Every year, numerous folks get an opportunity to make their first feature-length film. Few debuts, however, are as accomplished as Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, an extraordinary film about the difficult transition from late adolescence to early adulthood. If “adapted from the short story collection by James Franco” would otherwise discourage you from seeing it, put those thoughts out of your mind right now. It is arguably the most astute portrayal of teenage life since Olivier Assayas’ L’eau froide.
Fandor co-founder Jonathan Marlow met with writer/director Gia Coppola ahead of the local “Centerpiece” premiere of the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival (and one week prior to its theatrical opening, today).
Jonathan Marlow: Admittedly, you cannot really do much better than premiering your debut feature at the Telluride Film Festival.
Gia Coppola: It was really an honor to get in there. It is very much a filmmaker’s festival. It was exciting to be amongst all of those amazing directors.
Marlow: Telluride is quite unique amongst all festivals. It feels quite like a family that gets back together every year.
Coppola: It was a good introduction into the festival circuit. A good warm‑up. And not too crazy.
Marlow: At what point did you decide that you wanted to make films? Of course, there is no history of filmmaking in your family….
Coppola: [Laughs.] I was studying photography. When I finished college, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. While I was bar‑backing, I met James [Franco]. I talked to him about my photography and I later sent some photographs to him. We talked about working together and collaborating in some kind of way. One of the ideas was to make Palo Alto into a feature‑length film. That wasn’t really in my mindset. I had made one small fashion film with my friends. I enjoyed that but I felt intimidated to get into that world. He kept it in a way so that I could not feel intimidated. Took me through it step-by-step. It took a while to get financing. I was making little short films for fashion companies and using those opportunities as precursors to what I was about to do with Palo Alto. Also, when I finished college, I went to work on my grandpa’s film, Twixt. That was my film school. I got to sit by him and observe him from start-to-finish. I learned a lot through that.
Marlow: That would present a fairly good opportunity, I wager. Oddly enough, I first learned about Palo Alto during a conversation with your grandfather almost exactly one year ago.
Coppola: Great! It was really nice to be in Napa for a few months, as granddaughter to grandfather, and to spend that quality time with each other. It was nice to get that front‑row seat all the time. I was doing behind‑the‑scenes and, no matter what, I had to be close to him.
Marlow: Had you spent much time in Palo Alto [the city]?
Coppola: Not really. My family is in Napa Valley. In passing, I would go there from time to time but I used James’ book as my guidance. His book used certain names of places but, in the general sense, it was more about the emotions of that age. That was what the movie is about.
Marlow: You do not try to evoke the place in your choice of locations.
Coppola: Not at all.
Marlow: Were you aware of James’ book before you met him?
Coppola: No. When I met him, he gave me an advance copy because he was looking for a director. I was lucky to get the advanced version. I really loved the book because it articulated that age really well. I hadn’t seen that in anything recently. It’s not easy to do! I was excited for the opportunity to get to tell that story.
Marlow: It is not easy to do on the page and it is definitely not easy to do in a film. You cast it with a mixture of experienced actors and inexperienced actors. Was that always clear to you that you wanted to approach the film it that way?
Coppola: I was picking people that I thought were right for the part. I knew that I wanted real teenagers to play these characters, because I was frustrated with movies today and television shows where they’re all older actors playing teenagers. They don’t look realistic and they don’t act realistic because they’re not of that age. Everything about the clothes, the hair and the skin is all too perfect. Having actors of that age was enough. I was excited to learn about acting. I had only made these short films with my friends as actors. I felt comfortable in cinematography but I was very nervous about working with actors and articulating what I needed because I felt shy and I would use pictures to communicate what I like. It was interesting to learn about performances and working with actors because they start to know the characters better than you. To hear their ideas. To work with Emma [Roberts], who’s been working since she was nine, and James and Val [Kilmer], who are all very reputable actors. To learn vicariously by collaborating with them.
Marlow: It is an exceptionally well-cast film. Unlike most films that document that age, it does exactly what you just said. It evokes a sincerity (or a ‘realness’) of those characters that usually would not be handled well. I would presume that it wasn’t always clear (when you were first considering the film) that James Franco would be in it?
