Songs for Screens: Phoenix’s Thomas Mars on Scoring and Overseeing Music for ‘On the Rocks’ With Sofia Coppola

In some respects, Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars and his bandmates were already prepared for the many creative pivots the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated.

In the last three years pre-pandemic, the group has established what Mars describes as an “archiving system” from any in-person recording sessions for its 2017 album “Ti Amo” and forthcoming follow-up so that each member can complete any remaining work remotely. Even before the Zoom boom, the process helped Mars established a good virtual workflow with his bandmates.

“It’s something we’re really proud of and we’re constantly improving because we are far from each other: I live in New York City, one lives in Rome, two are in Paris,” Mars says. “Whenever we meet, we record everything we do together so we have enough to work on when we separate.”

One of the last projects Phoenix was able to mostly complete pre-lockdown was the band’s original music for Mars’ wife Sofia Coppola’s latest film “On the Rocks,” which premiered in select theaters on Oct. 2 and will begin streaming exclusively via Apple TV Plus on Oct. 23.

Mars also music-supervised the film, which features multiple Chet Baker songs, a musical moment featuring Murray performing Gene Autry’s “Mexicali Rose” and piano from Michael Nyman layered throughout as musical motifs. The film ends with Phoenix’s first original song in three years, “Identical,” which doubles as a preview of a forthcoming album that Mars describes as “all over the place” sonically.

“On the Rocks” marks Mars’ seventh collaboration with Coppola, which has spanned everything from syncs to acting cameos. Phoenix performed an obscure Beach Boys holiday song in 2015’s “A Very Murray Christmas” and also cameoed during a Versailles scene in 2006’s “Marie Antoinette”; Mars contributed score and Phoenix songs to 2013’s “The Bling Ring” and 2010’s “Somewhere;” a memorable use of Phoenix’s “Too Young” appeared in 2003’s “Lost in Translation”; and Mars even performed secret vocals for fellow French band Air’s “Playground Love” under the pseudonym “Gordon Tracks” for 1999’s “Virgin Suicides.”

“She knows exactly what she wants,” Mars says of his working relationship with Coppola. “When we see the rushes, I’ll play pieces that I think to Sofia, and her response is almost instant. It’s really funny — it’s love at first sight. It can be hard to make it into something that’s not just a demo, because when you play a piece of music to someone at the very early stage, sometimes they get attached to it. But one of my favorite collaborative aspects is she’ll listen to 10 seconds of something and she’ll know right away that it won’t fit, or it’s missing a very specific synth sound that she’ll describe to you. We like the same music, so it’s helpful that I know which synths she’s talking about.”

Songs for Screens caught up with Mars via Zoom from California’s Napa Valley to learn more about pulling double duty on the music for “On the Rocks,” the films that most inspired him as a composer, and why he hopes to avoid the “Saturday Night Live: At Home” effect by completing the next Phoenix album remotely.

 

Songs for Screens: I just watched “On the Rocks” last night and I’m still smiling because it made me nostalgic for what we, sadly, might have to refer to as pre-COVID New York.

Thomas Mars: Yeah, it’s true. I think Sofia didn’t know she was doing a period piece. It was all her favorite things about New York, but she didn’t know that she was gonna look back at it and be like, “This is gone, this has changed.”

Since you worked as both a music supervisor and a composer for this project, which came first?

There were three parts in our work on this movie. Some of it was done before with Sofia, but I guess the music-supervising part was more important this time. It’s very helpful to be her husband [laughs] because at this point we just listen to music together, she tells me exactly what she wants and there’s not really any misunderstandings. I’m trying to leave room for happy mistakes, when she hears things.

The film opens with Chet Baker’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” and we hear other Chet Baker songs throughout the film. How did that become a recurring motif for your music supervision role on the film?

Yeah, that piece was the starting point; that’s the thing that Sofia knew right from the start that was Bill [Murray]’s world. There were two worlds for the music — it stretched from “La Notte” to “Sixteen Candles,” because “Sixteen Candles” has an end that’s similar to ours.

The score and even “Identical” have a heavy ’80s synth, almost “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” quality to them as well.

