Interview: Gia Coppola
“If it’s all going to be over anyway, then why does it matter?” Teddy, one of the tortured teens in Gia Coppola’s debut feature Palo Alto muses to his peers. It’s a cool evening in central California and the bored pack of lanky youths are casually contemplating a classmate’s suicide: “Pain only matters if it’s prolonged,” he adds. The flippant remark could only come from someone so young, and the words prove an apt metaphor for the film’s fully grown vision of adolescence—fraught but also decidedly fleeting.
Adapting a short-story collection by James Franco, Coppola preserves the episodic structure of the book, allowing her camera to move among the characters with a breezy sense of freedom: April (Emma Roberts), the intelligent yet vulnerable good-girl lured into an affair with her charismatic but creepy soccer coach, Mr. B. (played by Franco); Teddy (Jack Kilmer) who’s in trouble with the law and in love with April; Fred (Nat Wolffe), Teddy’s cocky, bad-influence sidekick; and Emily (Zoe Levin), the profoundly sad school slut who freely dispenses blow jobs in place of genuine connection.
For better or for worse, Palo Alto is more concerned with communicating a certain mood than it is with imposing a plot (its weightless, dreamy sequences recall the work of the director’s aunt, Sofia Coppola). Like its source material, the film unfolds unapologetically from the teenage point of view: neither the audience nor the characters are granted any of the benefits that come with hindsight—or foresight, for that matter. All we get is blind adolescence groping its way around in the dark.
FILM COMMENT sat down with the director, whose petite stature and soft-spoken demeanor also bear a striking resemblance to those of her aunt, to talk about the challenges and pleasures of capturing teenage ennui on screen. (Palo Alto opens Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
You came to filmmaking almost accidentally: James Franco sent you a copy of his book hoping you’d direct it after seeing your photography work. How did your background as a photographer inform your foray into feature films?
Well, I love Stephen Shore, my photography professor at Bard, so I used a lot of his photography as reference, and I communicated with the cast and crew with pictures so they knew exactly what I was looking for. I felt very comfortable in the cinematography element of making the movie because of my photography background and also I had [director of photography] Autumn [Durald] who I had worked with before. But I was very nervous about working with the actors, because I had to… use my words.
I wanted to keep the experience not so daunting, not so intimidating—like one of our fashion films but with more days. I tried to pay attention to continuity. I love Autumn—she’s really mellow, and she’s a woman, and I think she made the kids feel comfortable. She has wonderful taste and great ideas. She knows what I want without having to say it.
The production design is hugely important to the film’s feeling of authenticity, especially the characters’ bedrooms. The rooms expose them for the naive creatures they really are rather than the wise young adults they pretend to be. Can you speak a bit about your sets?
You can say so much just by observing a character’s room. It was important to think about what each of their rooms might be like. Sarah Jamieson, who did the production design, was wonderful and worked really hard. We shot Jack Kilmer’s bedroom in his actual bedroom and then Emma’s was just my old bedroom that my mom had left the same. And then with Emily it was important to show the dynamic that just a few years ago she was playing with toys and now she’s kind of playing with boys.
So was that actually your Virgin Suicides poster in April’s room?
Yeah, that was a big movie for me when I was a teenage girl. So I felt like that character would’ve felt that way too. It made it easier to license the poster.
Others have pointed out the similarities between this film and Sofia’s work, specifically The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring. What were some of your filmic influences on this project, both within and outside of your own family?
I love Virgin Suicides. I hadn’t seen Bling Ring when I made the movie. And you know, she’s my aunt so I look up to her. She’s inspiring because she makes movies that are true to her own demeanor and doesn’t have to be a big, forceful presence. She’s really paved the way for young female directors. I don’t think I would’ve considered it had I not seen her do it first.
April is one of the more fully formed characters in the book. She’s given three stories to develop. Emily, in the film, seems to be an amalgam of a few different characters from a few different stories. How did you pick and choose the characters we ultimately see on screen?
When I read the stories, James said: “OK, pick the stories that you love the most and just write them in screenplay format.” And then he said: “OK, now pick one of those and film it as a test run with your friends.” So once I did that, I was able to see what was working and what wasn’t working. And once I saw that this was going to be more of an ensemble piece, I could combine more of the characters and realize certain situations would make it fit for the screen better.
