Sofia Coppola is one of the few American filmmakers whose very name conveys a distinctive approach to style and subject. Tragicomic loners and introverts roam through her work, which often adopts a dream-like intimacy with its subjects, as fleeting expressions add layers of subtlety to each moment. For almost two decades, Coppola has benefited from a key partner in constructing that unique feel. Editor Sarah Flack started working with Coppola on her sophomore effort, 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” and has continued her collaboration with the director on each of the six movies she’s made since then.
Anyone who encounters the pair can see why. In conversation, both women come across as thoughtful, deliberate creative minds, and a little shy about their process. But they’re laser-focused when it comes to explaining how every gesture or shift in mood in emerges from a meticulous vision. Even in separate conversations, their observations often sync up perfectly.
From the delicacy of the romantic chemistry between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation” all the way through the sad-funny tonal balance of “On the Rocks,” Flack has been a behind-the-scenes guide for the bulk of Coppola’s career. “She’s such an important part of making something for me that I can’t imagine working without her,” Coppola told IndieWire.
That’s partly because she knows from experience when the director-editor relationship isn’t quite right and how it can impact the work at hand. Coppola emerged from her acclaimed 1999 debut “The Virgin Suicides” happy about the reception but frustrated by her experience in the editing room. “It had challenges and frustrations, some more helpful than others,” she said. “I’d worked with an older guy who was cranky and [I] wanted someone really open to being a partner to me.”
That was Flack, who had spent the previous decade working as a protege to Steven Soderbergh, and edited two of his more ambitious works from that period, “Schizopolis” and “The Limey.” While preparing to travel to Tokyo to shoot “Lost in Translation,” Coppola met with Flack in Los Angeles. “I knew that she was smart and daring, but mostly, I was just meeting another young woman that I felt at ease with and got what I was talking about,” she said.
Flack, who was living in New York at the time, flew out for the interview after a “Lost in Translation” producer reached out. “Creatively, we hit it off immediately,” Flack said of Coppola. “We were both talking about things in the script and seemed to have an instant rapport about both the things that were written and the things that were unsaid.” At the time, Coppola was working through the tender quality of the movie. “The whole thing I had in my mind was sort of a tone poem, more about an abstract feeling than narrative-driven,” she said. “I knew it had to be put together with a certain approach and mood.”
Focus Features, courtesy of The Everett Collection
The collaboration not only solidified their partnership, it remains Flack’s favorite of her Coppola credits to date. “As we worked on ‘Lost in Translation,’ it occurred to me that we had a great similar of taste and artistic rapport,” she said. “A friend of mine said to me after ‘Lost in Translation’ came out, ‘You’ve finally found a home for your sensibilities.’ I thought that summed up about how I felt about it.”
Flack was especially keen on the karaoke scene shared by Murray’s jaded movie star Bob Harris and Johansson’s bored trophy wife Charlotte, when the two share a powerful glance as Bob sings Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” Flack, who was receiving dailies from the production shipped to the U.S. from Tokyo, built the scene around a handful of cuts that heighten the chemistry between the pair.
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“There are three shots when they look at each other and in my mind, that’s when they platonically fall in love,” said Flack, who recalled pulling the closeups from moments that were actually shot at other points in the scene. “I just love that moment between them so much. It was one of my most enjoyable moments of putting a scene together.” Years later, Coppola still beams about the choices Flack made for that pivotal exchange. “She just got what I was trying to do in that moment and what it was supposed to feel like,” she said. “She helped me find the shifts in the vagueness of their relationship.”
That included the historic ending of the movie, when the characters embrace and Murray whispers into Johansson’s ear. It would become the object of speculation for audiences for years to come. “When most people ask me about ‘Lost in Translation,’ that is the first, if not only, question, that they ask me,” Flack said. “She has been telling people it’s between lovers, which is a great way to explain the mystery of what’s said in their faces and body language without hearing their actual worlds.”
In retrospect, it’s not only an iconic moment in recent film history, it’s an ending — a fleeting moment of narrative vagueness that is sharp in its emotional rendering — that would come to define Coppola’s unique brand of filmmaking for years to come.
