Sofia Coppola Finds Her Latest Muse

With Priscilla, the famed director continues to plumb the depths of the female experience.

Photographs by Steven Meisel
Written by Lynn Hirschberg
Styled by Karl Templer

Sofia Coppola wears a Chanel Haute Couture dress; Cartier ring, bracelet, and watch.
Sofia Coppola wears a Chanel Haute Couture dress; Cartier ring, bracelet, and watch.

When Sofia Coppola was growing up, her father, Francis Ford Coppola, would take the entire family from their home in Napa Valley, California, to the location of whatever movie he was directing. Sofia was born in New York City, and was the baby in the baptism scene in The Godfather; she attended kindergarten in the Philippines during Apocalypse Now; she went to grade school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while The Outsiders and Rumble Fish were shot back-to-back. “I was always around the set,” Coppola told me on a humid summer day in Manhattan. We were having lunch at Sant Ambroeus on the Upper East Side, and while most of the people in the crowded restaurant appeared wilted from the heat, Coppola, who was wearing a crisp white short-sleeve shirt tucked at the waist into loose, beautifully tailored dark navy pants, looked, as usual, perfect.

“I had a small part in Rumble Fish,” Coppola recalled, taking a sip of water. “I played the bratty younger sister. My father cast me because I was around, and he loved to include his family in his work. Rob Lowe was in The Outsiders, and he and his girlfriend at the time, Melissa Gilbert, took me out for ice cream to Rumpelmayer’s when we were back in New York.” Coppola smiled at the memory. “I was like an Army brat—always going to different schools in different towns. All that moving around has helped me: I’m good at being in new situations all the time. And it’s one of the reasons why I can relate to Priscilla. She actually was an Army brat.”

Prada top and skirt; Cartier earrings, watch, and ring.

Priscilla is Priscilla Presley, the subject of Coppola’s new film, Priscilla, out in theaters on November 3. Based on Presley’s memoir, Elvis and Me, the film follows the titular character, who is played by Cailee Spaeny, from when she first encountered Elvis, on a military base in Germany, to when she ended their marriage, 14 years later. Like almost all of Coppola’s eight feature films—but especially The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette—it is a study in how girls grow up and evolve due to time and circumstance. Priscilla’s life was utterly transformed by her romance with Elvis.

“I read her book years ago,” Coppola explained. “It was a fun vacation read. I remember taking it on several trips and my daughter Cosi saying, ‘Are you still reading that book?!’ [Coppola has two teenage daughters, Cosima and Romy, with her husband, Thomas Mars, the lead singer of the band Phoenix.] I could see how Priscilla’s book could be a movie: When you’re reading it, you feel like you’re part of her experiences. For instance, she describes going into Elvis’s bedroom for the first time, and how big the bed was and how she thought about all the women who had been there before. I remember thinking, It’s intimidating enough to be in a normal guy’s room for the first time, and then imagine that guy is Elvis!”

Priscilla was 14 when she met Elvis, and 17 when she persuaded her parents to let her live in Graceland. “By day, Priscilla went to Catholic school in Memphis for her senior year, and at night she would party with Elvis,” Coppola continued. “I found that reality fascinating: She wasn’t allowed to have friends over to Graceland, and she’d hear other girls whispering about her. She was so isolated. It was strangely relatable: In my 20s, I remember having a crush on a guy, and part of it was, if I was with him, then I wouldn’t have to develop an identity of my own: I could just be the girlfriend of this guy, and that would be so much easier. I was devastated when that relationship didn’t work out. But it forced me to find my own personality, and that’s a similar story to what happened with Priscilla—she lost herself in Elvis.”

Dries Van Noten dress and scarf; Commando slip skirt; Cartier earrings, watch, and ring; Falke tights.

