Gia Coppola grew up on film sets, so it comes as no surprise that the 27-year-old’s first feature brims with the confidence and control of someone who’s been preparing to make movies her entire life. Culled from a collection of short stories by James Franco and transformed into a vital, blissed-out portrait of the teenage experience, Palo Alto makes it clear from the first scene that Coppola shares her aunt Sofia’s gift for sensitively capturing lives of succinct disorder. A contained mosaic that orbits around the prim, pretty April (Emma Roberts); Teddy, the disaffected wallflower who likes her (Jack Kilmer); his insistently insane best friend Fred (Nat Wolff); and a handful of other high-schoolers, Palo Alto is hazy enough to feel like a memory of growing up, and precise enough to function as a reminder that we never stop doing so. The Dissolve recently sat down with Coppola in Tribeca Film’s Manhattan office, where she discussed her unusual path to becoming a director, the insanity of allowing teenagers to drive, and how having Francis Ford Coppola as a grandfather is as great as fans might imagine.
The Dissolve: You initially connected with James Franco over the still-photography work you were doing up at Bard College. When you were reading his collection of short stories, was there a single image that jumped out at you as something you felt compelled to capture with a camera?
Gia Coppola: It was really more all the emotions and the way he articulated it, which was so spot-on. I loved the dialogue. It made me remember certain things I grew up with, even though it was a little different. Just hanging out in a parking garage and figuring out what you wanted to do. But those moments were always the best moments. There’s always that one friend who’s the dangerous one, who’s always a bit crazy… I loved all of that. April and Teddy’s story is this kind of missed opportunity for romance, as they’re caught in that feeling of not being able to express themselves to each other. That really resonated with me.
The Dissolve: Franco has said he didn’t know anyone like Fred when he was growing up, that the character just came from his imagination. Did you know someone in high school who fit that wild-child archetype?
Coppola: I had some friends who had certain characteristics that I plucked here and there, and it was funny when they saw the movie for the first time. I didn’t think they would notice, but they freaked out. They’d say, “You used my pickup line!” or, “Am I really like that character?” And I had to be like “No…” [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: But that’ll be the case with any movie you make when you screen it for those closest to you.
Coppola: I know. I was so excited to show this to them, because everyone has been so helpful, but I was so surprised that they noticed all of those small details.
The Dissolve: The film feels very true to the high-school experience, but at the same time, it also feels like a memory of the high-school experience. The anthology element lets the movie be guided by a hazy dream logic. When you were editing the film, were you careful to maintain a non-linear feeling and prevent the stories from adding up too cleanly?
Coppola: I knew, because I was working with short stories, that it was going to be more of a vignetted piece about these characters’ lives, and that we’d just follow them. I knew the story would be lifelike, and that—in the end—the film would be the accumulation of little things that initially didn’t seem important. But in the edit, I learned so much, and the film kind of told me what it wanted to be.
The Dissolve: This being your first feature, did you find that the movie stayed close to how you saw it in your mind’s eye? Were you surprised by the new shapes and directions it took?
Coppola: I had a preconceived idea, and then I was really disheartened at first, when I saw the first edit and I was like, “Aw, this is not what I’d hoped.” But then I realized that it took on this new life, and it’s so much better than I initially envisioned. And there’s no way to really get to that initial idea, unless you’re some sort of big-budgeted action-film director. And that’s what’s so fun about a small film like this, that it’s a collaborative experience, and so many different things come into play.
The Dissolve: Of all the collaborators you brought to this project, some of the most palpable contributions came from Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and Robert Schwartzman, who wrote the score and supplied some of their original music. You screened a rough cut for them and had them go create sounds inspired by what they had seen, but when they brought the music back to you, was it a revelatory moment?
Coppola: I’m just a big fan of Dev’s music and everything he’s been putting out lately, so I figured that was a good way of starting off a collaboration. [Laughs.] He’d send me some stuff, and I’d tell him where in the film I thought it might work, but he understood that it’s about taking the kids’ emotions seriously, even though they’re telling each other, “I love you,” and it’s really easy to judge from an outside perspective. But he really took them seriously, and brought life to their feelings, and that was really important. And we discussed making this something that would feel timeless, but also modern at the same time.
The Dissolve: Conventional wisdom is that the teenage experience is constantly in flux, but the role that cars play in your film suggests that some things haven’t changed in a long time. Watching Palo Alto in the context of obvious precursors like The Last Picture Show, it feels like a teenager’s agency has always been dependent upon having a car, and defined by the things they do with it.
Coppola: I just remember that it’s such a freeing experience when you finally get your license, but it’s crazy… I don’t want to ruin it for future generations, but it’s crazy when you’re that young and operating such heavy, dangerous machinery. I was thinking back, “Wow, I was such a reckless driver,” just because at that age, you don’t really understand consequences. When I drive now, I’m so fearful of everyone around me.
