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Roman Coppola tells us how his new show, Mozart in the Jungle, fits into his wild career

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.


You might be tempted to bail on Amazon Prime's new Mozart in the Jungle, which launched last Tuesday on the streaming service. The show is about a young oboist trying to break into a New York orchestra, and for much of the first season, the series' reach seems to exceed its grasp.

The season's first half is filled with good moments, but also doesn't seem at all to know what it's trying to do. The story is all over the place, the characters don't quite register, and the tone vacillates wildly between cringe comedy and bittersweet melodrama.

Yet this show is unquestionably worth sticking with, particularly since with just 10 half-hour episodes, it speeds right by. Around episode six — wherein Gael Garcia Bernal's conductor Rodrigo takes his orchestra out into a vacant lot for a rehearsal — the show mostly snaps into place, and the back half of the season gathers so much momentum rolling toward its climax that it becomes hard to resist. By the final three episodes (essentially a three-part season finale), the show has figured out what it wants to do, and it's not hard to hope season two will hit the ground running.

Here are five great reasons to stick with this one to the very end. (And if you're curious, you can watch it here.)

1) Episode seven

Directed by co-creator Roman Coppola (you can also read my interview with him) and written by Adam Brooks and Kate Gerson, "You Go to My Head" is one of the best TV episodes of the year. It's a swoony, fizzy break from the rest of the season's action, as the characters attend a massive fundraiser for the orchestra and find themselves sliding so easily into the lifestyles of the idle rich.

I'm a noted sucker for episodes that break up the surrounding narrative to tell little one-and-done stories that are nothing else like the other episodes around them. But even taking that into mind, "You Go to My Head" is a quiet stunner. The show has been trying to make some weird combination of magical realism and psychological depth work all season long, but it's here — particularly in the material involving Rodrigo — that the technique snaps into place.

You could almost watch this one disconnected from the rest of the season, but it's all the stronger for checking it out in context. And the closing shot is a beauty.

Mozart in the Jungle

Lola Kirke and Gael Garcia Bernal star in Mozart in the Jungle. (Amazon Studios)

2) It talks about class

The early portions of the season are a bit clunky in their attempts to address the disparity between the rich and the lower classes in Manhattan, essentially using brute force to make these points clear. But the longer the season goes on, the more the show digs into how much more disastrous everything is for its protagonist Hailey (Lola Kirke), who desperately wants to follow her art to the ends of the earth but rarely has the money to make that happen.

It's easier for rich people to fail, Mozart in the Jungle argues, something that's been borne out by real life time and again. But though TV is fond of seeing people fail, it rarely digs into how economically disastrous that can be for someone like Hailey. She might have enough money to scrape by in New York, but she's very much working under a ticking clock that could run out at any time.

3) It talks about art — and who it's for

Classical music, of course, isn't the most natural setting for a TV show, because it's not a setting infused with natural, life-and-death conflict. But that means the series tackles some knotty artistic questions over the course of the first season.

Chiefly, the show is concerned with who art is for. Is it for the artists performing? The audience listening? Is it for the rich people who support the orchestra financially? Or the people of the city of New York, whose name is in the symphony's moniker? Savvy, business-minded symphony director Gloria (Bernadette Peters) buys off cops with season tickets to the orchestra, but of what true value are such things?

We've decided classical music is of more inherent value than most other forms of music, but that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. As Rodrigo says in that seventh episode, he can like The Police just as much as any classical composer. Music is music, and if it works, it's important to us. The rarefied world of Mozart is only rarefied because we've decided it should be. It doesn't necessarily have to be.

4) Betty

Mozart in the Jungle has great characters at every level, but perhaps my favorite was the supporting character of Betty (Debra Monk). As the first-chair oboist in the orchestra, she has the job Hailey wants. And she's acutely aware of that, viewing Hailey with suspicion, bitterness, and even outright contempt. (She frequently suggests Hailey has only seen the success she has because she's sleeping with Rodrigo.)

Betty is a spin on a character we've seen before — the frustrated woman in late middle age who tells it like it is — but the show manages to find a way to make her sympathetic while never robbing her of her harsher edges. I mentioned above that this show deals well with failure, and there's real tension in the story of Betty taking on Hailey as a student. She clearly doesn't think Hailey has what it takes, and the question remains of whether that's her honest, professional opinion (and, thus, probably accurate) or driven by the grudge she bears against the younger woman. It's fascinating stuff.

