Hormones, angst and cul-de-sacs: the myth of the American suburb has been as inspiring to young directors as it was traumatic for their characters. Gia Coppola’s debut Palo Alto, based on stories by James Franco (who also stars as a lascivious girls soccer coach), follows in this tradition. It’s a lineage that, for the twenty-seven year old filmmaker and granddaughter of Francis-Ford, is especially close to home. Many critics have already commented on how Palo Alto, with its slow-motion shots of sprinklers and Blood Orange’s ethereal soundtrack, echoes the dread and dream of The Virgin Suicides, which was Gia’s aunt Sofia’s first feature. In this conversation, the young director talks about the high-school experience, how her Hollywood family has responded to Palo Alto, and which James Franco film is her favorite.
There have been a number of films about American teenagers in suburbia. Palo Alto wears some of these influences on its sleeve. What did you want to add to the genre?
The movies I love about teenagers—American Graffiti, Last Picture Show, my family’s movies, even John Hughes—I wanted to see that again. Films about teenagers today are unreal. Everyone’s hair is perfect. The actors are older. The way they talk doesn’t feel realistic. They’re missing something real.
There’s also greater realism in the plot structure. Your film is picaresque and meandering, like a suburban summer.
I’ve always liked the structure of American Graffiti or Diner or even I Vitelloni. They are vignette, ensemble pieces. You’re just going through the characters lives. So I used those as reference points when making a movie from the short stories.
Do you think being a teenager is different today—worse or more angst-ridden—than it was when some of the older films were set?
I showed this film to older relatives. I was really nervous about the explicit content. But they were like “Oh, come on. We went through that too.” So I think the emotions and growing pains are always there. Maybe today there is the whole cyber reality of social media. But I didn’t want to get into that—it’s another story. Then there’s the specificity of California. Things are more spread out. Getting your license is such a big deal. Hanging out in a parking lot—that’s what you end up doing.
There’s a darkness to the suburbs in your film.
James [Franco]’s book was pretty dark to begin with. I like that in movies. I enjoy working with that. It was a fun challenge for myself as a woman. I had to get over certain sensitivities and feel a bit more masculine.
Some of the dudes’ conversations are really real.
That was in the book. But I remember my guy friends constantly coming up with “Would you rather” games. Still I couldn’t write that. It was in the book, and then we worked from there with the actors to make it as real as possible.
How did you and James Franco meet?
We met super randomly. We ran into each other one afternoon and then later that night we got introduced. He’s always interested in what younger people are working on. I was talking to him about my photography and we stayed in touch. We wanted to work together somehow. When he presented the idea of adapting his book, Palo Alto, I was excited. And even more excited that I connected with the book when reading it. I had just finished college so I felt like I had enough separation to appreciate those awkward teenage years. He was like “choose the stories you like” and he took me through it so I didn’t feel intimidated.
Whose idea was it to cast him as the creepy soccer coach?
That was my idea!
How did he react?
He’s like my favorite actor. I really wanted him to be in it. But he couldn’t play a teenager obviously. And that character was hard for me. It was really easy to make it over the top. He brought a lot of subtlety to it. I secretly really wanted him to do it and eventually just asked. He would tell the other actors and me about the inspiration behind the stories. He’s also a director, so whenever I got stuck I would ask him for help.
What’s your favorite film that he’s been in?
That’s a good question. I love Freaks and Geeks and Pineapple Express. He’s great in Spring Breakers. He’s good in everything he does because he’s totally fearless. I saw him in Of Mice and Men and I thought he was amazing in that. I really enjoy all the different things he does.
You come from a big Hollywood family. How have they reacted to you deciding to make films?
They’re my family so they’re excited. They’re going to be supportive no matter what. My grandpa [Francis Ford Coppola] is very excited. He says this is the fifth generation to go into the film industry.
And now that you’ve completed your first feature—how does it feel?
It’s bittersweet that it’s all coming to a close. But it’s exciting to show it to the world. I never dreamed it would be in a movie theater. I just thought we were making this small film. I was just happy to be creative and collaborate with everyone. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.