Interview: Gia Coppola on her film Palo Alto

Emerging actress Zoe Levin stars in Palo Alto
Emerging actress Zoe Levin stars in Palo Alto
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A lifetime on film sets has stood Gia Coppola in good stead for her debut as a director, she tells Alistair Harkness

‘WELL, my Grandpa wasn’t making so many movies, so it was more like Sofia and my uncle…”

Gia Coppola is recalling a childhood growing up on film sets. When you’re part of American cinema’s foremost filmmaking dynasty, this is something you’re asked to do a lot.

“I do remember being on Dracula,” she says. “But definitely seeing Sofia take on directing made it appealing. She did it in a way I could relate to.”

“Grandpa”, of course, is Francis Ford Coppola, director of the aforementioned Dracula – but somewhat more celebrated as the game-changing auteur behind The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. “Sofia” is her aunt Sofia, otherwise known as the director of Lost in Translation. As for her “Uncle” – that would be Roman Coppola, erstwhile music video maverick, Wes Anderson collaborator (he co-wrote The Darjeeling Ltd and Moonrise Kingdom) and cult filmmaker in his own right.

With a pedigree like that, it’s hardly surprising that 27-year-old Gia would try her hand at filmmaking at some point – and if her debut, Palo Alto, is anything to go by, the family business is in safe hands for another generation.

Not that she was necessarily sure she wanted to become a director. “For a long time I felt a little resistant to it and thought maybe I didn’t want the extra tension or pressure. But I couldn’t help but enjoy the craft of it. It was just everything I enjoy: I love working with other people and bouncing ideas off them. I just couldn’t help but want to do it I guess.”

Having studied photography at Bard College in New York, it was a actually a random encounter with that ubiquitous Hollywood polymath James Franco that set her on the path to making her first film. Introduced at a party, they hit it off: she sent him some of her photographs, he sent her Palo Alto, his short story collection about teenage life in the titular Northern Californian city.

“I had just finished college and was at that age when I had enough distance from my high school years to understand that time in your life. And when I read James’ book I just thought he really captured it well and authentically and I related to a lot of the stories. I also didn’t have much life experience other than being a teenager, so that was really the right story for me to tell at that time.”

It’s a subject that both her grandfather (with The Outsiders) and her aunt (with The Virgin Suicides) have covered as well, but this Coppola brings something new to the genre; capturing that blissed-out moment when teens exist in a sort of netherworld where the freedoms of childhood begin to rub up against the encroaching responsibilities of the adult world.

“I knew I wanted to make a movie that hadn’t really existed in a while in terms of being a teenager,” she says. “I just wanted to show it through their eyes and have that viewpoint where you start realising that adults and authority figures are human beings too and have their own lives.”

Given that the ensemble cast features Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) and Jack Kilmer (son of Val, who also cameos in the film), it would be easy to pre-judge Palo Alto as the ultimate act of nepotism if all involved didn’t more than justify their casting. Coppola, though, is certainly aware of how it could be viewed. “I picked the people I thought were correct for the part and wasn’t looking at them as being ‘second generation’ actors or anything.”

Kilmer, making his debut, is especially good as an artsy kid being led astray by his best friend (Nat Wolff). Gia has known him since he was four (when she was in the sixth grade her class had to mentor his) and only cast him because the young actors she was meeting for the part didn’t seem particularly authentic.

“He was 17 at the time and I don’t know if acting was something he was even thinking about; I think he was just thinking about finishing high school.”

Coppola’s own decision to pick up a camera came initially through a desire to have a connection to her father, Gian-Carlo Coppola, who died in a boating accident just a few months before she was born. “I guess I knew my dad was into photography, so a part of me was interested in picking it up to understand him a little better.”

Given this, it’s small wonder that she embraces her family. When her grandpa started making movies again, she jumped at the chance to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of his last film Twixt, partly, of course, because it would serve as a de facto film school with one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but really because she’d never had the opportunity to be with him on a movie from start to finish. “I wanted to have that quality time with him,” she says. “Aside from anything else, I just wanted to be close to him.”

When it came time to making Palo Alto, Gia also continued the Coppola tradition of casting family members in small roles, roping in Francis to do a vocal cameo as a judge (Gia had previously made her screen debut as a baby in his segment of New York Stories), and casting her own mother, Jacqui de la Fontaine, as Emma Roberts’ mum. “She was on set every day anyway bringing us snacks and hanging out”. She also hired her cousin, Robert Schwartzman (Jason’s brother) to do the music.

“My family has been part of the evolution of this whole process,” she surmises, before admitting, rather sweetly, that she was a little worried about letting them see the final film because of some of its drug-related and sexual content.

“I was always the little granddaughter,” she laughs. “I wasn’t sure I was ready to let them know I knew about these things. But they were like: ‘What do you think we were doing when we were young?’”

• Palo Alto is in cinemas from Friday