Gia Coppola makes her directorial debut with Palo Alto, which she described as a universal story that happens to take place in the Northern California suburb. “It’s about the growing pains that everybody really goes through,” she told The Hollywood Reporter before a special screening of the film at New York City’s SVA Theatre, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.
Based on James Franco’s collection of short stories, Palo Alto Stories, Coppola combined the actor’s ten separate passages to zoom in on the ennui-based antics of four teenagers, played by Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, Jack Kilmer and Zoe Levin. “James was okay with that — he wanted someone else’s interpretation for this book,” she said of the adapting the screenplay. “We took it step by step; he told me to pick the stories I liked and make screenplays for each one, and then we made a test film with my friends. Once I had that, I was able to see what was working and what wasn’t, and I combined all the stories and made more of an intertwining ensemble.”
Roberts commented that she read Franco’s book on the day it came out, and read it in days. “I really fell in love with it because it was different than anything I’d read — it portrayed teenagers in a way that was honest, instead of a silly teen novel. It really said something. Gia took the characters, combined a couple of them and really made these characters have more depth, and intersected their stories. I enjoyed them equally in different ways.” The actress said of Coppola’s directing style, “She’s a very calming presence on set, and not many people know that she’s hilarious. She has a dirty sense of humor too! She’s very quiet, and then she comes out with these dirty jokes!”
Woolf read through Franco’s book after he read Coppola’s script to get more context — except that his character doesn’t exist in the original. “I asked James, ‘Who am I?’ I think my character is James, and he said, ‘Yeah I think so too, you’re just a devil version of me,’ which I thought was cool.” The actor, who now calls Coppola one of his best friends, added that he filmed The Fault in Our Stars after Palo Alto, and that his terminally-ill TFIOS character is “not as dark as this movie, but it was just as challenging, and I think it’s just as honest.”
Coppola noted that her relationship with Franco is not just one between actor and director, but also has a mentorship component as well. “He’s my teacher, and I’ve learned so much from him. He really set the tone so I could feel safe and be free in my art. He let me do my own thing, but at the same time, was very supportive when I needed him. He’s made so many movies that it was nice having him on set, because whenever I got stuck, I would ask him for advice about blocking a scene and things like that.”
Franco told THR of Coppola’s on-set attitude, “I really liked the family environment she created – she cast people and brought them all together, and a lot of them stayed at their mother’s house, so the cast got very, very close. When I direct, I’ve never done anything like that, and I was really impressed by that.” Would he ever try such a strategy in a film he directs? “Maybe, I think unity and solidarity are important – I don’t know if they’ll stay at my house!”
Of making her directorial debut, Coppola recalled advice she received from Francis Ford Coppola. “My grandfather always told me to eat breakfast so I have enough blood sugar, and he also said, ‘Making your first movie is like making your first waffle — the iron isn’t quite as hot, and you make a few mistakes, but those mistakes are usually great, and then the second time around, your waffle will be a little bit better.'”