Coppola: I always wanted him to be in it. I admire him so much as an actor. He was one of my favorites growing up. I was waiting for him to suggest it but… Why would he ever suggest that he wanted it? Eventually, I thought, ‘What have I got to lose? I’m just going to ask him.’ He was very nice about it. Everyone thinks it is weird that you would want the writer to act in the movie. Maybe that is why he didn’t suggest it to begin with? I thought it was a luxury because I have this person who can tell me the inspiration behind those characters. That character, Mr. B, is not an easy character to play. He knew to play it normally and subtly and not to play it creepy. Because he is also a director, if I got stuck at times I could also ask, ‘I don’t know how to block this scene. What do I do?’ It was really helpful.
Marlow: It sounds like you are a very collaborative director. Are you thinking that collaboration in this film is partially because of your desire to learn? That, for instance, the way that you learned on the set of Twixt was that you’re really open to what people were giving you. I’m trying to set you up for a particular answer, I guess. When you make your next film, would you follow the same process?
Coppola: What I learned is that I like to be collaborative and bounce ideas off of other people. I get a better product through that. And it makes it not such a lonely experience. Isn’t that what a movie is all about? You’re collaborating with all of these different departments.
Marlow: You would hope.
Coppola: I don’t know.
Marlow: Good films are usually the result of collaboration.
Coppola: Maybe other directors are just talking all the credit!
Marlow: Is that how it works?
Coppola: I don’t know. Everyone has their own approach. This is what works for me. I am the sort of learner that… I need to be hands-on. I enjoy diving into fields that I don’t necessarily know that well but have other people there to help support me. I learn through experience rather than reading, taking a test or writing an essay.
Marlow: For Val Kilmer’s son, how did you come to cast Jack [Kilmer]?
Coppola: I’ve known Jack since he was about four because we went to the same elementary school. Part of your program there when I was in the sixth grade was that you had to mentor a younger grade. I was assigned his grade and so I remember him at that age. My mom is friends with Val, too. Jack was always in and out of my life. When I was making Twixt, I became very close with Val. When I was auditioning all these kids, I had dinner with Val and his family. It was refreshing to hang out with Jack. He was so much more captivating because he was a real seventeen-year-old. He had other interests. He does have a quality about him that’s very…. You want to watch him. He is a natural in that sense. I had to chase him down a little bit because he didn’t want, I guess, the pressure… His father and mother are actors. I think he just wanted to be a seventeen-year-old kid. But, in the end, it was an exciting experience for him because he could be in a creative environment at that age. He’s on another movie now whereas his friends were doing what normal seventeen-year-olds do. I think it was fun for him to be in that familial environment.
Marlow: Was it always clear to you that you would cast both Jack and Val in the film?
Coppola: I liked that character for Val. It was such a small character. Val really didn’t want to do it. He said, ‘I want this to be Jack’s project.’ And I did, too. This was a family affair. I was trying to get as many people as I could get my hands on to fill these roles. I wanted to see what it was like to work with Val Kilmer in the sense of directing. I knew that it was going to be very much Jack’s project. Val was just taking a little fun part.
Marlow: When I saw the film in Toronto, someone said to me, ‘It’s really strange. I didn’t totally get that those two characters were really related.’ I said, ‘But they’re really related. They really are related.’
Coppola: I know! I am surprised and I’m happy that most people can go through the film without even realizing that that is his son. I did my job.
Marlow: What’s pleasantly surprising about the film is how damned good it is. For a first film, that rarely happens. People are rarely able to achieve that.
Coppola: I cannot really take all the credit. There is an advantage, in a sense, that (when you make your first feature) you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. You can be completely free. We were moving super‑fast and I could not over‑think anything, really. It is a little scary to think about a second project. I’ve learned a lot. I’m going to have new tools that I can apply next time around. But, at the same time, I don’t have that, for lack of a better word, ‘free‑ness’ as when I first went into it because I didn’t know what I was doing.
Marlow: You’re not rushing into another film.
Coppola: I’m writing. I’m saying goodbye to Palo Alto, though. I’m the last one standing!
Marlow: I presume that this is the last festival.
Coppola: We have the Los Angeles premier [on May 5] but this is the last festival. This was such a big moment in my life. I really want to absorb every step of the way and try to be present in it. I’m writing. Writing, as I’m sure you know, is a whole other kind of experience. An experience of being lonely and sitting at your computer all day! But, at the same time, the possibilities are endless. That is one of the joys during the writing process. Then you go into shooting where the possibilities aren’t as endless… but you’re not as lonely!