Sofia Coppola wasn’t always sure she would work again with Bill Murray. Lost In Translation, the bittersweet 2003 comedy they made together, was a defining moment for both — but especially for Coppola.
So much so that for many years it threatened to overshadow subsequent projects — when audiences reacted negatively to her Marie Antoinette biopic, for instance, the chief beef seemed to be that she had elected not to reprise Translation’s singular mix of melancholy and wryness. She remained friends with Murray — but wondered whether rekindling their creative partnership was wise.
Earlier this year, however, Coppola was between projects and got talking to Murray. Both were unabashed, non-ironic fans of old school Hollywood Christmas specials — those venerable cheese-avalanches of the 1960s and ’70s that had, for instance, paired David Bowie with Bing Crosby on a duet of ‘Little Drummer Boy’.
Wouldn’t it be a hoot, they thought, to revive that tradition? Thus was born a Very Murray Christmas — a throwaway piece of televisual tinsel debuting on Netflix this Friday.
“I never wanted to do another movie with him,” said Coppola, holding court in a central Paris hotel suite. “I felt too much pressure. People were telling me that [Lost In Translation] meant so much to them. This, though, was outside our regular work. There wasn’t any stress.”
Coppola is slight and softly spoken, possessing an ethereal quality that will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with her movies. This is in contrast to the surreal avuncularity that has been a hallmark of Murray’s performances going back to the late 1970s. Together, they make for a classic odd couple.
“The version of him you see on screen is definitely a lot of who he is,” says Coppola of her collaborator. “He’s probably a more complicated guy in real life for sure. But that’s what makes him so interesting. He is complicated, with this silly side. A lot of comedians are like that.”
In addition to reuniting her with Murray, the Christmas special was an opportune for her to collaborate for the first time with her husband Thomas Mars, of French pop group Phoenix. He and his bandmates were dragooned into playing comedic French chefs, good naturedly embracing every Gallic stereotype imaginable.
“He was a good sport,” she says. “The band took a little persuading. Ultimately it was fine. The whole thing is entirely non-ironic. We all had a lot of fun.
“I watched it with a friend’s daughter who was 18 and with someone who was 60 and they both enjoyed it. These shows are very sincere — there is nothing winking about them. They don’t make any sense, which is part of the pleasure.”
The premise of A Very Murray Christmas is that the eponymous comedian is marooned at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, fretting that a snow-storm will prevent guests attending his Christmas special (The Carlyle, incidentally, is where Woody Allen gives his occasional jazz performances).
In the event, a veritable blizzard of A-listers descends, among the George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, comedians Amy Poehler, Chris Rock and Michael Cera along with musicians Jenny Lewis, Paul Schaffer and David Johansen of the New York Dolls.
“George Clooney is friends with Bill Murray — and he looked good in a tuxedo,” explains Coppola. “It felt very much in the spirit of the show that he should be there. Miley Cyrus was a surprise – she showed this whole different side that you don’t see. She was this polite, hard-working girl and very sweet. We need another song and she and Paul Shaffer worked out ‘Silent Night’ over a lunch-break.”
Coppola (44) is daughter of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola. She was raised in New York and seemed initially destined for a career in fashion (as a 15-year-old she interned at Chanel).
She later turned to Hollywood, though it appeared her movie career might be ended before it had begun after her father tragically miscast her in 1990’s Godfather Part III (for which she was ‘awarded’ worst supporting actress at the Golden Raspberry Awards).
But she soon found her calling behind the camera. Her extraordinary 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides was an ethereal horror, as light as candy-floss and as dark as cyanide.
She followed with Lost In Translation, with Murray and Scarlett Johansson as a mis-matched pair making a connection in Tokyo. The film was acclaimed, earning Coppola an Oscar nomination (she was the first American woman to be shortlisted).
Coppola was at the time married to director Spike Jonze (said to be the inspiration for Johansson’s inattentive rock photographer husband in the movie). They divorced in 2003 and she now lives in Paris with Mars, with whom she has two daughters aged nine and five.
“Would I like them to work in the entertainment industry? I have no idea. They’re so little,” she says. “One of them is musical. I would hope they would do something in that direction.”
Collaborating with Netflix was a hugely freeing experience for Coppola whom, one senses, has despaired of cinema’s plunge into empty formula — its ultimately self-defeating obsession with franchises and $100 million dollar opening weekends.
“The studios are a lot more conservative,” she nods. “Big budget movies have to fit into all these boxes. People like Netflix are more open minded about doing unusual things. There is more freedom which is really exciting.”
She has had her differences with the system of late, walking away from live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid amid creative tensions.
“I wasn’t able to do something they way I would have liked to, There were too many parameters. I was curious if I could make something the way I wanted to in that environment. And I tried…”
Can she see herself working in TV in the future? “There is a lot more creativity in television than in the big budget film world. I still like movies. I enjoy watching TV. However, I don’t have an idea for a television series that I would like to pursue. We’ll see. For now, I’m staying with film.”
A Very Murray Christmas can be watched on Netflix from today.