5) In its best moments, it's sorta like Robert Altman's Slings and Arrows

Of the two things I mention here, you're likelier to have heard of Robert Altman, the acclaimed director whose films used massive ensembles of actors to create giant tapestries his camera could drift through. Improvised dialogue and overlapping conversations added to the sense that we weren't watching a movie but, instead, touring some sort of community we normally wouldn't be privy to. His best films, like M*A*S*H, Nashville, and Short Cuts, are American classics.

Mozart in the Jungle captures at least a little of this feel in the scenes when the orchestra is gathered, and the camera cuts between various small conversations held among its members. It couldn't have been easy (or inexpensive) to find this many solid actors to fill that orchestra, but it pays off in these moments, which are unlike anything else on TV for their sense of community building, a sense that pays off tenfold in the finale.

But there's also more than a little of Slings and Arrows in here. That Canadian series explored the inner workings of a Shakespeare festival and the tortured genius recruited to run it. It's a hyper-obscure series on these shores, but it's one of the best shows of all time and well worth seeking out. The overlap with Mozart here — behind the scenes of a normally cloistered artistic endeavor — is a little more obvious, but I'm paying Mozart high praise when I say that it eventually builds to a point where it at least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the earlier show. It's not to that level yet, but by the end of season one, it seems like it might have the stuff to get there someday.

Roman Coppola's career has visited nearly every other corner of the filmmaking industry, so it's only appropriate that he would end up making a television show eventually. He's perhaps best known for his terrific 2001 film CQ, which took viewers inside the world of '60s and '70s European sci-fi films, and for his work writing films with director Wes Anderson, including The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).

Now, Coppola has entered into another filmmaking super-team to create and produce Amazon's new series Mozart in the Jungle, set amid the personnel of a modern New York Orchestra. (You can watch it here.) He co-created the series, loosely based on Blair Tindall's memoir of her classical music career in the '80s, with Jason Schwartzman (incidentally, his cousin) and theatrical genius Alex Timbers. Filmmaker Paul Weitz served as its head director. Now, in the wake of Mozart's launch, Vox talked to him about the process of coming to TV, what it's like to work with Anderson, and why he likes to explore worlds that are so foreign to audiences and himself.

Todd VanDerWerff: How did you go about turning this book into a TV series? Adapting a book into a film is pretty straightforward, but a TV series is such a different creature.

Roman Coppola: It's very different. In fact, this book is not a novel. It's a memoir. So it's basically the account of a young woman getting exposed to the world of classical music and her experience. It really was just a jumping off point. I know people say that a lot, but it's pretty sincere here. We loved this idea of pulling back the curtain, looking inside, how does it work, what happens, how do these people relate to each other.

But it was set in the '80s. It was obviously a different time. The rise of AIDS and drugs and that type of thing, it was all distinctive to that time. We felt we wanted our piece to be much more contemporary. So we didn't really take much. There are a few episodes and a few funny situations that we borrowed. In the pilot episode, when the Saffron Burrows character says different instrumentalists' love-making style mimics their instrument to some degree, that was from her book.

So there were some fun details that we took. But we wanted to tell a story about the characters that she didn't really portray in her book. So we made a lot of stuff up.

I should say the premise of a young oboist, which is what Blair Tindall was, coming in from a smaller town and being so excellent in her environment and then seeing if she had what it took to join the best of the best, some of those overall ideas were relevant, but not really the direct situations.

Todd VanDerWerff: This is not a world that's been in TV series a lot. What were the challenges of making a show about an orchestra?

Roman Coppola: One of the obvious challenges is to portray an orchestra, you need those 50, 60 people, and that's pretty challenging. The space to do that and to show that level of skill. So that was something that was definitely a production challenge. The show is set in Manhattan and there's this notion of the high and the low. Manhattan is, of course, a city which has very wealthy people, then has immigrants and every kind of contrast. So that was something that we wanted to portray.

We portray a rather lavish lifestyle, the people who are in this world, and the parties and soirees, and the extras, and the wardrobe. Just on a practical level, to portray that kind of stuff is expensive and difficult, and it's not just run and gun in the city [shooting on the go, often with handheld cameras]. So that was an aspect of the reality of our show that we wanted to portray all that stuff. So that comes to mind.