Although her work often centers on the transitions—both thrilling and traumatizing—in a woman’s life, Coppola’s films are uniquely beautiful and full of dreamy, intimate images. Her subtlety and attention to detail are central to everything she does, and Priscilla is no exception. The film opens with a shot of Priscilla’s perfectly polished bare feet luxuriating in deep-pile pink carpeting. “There was actually no pink carpet in the real Graceland,” Coppola admitted, smiling. “But that image was my first thought: her feet just sinking into that plush world. How could you ever leave that place behind?”

“I’ve had an obsession with Sofia since The Virgin Suicides,” Cailee Spaeny told me on the phone from London, where she was before heading to the Priscilla premiere, at the Venice Film Festival. “That movie rocked me in a way that I had never felt before.” Like many young women, Spaeny, who is 25, grew up with cinematic memories from Coppola’s films. Coppola had heard about Spaeny from Kirsten Dunst, the star of The Virgin Suicides and one of Coppola’s closest friends. “Kirsten is like a sister to me, and when she recommended Cailee, I paid attention,” said Coppola. They met for breakfast in New York, and Coppola offered Spaeny the role over coffee and croissants. “Sofia pulled out her iPad and showed me some photos of Priscilla,” Spaeny recalled. “She said, ‘I think you could do it!’ I felt like Kirsten had passed the torch to me.”

Chanel Haute Couture coat, top, skirt, and belt; Cartier earrings, watch, bracelet, and ring.

For the 30-day shoot in Toronto, Stacey Battat, Coppola’s longtime costume designer (who once worked at W as a style assistant), had to fabricate, commission, or organize 120 looks just for Priscilla. Coppola tapped into her fashion relationships: Chanel made Priscilla’s wedding dress in the same style as the original, and Valentino created suits and knitwear for Elvis, who is played by Jacob Elordi, known for his work on Euphoria. “We had about 100 outfits for Elvis and his pals, the Memphis Mafia,” Battat recalled. “My joke was that the Memphis Mafia had more costumes than they had lines.”

Shortly after casting Spaeny, Coppola also met Elordi for breakfast, this time at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. “It was a movie dream come true,” Elordi told me. “Sofia didn’t mention the film at all when we spoke. And a couple days later, I received the script. I was playing Elvis!” Elordi, who is six feet five, and Spaeny, who is five feet one, had to navigate their height difference in their many scenes together. “I’m excellent at finding ways to lean,” said Elordi. “It’s a skill I’ve perfected throughout my career. I’m always leaning.”

Spaeny used the costumes to keep track of Priscilla’s age during filming. “I’d be 14 in the morning and then 27, with a toddler, at the end of the day. It was crazy, but the arc of the character became clearer when I saw what I was wearing in the scene. And then, of course, there was the jet black hair in a bouffant, which we all know.”

Chanel Haute Couture coat; Cartier earrings.

Both Coppola and Spaeny had spent time with Priscilla Presley herself. “She was open and complimentary of my work,” Coppola recalled, “but she was a bit tentative. I sent Priscilla the script, and she went through it page by page and gave me specific details, like ‘I didn’t have a teddy bear on my bed.’ But, in the end, I did reinvent some things, like Elvis’s bedroom. I wanted him to have a man cave—very dark and mysterious.”

During production, Priscilla offered to tell Spaeny exactly what she had felt before every scene in the script, before any encounter with Elvis. “We had many phone calls, but once I started filming, I stopped speaking to Priscilla because it became too overwhelming,” said Spaeny. “In the end, it had to be Sofia’s vision.”

Back at Sant Ambroeus, Coppola was listing her many projects this fall. In addition to Priscilla, there’s her book Sofia Coppola Archive 1999–2023, which is a collection of photos taken on the sets of all her films. (Full disclosure: I did the introductory interview with Coppola.) There’s also her capsule collection for Barrie, the Scottish cashmere company owned by Chanel. “I got to make my dream travel wardrobe,” said Coppola. “It’s like a grown-up, high-end version of Garanimals: really lovely cashmere sweaters, pants, and jackets in navy, pink, and khaki green that all go together. When you go on a trip, you can run down to the hotel bar in your chic, comfy cashmere knits.”

