Back in the 1980s, when Sofia Coppola was a teenager, the pages of this magazine looked a little different than they do now. Flipping through early issues, the filmmaker-to-be was drawn, she said, to “society hostesses posing in their glamorous settings, in those ballgown skirts.” Today, those stately images, featuring the likes of Deeda Blair, Lee Radziwill, and Marella Agnelli in their well-appointed living rooms, offer a respite from our current domestic state.
“I think we’re all so starved for some beauty and fashion after being home,” Coppola, 49, said of her vision for the project you see here. “I wanted the whole thing to be feminine and fancy, because we’re too casual these days. The idea is that these women are lying around like they’re tired after trying on so many gowns.”
Coppola chose to feature three of her closest collaborators, with whom she’s worked throughout her career: frequent muse Kirsten Dunst, whom Coppola first directed in The Virgin Suicides, when Dunst was 16 years old; Elle Fanning, who appeared in Somewhere at age 11 and in The Beguiled at 18; and Rashida Jones, the protagonist of last year’s On the Rocks and a longtime behind-the-scenes influence.
Jones wears Van Cleef & Arpels earrings; Tekla towel; stylist’s own robe.
Fanning wears a Celine by Hedi Slimane dress.
With Coppola appearing on a tablet screen from Belize, where she had been spending part of the winter with her family, photographer Zoë Ghertner captured Dunst and Jones in a Beverly Hills home on an evocatively gloomy day. Photographing Fanning, who is based in London while filming the second season of The Great, was an entirely remote affair, with both Ghertner and Coppola appearing via Zoom while Fanning posed in de Gournay scion Hannah Cecil Gurney’s Battersea house, chosen for its riot of ornate floral wallpaper. Ghertner’s 2-year-old son sat on her lap for part of the shoot, and Coppola’s 14-year-old, Romy—who, as an infant, used to hang out on her mother’s lap while Coppola was on set—popped her head into the frame at one point to say hello. “It was like playing photo shoot,” Coppola said. “I was sitting in my pajamas, having tea.”
The resulting images are languid, luxurious, and a little bit spectral—as if the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides had grown up, married Tom Wolfe–ian Masters of the Universe, and discovered couture. As in Coppola’s aesthetically immaculate films, every detail was carefully chosen to evoke a specific feeling, from the flowers (“Eighties hostesses always had an important floral arrangement,” Coppola quipped) to the drape of each string of pearls.
Jones wears a Valentino dress; Cartier bracelet; her own earrings.
Fanning wears a Miu Miu dress.
As I spoke with the three actresses about their relationship with the director, the words “big sister” came up a lot. Dunst, 38, and Fanning, 22, literally grew up on Coppola’s sets, and noted the importance of having a woman behind the camera during periods of intense vulnerability. “I felt really protected,” Dunst said of her experience working with Coppola on The Virgin Suicides. “She made me feel like I was cool, like my teeth were cool, and I was pretty. At 16, I did not think anything of myself. And it’s nice to have had another woman celebrate that transition, rather than it having been sexualized through a man’s perspective.”
With their work on The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, and The Beguiled (Dunst also has a cameo in The Bling Ring), the director and the actress have built the kind of artist-muse relationship rarely seen in the film industry these days. “It’s just so beautiful to have that kind of friendship where you’ve seen each other have children,” Dunst said. “There are few collaborations, to be honest, where it lasts, where someone knows you that long that’s not your family.”
For one of her Beverly Hills looks, Dunst, now pregnant with her second child, went to two other trusted friends: Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who designed a custom white lace frock for the shoot. Dunst has been wearing their pieces ever since her Spider-Man press tour, and she announced her first pregnancy in Rodarte’s fall 2018 lookbook. The bespoke piece Dunst wears here is based on a similar silhouette she wore back then—something her mother reminded her about, knowing it would fit her body’s current shape. Ghertner coaxed Dunst into specific poses, while Coppola trained her eagle eye on textures, backgrounds—even the placement of individual flower petals. “Every shot was on the floor. I was like, ‘I can’t get up.’ I felt like Urkel,” Dunst joked.
A few thousand miles away, on a cloudy day in London, Fanning mirrored Dunst’s low-lying postures in a peach-toned bedroom fit for Marie Antoinette. Speaking on the phone the next night, Fanning reflected on being a preteen in front of Coppola’s lens. She recalled her relief at being able to talk to Coppola about the fact that she started needing a training bra midway through filming Somewhere. “That was a moment,” Fanning said. “When you’re 11, you are physically, emotionally, mentally changing. You’re also very influenced by your surroundings. One of my first big film sets being led by a woman created a normalcy to seeing women in charge.” Even Fanning’s awkward markers of adolescence, like glasses and a retainer, made their way into the film—little vérité details that other directors might not have appreciated. “Sofia is able to strip everyone down in her films,” Fanning said. “She makes the most mundane, small things in life just so completely magical.”