Todd VanDerWerff: What were some other visual elements you wanted to pull out of this world, in the directorial style and the look of the show? Because music is such an auditory experience, but television is a visual one.

Roman Coppola: We are literally and metaphorically pulling the curtain back on an orchestra and looking on the inside. So often, people who are interested in classical music, you see it, and it's such a distant thing. You sit in your seat. The players are 50 feet away, and you don't really enter into it.

Our camera's moving among these people. Seeing how, for example, an oboist has to carve their reed and the more central aspects of it and the more banal aspects too. So that was important to us, to penetrate through.

There's some images in the pilot, there's these guys in tuxedos, and they take their tuxedo off and put their sweatpants on, and they're just regular guys. So that kind of visual contrast appealed to us, to show the high and the low in that manner. And these are working folks who have to deal with their mortgage and have a couple of other gigs that they have to do, even though they're playing the most outstanding, rarefied music. It's just regular life. They have a wedding gig or some other thing right around the corner.

Mozart in the Jungle

Roman Coppola (right) is joined by fellow Mozart in the Jungle producers Paul Weitz (left) and Jason Schwartzman at the show's premiere. (Brian Ach/Getty Images)

Todd VanDerWerff: This show has a lot of creative minds working behind the scenes. Briefly, what do you think all of you brought to this process that turned it into the show it is?

Roman Coppola: Jason [Schwartzman] is the one who found this book, and he's the one who said, "Hey, wouldn't this be a great show." And when I saw it, it was, like, "Oh, my God, yes, this would be a great show." It's so rich. And so unusual, but yet familiar, because after all, any workplace, there's some charismatic boss and some younger guy who's coming in, and this dysfunctional family aspect of what an orchestra is in a way. These are people who work together year after year after year. We had some great stories that we picked up in our research where people who worked in an orchestra 20 years and they haven't spoken in 15 years, due to some personal thing.

Then Alex Timbers, who was the other key collaborator, he cracked the nut of the script. We knew, as I mentioned, that we didn't want to base it strictly on this memoir. Alex Timbers is very well regarded in the New York theatre scene. And he was very savvy about, "Oh, the donors would have this type of fundraiser," and "Musicians always hang out at this bar." He had a lot of direct insights into the New York music scene.

Paul Weitz, who was the other main collaborator, as the director of the pilot and two of the other episodes, he chose predominantly the actors. He's the one that really gathered our cast, with Gael [Garcia Bernal] and Malcolm [McDowell], whom he knew from before, and Saffron, and Lola [Kirke]. He really gets so much of the credit for finding the cast. We all participated, but he led the charge.

We have a lot of people with striking ideas. I was maybe just someone who helped them try to find a balance somehow and tried to help guide it so that it had a fluid quality.

Although, having said that, as you're watching the show, we all really embraced that it's kind of a show that has a lot of different personalities to it. It's not just one thing. It has a bit of a blend of humor and drama and trashy, outrageous, sexy misconduct. Even though I was involved with keeping it of apiece, we all wanted, myself included, a bit of a diverse feeling, so when you see this show, it's not just that one thing. I feel like it has a nice sense of diverseness and a little bit of chaos, too.

Todd VanDerWerff: How involved were all of you in the day to day operations of the show?

Roman Coppola: We were quite involved. One of us was there every day on the set. I had a little stretch for two or three weeks where I was not around, and then Jason had some press obligations. But one of us was always there, and then usually two of us, between Jason, myself, and Paul. And Paul directed the two episodes from the series, and I directed one. So we had a lot of hands-on participation. And Jason appears in a cameo.

Initially, when we got the show going, we thought, "Oh, well, what do we know about television? We should surround ourselves with people who can help lead this for us." But then we realized, hey, this is our show, and we really want it to be a reflection of what we want to see. So we just jumped in there and got very involved as it unfolded.

Todd VanDerWerff: I read this really fascinating piece that talked about how many people who started in film are going to TV, and TV, in a lot of ways, has become the new independent or even mid-budget film. Have you had that sense that TV is a world that is a little more welcoming of this kind of thing at this point in time?

Roman Coppola: Definitely, there is some exciting energy that's happening in the world of television. When I was a kid, you watched TV, except for some exceptional shows, and it was usually pretty junky. You'd never see a prominent film actor in a television role. That would be pretty unusual. But now, so many very talented actors are. There's not a stigma. There's a lot of compliments that go to the fine writing that's happening. So for sure there's a renaissance happening in television.