Schiaparelli dress; Cartier earrings, watch, and ring; Cartier High Jewelry bracelet.

Falke tights; Chanel shoes.

Coppola has always had what she calls “side projects.” When Marc Jacobs, a close friend, was the creative director for Louis Vuitton, Coppola designed two purses: a pochette for evening and a fantastic soft duffel bag for day. “My dad has a mania for creativity,” Coppola explained. “He drilled a work ethic into us. He was tough about working hard.” Her parents also nurtured her visual side by inspiring her to study photography. “My mother was always filming or photographing everything on location. She loves contemporary art. My fashion sense started with my grandmother on my dad’s side, Italia. She liked some glitz! And jewelry! So I like a sequin. Even as a little kid, I was interested in what people were wearing. My dad bought all this late-’70s Saint Laurent for my mom in Paris, and she eventually gave those clothes to me. That’s my favorite period of Saint Laurent, and I find it endlessly inspirational.”

In the photos in her book, which span more than two decades, Coppola always looks effortlessly put together, whether she’s walking on the Cannes Croisette in a custom Alaïa dress or directing in a striped Charvet men’s-style shirt. “In sixth or seventh grade, I did have a bad fashion moment,” she confided. “We were living in L.A. because my dad was working there, and I got an asymmetrical haircut. After I went back to Napa, my friend said, ‘Was your hairdresser drunk?’ When I started sixth grade, I had on red and black striped jeans and a white linen blazer. People in Napa didn’t get it at all.”

Hermès sweater; Chanel skirt, belt, and shoes; Cartier earrings and watch; Falke tights.

Coppola smiled. As youthful style faux pas go, these sounded quite elegant. Which is not surprising: Coppola’s hallmark, as a writer-director, as a fashion icon, and as a person, is consistency. She knows what she likes, and she does not waver in her judgment, especially when it comes to anything artistic. And yet Coppola always tempers her self-assuredness with grace. “On set,” said Spaeny, “Sofia is like a silent killer. And I mean that as a compliment. A lot of directors are loud and show who’s boss. Sofia’s eye is so sharp: She sees the film in her head like a photograph. There’s always one way, and she’s completely certain about that way, that look, that moment.”

When her father was shooting The Rainmaker in Memphis, Coppola actually visited Graceland. “Truthfully, I was never that interested in Elvis,” she said. “I liked that he was committed to style, but his personality didn’t intrigue me at the time.” She gravitated toward Priscilla. “I was so impressed that Priscilla left Elvis,” Coppola explained. “She was always trying to be his fantasy, his ideal woman. I think about my mom’s generation and how hard it was to be independent. Women without any power or money at that time had nothing when they left their husbands. Priscilla had courage, and that seemed, to me, to be a universal theme.” Coppola paused. “And I got to build my own Graceland!” she said. “I was creating a world. That’s what I love to do.”

Hair by Guido; makeup by Pat McGrath for Pat McGrath Labs; manicure by Jin Soon Choi for JinSoon Nails at Home Agency. Production design by Mary Howard at MHS Artists.

Produced by PRODn; Steven Meisel studio manager: Ruk Richards; Steven Meisel studio art director: Paulie Browne; photo assistants: Jeremy Hall, Willy Lukaitis, Michael Didyoung; digital tech: Kevin Lavallade; retouching: Gloss Studios; fashion assistants: Caroline Hampton, Brandon Williams, Adrian Reyna; hair assistants: Sandy Hullett, Vi Huynh, Summer Key, Christopher Nandalall; tailor: Lizet Rubinos at Raul Zevallos; set build by Hook Fabrication; props courtesy of Hook Props; art department: Laura Pariot, Michael Newton, Vivian Swift, Emmet Padgett, Thom Musso, Will Lucas, Hudson Bohr.