Gia Coppola on James Franco, family ties and “Palo Alto”

The newly minted director, at 27, shows us teenage life in Southern California

Topics: Gia Coppola, James Franco, Palo Alto, Movies, Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola,

Gia Coppola on James Franco, family ties and "Palo Alto"Gia Coppola (Credit: AP/Victoria Will)

Those of you who got tired of Coppola-dynasty talk sometime around the release of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” should log out now.

Yes, it’s true that the talents of the Coppola family — “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, “Lost in Translation” director Sofia Coppola, with actors Talia Shire (“Rocky”), Jason Schwartzman (“Rushmore”) and Nicolas Cage (Nicolas Cage) in there as well — can seem like too much good fortune. But the new talent in the family, director Gia Coppola, is self-effacing enough to make you forget her last name.

Gia Coppola, 27, is the director of the new film “Palo Alto,” based on James Franco’s 2010 book of short stories — a fairly scandalous piece of work focusing on the sex-and-death impulses of a group of Californian teens who drink and fall in love. (Franco, himself, plays a soccer coach with whom our protagonist, played by Emma Roberts, becomes obsessed.)

The whole thing is a moody, atmospheric piece of work with debts major and minor to Sofia Coppola’s work in particular. Gia is the daughter of Coppola’s late brother Gian-Carlo; she worked on the set of the elder Ms. Coppola’s “Somewhere” in the costume department and includes a poster for “The Virgin Suicides” in “Palo Alto.” But Gia Coppola denies that she’s specifically influenced by her aunt any more than she is by David Fincher, David O. Russell or Spike Jonze (Sofia Coppola’s ex-husband).

Gia Coppola met James Franco by chance while working as a barback and, in her spare time, on photography; she plays it off, but the confidence it took to take on directing immediately post-Bard College — with the author of her source material in the cast — can’t be taught. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that Coppola was doing the sort of thing “Palo Alto” depicts — “Just a lot of kind of driving around and trying to figure out what to do in those moments of not really doing anything.”

I want to talk about the process leading up to making the film. I’m wondering if you ran up against your age, when you were trying to convince you could direct a feature.

When I met James, we wanted to collaborate in some form or another, and I sent him a bunch of my photographs, and he really thought it was the right fit for me to direct “Palo Alto” into a feature film. He thought based on my photographs that I could do it. So it wasn’t really in my mind to direct a feature film quite yet, but I read his book and I felt I could — not only because I’d just finished college and I’d had enough separation from the awkward teenage years that I could look at them objectively. And so it just felt like a really good project for me, and because I loved his book, and I was willing to take those chances. The fact that he believed in me really helped.

How did you two first come into contact?

We met randomly because I saw him in a deli in Los Angeles. And later that night at a MOCA [Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art] party. My mom introduced us and he remembered me; he’s just interested in what younger people are creating and I was working as a barback and also finishing my photography thesis. And so the next day I sent him the photos and we stayed in touch, and we’ve been trying to get “Palo Alto” going, it’s been five years now.

James Franco is such a polymath in a way that people praise and mock. Do you see yourself as having a similar breadth of interests as he does?

He’s very inspiring in his work ethic. And I look up to him, so I feel like I kind of … To do as many things as he does and work as hard as he does, it’s extremely hard for me … I don’t know how he does it. But it definitely makes me want to work harder.

First you look up to him, and then you’re directing him. Where does the confidence come from to give orders to someone you so admire?

We just felt like a family and we were all collaborating and it wasn’t like … I was open to everyone’s ideas and that’s what made it … making a movie was a collaborative thing, and it was so nice to have him on set, to hear his inspiration behind the real characters. And he’s a talented actor and he’s been working a long time, so I wanted to learn what it’s like to work with a great actor like that. And if I got stuck, he’s a director too, and he could help me with blocking a scene. So it was really wonderful to have him around.

Talk me through your directorial style. I’ve interviewed other directors and some are quite authoritative and like to know what they want to do, and others are more collaborative and like to have conversations. It sounds like you’re a bit more of the latter.

Yeah, everyone has their own style, but I don’t think I’m a very authoritative presence. I’m shy and so I like to hear other people’s ideas, and I feel like a movie goes through so many permutations from James’ book to my script, to what the actors bring to the table, so they sort of know the characters better than I do. And then to the edit. And the daily grind of what you get on set.

I know in some cases you’ve been credited on films that members of your family have done, and I imagine you were even on set for others. What did you take from different experiences, watching both your grandfather and your aunt direct films?

I learned a lot just through getting to be on the set and observe. It feels very comfortable to me. But I really learned a lot, especially when I got to work on my grandpa’s films and shoots, behind the scenes, and just be with him from start to finish. And he really kind of — it was just nice, as a granddaughter and grandfather, to be with each other like that. But it really felt like my film school, in seeing how he worked with actors and understanding the grueling hours of a movie set, and seeing how everything kind of functions was really educational.

Do you worry about the reputation of your family getting ahead of your work?

It definitely was intimidating as an idea at first, but then when I started working with James and stuff, he really took the tone that I felt safe and just not worry about it and enjoy being creative with my peers. I’ve been writing a new project with a character for James so I’m really excited. He’s my favorite actor so it’ll be fun to work with him again.

