Gia Coppola's Teenage Wasteland

The director of 'Palo Alto' explores the world of restless California adolescents, with a little help from her friends and James Franco

Gia Coppola palo alto
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Gia Coppola
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Artists have been "discovered" in open-casting cattle calls, walking down the street or even sitting at drug-store counters. According to filmmaker Gia Coppola, her life-changing chance encounter happened in, of all places, a Los Angeles delicatessen named Joan's on 3rd. "Some friends and I had gone into this deli, just sort of roaming around and acting reckless," she says, sipping tea in a Tribeca hotel lobby. "James Franco was there, just sitting in the corner. He'd noticed us; later, he told me we stuck out not because we were making a racket, but because he said we were 'interesting.' I was a Freaks and Geeks fan, so I knew who he was." Later that day, at a gala at L.A.'s Museum of  Contemporary Art, Franco ran into Jacqueline Getty, who he knew through a mutual friend. You should meet my daughter, she said — and up walked Gia, one of the twentysomethings he'd seen gallivanting around hours earlier.

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"I think both of us said 'Hey, weren't you in that deli today?' at almost exactly the same time," Coppola recalled, punctuating her remembrance with a noise that sounds like the world's softest giggle. "We talked for a while, and then the next day, he sent me an email — I don't know how he got my email address — and he just said 'Let's collaborate!'"

The result is Palo Alto, an adaptation of Franco's 2010 collection of short stories about Bay Area kids behaving badly — a reaction to the blazing hormones, beer-soaked house parties and a crushing sense of boredom and confusion that characterizes late adolescence. One character, a female soccer player (Emma Roberts), ends up indulging in an affair with her older coach (played by Franco); others, such as Jack Kilmer and Zoe Levin's emotionally needy youngsters, simply resort to some typical bad-decision pastimes involved in growing up (drunk driving and ill-advised hook-ups with obnoxious dudes, respectively). Though the 27-year-old filmmaker relocated the book's interlocking stories to the Southern California suburbs where she grew up, nothing is lost in translation. The way she captures the characters' teenage loafing and longing somehow feels both Golden-State specific and totally universal.

"I think I was in the sweet spot, age-wise, to do this," Coppola admits. "I'm still young enough to remember being young and shy, or having crushes on people but it’s just like, you don’t know how to tell them. You know, that time in your life when there's a lot of driving around and figuring out what you want to do, a lot of hanging out in parking lots, 7-11's, gas stations…those end up being some of the best moments of your life."

"But even though I'm only in my twenties," she continues, "I feel like I'm just old enough to have a bit of distance from that. I studied photography in college, and had done some portfolios of teenagers — it's interesting to look at these kids doing these things, acting like teenagers, and feel like you can look at the situation with a sense of objectivity. You realize it's a wonderful period of your life, but not necessarily a Golden Age. James once said something along the lines of teenagers being great subjects for talking about emotions, because everything is so immediate and heightened. But you need a little space from that to make a film along those lines."

Franco says that it wasn't her age that made him think she was the right person for the job so much as a gut instinct he had once she showed in those aforementioned photographs. "That first night we met, Gia told me that she'd just graduated from college with a degree in photography," he says, over the phone. "I asked to see some of her work, and when I saw the teenager photos…I mean, they were amazing. There was a focus on youth that somehow managed to be totally on the level of the kids in her pictures but had a slight sense of distance…a sort of outside perspective that felt really smart without feeling above it all. I knew she'd never directed a movie before, but there was something about those photos that made me think she'd be perfect for this."

It wasn't as if Coppola was entirely new to the business of filmmaking. Though she was primarily involved in photography and working with fashion while in school, she'd logged time in the wardrobe department of her aunt Sophia's 2010 film Somewhere and as a production assistant on her grandfather's 2011 horror movie Twixt (her grandfather being, of course, Francis Ford Coppola; he lends his voice to an offscreen character in Palo Alto). But she'd never written a script, and prior to calling "action" on Palo Alto's first day of shooting, her experience behind the camera was mostly limited to making videos for fashion companies. Still, Franco and her family had faith in her.

"When I started working on the script," Gia recalls, "James had said, 'Pick the different stories you like and turn them into separate screenplays. Just take one of them and make a short film of it with your friends., so you can get an understanding of things.” So I took his advice; I hated what I made, but it was really good for me to see what was working and what wasn’t."

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"As for my family, I grew up on their sets," she continues. "I learned a lot simply from being around them, and they've always believed in me." The name, of course, brings along certain expectations, inadvertently or otherwise — the Coppolas are one of the closest things American movies have to a filmmaking dynasty — and Gia is well aware that people will naturally assume a certain amount of puppeteering took place. If it bothers her, however, she's now showing it. "Yeah, some people will simply think 'Oh, so they just made it for you, right?' Why would I ever want that? I want to learn and challenge myself and grow. They've made movies about teenagers that I love very much and they'd be happy to have given me advice if I asked, but they wanted me to develop into my person. They knew I had to make the mistakes on my own."

Any reluctance to go into the family business seems to have dissipated; both Coppola and Franco confirm that they're talking about developing another film to do together, though neither are sure what the project will be. If her friends have any say in the matter, she jokes, it won't involve teenagers. "There are gaps in the short stories, so I drew a lot from my own experiences growing up," she says, laughing. "It's funny, because I invited a number of my friends from that time period to see the film when we showed it at the Tribeca Film Festival — and they were a little weirded out because I plucked so many things from our youth, little things that I remember happening at parties. So I thought they were a little, um, taken aback." So no movies about teenagers running book wild in delis and attracting the attention of movie stars? "We were in our twenties when that happened," Coppola points out, "so that may work."