The 100 block of Thompson Street, between Prince and Spring, is a narrow, leafy stretch tucked away on the western edge of Soho, absent most of the tourist throngs that haunt the neighborhood’s eastern avenues. On a sunny summer day, it can seem to be one of those perfect New York blocks, where the discreet, moneyed glamor of the children’s clothier Makié, the menswear boutique Articles of Style, and Karl Lagerfeld sits alongside a dry cleaner, a psychic, and a hat shop. But of all the storefronts on the block, only one, a custom florist, has entered into a public spat with a new Sofia Coppola movie. This is the story of Julia Testa and On the Rocks.
According to Deadline, Coppola’s On the Rocks follows an adult woman (Rashida Jones) who goes on “an adventure through New York” with her zany rich dad (Bill Murray). To film part of this adventure, the production obtained a permit to shoot on Thompson Street during the afternoon and evening of June 3. On the day, the minimalist black exterior of Testa’s flower shop went maximalist in protest. The awning hung a bright-pink placard: “Movie shoots kill small business. Come in, we’re open!” In the windows, packing paper typically used for florals posited more messages, most prominently “Go away OTR LLC,” (the name of the limited-liability company set up for the production) and “You can’t force us to film here.” Other text directly addressed one production assistant by name: “If you asked me respectfully without bullying me, maybe I would have agreed!”
Speaking to Vulture over the phone from her Brooklyn location, Testa says the feud dates back to the week before the shoot. It was then, she says, that the movie’s P.A. began showing up at storefronts with money to compensate the local businesses for the upcoming disruption. She says the movie originally planned to shoot her doorway, which would have made her store the most disrupted of all.
To Testa, who had previously rented out her entire space for companies like Hennessey, the initial offer seemed insultingly low. “Thompson Street is a small block that’s filled with specialty shops, but we pay Soho fair-market rent prices per square foot — the same as Louis Vuitton, the same as Tiffany,” she said. Considering her overhead, Testa estimated the cost of closing down her Soho location for a day was $2,500. She says she was initially offered only $400, an amount production later raised to $1,000. (Emails provided by Testa to Vulture confirm the production offered the latter number for five hours of shooting, which would have entailed holding customers for a few minutes at a time; she says the email offer followed her verbal rejection of the new figure, which she considered a further insult.)
The money wasn’t the only issue. When the P.A. visited Testa’s store, she took issue with his tone. “He made us feel like he was somehow doing us a favor,” she says. She was bothered by what she considered a “presumptuous” attitude from the production: We’re going to film on the block either way, she recalls the P.A. telling her. You might as well take the money.
On Monday morning, Testa discovered a set of orange traffic cones outside the entrance to her store, which she took as another provocation. She shared her concerns on Instagram, where she has over 10,000 followers. In a series of videos posted to her Story, she threatened to call the mayor’s office: “They’re targeting my store, specifically.”
Testa lawyered up. While film shoots in New York City don’t have a right to prohibit pedestrians from accessing stores, the production was right: They had legal permission to shoot on the block. Instead she decided to make a stink. “If my double doors and my WWII double-bucket windows are what you’re after … you have to pay for that,” she said. If not, “I refuse to let you get a shot.”
Initially, Testa considered a more cacophonous type of sabotage — noisemakers, balloon-popping, the works. “But I started thinking about it from a legal perspective and I was like, I can’t do that, because then I’m disrupting the neighborhood too, you know?” So she chose the sign route, comparatively more restrained and certainly more legal, to make sure the filmmakers had every incentive not to feature her store in their shots.
There was another lingering concern. By coincidence, Testa says, her mom’s friend’s cousin had been in Napa with the Coppolas. According to the florist, after she started posting on Instagram, the friend reached out to Testa’s mother over text, conveying a message: I’ve been so impressed with Julia’s success. I know she has big corporate accounts, and I don’t want to see her hurt her business. The young woman considered it a warning. “Because I’m a Testa, I grew up around this kind of talk,” she said. “If you’re reading it and you’re a millennial, or if you’re looking at it from a logical, legal perspective, maybe it doesn’t seem like a threat. But my mother certainly knew what she was saying.” An employee at nearby Articles of Style recalled that Testa was indeed spooked. (His own space used to be the speakeasy for the Genovese family, he said, and they hadn’t gone away, you know …)
This is a good time to mention that representatives from On the Rocks had no comment. A spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting did go on the record to report that permits for Soho are down 15 percent in the first five months of 2019. They remind readers that citywide, all productions are required to abide by the office’s code of conduct, and only a fraction of a percent of 311 calls are complaints regarding local shoots.
Whatever the case, the brouhaha underlined a divide between Testa and her neighbors. At 31, Testa calls herself “the youngest store-owner in the city. I don’t really know a lot of the rules. I’m figuring it out as I go.” Many of the other shops have been on the block for decades; she opened her Soho location two years ago. A lot of the other owners are members of the local community group, the Sullivan Thompson Historic Village Association; she is not. And they didn’t seem to share her concerns about the movie shoot. As they saw it, the production had handled everything by the book. They’d certainly been nicer than Runaway Bride, which had shot on Thompson Street the Friday before Christmas. And wasn’t it at least a little bit of an honor to have your storefront in a Sofia Coppola movie? All of them had taken the money, which, by the way, was less than what Testa was being offered.
In the end, Testa’s efforts were successful: Rather than shooting on her block, On the Rocks wound up using the block between Houston and Prince instead. And while some of her neighbors might be upset — they did not, in the end, get the money the production promised them — she’s been heartened by the response from the community. “So many people came in giving us high-fives, saying how amazing it is,” she said. “People who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time and who have been subjected to this time and time again were like, ‘Thank God somebody finally said something.”’
And after previously blowing off the invitations, she plans to attend the next community board meeting to talk about her experience. While there, she may run into another resident of the Board Two district — Sofia Coppola, who lives a few blocks away.