Do you find the process of doing press and talking about your film intimidating?

It’s hard for me to articulate something that I feel so close to and that I’ve lived with for so long, and kind of speak in shorthand about it. And it’s hard for me just to articulate it in general because I feel like, just through the whole process of making the movie I was using pictures to articulate what I needed to. But it’s important to get your movie out there, and it’s exciting to show it to the world, so it’s nothing to complain about, I guess.

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Have you always been a visual thinker?

Yes. I think that was part of what made it tough for me in high school because I knew I wanted to be creative in some form or another, but I didn’t really know how. And it was disheartening that I just couldn’t really get good grades on tests or essays, but I really think my brain just doesn’t work on that side.

So I know that James brought the text to you, and then in the process of writing it, there must have been some element of the plot that resonated with you, because it’s set in California, where you grew up.

I loved his book because the dialogue was really strong and I hadn’t seen anything that felt realistic to the teenage years I remember, and even though there were moments that I didn’t necessarily go through, I felt like they were important stories to tell and are definitely things that are going on today. I just haven’t seen anything recently that would depict those sort of teenage emotions and growing pains in a long time, and his characters were great, and yeah …

What were your teenage years like?

Just a lot of kind of driving around and trying to figure out what to do in those moments of not really doing anything. Hanging out in parking lots were the best moments, and hanging out at friends’ houses and feeling too young to be an adult but too old to be a kid, in that weird kind of in-flux period.

And it sounds as though, to some degree, you were kind of still in that period when you met James. Because you were working as a barback, and all, it sounds like that period of not totally being sure, up until the moment you met him, to some degree.

Yeah, I was going through the next sort of awkward adult transition where you finish college and you don’t know what to do. And was trying to figure out what to do with my photography degree.

Had you not met James by chance, do you think you’d have eventually become a director anyway, or would you have pursued photography more?

I don’t know. I love directing because it’s everything I enjoy in one medium, so I like to believe I would have gone in this direction no matter what, but I really owe a lot to James because he gave me the chance. And it’s so hard to make a movie today that I can’t … I’m just grateful.

Is teenagerhood the kind of thing you want to continue to probe in all your future work, or do you think your subjects will get older along with you?

Teenagers are great subject matter and I don’t think that will ever get old for me, but I think as I get older and my interests start changing and I want to try something that’s in line with what I’m going through now.

That makes me wonder — so it took you five years to make “Palo Alto” from beginning to end. Did your interests change as you were working?

Definitely. David O. Russell has a great quote that making a movie is eating your favorite food every day and having to just say you love it. But, at the same time, you develop new interests; this is my first movie, so it’s like my first love. It will never really go away, and it’s really hard to let go of it and say goodbye. There’s always things you want to try to add in but you can’t. You just have to let it be what it is.

Your aunt in particular has made several films about the inner lives of teenagers — including “Marie Antoinette,” “The Virgin Suicides” and “The Bling Ring.” Do you handle these subjects differently?

I admire her work very much and she’s my aunt, I’m a younger relative. I look up to her. And her movies like “The” Virgin Suicides” were big references for me. I feel like my movie is very different but it’s hard for me to explain how or why.

What directors do you feel most connected to?

I love so many directors. I love David O. Russell. I love David Fincher, I love Alexander Payne, and Jane Campion, and my aunt, Spike Jonze. There are just so many amazing directors. Paul Thomas Anderson. Especially right now. And I love older directors like Fellini and Godard, and all the classics.

The vast majority of directors you cited are men. Do you feel systemic prejudice working against you?

I didn’t really feel like being a woman was making it hard; I think it’s just hard in general to make a movie, so it was just really hard really trying to fit in there as a director. But we definitely have to support other female directors because there’s not enough of us. And everyone in my crew, all the key grips were female, so I think it’s slowly growing.

Yeah, it seems as though the situation is changing a little bit.

I mean Lena Dunham’s great, she’s a female director. There’s a bunch of them. Brit Marling.

The source material seems unfilmable in the degree to which it might, potentially, offend viewers. How did you get the gumption to make a movie about this relationship?

That was part of what’s interesting to me, that drew me to James’ book; there were definitely moments that I connected with and related to, and I just felt like that would be the right sort of fit for me as a director. But then there were moments that were really challenging in the novel. how do you make this into a movie, and how do I fit this onto the screen? Instead of steering away from it, I wanted to embrace it and figure out how to make those moments work for me creatively. And still be able to tell the story and think of ways to tell those stories in ways that are interesting and new, but also within my comfort zone, and a young actor’s comfort zone.

Imagine that you’re making your second feature film. What would you do the same the next time around, and what would you do differently?

Well, I think what’s so great about making your first feature film is that you’re so naive in some ways you don’t know what to expect, and you don’t question things as much because you’re just trying to figure it out as you go. But at the same time, making a second film sounds really exciting to me because I’ve learned so much and I have new tools that I can apply next time around, but I won’t, at the same time, have that sort of free-ness and naiveté going into it.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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