Interview: Gia Coppola on trying to do right by teens with ‘Palo Alto’

Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia, makes her feature directorial debut with "Palo Alto." Credit: Getty Images
Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia, makes her feature directorial debut with “Palo Alto.”
Credit: Getty Images

For her first feature film, writer-director Gia Coppola brings “Palo Alto,” James Franco’s short story collection about a suburban teenage wasteland in Northern California, to the screen. And as the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola, Gia easily found common ground with her first-time actor lead, Jack Kilmer.

You’re adapting a work based on someone else’s experiences, in this case James Franco’s. Did you work any of your own adolescent experiences into it?

I definitely plucked through some of my own experiences and my friends’. It was weird for them to see the movie recently because they were like, “Am I like that character?” [Laughs] But yeah, I was interested in the subject matter of teenagers because I’d just finished college and I was at the right age where I could tap into my own experience but also have enough separation to understand it a little bit more in a well-rounded way.

You do need a bit of distance to really get into it, don’t you?

Yeah. I feel like when you’re that age, you think you know everything and you live so much more dangerously because you don’t understand the repercussions of things yet. Everything feels like such a big deal, but in hindsight it’s really not. But you have to take those emotions seriously. I think it’s important to be sensitive to that.

There’s an authenticity that’s tough to achieve with teen stories.

That’s why I was excited by this chance, because I was a little bit frustrated. There are so many great teenage movies and so many that I love, like “The Last Picture Show” and “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused” and all the John Hughes movies, but I just hadn’t seen that in a while. I was frustrated because TV shows and movies, they all are actors who are a lot older playing younger, and their Converses are bright white and brand new and their skin and hair are perfect and their clothes are really… tacky. And I think if you look at teenagers on the street, they’re so fascinating and they have such great style. I just wanted something that felt authentic. Even the dialogue in that sort of stuff is so not realistic because they’re trying to be PG-13, like, “Gosh darn it!” [Laughs]

Jack Kilmer, son of Val, stars as a teen in Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto." Credit: Tribeca Film
Jack Kilmer, son of Val, stars as a teen in Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto.”
Credit: Tribeca Film

You’ve got a male lead, Jack Kilmer, doing his first film.

Yeah, he never acted before. I mean, obviously his dad is Val Kilmer, but he doesn’t care about acting or anything. He just wanted to be a 17-year-old kid, and I thought he was so interesting. He does have a natural quality where you want to watch him because he’s engaging with the world in an interesting way. But I had to chase him down. I was texting him and I was like, what teenager doesn’t have his phone attached to his hip? But he doesn’t. Eventually he got into it. I think a little bit [of his hesitation] might have been that he didn’t want the pressure, given his family’s background — to have that kind of attention on him. But I just wanted to assure him that this was going to be something that we could collaborate on together. I’ve known him since he was a little kid, so I’m going to do my best to take care of him and protect him.

Have you also had to grapple with that sort of family name-related pressure?

Yeah, but to be honest, I kind of forgot about it when I was making this movie because James really set the tone that this was going to be a small thing and I was just going to collaborate with my peers. We were all kind of pitching in and riding our own enthusiasm. So I never imagined that it was going to be like this. It’s kind of amazing that it’s actually in a movie theater. I really didn’t expect that. [Laughs]

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter @nedrick


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