The allure of Blair Tindall’s 2006 non-fiction book “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music” is right there in the title. Still, it was no easy feat for the premise of the book to be transformed into “Mozart in the Jungle,” the original series produced by Amazon Studios, which has made the first season available on Amazon starting today. In the show, which is co-written by cousins Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, a young oboist (Lola Kirke) winds up getting cast in the New York Philharmonic by newly hired composer Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal).
One of several pilots produced months ago by Amazon and selected by viewers to go into production, the show marks a different sort of challenge for the chief creators behind the camera: While Schwartzman acted on HBO’s short-lived “Bored to Death,” neither of them had written for television in the past. Several weeks ago, the duo sat down with Indiewire on the “Mozart” set in Williamsburg to discuss how the project came together, how it differs from their experiences with movies and where they hope it will go next.
Both of you are mainly experienced with movie projects, but this is a very unorthodox TV project, at least as far as the distribution goes. What sort of expectations did you have going into it?
ROMAN COPPOLA: The idea has been percolating for a couple of years now. Jason found the book maybe four or five years ago. We decided this would be such a great subject for a show. Then there was a sort of pause where we had a pilot that didn’t happen.
Where else did you pitch the show before it went to Amazon?
RC: We were originally at HBO because Jason had a relationship with them from “Bored to Death.” They were enthusiastic about it and bought the show. They kept stressing that they were excited about it because it had a young woman in New York. They said, “We really want that.” But then they got “Girls” at the exact same time and that didn’t allow us to move forward. Then Amazon came up.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: But HBO was pretty good, to their credit, at saying, “Take this and go.” I feel like that’s a rare thing to have a company do that. It was pretty cool of them.
RC: When we got it in front of Amazon, they were incredibly positive about wanting to shoot the pilot.
JC: It’s been a long process — finding the book, getting the rights and trying to find someone to help us adapt it.
Did you always think of it as a TV series?
JS: Instantly. I don’t even watch a ton of television. I couldn’t speak to you about television, really, but first I read a review of the book before it was out and thought it sounded like a great idea for a show. It was this kaleidoscopic look at various facets of an orchestra, but not only that — but the tentacles of it in New York, how far they reach. Then I got the book and I thought, this seems like a way to do it — you could just spend a little bit of time with each character, you don’t have to just tell one story. So we met Alex Timbers, who’s a writer and producer with us, and he cracked it as a piece and then Roman, Alex and I all worked on the script. When Amazon saw it—
RC: —they were very clear: “Let’s shoot this pilot.” There wasn’t a lot of discussion about any considerations, like what the show was going to be like. They were just really supportive. They were just doing “Alpha House,” this little roster of things. So we did that, and Paul Weitz was the leader of the pilot, he directed it. Then they have this formula where people comment on it, it went to the next step. Amazon has been very trusting of us to figure out the show. To be honest, we’ve been finding it as we go. The writing has been happening in a more immediate way, not preordained. As the actors get a feel who these people are, it’s very much reflecting on the show. We’re trying to hit that sweet spot of melodrama and dramatic material with fun, playful touches, humor — to make something that’s not just one thing, but a combination of flavors.
JS: I’ve never done anything like this before in my life and nor has Roman. It’s been a thrill and insane. We wrote “The Darjeeling Limited” together but it was different. This was the first time we were typing something and then two weeks later were in a room and the actors were saying it. I’ve never had that. It’s a rare feeling. Most of the time, you’re writing and don’t know if anyone’s going to see the thing. This time, it was not only that, but they’re shooting it. It’s been overwhelming.
How have your expectations for the project evolved?
JS: I just want it to be good. From the moment this book came out until now, I’ve been talking to Roman about turning it into a TV show. We heard “No” a lot. Before it was even at HBO, people were like, “Who wants to watch a show about classical music?” I hope that it’s a good, but there’s a real sense, walking around set of, “Wow! We stayed with this for eight years.” It’s been a joy.
Jason, does any of your experience with HBO’s “Bored to Death” inform this production?
JS: Absolutely. I feel like there’s a similar scale about it — the same number of episodes, an ensemble cast.
RC: And a cinematic approach to the photography.
JS: I didn’t ever expect to be in this situation or I would’ve paid closer attention to what Jonathan Ames was doing at every moment. But I definitely saw him working so hard at explaining stuff. He’d give me these updates: “I got this in, had to do this rewrite.” He always seemed like he had no free time and was just working around the clock. I’m seeing it now from his point of view. It’s like have this world open and all of a sudden you realize your father has taught you all these lessons. I don’t know if I actually learned them and put them into action, but I definitely feel closer to his experience.
But “Bored to Death” was closely monitored by HBO. On the set for “Mozart,” there are only two marketing people from Amazon and that’s it.
JS: And they’re just here for today.
RC: They’re very supportive and good partners, but they’re giving us a lot of room to find the show.
JS: Amazon original programming executives] Joe Lewis and Sarah Babineau are really our guiding lights over there. They’re been very involved in the scripts with notes — which are really helpful — but once we started shooting, they let us shoot and move on to helping with the next script.