For me Emily was the most interesting character. She’s the simplest on the surface, but she proves to have a lot of depth and sadness.
Yeah, Zoe Levin is such a talented young actress, and she brought so much soul to the role that’s typically kind of played as just a slut. I felt like with movies today they’re all typecast into these slots, when really they’re so much more dynamic than that. She brought so much sadness, to show why she’s doing what she’s doing. It was a story in James’s book that was hard for me to relate to, but I felt like it was important to tell and to try and figure out how to do this creatively within my comfort zone and in a way that would work within my vision. So it was fun challenge for me to try and do that.
A lot of her character is drawn from the story “China Town” which has some pretty graphic scenes of sexual violence. In one instance in the film this gets translated through the use of voiceover rather than showing us those images.
Yeah, that was my way of going about it.
I’m also curious about Val Kilmer’s character [April’s father]. I don’t recall him in any of the stories. Did you write the character specifically for him?
He wasn’t in the book, but I felt like I had to add a bit more to April’s story to understand why she was doing the things she was doing or why she was vulnerable enough to get involved with Mr. B. I was working with Jack [Kilmer] who I’ve known since he was 4, and I knew Val from working on my grandpa’s movie Twixt. We were just casting people based on who I knew—we would reach out kind of on a whim. Val is an amazing actor so I had to put him in there, just a little bit. I wanted to keep it still very much Jack’s film.
The film manages to preserve the episodic structure of the book without imposing a classic plot. Was this your intention from the very beginning or did you play with different ideas throughout the writing process?
Because it was short stories, it didn’t feel right to have the stories separate and make it into a feature-length. I was looking at movies that I love so much growing up, like The Last Picture Show and American Graffiti, and coming-of-age stories that aren’t about teenagers, like Diner. That sort of vignetted storyline—just people’s lives, and characters’ lives. That was sort of my approach.
What changed from the first draft to the final product?
It goes through so many different changes and filtrations from what I wrote to what the actors brought, and just the daily grind of the challenges you face making a movie to the edit… That one blueprint idea takes on its own life. Everyone has their own approach to making a movie, but I view it as collaborative.
What was the collaboration process with your editor?
I had an amazing editor, Leo Scott, and he brought so much life to the film and really understood where everything should go. I had all this extra footage, like Emma jumping on the bed and things I would get on the fly occasionally—Jack in the wolf suit. Normally I would’ve thought to make it a dream sequence, but he put it in this totally oddball place that I never would have thought of and it’s so much better. Putting Emma dancing on her bed in the front of the film lets the audience understand her character a little bit better, and then you’re willing to follow her story, and she’s not just sort of moping around.
The music as well seemed a perfect fit. Did you have Devonté Hynes in mind for the score from the beginning?
I was working with my cousin Robert [Schwartzman] who was also doing the score and I was a big fan of Dev Hynes. I reached out to him for one song, and then I just kept sending him more stuff and he was really liking it. He understood not being judgmental of the characters—that what they’re going through really feels like a big deal, and how to express that. So that feeling is really heightened in the music.
You mentioned working with the actors was the element you found most challenging. How did you overcome this to establish a rapport with them?
I just tried to be as open and honest as possible and say what the scenes meant to me. I knew they knew the characters better than me after a certain point. I enjoyed moments like when they would surprise me and throw something into the scene that was new to me. Jack and Nat lived at my mom’s house while we were filming, so we were very much like a family.
And your mother plays April’s mom. How did you end up casting her?
I always wanted her to do it, but she didn’t want to. Finally I was like: “I don’t have anyone else, will you please just do it? I think you’re the perfect person.” She was visiting the set every day anyways, so eventually I just got her to do it. She and Emma get along really well so I knew that was going to come across, but it was funny directing her because every time she finished a scene she’d look into the camera and be like: “Did I do OK?” And I’d be like: “You can’t look into the camera and talk!” [Laughs]
So this was her big-screen debut?
She’s done a few tiny things. She always kind of plays the crazy mom [laughs]. I hope she gets into it more. I think she’s good.
In terms of your overall vision for the film, were you trying to comment on this specific generation of teens or speak to the adolescent experience in a more timeless way?
More timeless. I felt like I wanted to look back on this [film] and not feel jaded about it.