Seven years later, The Beguiled marked another milestone for Fanning: It was her first set without a chaperone. “It was like going to college,” Fanning said. “I remember when I could really hang out with Sofia and Kirsten. We were all at this hotel in New Orleans, and we stayed up really late one night. I felt like I was in with the cool kids.” For Dunst’s high school prom, Coppola lent her a John Galliano dress she had worn to the Golden Globes, and when Fanning turned 21, Coppola, who couldn’t make it to the party, surprised her by supplying customized hot pink champagne bottles. “The moment she knew she couldn’t attend, she called my mom and was like, ‘What can I do?’ ” Fanning recalled.
I spoke to Jones as she got settled into hair and makeup at the Beverly Hills house, taking in the rose garden, gilded trim, and all that floral chintz. “I feel like a little girl who has gotten access to her very glamorous mom’s closet,” she said. “It’s just me playing dress-up at home, which is a wish fulfillment for me, because what are clothes? I don’t know. It’s been a year.”
Jones, now 45, first met Coppola in 2003, while the director was workshopping a draft of her Oscar-winning script for Lost in Translation. “I was just a 27-year-old out-of-work actress in an acting class,” Jones recalled. “She really treated me with respect, and didn’t have any reason to.” Jones stayed lodged in Coppola’s mind ever since that first meeting, even as Jones established herself with comedic roles in The Office and Parks and Recreation. They eventually worked together on Coppola’s 2015 Netflix special, A Very Murray Christmas, in which Jones plays a beleaguered bride whom Bill Murray consoles with cake and music at the Carlyle Hotel’s Bemelmans Bar. As the screenplay for On the Rocks began to take shape, Coppola reached out to offer Jones the lead role of Laura, a writer and mother of two about to turn 40 who has a larger-than-life father, Felix, played by Murray. It is Coppola’s most clearly autobiographical character yet, and one whose subtleties Jones was in a particular position to understand. (Coppola’s father is the legendary director Francis Ford Coppola; Jones’s is the equally legendary musician and record producer Quincy Jones.)
The film follows Laura as she experiences parallel creative and marital crises, and leans on her father for support as she spirals into an isolated state of insecurity. “It’s really a coming-of-age story, in a weird way, even though Laura is middle-aged,” Jones said, before heading off to discuss the next shot with Ghertner. “I, too, have struggled with my awesome father—whom I love so much, who’s a big figure in my life and in the world—and having to figure out who I am without him.”
Coppola started writing the script years ago, when her daughters were young and she was struggling to balance her creativity with the demands of motherhood. Rather than going heavy-handed with the subject matter, the film is as close to a comedy as Coppola’s work gets. She elevates slapstick situations with her signature eye for highbrow details (for a late-night stakeout turned car chase, Felix stocks his vintage Alfa Romeo with tins of Russ & Daughters caviar) and dresses Laura in a contemporary SoHo cool-mom uniform: Caron Callahan military pants, a Chanel purse slung over a canvas tote from the Strand. They’re a far cry from the ballskirts and jewels that Coppola spied in the pages of W more than three decades ago, but they are status signifiers nonetheless.
“There was a TV channel when I was living in Paris in the ’90s, Ciné+ Émotion. We called it the Comfort Channel. It would always be playing some kind of romantic comedy that you knew wasn’t going to stress you out,” Coppola said. “I wanted something that would allow me to wrestle with deep themes, but also be fun and pretty to look at.” When On the Rocks was released on Apple TV+ in October, Coppola was surprised to see it from an entirely new perspective: as a period piece. Not only do Jones and Murray reunite over martinis at Bemelmans, they practically go on a tour of old-school New York City bars and restaurants that have been mostly shuttered since the pandemic began. “I’m glad that we got to capture New York in a lively state that hopefully we’ll have again soon,” Coppola said.
Her next project, adapting the Edith Wharton novel The Custom of the Country into a limited series for Apple, will be a more traditional kind of period piece. The book offers a satirical look at the manners and marriages of New York society and French aristocracy at the turn of the 20th century. “It was really nice to be able to escape into this other world and get to know all the characters and details,” Coppola said. “What’s so striking about them is that they’re so contemporary. We’re still struggling with the same kinds of things.”
The novel’s status-hungry protagonist, Undine Spragg (once succinctly described by the critic Edmund Wilson as an “international cocktail bitch”), will surely fit right into Coppola’s coterie of on-screen antiheroines, somewhere on the scale between Marie Antoinette and Nicki Moore, The Bling Ring’s fictionalized version of the teenage thief Alexis Neiers. In Spragg’s diamond-bedecked rivals, we might even see prototypical versions of the ’80s hostesses embodied here.
“Clearly, I’m drawn to these fancy society ladies,” Coppola said, laughing, as we discussed the Wharton project a few days after the W shoot wrapped. “Once, my mom was like, ‘Where does that come from?’ And, I don’t know, maybe growing up in the chaos of hippie artists in the ’70s—that’s the most opposite world. It’s so foreign to me and how I was brought up. There’s something intriguing there.”