“I remember there were some other opinions that it should be different,” said Coppola of the whisper. It’s the type of pressure that filmmakers can find themselves scared into doing what is safe or expected. “[Sarah] really encouraged me to stick to my guns of what I wanted it to be,” Coppola said. “And I’m so grateful to her, because I was young, it was my second movie, and she really supported me in sticking with how I wanted it.”
Focus Features, courtesy of The Everett Collection
Even for directors like Coppola, the kind who approach their work with a precise vision of how their movie should look and feel, the post-production process — and the limitless ways a film can be told reinvented and rewritten — can be daunting.
For Coppola, it’s critical to have an editor not only in tune with the intention of the work, but also the ability to carve it out from the footage at hand. That can spell the difference between an edit serving as the perfect rewrite and an awkward wrestling match of desperately holding onto your vision disappearing into an abyss of options. It’s a comfort Coppola continues to feel from the first time she steps out of production mode and right into the edit.
Like a lot of editors, Flack is left to her own devices (and the script) to construct an initial rough cut, but Coppola has learned to trust Flack’s instincts. “I remember on ‘Virgin Suicides,’ seeing my first rough cut and being so depressed that I totally let everyone down,” she said. “So then I thought, ‘OK, the rough cut is always awful. Now I know.’ But then Sarah shows me a rough cut and it’s not devastating. I can see that something connects with what I’ve set out to do.”
That source of comfort became especially valuable as Coppola’s filmmaking grew more audacious. Coppola’s next undertaking, “Marie Antoinette,” called for far greater ambition, particularly because it fused period details from the Versailles production with a wide range of music choices. “A lot of them were ‘80s songs, and our memories of those songs helped us relate to Marie Antoinette as a modern-day character,” Flack said.
Sony, courtesy of The Everett Collection
As with “Lost in Translation,” Flack was shipped dailies from the overseas production. This time, however, the pair were emailing constantly with new ideas and surprised to find that they frequently overlapped. That included an uncanny moment while plotting out the movie’s “morning dress ceremony” sequence, when the ladies of the court prep Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette for the day ahead.
Flack decided to try setting the montage to Vivaldi’s “Concerto all rustica,” in a nod to the way it appears at the start of “All That Jazz” as an undercurrent to the Roy Scheider character’s routine. “It occurred to me that the repetitive nature of this day in court was not unlike what the Roy Scheider’s character goes through,” she said. “So I downloaded that song and got it into the Avid and did a cut of that scene.” The next day, Coppola dropped her a line. “She said, ‘What if you use the Vivaldi songs from “All That Jazz” for the morning dress ceremony scene?’” Flack said. “It was another example of our similar tastes and creative inclinations.”
With time, Coppola found that Flack was particularly adroit at needle drops. “So much of editing is finding the tempo of the whole story in a bigger sense,” Coppola said, “but music is an important part of that. She’s really great with music.” Flack put it in practical terms: “You have a finite number of bars of music and you know you need to put a certain amount of footage,” she said. “The footage is serving the song, which is essential when you’re cutting with need drop, as opposed to somebody music-editing the song to tell the story.”
A24, courtesy of The Everett Collection
On “The Bling Ring,” that part of the process came into play when Emma Watson’s character lets loose on the dance floor to the tune of Azealia Banks’ “212,” as her peers watch her from the sidelines. “That was particularly fun to cut because I enjoyed seeing Emma Watson dancing and being so different from ‘Harry Potter’ and her other roles,” Flack said. Coppola said she envisioned the whole narrative around the fast-paced, ADD-riddled enthusiasm of the youth culture at its center. “We wanted it to have the feeling of the world they were in — tabloid culture, social media — to have the energy and feeling of those kids in that moment,” she said.
Like with “Marie Antoinette,” the music walks a fine line that defines Coppola’s cinematic portrayal of sincere immersion in her characters’ world while also commenting on it – in each film the viewer has a relationship to the characters that is unique to Coppola. By the time they made “Bling Ring,” she and Flack had been working together for a decade and the director was ready to push this viewer-character relationship somewhere new and more challenging.
With the quiet, slow-burn window into the life of a bored Hollywood actor played by Stephen Dorff, Coppola staged most scenes in long takes meant to draw viewers into his mindset. That meant fewer takes, but didn’t make Flack’s job any easier. “I wanted it to be as drawn-out and as minimal as possible,” Coppola said. “It was all about finding the rhythm sustaining a shot, not putting the audience to sleep, but still trying their patience to put them in the frame of mind of this character who’s bored in his life.”
