Director Gia Coppola Talks "Palo Alto," James Franco, and Her Famous Name


The word is out: Gia Coppola has the gene. Francis Ford’s first grandchild has taken her place behind the camera (and on paper as screenwriter) on the independent film Palo Alto, based on James Franco’s book of short stories, and shown that this time, the apple fell very close to the tree.

No less than the Times’ Manohla Dargis praised the film thus: “What tethers the movie… is how Ms. Coppola captures that exquisitely tender, moving moment between fragile, self-interested youth and tentatively more outwardly aware adulthood, a coming into consciousness that she expresses through their broken sentences, diverted glances, and abrupt turns.”

At the mere age of 27, Gia Coppola has arrived. Sitting on a couch at the Fairmont, cross-legged in sneakers, she weighs in on the family name. “It’s true that doors are more open to me, but at the same time, I'm my own person. I still have to prove myself.”

Palo Alto is in fact full of young Hollywood royalty. In addition to Coppola writing the screenplay and directing, there are luminous turns from Emma Roberts (niece of Julia) and a breakout performance by Jack Kilmer, son of Val. When asked about all the family ties, Coppola says, “That's only a topic among the media. I picked the people I wanted regardless of their family.”

The mix of players Coppola collected – some non-actors in the bunch – artfully tell a complex, dark tale of bored, affluent teens navigating the pitfalls of adolescence (drugs, alcohol, easy sex) while trying to discover who they are. Alienation and death hover at the edge of the action.

Coppola came to the project soon after graduating from Bard College in photography, when she met James Franco in a Los Angeles deli by chance. “He said he wanted Palo Alto to be a feature film,” she says. “So I sent him some of my photographs and he said he thought I was right for the project. But it took a while to get financing because of the subject matter.”

Enter an unlikely hero: Sylvester Stallone, who cast James in a film (2013’s Homefront) which paid for the making of Palo Alto. Coppola praised the action movie star. “He's super intelligent – my aunt Talia always speaks so highly of him.” (Talia Shire played Adrian in the Rocky series.)

Adapting a book of short stories into a feature film would require some serious writing chops, but Coppola deflects praise by saying the process was collaborative. “James said pick the stories and characters you like and imagine screenplays of them. But I decided to combine stories and make an ensemble piece out of them.”

The process required her to unlearn some recent lessons. “I had taken a class at Bard in writing one-act plays, so unfortunately all the screenplays turned out to be like one-act plays!” she laughs. But she kept at it, and the result was a strongly R-rated drama that pulls no punches. Was she worried about losing the teen audience with the rating? “That was a challenge. We want kids to see it but we also wanted it to be realistic about how they live.”

“Besides,” she smiles, “I have a feeling kids will figure out a way to see it despite the rating.”

What does she want the audience to take away when the film is over? “I feel like movies today play kids like fools – only showing them at their worst,” she says. “This is such an interesting time to be alive and to be human. Focusing on young people is a great way to articulate our changing views. I hope adults watch it and understand kids a little better, and I hope kids watch it and feel less alone.”  

Grab some face time with Gia Coppola: 

Q&A at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas: Friday, 5/16 after the 9:30 p.m. screening, and Saturday, 5/17 after the 1:40 p.m. screening

Q&A at Embarcadero Center Cinemas: Friday, 5/16 after the 7:30 p.m. screening, and Saturday, 5/17 after the 2:30 p.m. screening 

Click here for more showtimes around the Bay Area. 

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