A Q&A with Gia Coppola, the next in a serious line of directors to make her feature debut
Gia Coppola is sitting on a big couch in a suite at the Fairmont Hotel on top of Nob Hill, delicately bookended by fluffy pillows. Her first feature film, Palo Alto, is the centerpiece of the San Francisco International Film Festival—and is also her first foray into a world where her grandfather, Francis Ford Coppola, and aunt, Sofia Coppola, have long directed.
The film, based on short stories from a collection by James Franco, follows a cast of young things through their weed-fogged, insecurity-driven days of high school. Emma Roberts (We’re the Millers) anchors as April, a pretty brunette who gets overly involved with her soccer coach, played by Franco, as other interests and the vapid chaos of teenage-hood play out alongside her. This film is out in limited release on May 9 and wider release on May 16.
TIME sat down with Coppola to ask about why she chose this as her first film and what it’s like to work with a double-edged name — one that comes with as many expectations as advantages:
How did you and James Franco come to work together?
We met kind of by chance. I had just finished college and I was back in LA. My mom introduced us. It was a weird, by-chance coincidence that we came together. I was working as a bar back and I had done my senior thesis in photography. He was interested in seeing my photos, so I emailed them to him.
What were the photos?
I guess you could say they were diaristic, just taking pictures of what was around me and my friends and little things on my windowsill. It wasn’t of anything of real importance. But I was trying to find some sort of cohesion between all of these things.
That sounds a lot like the movie — how you intertwine the short stories from his book.
Well, he was looking for a director for his short stories and he said we should work together. So I read it, and I just really connected with it. It articulated in a realistic kind of way what it’s like to be a teenager and all of the emotions that come along with it and all of the vast different types of characters that you face at that age. I was a little bit intimidated to get into making a feature film, which wasn’t really in my mindset.
Do you remember your teenage years fondly?
Because I had finished college, I was at this place where I had enough distance to look at them a little bit fondly and appreciate that awkward time. I went to a private school and I struggled academically. It was really disheartening to always be considered bad at that. And I didn’t really know what I was interested in. I knew I wanted to be creative but I couldn’t really figure it out. I was painfully shy. And all my friends were outside of school. It was an uncomfortable time.
Are there good parts you remember?
Yeah. I had a lot of fun, too. At the same time you don’t understand consequences, the repercussions of your actions. So you’re totally reckless, and it’s amazing the things you’ll do. And just those moments of figuring out what to do at night, and you’re just spending most of the time driving around in a car and trying to decide what you want to do. But really the best moment is when you’re all hanging out in the parking lot, figuring out what you want to do.
So what was it like being on a set in a leadership role? Obviously you’ve been on a lot of other sets in other capacities.
I really just kept it an environment that I felt comfortable with. I worked with all the people that I worked with on my smaller projects and it was everyone’s first film. So we were really just enthusiastic, and we were a family. And we were low budget, so a lot of the time everyone’s wearing many different hats. So it felt collaborative. I didn’t feel like an authoritative figure. And that made it enjoyable. The boys lived at mom’s house, and I’d drive them home when we were done and cook dinner. I was really sad when we stopped filming.
What inspiration did you draw from your aunt and grandfather, the directing styles that you had seen from them?
I learned a lot just having had those opportunities to be observant on their sets and feel comfortable in that environment, understanding how things function. I worked on my grandpa’s movie Twixt and really got to be with him from start to finish and see how he works with actors. That was a nice opportunity, as granddaughter and grandfather, to be together. I drove him around. And understanding the work ethic of those hard hours, how to make a movie. With my aunt, I definitely can relate to how she makes a movie, because she does it with her own demeanor, which isn’t this loud presence. She does it in a way that’s truthful to her nature, and she paved the way for young female directors. I may not have wanted to have done it, had I not seen her do it.
Do you feel like there are certain expectations, having such a recognizable name and having had these people go before you?
Yeah, I think that’s why I was a little apprehensive to get into it. I have advantages at times, and I have great people to turn to for advice. But it’s also hard to really stand out on my own and prove that I have my own voice and I did do this on my own. I worked really hard. James and I couldn’t get financing for two and a half years. And that was heartbreaking, to be so invested in something and to be so close, and for it to fall apart, not once but multiple times. James really set the tone for me to let the intimidation and whatever background I have with my family, and the pressure that comes along with that, to drop off and let me be totally free to make something and not worry about any sort of judgment when making it.
How did you work to set this apart from other teenager movies, even the ones you were inspired by like American Graffiti?
I was personally longing for a movie about teenagers, one that felt realistic. I was kind of disappointed in what was out there until really recently. They all have perfect hair and skin and don’t curse or smoke cigarettes. And the actors are older. And you look on the street and teenagers are so much more interesting. They’re fearless in everything they do and they have awesome style because they’re experimenting and trying to understand who they are. They can move in a way that you don’t move as you get older
Did you think about your characters as anti-heroes?
I didn’t think about them to that extent, but they are anti-heroes. I hope people can connect to these characters and feel less alone and relate to what they’re going through. No matter what age you are, I feel like their emotions are still relevant.
Having finished the film, do you want to continue being a director?
It’s something I definitely enjoy very much and I want to keep doing it. It’s such a great way to dive into material and learn about things you wouldn’t normally learn about or go to places that you wouldn’t normally go to. A part of me is a little scared because I had such an advantage being a first-time director that, like a teenager, you don’t understand how everything’s going to come all into place. You can be very free. Now, the second time around, I’ll have new tools but I won’t have that sort of naïveté. I love making movies. But it’s a lot of investing your heart and soul. It can be exhausting.