“Palo Alto,” the impressive debut of 27-year-old filmmaker Gia Coppola, toured the fest circuit, from Venice and Telluride to Toronto, Tribeca and San Francisco, where grandfather Francis turned out, before hitting theaters earlier this year and becoming a modest hit. Now it’s on iTunes/VOD.
Yet another dark high school drama in “Kids” mode centered on a group of teens with a penchant for finding trouble, “Palo Alto” is adapted from a book of short stories by James Franco, who produced and stars as the predatory coach of a girl’s soccer team. Gia Coppola has a strong visual eye for telling details and handles her young stars well, among them a poised Emma Roberts (“American Horror Story,” daughter of Eric and niece of Julia), who holds the screen, and debuting actor Jack Kilmer, son of Val. (His father has a distracting cameo, along with Gia’s mother Jacqui Getty, who raised Gia after her father Gian-Carlo died in a boating accident before she was born, great aunt Talia Shire and grandpa Francis, who provides some narration.) The adult actors are not as authentic and convincing as the kids.
Gia Coppola sat down with me to speak about her debut feature at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, along with stars Roberts and Nat Wolff, as part of a series of talks hosted at the Apple Store in SoHo. (The complete iTunes podcast and video are here.)
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Coppola grew up in LA, starting out as a photographer, helping on the sets of Sofia’s movies, and moving into fashion shorts. She got to know Franco, sending him her photographs. He developed this movie with her based on two short stories that she admired the most. “He took me through it step by step and trusted me,” she says.
Rather than lean on her family, who she credits for exposing her to many things, she instead learned from producer/star Franco, who supported her efforts to make the film for five years as she “filled in the blanks working with the short stories,” she says. “This was James’ book and his production company, so I got the luxury to lean on him and have his support. James guided me though this. I wanted to figure it out on my own and make my own mistakes.”
Coppola made a screenplay for each one of the stories; Franco suggested that she make a test short with her friends to hear the dialogue off the page and see what was working and not. During that process, she says, “I discovered the best way to tell the story was to make it more of an ensemble piece to fit for the screen. He gave me a lot of freedom to go and have my own interpretation. That’s what he wanted. He was very supportive, when I needed it. He’s one of my favorite actors and I wanted him to play a part, but I was too afraid to ask. It was weird, I had to at least try, and he said ‘yes.'”
The film is inspired by such teen classics as “The Last Picture Picture Show,” “American Graffiti,” ‘Sixteen Candles” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” says Coppola, but getting it made was “really difficult, it’s been five years since we’ve been planning it. There were a lot of obstacles in the way. People didn’t want to invest in someone who hadn’t made anything, that was young. James stuck by my side and believed in me and waited until we figured it out.”
Coppola knew what she wanted as far as the casting, banking on fellow Archer School for Girls student Roberts, who she admired in “Scream 4” and “Celeste & Jesse Forever”: “I knew Emma loosely, I was a fan of her movies, she kept popping into my head, in random conversations. It was a gut feeling that she was the right person. She’s been making movies a long time, I learned a lot, and she took care of the other actors.”
Adds Wolff: “I was blown away by how real all the characters were. Nobody was black and white. Every single character was fully fleshed out. I read scripts where the characters are too clever– the directors seem like they’re making fun of them, they’re not taking the kids seriously.”
Roberts was most anxious about shooting the sex scenes with Franco, whose creepy seducer crosses intimate boundaries with his students and hits on her dazzled teen. “The love scene, that was kind of awkward,” she says, “but it less awkward than people think because 30 people were in room, it’s not what looks like.”
While Roberts and Wolff are old pros, this is Jack Kilmer’s film acting debut. Coppola, had mentored him in elementary school when she was 11 and he was 4, and watched him grow up, she says: “I had gotten to know Val well working on Grandpa’s movie ‘Twixt.’ I was auditing a lot of kids. I had dinner with [Jack], he was captivating, he was a normal 17-year-old kid. He has a natural quality. He’s not interested in acting, acting’s in his blood… a lot of it was trusting my gut. [The cast] lived at my mom’s house while we were shooting, it was like a family.”
She used her own unchanged high school bedroom for Roberts’ character’s room. “I looked at Instagram for teenage bedrooms, for visual references for the characters,” Coppola says. “Jack is in his real bedroom. I remember loving [Sofia Coppola’s film debut] ‘Virgin Suicides’ as a teenager, that was a big poster in my room. It was important to say a lot about the characters with what was around them in their rooms and their clothes, and not verbally describe what the characters were like.”
Her cast sound surprised. “She was always so calm and collected,” says Roberts. “We’d never have known that, she’s yelling to us notes behind the monitor…With the time constraints, it’s almost a blessing in disguise, it’s better not to over think, to see where it takes us.”
“We’d be doing violent almost rape scenes,” says Wolff, “‘this is so fun directing!’ She had such an eye on everything, it was organic…There was a lot of improvisation, I can’t think of a scene without some.”
“They brought a lot to the table, improvising and keeping it fun,” adds Coppola, who didn’t have the time or the funds to shoot more than three takes of anything. “We had to move fast.”
Coppola is back in her new apartment in New York City, working on her latest script and her next movie. Now that she’s in the family business.