Yeah, even though the last song [“Identical”] is not a scoring song, it’s a song we wrote 50% before the movie and 50% finishing it from the movie. It’s not really to the image, it’s on the end credits, but it was the trickiest one to write because it had to have both the feeling of a score and the feeling of a pop quality that you find in certain John Hughes movies. And the tempo was really specific; the intro was really specific. To work, it had to have this satisfying end-credits, rolling pop quality and at the same time not really take you away from that last scene. That was the thing we spent the most time on.

Then we did create for the score we did create two worlds, one of which was Bill’s classy score and choice of songs — Chet Baker, “Mexicali Rose.” That was Bill’s choice; he loved that song and Gene Autry. And then his world was Schubert, sort of a grand, larger-than-life character. And there’s a Michael Nyman song where we weren’t sure at the beginning if it was going to be part of Bill’s world or if it was the juncture between Laura – Rashida [Jones]’s part – and Bill’s.

So it became clear when we put that part to film, it was extremely cinematic. I was surprised it wasn’t used before. When I heard it, I thought, “I’ve seen this before, it’s too good.” It does have similarities because it’s “Don Giovanni,” but at the same it has something that is very New York, very just the way Michael Nyman makes his music.

Given how much New York inspired the story Sofia tells, did the city inspire your music as well?

Absolutely. We realized the tempo of the city pretty rapidly. We would play the Michael Nyman song over different scenes with Rashida so it had a repetitive quality, just like in “All That Jazz” when he listens to Vivaldi over and over — kind of like “Groundhog Day,” too. This would work on every scene; it was just a rhythm for every part of her day (that) would illustrate New York. We tried to make it a solid part. We knew that that was going to be a big chunk of the score, and we worked to make sure it was substantially loud enough so it has the same quality that you find in “All That Jazz,” or “Marie Antoinette” which uses Vivaldi in the same way.

Were you able to complete your work on the film prior to lockdown?

Almost everything was before lockdown. For the score, there were things we could do far away from each other. But we knew it was going to be kind of dense, and we wanted to make music with image while we were projecting it.

It’s like the Jeanne Moreau movie with Louis Malle famous for Miles Davis scoring it [“Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud”]. One night, I think it was December 4, he came to Paris. Louis Malle supposedly arrived at the airport and told him, “You have to score this for me.” He arranged it to be scored for one night, and went to a private movie theater and played it in front of the movie for three hours, and they kept 40 or 50 minutes of the movie — that’s how good his ratio was. And he made some nasty comments about Jeanne Moreau, said she had no bounce in her walk; there was a great French article about how that night happened.

And it was inspiring for us. We wanted to do something similar, so we would go in the studio later, turn off all the lights, project it big. It’s kind of magical when you’re lit with studio lighting and just the synthesizers, that warm LED light. So we did that for a few times and it was a lot of fun to be in the studio.

You and Phoenix have been working on new music. What can we expect?

It slowed down with the quarantine; we’re hoping to go back to Paris in the next few weeks. What I like is it’s all over the place. And I know that with a lot of our records, the coherence — even if to us it doesn’t seem like there’s one — it comes at the last minute. So I’m enjoying this part where none of the songs really fit together and yet I know that it will come, that it will all make sense in the end. A lot of possibilities are still open. We’re really excited to start again; we have a new studio.

Will you be able to finish the project remotely with your archiving system, or will you reunite in the studio at some point?

It’s something that I missed because there’s so little you can do on your own. When we played “Saturday Night Live” or even when I go to watch “Saturday Night Live” in the studio sometimes, and when I see how collaborative they are compared to “Saturday Night Live: At Home,” you see how much [the studio version] is about every single step of the production and every interaction. Right up until the last minute when there’s a writer that’s between the rehearsal and the live version, and you see how all this work makes it so special. To me, “Saturday Night Live: At Home” was extremely sad to watch. They’re all talented, but it was a relief because it showed me how much the system I’ve been working with my friends for so long is what we’re looking for, something that’s extremely collaborative. That’s why during a pandemic it’s hard to recreate.

Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Hampp on Twitter at @ahampp.

 

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