To me, my career, personally, I've done a lot of different things. I've worked in commercials, so that's a 30-second spot or a 15-second spot. I've done a lot of music videos that are three minutes, and some shorts that are 10 minutes. I've made features, as a writer, director, producer. And now I'm working in television, which is a five-hour expansive work. So I personally am attracted to television because it's in this exciting place. But I'm just attracted to everything involved with media and film. I respond to things that pique my curiosity, and getting involved in television was something that I couldn't turn down.

But there's a charge. Things are happening. It's very immediate. We were writing scenes that day or the day before we were going to shoot them, due to some need. Maybe there was an actor's availability, or a location change, or whatever it may be, or just a flaw in the script. And we were writing lines, and they were literally shooting it that day or the next day. And that's incredible, when you think that you work on a feature, and you're writing some dialogue, and they probably won't even be filming that dialogue for eight months, if you're really, incredibly lucky. Most likely, it's two or three years, 10 years, or never. So that sense of immediacy, making something and having it produced as you're making it, is really thrilling.

It's very exciting, and I'm glad to be part of it. There's always wonderful movies. We always lament, "Oh, movies, it's such a tough time." It's always tough, and it's always been tough. But it is particularly tough right now. These sort of lower, mid-range budget films that in the past were quite prominent have really sort of evaporated at this particular moment.

Todd VanDerWerff: Do you have anything you attribute this to?

Roman Coppola: I've been around movies so long, you'd feel like I'd have some special insight, but I just don't know. It's hard to really say. There was that sort of boom when the video market was strong. It created a lift in that there was this assured way to make back money. If you had a movie that even if it didn't perform theatrically, there was that cushion of video and pay TV outlets. And now the DVD market's dried up, and downloads and streaming hasn't quite risen up to the height of the other one. That's probably part of it. But it's not really my expertise.

It's a very tough business, and costs for marketing, for some reason, just got higher and higher and higher. So between those costs, to make people aware of your thing, and then not having that cushion of a video release just seems like it's created a hole there. It's very easy to lose a lot of millions of dollars making a movie, and that discourages people. They tend to do more sure things.

Todd VanDerWerff: Amazon is really trying to build its brand. It seems to be taking chances on stuff that not a lot of other people would be doing. What was the process of working with Amazon like, and what do you think it brought to this production?

Roman Coppola: I have to say I was very impressed. We had a great experience. We wrote this pilot, and they read it, and there was just something about the pilot and the world it portrayed that they just immediately said, "We want to do this show." There was no discussion. Not "Oh, this could be something if we do this or do that." It clicked for them. From that point forward, we were off and running, making our pilot.

They have a system by which they present a pilot, and there's some kind of evaluation based on how many people look at it and view it and rate it. And once it crossed that threshold, they said, "Hey, let's make the show." They were very great. Very supportive. They relied on us. We had myself and Jason and Paul and Alex Timbers, a group of people that had come through for them and had come through on other things. And I think they just felt like, "Hey, let's back the team." That's always the sense we had.

There were issues where maybe our scripts were a little bit late. We did a scene later where one of the characters disappears, and we wanted to have a scene where they travel to find them, which was not really in the budget. But they made sure to accommodate us. They were very supportive, and now, as they're promoting it, we're starting to see a lot of posters, and there's a real verve to get it out there. It was a very positive experience. All the criticism was constructive.

I sound like I'm totally doing a fluff piece, but I'm being very sincere.

Mozart in the Jungle

Malcolm McDowell plays the composer's former conductor. (Amazon Studios)

Todd VanDerWerff: What do you see as the advantage of having all of the episodes there to consume on launch day?

Roman Coppola: It's interesting. People seem to really enjoy that, as I do, to really dig in and see something. It's like a novel. You want to keep pushing through it. There is something about our nature that when you're in the bosom of a story, you just want to keep it going. It makes sense. It's just our human nature.

On a practical level, originally, when we conceived the show, Jason and I, we thought we'd love to have a sort of epic quality with a lot of characters interlaced. But when you thought of television, you thought of a show, and each show was a bit more standalone. Maybe on this show, we follow this character, that show, we follow that character. But working with Amazon and also with what's just happened in television, we became more cognizant of this notion that people would binge watch it.

