The granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) and niece of Sofia (The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation), 27-year-old Gia Coppola is on the fast track to film-world fame. After majoring in photography at Bard College, she got her start directing fashion films for the likes of Diane von Furstenberg, Rodarte and Zac Posen. Her debut feature film, Palo Alto, stars Emma Roberts and James Franco and is based on Franco’s 2010 book Palo Alto: Stories. The moody, beautiful movie follows a group of disillusioned California teens as they drink, drive (yes, in that order), hook up and experience heartbreak for the first time.
Earlier this week, I sat down with Coppola to discuss all things Palo Alto. In person, the young director is sweet but shy, with a self-deprecating sense of humor that’s almost enough to make you forget she’s part of one of the most important families in the entertainment industry. Read on for our chat, in which Coppola spills about working with James Franco (you won’t believe where the two first met!), how she and her cool young cast shacked up at her mom’s house during filming and why you’ll never, ever see her credited as an actress.
Lucky: So tell me how you first met James Franco—and how you two ended up working on this project together.
Gia Coppola: I actually saw him at a deli early one day, and later that night we ended up at the same party. My mom had met him before, so she introduced us. He was interested in what younger people are doing and creating, so I talked to him a bit about my photography. And then the next day he emailed me—I don’t know how he got my email address!—and said, "Hey, let’s collaborate." He had a few different ideas, one of which was to turn his book Palo Alto: Stories into a feature film. I read it with that intent and just really loved the stories, and felt like I hadn’t seen anything that was that spot-on in terms of the dialogue, the way kids really talk, their emotions. So I was really excited to have the chance to tell that story with him.
During filming, did you find yourself drawing on your own teenage experiences? You’re still pretty young, so I’d imagine it was easy to do so.
Yeah! I have enough separation from those years now that I’m able to look back on them fondly…well, and not fondly, I guess! [Laughs] And yet I’m close enough to that time that I can remember it fairly well still. Teenagers are always interesting subject matter, and it was really fun to work with real teens.
It must have been such a fun set.
Definitely. The kids—Nat [Wolff] and Jack [Kilmer]—actually lived at my mom’s house while we were shooting.
And your mom [Jacqui Getty] was in the movie too! So this was really a family affair.
That’s exactly what it was: a family affair. There are more thank-yous than actual credits at the end of the film, because I was basically just asking all my friends to help out! So the kids lived at my mom’s house, I’d drive them home at the end of each night and my mom would cook us dinner. They really showed me what was hip and not hip…
I imagine you don’t need that much help in that department. Speaking of which, you and your aunt Sofia are both known for having super-cool personal style. Do you two ever share things with each other?
I definitely look up to her and try to follow her style in that sense. We’re similar but still different. When I was younger I used to get her hand-me-downs—that was the best.
Before you began filming Palo Alto, did Sofia or your grandfather offer up any memorable pointers or bits of advice?
It was really just through observation, growing up on their sets, that I feel like I learned the most. I worked on their movies when I was younger and learned a lot through that. With Palo Alto, I was working with James’ book and through his production company, so I had the luxury of having him help me—telling me the inspiration behind the stories, having him on set all the time. He’d help me block a scene, sometimes, when I got stuck. So I leaned on him a lot.
James was both behind and in front of the camera for this movie. Would you ever try acting yourself?
No—I’d be a horrible actress! I’m super-uncomfortable in general, so add a camera in front of that and I think it’d be a disaster!
Let’s talk about the fashion in the film. Did you work with a costume designer?
I had a costume designer [Courtney Hoffman], but because we were low budget, it was very much about using my own clothes, Jack’s clothes, everyone’s personal clothing. Jack has great taste to begin with, so we basically just set his closet up on a rack and were like, "What are you going to wear today?" But it was fun to give Emma’s character a bit more of an arc in terms of her attire.
Were there any onscreen looks that you particularly loved?
I found that it was best to keep characters in the same clothing as much as possible during filming—it’s just easier. But I loved the Western shirt Jack wears during the party scene—it’s his own. And I loved Emma’s simple white A.P.C. coat—it was sort of her staple throughout the movie, and kind of made her look like Snow White.
Who are some of your own favorite labels to wear, and where do you usually shop in your day-to-day life?
Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, Saint Laurent, Zac Posen and Opening Ceremony. But usually I’m just dressed in sweatshirts, jeans and Supergas! I guess I go to vintage stores a lot. I don’t really like shopping that much—I usually do it online, on eBay. Right now, since I just moved to New York from LA, I’m more into figuring out my furniture situation, so I’m just shopping for that.
I’ve been listening to the Palo Alto soundtrack nonstop this week—how did you wind up working with Dev Hynes [of Blood Orange] on the music?
Honestly, I’d just been listening to Blood Orange a lot, and I reached out to Dev to see if he’d be interested. He’d been offered a few different projects at the time, but I was lucky enough that he connected with the story and what I had to show him. He took the characters seriously, which I really appreciated, and made it feel that way with his music. He knew how to heighten the emotion and keep it modern, but casual.
Growing up in such a film-focused family, what was your relationship with movies like? Were there any restrictions on stuff you couldn’t watch?
I was pretty much allowed to watch anything when I was younger. Violence was probably the only thing that wasn’t OK with my family. As I got older and became more interested in movies, though, nobody ever wanted to watch any of my family’s movies with me! My grandfather had seen his movies so many times and didn’t want to go back to that place, I guess, and my friends never wanted to take on that responsibility. It wasn’t until this year that James finally sat me down and made me watch The Godfather Parts I and II back to back!
Palo Alto opens in limited release on May 9.