Coppola’s early 2000s trio of films are considered modern classics by many – the next one always starts back down at the bottom of the hill as another boulder to roll up.

Luckily for Coppola, now 52, that was a lesson she learnt long before she got into the business herself. It was eminently clear watching her father, the renowned director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather and Apocalypse Now) fight for each production – a war he’s still waging at 84.

“Yeah, honestly. I grew up seeing my dad, and what he went through to make his movie. I just think that's the norm,” Coppola tells The National in a resigned tone.

“It’s true that if you're trying to make personal films or not being hired [to execute someone else’s vision], it’s always a little bit of a battle.”

She’s downplaying the gravity of what she’s gone through. At one point during the production of her latest film Priscilla, which had its premiere in cinemas across the Middle East on Thursday, it seemed like everything might fall apart just before the finish line.

Coppola describes financial difficulties, which lead to having to cut the film's schedule.

“We were really scrambling. I was screaming, ‘We just need like two more days!’” she says.

During the ensuing panic, Coppola even debated signing up the film’s star Jacob Elordi (Saltburn and Euphoria) for a celebrity auction, using the proceeds to buy more days of shooting.

“I wanted to do a pickleball tournament, like a sports thing. He didn't know about it, because I didn't want to exploit him,” Coppola says.

“But when I told him afterwards, he said, ‘I would have done that!' We were all desperately finding ways we could have one more day of shooting,” she adds.

The man who saved the day, she tells us, was her brother Roman Coppola. He is also director, but perhaps better known as the key collaborator of director Wes Anderson, with whom he co-wrote the screenplays or stories for The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom and this year’s Asteroid City, to name a few.

“My brother really came to the rescue. He helped shoot stuff second unit,” she says, meaning he shot supplementary footage to save her time. “It all came together.”

“I’m relieved that we had enough to tell the story, because we did cut out a lot. But the thing is, while it’s always a struggle, I know some people have to struggle more, so I can’t complain. It’s just the nature of independent film.”

Coppola’s tendency to think about others before herself is clear in her handling of Priscilla. Retelling the true story of famed American singer Elvis Presley’s relationship with his wife from the day they met in 1959 until their divorce in 1973, the film could have easily garnered more attention if it had been portrayed in a more tabloid-esque tone.

Instead, the film is an exemplary exercise in restraint and empathy, never judging either party too harshly for their flaws and refusing to exaggerate any conflict between the couple for dramatic effect.

Throughout the production, Coppola had the utmost dedication to Priscilla Presley herself, now 78, and stayed true to her wishes. They collaborated closely to tell the story. While she did go to Presley directly for insight at times, she mainly used her 1985 book Elvis and Me – published eight years after the death of her former husband – as the boundary for how far she could take things.

“There’s a scene in the book where she describes going to his bedroom for the first time, and how intimidating the bed was. And so, we made it extra tall and big, and tried to make it as visually intimidating as we could,” says Coppola. “That was our rule, if she put in the details, then we could use our own imaginations to bring it to life.

“But there were so many things in their time together that she didn’t describe what the experience was like, and I didn’t ever want to intrude into her private life. I stuck to the book.”

As she reflects on the production, what strikes Coppola as well is that, while she’s long been connected to teenage characters, most famously with The Virgin Suicides, it’s different for her now. She’s no longer drawing from her personal experiences to capture those emotions. Now, she’s looking to her own children, and herself as a mother.

“I feel like I know what I’m doing now. Being older, being a mother of teenagers, I’m able to relate to the characters in different ways. I was able to really put that experience into this movie. I got a lot out of it, because I know how to do it. I feel like I finally know what I’m doing, now,” Coppola says.

In guiding her actors, both Elordi and Cailee Spaeny, who plays Priscilla, Coppola was clear that the goal was always to shrink these larger than life characters back down to human size, leading to much more naturalistic performances than were seen in 2022’s purposefully bombastic Baz Luhrmann-directed hit, Elvis.

“For Jacob especially, we were really focused on portraying him in his private life, not as a performer. He really worked to capture the essence of him, and show him as a human behind closed doors, rather than his persona,” says Coppola.

For Coppola, the moment she knew she’d succeeded in her quest to tell this story the right way would not come with critics, awarding bodies, nor wide audience approval. Rather, it all came down to the reaction of one person in the audience at its Venice Film Festival premiere in September – Priscilla herself.

“I was really nervous that she wouldn’t feel like we portrayed it in a way that was true to her. And that was important to me. So that was a big moment for us – for me,” she corrects.

“When the moment came, it was an out of body experience for me. It was really moving to see her so emotional, and I was relieved that she felt like it was right. That’s all I could hope for. She was like, ‘Oh, that was my life,’” says Coppola with a smile. “And that’s enough for me.”

Updated: December 29, 2023, 2:12 PM