We realized, to our advantage, that a lot of times in a show, if people haven't seen something in a week or two, you have to recap everything. "Hey, that's the guy that last week stole my money!" You have to set some context. Here, there's some really nice liberty to say, "You know what? People just watched the other episodes. Let's just move forward." Things didn't have to repeat or echo, and we continued on.

I wouldn't want to overstate this, but in a way, there's three movies in the season. There's these little groups. The last three episodes all kind of work together. So there are these neat little groups of episodes that come together to make one big more longer-form piece.

Todd VanDerWerff: You've done a lot of work with Wes Anderson. He has such a distinctive visual style. What's his writing process like?

Roman Coppola: It's very distinctive. It's unlike any other person I've worked with. He thinks in the moment of the scene. There's words that come to his mind, or memories, or a recollection of some funny thing or situation, that forms a kernel of some dialogue or some description. And then it kind of slowly goes forward from there. There's basically zero conversation about themes or structure or meaning or what should we say or how should we say this. It's a very immediate, sensual thing. The sound of a word or what something suggests, and then a character will say something, and it's, like, "Oh, they said that. So what happens next?"

It all grows in this kind of very natural way. There's no scheming, or, "Oh, we should do this," or anything like that. It all just flows out. We've talked about it a lot in interviews or places where people will ask, and Wes will say something to the effect of, that writing is just telling a story out loud, and daydreaming a story out loud. And by doing it with another person, like someone like myself, or with Jason, it's just more companionship and company there. Rather than being alone in a room by yourself, you're with another person.

So there is a social part of it where when we write, we chat about our days or have a meal. It's very unique.

I could go on and on, but one more thing that's interesting is when he's writing and we're doing something together, the way the words are placed on the page and the way a sentence is structured is something he puts a lot of energy into. Some other writers, you just kind of say it. You just express it. Because you're making a movie anyway. Why bother with the writing? But he's rather meticulous and puts a lot of care into the way things are described. Which is just his manner, and it comes across in his movies. But it's something he takes pleasure in, making a sentence work right. So when he's writing, and I'm writing with him, there's an emphasis on the words and the way they're laid out and the way they're structured.

Todd VanDerWerff: This collaborative process sounds very similar to how a TV show is written. We have an image in our head of writers being lone, tortured geniuses. But what do you enjoy about that process of collaboration?

Roman Coppola: It all depends on the person, of course, but I worked with Jason, and we wrote one of the episodes on the show ourselves. We rewrote a lot of stuff, and suggested things that were written with the group of writers. But on the script we wrote together, we stayed up all night, and we hung out. Sometimes, when there's a lot of pressure to deliver something, as was the case on a TV show, you don't have a lot of time. You're up all night. You get delirious. And Jason, being my cousin, who I love so deeply, it's fun.

In our case, Jason tends to have really wild ideas, and he's so witty and funny. And sometimes, they push the outer limits of what might be appropriate, and I am a bit of a tempering force. I'll go, "Okay, we can do this, but maybe we should reconsider that." So we're a good team together.

But the sensation, to answer your question, is one of staying up all night to do your homework, and it's a blast, especially when you've gotten through it, and you've accomplished it. It's just a fun sensation. You've pushed yourself, and the fact that you know that whatever you do will be filmed within two or three weeks time, that's a real motivator. You can't say, "Oh, we'll rehearse and figure it out." You're on. And it's fun.

Todd VanDerWerff: It seems to me like a thing you really enjoy doing, in this and in a movie like CQ, is going into another world that's a little different, a little foreign to us, and making it a world we can explore along with the characters. What about that type of story appeals to you?

Roman Coppola: I love sensations and environments and music is part of that, and the feeling you get when you're immersed in the music. I love architecture, and visiting places that you enter in. It's just one of my things that I'm drawn to.

There's also sort of an element of exploration. When I did CQ, I became aware of those kind of '60s/'70s sci-fi movies that were being made in France and Italy, and then I was a fan of the French New Wave films, those art films and so on. It's just a way for me to sort of explore that world and pretend I was there. You recreate it around you. It's just a place you're going to visit in the experience of making the film, with the hope that the viewer will enjoy that trip. The movies that I particularly like are movies that are less hardcore story-driven but more like a world that you enter into and experience in a more sensual way, through the characters, through the settings, through the music, through the world. It's just something I'm drawn to.


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