Gia’s first feature Palo Alto, an adaptation of James Franco’s collection of short stories about teenagers from the suburb where he grew up, premieres at Telluride before traveling to Venice and Toronto. Davia Nelson interviewed Gia at American Zoetrope in San Francisco, where she was finishing the movie’s sound mix.
DAVIA NELSON: When did a camera first land in your hands?
GIA COPPOLA: I was always surrounded by cameras. I really liked Polaroid cameras. When I was little, as a present for my mom’s birthday, I would take pictures of her party and make her a little book. At college, Bard had a great photography program directed by Stephen Shore, a photographer I really admire. Even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a photographer, I knew I wanted to work with a great teacher. I was appreciative of that program because I was never very good at high school and always struggled. I always envied the stories of Roman and Sofia and my dad getting to be on set all the time and not having to go to school and just working. I always wanted that.
How did you and James Franco find each other?
We met at an event and had a friend in common. We were talking about
projects and getting to know each other. Then he contacted me about wanting to collaborate on something. I showed him my photos, and he liked them. He sent me his book Palo Alto, and I loved it. I had already wanted to make a movie about teenagers. I had just finished college and was nostalgic for high school.
If you hadn’t started making a movie right after college, what else were you were thinking about doing?
I majored in photography in college. After college I needed a job. I was talking to my grandpa about it. “Maybe I’ll work in a flower shop.” Then someone said, “I’m going to bartending class to learn how to be a bartender.” So I said, “I’ll just tag along, that sounds fun.” I really enjoyed it because it involves your hands, and it’s sort of like cooking. You come up with recipes. I got a job at the opening of Bouchon in L.A. and learned a lot.
Then a young filmmaker asked me to be in a little fashion video. I didn’t want to be in front of the camera. So he said, “Just make your own.” I’d never taken a film class. But I got my friends who know more about making films, and we just made a little fun one together for a fashion company. Another fashion company, Opening Ceremony, liked it and hired me to make another. Zac Posen for Target wanted me to make one, and I got practice in filmmaking through trial and error. Filmmaking feels to me like an extension of photography with challenges that are exciting, like writing and music.
Had you done any studying of writing or screenwriting when you first bit off the movie?
I took a one-act playwriting class in college. That was my only real exposure. James Franco helped guide me, doing it step by step. He said, “Take the stories you like and break them down into Interior, Exterior. Don’t worry about the dialogue yet.” So I did that. The book already had great dialogue, so I put that in and rearranged it so it became an ensemble piece.
How did you find this group of young actors?
I’ve known Jack Kilmer since he was little. I used to babysit him. He was just such a cool kid. I called him up. He was just right for the character Teddy. He never acted before. We just threw him in, and it’s in his blood, I guess. I’m very proud of him. His father Val is in the movie, too
What about Fred, played by Nat Wolff?
Fred Roos told me about him. I met Nat and just loved him. He was referencing all these movies that I really loved and had great taste. Something felt right, and I went with it. I never saw him read. He has a lot of skill and taught me a lot about acting.
All the kids lived at my mom’s house while we were shooting because they had to get up so early and go home so late. My mom was working on the movie behind the scenes, so she would make them dinner at night. They all got to be really close. I think that shows. I was so tired I couldn’t figure out dinner at night, and so I would go over there and have dinner with them, too. My mom plays Emma’s mom in the movie.
Emma Roberts is quite something as April.
Emma was dedicated and supportive. She’s been acting since she was 9. I was so nervous about working with actors, and she made me feel comfortable. She taught me a lot about little continuity things, like you’ve got to hold your cigarette on this line and you have a sip on this line, and she was great about all that sort of stuff that I never even thought of.
How do you talk to actors about their scenes?
I never took an acting class. But my grandpa gave me improv notes and games to play during rehearsals. I tried to talk to the actors as best I could, and to be as honest as I could and to explain what the scene meant to me and be available to them. Actors have really great ideas, and I tried to be open to their ideas, as well.
There’s a feeling of dread that permeates the movie. Did you think about that as you created the film?
That tension, I don’t think I realized it until I saw it in the editing room, watching it over and over.
About the blow jobs…
Part of what I liked about this book was that it forced me to go outside of an area that I was comfortable with. I’m the baby of the family, and so to make something about this subject matter was embarrassing. I told my family, “This movie is inappropriate for grandparents.” They said, “It’s not appropriate for you either.” But you know, it’s a depiction of teenagers, and they all smoke a ton of cigarettes and try to experience new things. Everything is very heightened.
What was the process with you and James as you worked on the script?
It was a lot through email. I’d send him what I had, but he let me do my thing. That was sort of the point, that he was giving a young person the opportunity to do what she wanted. He gave me a lot of creative liberty.
At what point did you decide that he was going to be in the film?
I always secretly wanted him to be in the film, but I was too afraid to ask. But then I just asked and he was super-nice about it and said, “Of course.” I was so excited to have him be part of this project, especially because it’s his book and he knows those characters. He was working on another movie at the time, so he was only around when he was doing his scenes.
How did you come to the look you wanted for your film?
I had a DP that I had been working with on all my other small things and I wanted to keep to the way things felt comfortable to me, to not try to do anything too fancy or intimidating. Her name is Autumn Durald. I knew I was in safe hands with her.
A female DP. Cool.
Actually all the heads of departments were female, which was really cool. It was just by chance, not out of trying to make a statement. I was just naturally drawn to what their ideas were.
Film is in your bloodstream. What are some things you’ve picked up or learned from your family?
Roman knows so much about gadgets and film technology. He can explain that technical side of things. Roman was always supportive when I was just playing around with making little short films. He would always let me borrow his equipment and use his house to shoot it.
Sofia really set the boundaries for female directors, from my perspective. I don’t think I would have thought I could do this had I not seen her do it. And the way she does it is so unique to herself, just being calm and not having to be this aggressive female, which I think some people think you have to be in this world. She gave me great books when I was younger like Franny and Zooey. Ellie, she is so amazing. She’s the best grandma ever. She is just so in-tune with talking about life, and very mellow and has her own unique things that she’s drawn to…Japanese art and her own movies.
He is always talking about life and how to make movies. I had a wonderful experience when I finished college to work behind the scenes and learn how he made Twixt.
No one in the family wanted to watch his movies with me when I was younger because they had all seen them so many times. None of my friends wanted to take the responsibility of watching those films with me. So I never saw his films until very recently. I had a good, fun education through him, as he gave me his philosophies of life and filmmaking.
And your father? How do you feel he’s seeped into your life and work?
I’m always interested in hearing what he was interested in. Like he always loved the number 22. So that’s my favorite number now. And I know he always wanted to make movies, and I feel very honored that I get to make a movie. I had his picture on my camera when I was shooting, so I felt like, yeah, guardian angel.
Davia Nelson is a producer of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning NPR series Hidden Kitchens, the two Peabody Award-winning NPR series Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project and most recently, The Hidden World of Girls, a series on NPR that explores the lives of girls and the women they become.
PALO ALTO | U.S., 2013, 96m | Writer-director: Gia Coppola
Adapted from short stories by James Franco
Starring: Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Val Kilmer