The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Sophie Jones.
What was it like developing the script with your cousin Jessica Barr after she had written the first draft?
Jessie Barr: We did a lot of talking and a lot of sharing; there were intimate conversations about what we’d gone through when we lost our parents. Those were conversations that I hadn’t had with anyone before. It was really intense and intimate. After that sharing, it was also me looking at how to make this a film, how to draw upon relationships Jessica actually had with people in her life, and how to work with her as an actor. There was this idea that we were crafting a character even though it was her folded into Sophie, and me folded into Sophie, but since it was a character Jessica was playing, she needed the space to explore her safely as well. It was so important to create a safe environment where she could go to these emotional places. And that went for all of the young actors—there was so much that was required of them from the amount of commitment and vulnerability.
Script-wise, we started writing and flushing out the relationships with her and her family. Sophie felt very clear but I wanted to widen the scope of the world. Jessica grew up in Portland so once I went there and started scouting, I wanted to fold the place into the narrative. That wasn’t originally in the script. Going to the Bridge of the Gods, Short Sand Beach, just seeing the natural world and trying to find a way to link that narratively to Sophie’s mother became an essential part of developing the script.
what is the cinematic structure of grief—what does that look like, what does that feel like?
How did Nicole come on as EP to the project?
Nicole Holofcener: I was doing a Tribeca alum talk and Jessie came up to me afterwards. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I didn’t think she was a lunatic, which was a good thing. She could’ve been! Or she could have made a really uninteresting movie. Do you remember Jessie?
JB: I was thinking about this because it sounds insane. I never do things like this. I just remember that talk you gave was so inspiring and your films have always made me feel so seen, especially the parts of me that I always thought were really unlovable. This story, and this film, I was so on fire to tell it. It made me really bold because I think it came from such a pure place, so I just felt compelled to go up to you! Which again, I have never done in my life.
NH: I seemed nice, right?
JB: You were really chill. We chatted for a minute and I said I had a cut of my feature and I would love your notes or thoughts and I think I gave you my broken phone so you could type in your email.
NH: Sometimes I’m open to that, if I get a sense of a certain competence or like I said, she didn’t seem crazy. Of course I wouldn’t really know if she was crazy or not, but I was intrigued! I watched the movie and was so impressed. I expected it to be rough, but I was so happy to see a good first film, directed by a woman and so personal. It was such an intimate story that allowed the character to live and for us to live through her grief with her in extreme close-up. I was moved by it. So I gave Jessie notes and watched a few cuts and eventually I said I can come on as EP, especially if this will help more people watch this film.
Was there anything that changed significantly after Nicole became involved?
JB: The big thing was her belief in me and her vote of confidence. Because I’d been so close to the film for so long, I had lost some perspective. To hear that it affected her and she was moved and able to connect felt incredible and made me believe more. Some of the notes that were really helpful pertained to the family—I wish I had more time and resources to go back and shoot more with the family but one of the things I really remembered note-wise was that even though we start with Sophie, as she evolves in her grieving process we start to open up to her family and see more of them and their experiences. Even in terms of the cinematography, we went into wider shots as the film progressed.
You use a lot of oners of this film and move the camera around quite a bit. Did you have footage in case you wanted to intercut those takes?
JB: It’s funny, I had an overly ambitious number of oners planned. Coming from the theater world, there’s something about seeing bodies interacting in real time in the frame that I find really compelling and fascinating… seeing the energies bouncing off the characters versus crafting that with classic coverage. There were some that I did have some coverage for, but for the most part it was committing to that choice and then also playing with the juxtaposition of jump cuts to make it feel fragmented. I wanted to play with, what is the cinematic structure of grief—what does that look like, what does that feel like?
Jessie, you mentioned that Nicole’s films made you appreciate the parts of yourself that you thought were unlovable. Can you both speak to that and how those ideas might relate to Sophie? She can be a challenging protagonist.
JB: As I was growing up, I internalized a need to perform and be likeable, smiling, pleasing, saying yes when I didn’t want to. It’s really been writing and directing that has freed me to really be the fearless eight-year-old girl that I was and to be the woman I want to be, which is someone that doesn’t smile if she doesn’t want to smile. I think for Sophie, what I found so compelling is that there is this deep inner life and this confidence and this willingness to be in this space that is not always performative or pleasing for the sake of others. For young women especially, I wanted there to be a reverence and non-judgment because so many times young women are dismissed because there is a power there that people fear. I wanted to drive straight into the heart of that power and those complications and difficulties and show that we’re all still worthy of love.
NH: To me, the character of Sophie was like a person from another planet. First of all, I was the opposite of her, like what Jessie was saying. I would never be so blunt with a guy—I’d be so worried about making sure he understood why I ran out of the bathroom and that I had an anxiety attack and I would have apologized and apologized throughout the whole film for being such a bitch, but she’s really just taking care of herself. It’s all very foreign to me; my characters talk all the time. They talk about their feelings and what they’re angry about, what they hate about themselves, and here’s this character that doesn’t really say anything! She just tells the story of where she is and why she is there, and we get to know her that way. It doesn’t mean she’s more competent because she didn’t speak much, it’s just the way she copes. It was very unique for me to see this girl behave this way and I wish I had some of that when I was sixteen, that I hadn’t been so worried about other people’s feelings.