Venice: Gia Coppola on Her "Satirical Fable" 'Mainstream' and the Perils of Social Media

Mainstream-Gia Coppola-
Inset: Mike Coppola/FilmMagic

Maya Hawke, Nat Wolff, and Andrew Garfield star as outsiders who become unlikely social media celebrities in Coppola's follow-up to her critically-acclaimed debut 'Palo Alto.'

It took Gia Coppola a while to join the family business.

The granddaughter of  Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Moonrise Kingdom screenwriter Roman Coppola and Lost in Translation helmer Sofia Coppola, first studied photography before turning to movies with her 2013 directorial debut Palo Alto. The adaptation of a James Franco short story, which starred Franco, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff and Jack Kilmer, premiered in the Orizzonti section of the 70th Venice International Film Festival and was praised by critics for its subtle and sensitive look at aimless teenagers in the notoriously wealthy town in northern California.

Seven years later, Coppola returns to Venice with Mainstream, a very different tale of disaffected youth, involving three people (played by Maya Hawke, Nat Wolff, and Andrew Garfield) who get caught up in the world of online celebrity. The 33-year-old director spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's European bureau chief Scott Roxborough ahead of the film's premiere. 

You directed but also co-wrote Mainstream (with actor Tom Stuart). Where did the idea for the film come from? 

After I made Palo Alto, I was thinking about what inspires me and, one night, I watched A Face in the Crowd on Turner Classic Movies and really connected with the story. [Elia Kazan's 1957 drama follows an ordinary man who becomes an overnight media sensation.] I began thinking about a similar story from a female point of view. That film had the element of the transition in media from radio to TV. I wasn't around for the birth of TV, but I thought I could do a story about the transition from TV to the internet. I have a friend who represents YouTubers. I was baffled at what she was doing, I couldn't understand it. But she'd say: "This is mainstream. So mainstream, the mainstream doesn't know it yet." That was the start of the film. 

What do you find compelling about social media stars?

I'm interested in where the art lies in the culture and what is the new relevance. There are a lot of good things on the internet but also a lot of dangerous elements. Look at all the online bullying, of young people whose identities aren't fully formed, that's really heartbreaking. Especially when you understand the tricks the companies use to keep you engaged with their technology. But I didn't want to teach any lessons. This is a cautionary tale, but I feel it's more a satirical fable. I think there are pros and cons. The challenge is how can you embrace what is new and still contain what you hope to do and express as a person and an artist.

Do you see online culture as mainstream, more mainstream than, say, film?

These people, online stars, posting from their homes, have huge followings, bigger than celebrities from film or TV. It's this massive thing bubbling below the "mainstream" culture. 

How active are you on social media?

I have Instagram. I'm a photographer so I enjoy sharing pictures. But I don't watch YouTube. I'm baffled by what people find engaging there. For the film, I avoided looking at any one platform. There are so many, and they change so quickly. One minute it's TikTok, the next it's something else. I just wanted to tell a story from an emotional place, through the concerns of these characters and the relationships between them.   

Maya Hawke plays Frankie and Nat Wolff plays Jake, two 20-somethings looking for something meaningful to do with their lives. They meet Andrew Garfield's character Link, who rants against consumer culture. Together the three become unlikely internet celebrities...

Maya plays an innocent young woman who is trying to form her opinions of the world. She sort of represents our culture, the haze we have over our eyes at the moment. This alienation toward what our culture values. At one level social media is a good thing because we are connected a lot more, but together with the dangers, like bullying, the whole system of likes and followers does something to your ego. I think we as a culture are still very cloudy of what is really going on.  

On the surface, this film seems to have a lot of similarities with your debut, Palo Alto, which was also a portrait of troubled youth. 

Palo Alto to me was a very dreamy movie, more about just observing teenagers and how they act. This film feels more satire, a loud, bright fable. It feels very different to me. 

Do you know what is going to happen to this movie after it premieres in Venice? Will it come out in theaters, go online?

I don't know. I really wonder what will happen with this movie. It's a very unique film and I hope it finds a place to be. But we're all in such a transition right now, it's impossible to predict the future.