Flack drew on her earlier experience cutting Soderbergh’s “The Limey,” which similarly used an unorthodox approach even as it drew viewers into the suspense at hand. On that film, “we had to know how much non-linear editing the audience could tolerate to feel the non-linearity but not be lost in it,” Flack said. With “Somewhere,” the editing process came down to a lot of detailed conversations about timing. “Rather than trying out different performances and camera angles and all sorts of permutations, it became all about the duration of these very complete shots,” she said. “There was a lot of trial and error to it.”
Focus Features, A24, courtesy of The Everett Collection
However, the pair faced their most challenging moment on “The Beguiled,” Coppola’s elaborate Civil War-set adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel. In the process of imagining her take on the story, which finds the members of a Virginia girls school and their headmistress (Nicole Kidman) caring for an injured Union Army corporal (Colin Farrell), Coppola saw the potential for flashes of comedy to punctuate the melodrama.
In several key moments, the girls of the house jockey for the soldier’s affections as their glances hint at mounting desire and borderline soapy competitiveness. “We were very aware of that,” Coppola said. “We wanted to do it as straight as we could so it wasn’t a camp-fest, but there was definitely an over-the-top thing kind of simmering tension underneath that we were enjoying and amused by in the edit. We were cracking up.”
Flack said that “The Beguiled” came in only second to “Lost in Translation” as her favorite editing experience with Coppola. “It was definitely meant to be funny, not an overt way, but it was meant to have subtle humor in it,” she said. “I went to the press screening that morning in Cannes and I remember being so happy when everybody was laughing. … So much was about this intricate construction of the looks between the women and the competition for Colin Ferrell’s character.”
Such tonal sophistication again came into play for “On the Rocks.” The New York story of a writer (Rashida Jones) who joins forces with her estranged dad (Murray) to figure out if her husband is cheating on her takes the form of a comedy, but takes occasional detours into sad, wistful moments as the characters contend with their flaws. “I was happy to work on a pure comedy but very glad that it had the more moving elements,” Flack said.
Her favorite moment was one of the more controversial ones, as it finds Murray’s affluent, high-society character talking his way out of a police ticket. After “The Beguiled” faced some backlash over the elimination of a Black character in the novel, Flack said she and Coppola were aware of the potential issues surrounding white privilege baked into the scene. “I did have a few questions for her on this,” Flack said. “It’s not for me to comment on anyone else’s intentions for the scene. I can only talk about my own perception of the dailies. I think it was just meant to show that he can get out of anything through the strength of his personality and his charm.”
Courtesy of Apple
With “On the Rocks,” Flack enjoyed her fourth opportunity to edit one of Murray’s performances (in addition to “Lost in Translation” and the hour-long Coppola Netflix special “A Very Murray Christmas,” she also co-edited “Saint Vincent”). “When I work with his footage, it’s like mining for gold,” she said. “I will listen to every single word recorded because there are always these throwaway moments — even off-camera or between takes — that I sprinkle liberally throughout the cutting. I’ll show her things he’d done that weren’t necessarily scripted in addition to his magnificent interpretations of the lines she does write.”
The movie’s climactic moment finds father and daughter facing off over their differences in the midst of a blackout. “I was almost scared by Bill’s performance because he was so withering,” Flack said. “I tried in my rough cut to bring that in.” Similarly, she added, “Rashida Jones is incredible. I was marveling at all her reactions. In this particular scenes she had several different types of readings for her lines and it was really interesting working with Sofia to piece that together.”
Flack finds plenty of work in between her gigs with Coppola — she’s currently editing Michael Che’s new HBO Max comedy series — but it doesn’t take much for the editor to sign up for another round with her favorite collaborator. “All editors should be so fortunate,” Flack said.
She added that a key aspect of her partnership was Coppola’s willingness to keep Flack in the loop throughout the production. “If directors included their editors in pre-production, it would save time and enable the rough cut to be closer to the director’s vision,” she said, but added, “I don’t need it with Sofia, because we have the shorthand.”
Coppola, as usual, didn’t mince words when explaining their symbiotic relationship. “She has a sensitivity,” the filmmaker said, “so she can feel her way through things.” —Eric Kohn
Sofia Coppola & Sarah Flack
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