Gia Coppola Talks Representing Teen Life Authentically in ‘Palo Alto’
Gia Coppola’s debut feature Palo Alto captures the struggles of modern teens better than any movie in memory. The film is based on a book of short stories by James Franco, who c0-stars in the film alongside young breakouts Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, and Zoe Levin. A series of interweaving tales of teens partying, getting into late-night trouble, and crushing on all the wrong people encapsulate serious themes of lust, confusion, ego, and young vulnerability. Atmospheric, honest, and cinematic, the film marks an impressive inaugural artistic statement for the young filmmaker.
During the 57th annual San Francisco International Film Festival, Coppola spoke with us about the pressures of making her first film, representing teens authentically, begging Jack Kilmer to act for her, James Franco’s strengths as a mentor, bridging the generation gap, and more.
Now that you’re on the other side of making your first film, do you find you enjoy the process of promoting it, introducing it to the world?
Gia: Yes and no. It’s a very important part of the process to talk about your film and try to get it out there, especially because the industry right now is rapidly changing. It’s a very important element in making movies. I didn’t realize that that was a whole other side to it.
So that was a surprise!
Gia: Yeah! (laughs) Having to talk about the film is difficult for me because I feel like I’m so close to it. To think about it generally and try to articulate everything I’ve gone through is hard for me. I’m not good with words; I use pictures to articulate things. It’s fun when the cast is around because I can let them take over. (laughs)
A surprise for me in the film was how authentic the characters’ bedrooms looked. Teenage bedrooms that look fake always bug me in movies for some reason…
Gia: For Teddy’s bedroom we used Jack Kilmer’s real bedroom, and Emma’s bedroom was my old bedroom at my mom’s house when I was in high school. [Zoe Levin’s] bedroom, with all the stuffed animals, we dressed because it was an interesting dynamic to have this young woman who maybe a year ago was playing with stuffed animals, now has a boy in her room. It’s a weird juxtaposition.
I think your film is important in that it accurately represents what the modern teen is like for future generations. If they looked at most other high school movies they’d probably get a terribly wrong impression.
Gia: I feel like the emotions and dynamics surrounding teens haven’t changed over the years. I remember showing the movie to older relatives, and they said, “This is exactly what we went through.” I wanted to show something in an authentic way. Teens in movies today just don’t look real. They don’t smoke cigarettes, they don’t curse, everything’s perfect, the actors are older…using real teenagers was kind of a no-no.
I think you also capture that state of limbo teenagers find themselves in. They’re too old to stay home every night, but they’re too young to really do anything once they get out there, so all they can do is drink at house parties and sit in their cars in parking lots.
Gia: What I remember growing up is just sitting in parking lots, trying to figure out what to do. Those moments seemed so boring and lame at the time, but when you look back on it, those were the best moments.
Did your skills as a photographer translate well to directing film?
Gia: In a sense. I felt very comfortable in the cinematography aspect of things. Filmmaking is an extension of photography, but there’s so much more to incorporate. I was really nervous about working with actors. I’m shy, so that was hard. It’s a collaborative experience, and it was a first feature for all of us, so we were very enthusiastic. We became like a family, and it was really sad when it was over.
Your cast is very normal-looking, in the best way possible. They look like actual, awkward teenagers.
Gia: When I look at teenagers in the real world, they’re so interesting and they have great style. I was trying to reflect that. Because Jack and Nat [Wolff] were 17 at the time, we used their clothes and let them style themselves. It was so much more interesting that way.
You’ve known Jack for a long time.
Gia: I’ve known him since he was 4 years old.
Growing up, did he ever want to act?
Gia: No. I had to chase him down a little bit because, like me, I don’t think he wanted the pressure of what comes along with his background. All of that attention, you know? Now, he really appreciates having that bonding experience and being collaborative and creative with everyone, which I don’t think he was really getting with his friends as much. But no, he didn’t want to take it on at first…but I begged him and he was willing to do it for me. (laughs)
I feel like adults sometimes put too much pressure on their kids because they forget just how intense those teenage years can be. Do you think your film may help teens and parents understand each other a bit better?
Gia: I hope it bridges the gap and both demographics can understand each other a little bit. There’s that point in your life when you understand that parents are human beings, too, and you see them for how they’re just as flawed as you, trying to figure out their own lives. With movies today, teens are made fools of. They just want to get drunk, and there’s not much meaning behind why they do the things they do. It’s such an interesting time for a person. It’s a physical thing; our bodies are changing and you can’t help but feel awkward. James says that teenagers are good subjects for talking about emotions because everything’s on the surface and magnified, so it’s easier to talk about those emotions.
You’ve said that you wanted to stake your own claim as a filmmaker without much help from your family name. Instead, you adopted James as a mentor. What did he teach you?
Gia: He’s totally fearless, and that’s something to admire. His character is really challenging, and it was nice to have him there to teach me how to direct an actor of that caliber. He’s a director, so whenever I’d get stuck he’d help me with the blocking or whatever needed to be done. He has so many talents that he could help with anything I needed.
When James entrusted you with putting his stories to screen, what was your attitude? Were you ready to rise to the challenge, or were you nervous?
Gia: It was a little bit of both. I’d never considered making a feature length film; I was doing photography and had made one little short film. I really loved James’ book, and I was excited at the chance of working with him. He really set the tone, so I didn’t have to feel nervous about anything. I could just enjoy being collaborative with my peers. All of the pressure dropped off and I was just having a good time. We struggled with getting financing, and that was heartbreaking. When we finally started filming, I was in the state of mind of, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I was so heartbroken that I didn’t want to string myself along anymore. On the first day of shooting I thought, “Oh my god…I’m not ready for this!” But there’s no way to really be ready for your first film. I think that was sort of to my advantage to not have a lot of time and not know what to expect.
It’s crazy to be here [in San Francisco] with the film because I thought it wasn’t going to be in theaters. I really didn’t know what was going to come of this small indie film.