How much does the book inform your plot?
JS: The book was sort of a touchstone. It’s actually not that close to the book, which takes place over the course of different decades — the eighties and nineties — and it’s just a slightly different world. Maybe the drug use was slightly different then. That book is a bit more of an exposé. I loved it and we refer to it all the time. But the book’s subtitle is “Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music.” Ours isn’t as racy because I feel like that would become too sensational.
RC: Our lead character, played by Lola Kirke, is at the beginning of her contact with New York as a young person. Maybe in five seasons—
JS: —if we have five seasons—
RC: —then she might be letting loose. At this point, we’re at that beginning chapter.
JS: She’s more innocent.
How much of that arc have you mapped out so far?
JS: We have ideas of where this could go. Her character has miles to go in terms of becoming more integrated.
RC: She’s finding her way into it. That’s the story of this first season. Where does she fit in? She has an opportunity that doesn’t become fully realized — well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but over the course of this season, she gets her first opportunity to be a part of the orchestra.
JS: When Roman and I first sat down and said, “Oh, we could have this, we could have that,” we had this grand idea of all the various things we wanted to see. But a lot of these ideas come after this season. We needed to set a groundwork for who everybody is. I hope it wasn’t naive of us to imagine it that. Because Lola was our eyes and ears into it, the whole story has to revolve around her a bit — and Gael Garcia Bernal’s character, because Rodrigo is also new to this as well.
RC: So we’re finding our way, using the strength of our actors, learning as we go.
JS: You start to know what actors’ strengths are.
Do either of you play any instruments?
RC: Not in any significant way. As a kid, I was in bands and stuff. Our family has a tradition in classical music. Our grandfather was a conductor and a flautist for an orchestra. So we grew up with that tradition. Our other great-uncle was a highly regarded conductor. So it was a part of our world. It’s like a collective like you might find on a film set — it’s a team of people, with a leader, making things creatively. That’s part of our familiarity with it. Then there are these big, dynamic personalities pushing to get things done.
JS: But I can definitely say that the reason we did this show was because we were curious about it. We’re in the same boat as the majority of people out there. Classical music has a gloss on it — that it’s for older people. Obviously, there’s young, exciting work being done, but the mass audience of people in America, if you were to ask them what the first thing they thought about classical music was, they’d think, tuxedos, older people, cough drops.
RC: I think people are intimidated by it. We open the curtain literally to see the people who make it, and see the beauty of its form. Usually you see that from far away. To see the textures of it up close…
JS: Even on set, when they were rehearsing, I’d walk through the orchestra. I almost wanted to cry, it was so amazing. So when I read the book and decided it needed to be show, it was because I wanted to learn about it, to know more about it, because I’m intimidated by it. My main goal is to tell a pretty simple story with these interesting characters and at the end of the day to get some people out there listening to classical music — to spend 30 more minutes listening to a classical music station or listening to a record. I know it sounds idealistic, but that was part of it: Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get somebody into classical music?
What do you make of the whole binge-viewing approach?
JS: You’re talking to somebody who’s naive about it. I’ve never binge-viewed a single thing in my life — well, I’ve watched “The Real World” marathons on TV. But I’ve never clicked through to keep watching stuff. It certainly changes the game if that’s the way people are really doing it. Part of me is like, “Is this really the way people are doing it?” We hope it is, because it’s how we’re designing the season, because a lot of the episodes are referring to things that just happened. It’s not like a movie. Amazon says they want these to be like movies. And it is like a movie in that there’s not a lot of catching someone up on what just happened. We just refer to things and keep going as if you know what we’re talking about.
RC: We have nine episodes plus the pilot. In a way, it’s like three chapters. It’s not that specific, but the clusters of episodes just sort of work together as units. But it’s not episodic in that each episode—
JC: It’s not like, “The Case of the Cuckoo Cellists.” [Laughs]
RC: Yeah, they’re sort of interwoven.
More generally, how do you feel about home viewing patterns? Roman, your last movie “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” was certainly more successful on VOD.
RC: People want convenience when they watch things. I have two kids now. It’s very rare that I’ll go to the theater, as much as I really enjoy that. In fact, I have a theater in my home that’s better than some multiplexes. You know, I have a big projector and stuff like that. You can have a really nice experience at home. It’s just the way it’s going and it’s hard to judge it. But however people choose to watch it is fine by me.
JC: There’s no doubt that watching a movie in the theater is the ultimate. When you see a movie in the theater, you are not in control of it. It starts and stops and it’s over when it’s over. At home, you can stop it anytime and get food. You’re in control of it in a way that’s cool on the one hand and kind of sucks on the other. The whole point of a movie is that you’re being taken prisoner of it.
RC: But binge-watching is something you can’t do in a theater and it is fun. You can do it all day long.
JC: The couples I know seem to get into it. “Oh, tonight, we have two more episodes to go and then we’ll move onto the next season.” It’s become romantic to binge-watch: We’re going to do this together.