The Dissolve: “Gia Coppola campaigns for California’s driving age to be raised to 21!”
Coppola: It’s so crazy, especially in retrospect. You wait for it for so long when you’re that age, especially in California, where everything is so spread out, and when you’re at home, you’re pretty much at the mercy of your parents, and whether they want to drive you.
The Dissolve: The lens through which the film looks at older generations is fascinating. They almost feel like aliens to these kids. There’s also the predatory James Franco character, and the Chris Messina cameo that queasily plays against his image. Did you approach the adult characters in a notably different way than you did their kids?
Coppola: I added in the adults. I mean, there was a little in the book, but I felt like it was important to understand why these kids are acting the way they are. But I also remember that it was such a pivotal moment in my youth when I realized the authority figures were just as flawed as I was, and still trying to figure out their own lives. So I wanted to see the adults through their eyes. With James’ character, we discussed how he was emotionally stunted and couldn’t relate to anyone his own age, and that’s why he really loves April, because he can connect with her on her level. And he just happens to find another young girl during their break-up period.
The Dissolve: So he has genuine affection for her, he just has a genuine affection for a few other people like her as well?
Coppola: Yeah. He obviously doesn’t view himself as a predator or anything like that. He’s in love with her, she just happens to be 15 or 16 years old.
The Dissolve: Actors always say they can’t afford to judge their characters, but the kids in this film really seem to have taken that to heart. How did you help your cast inhabit these roles in a way that allowed their performances to be three-dimensional, but also so understanding?
Coppola: I guess I never really realized I wasn’t judging the characters until now, when I have this new outer perspective of the whole thing. But I knew in writing it, just in order for me to understand where everyone was coming from, I had to put myself in their shoes and figure out ways to relate to them. And then I was just very open to what the actors brought to the table, because I felt like they knew the characters better than I did. I enjoyed all of the little surprises every now and again, and where they thought the characters were coming from. I think it just naturally came out as us not being judgmental because we cared about everyone, even if they were flawed.
The Dissolve: You developed the script from a handful of Franco’s stories, but you avoided almost all of the more sensationalistic ones, like the one where a kid is beaten to death. As a result, the climactic scene in the film, while organically developed, hits with a very different force than anything we’ve seen until that point. How did you build to that moment?
Coppola: That was from a story I really loved called “Jack-O.” James made me pick the stories I liked and then develop them into separate screenplays, and then with the three April stories, I made a test film with my friends, and in that process, I was able to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. I had all these separate screenplays, and then I intertwined them and combined characters. “Jack-O” was a nice way to frame the beginning and the end, and I really love his speech in the end. I thought it was an important breaking period for his character, and says so much about Fred after viewing his behavior throughout the whole thing. But Nat Wolff brought complexity and life to it that I could never have even thought of, and he should answer that question. He could go deeper than I could. He’s a very serious young actor. I think he was wearing ice in his shoes to bring out the emotion.
The Dissolve: Ending the movie with the scene we’re talking about cements the film’s theme of becoming, that people are never fully formed, and even though high school ends, the feelings that define the experience never really go away. Very little of the movie actually takes place in high school.
Coppola: [Laughs.] I never really hung out with the kids in my high school, so much as I was just sort of outside of it, so maybe those were my memories of those years. But I think in the book, high school wasn’t so relevant. It’s more about the things we do outside of it—otherwise, it just becomes too routine.
The Dissolve: The way the kids are dressed is very realistic, but also touched with these indelible little flourishes that feel like spot-on affects. The leopard-print jacket that Emily wears to the party, for example, is so immediately of that world. How did you and your costume designer, Courtney Hoffman, work to strike that balance?
Coppola: The costumes and the set design say so much about a character without having to say it, so those elements were very important to me. Courtney used the kids’ clothes and my clothes and my friends’ clothes, because in so many movies about teenagers today, everything they wear is so perfect and new. Jack Kilmer has really good style, so we just had his wardrobe on set, and it was like, “What are you gonna wear today?” All we had to do was keep some sort of continuity.
The Dissolve: You worked in the costume department on your aunt Sofia’s film, Somewhere. What did you learn from that experience that you were able to apply as a director?
Coppola: I grew up on my family’s sets, so I learned a lot just observing them. But with Sofia, as a young female director, I saw how she can be authoritative, but in a demeanor that’s true to herself, and not this big forceful presence. I learned a lot also on my grandpa’s movie Twixt, where I just shot behind the scenes and got to sit next to him from start to finish and drive him around. It was a nice opportunity for us to just be together, and he would constantly be talking to me and showing how things are done, so that was kind of like a film school.