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Gia Coppola on Directing Palo Alto, Adapting James Franco, and Joining the Family Business

Palo Alto director Gia Coppola. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Gia Coppola’s last name is, well, highly familiar. And with her first feature film, Palo Alto, out today, she joins grandfather Francis Ford Coppola, aunt Sofia Coppola, and cousins Nicolas Cage, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and more, in the family business. (Her father, Gian-Carlo Coppola, died before she was born.) Palo Alto is adapted from James Franco’s book of short stories, and her film is moody and funny and just a little bit gritty, reminiscent of the work of both Aunt Sofia and Kids director Larry Clark. Vulture spoke to Coppola about teen movies, Instagram research, and famous families.

The notes for the movie mention American Graffiti, The Last Picture Show, and The Outsiders as your favorite teen movies. Do you like any that are more current?
I felt like there hadn’t been modern depictions of teenagers I really liked — that’s why I was excited about the chance to adapt James’s book. I wanted to tell those stories in depth. Now it’s starting to become more of a trend with The Spectacular Now, The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers. I love those movies.

All of the teen bedroom sets looked eerily accurate.
I looked at Instagram for details of teen bedrooms. In the movie, Jack Kilmer’s room is his real bedroom. And we used my bedroom, which hadn’t changed since I left for college. My mom kept it a shrine.

Did anyone in your family give you any filmmaking advice before you set off?
I learned the most when I was on my family’s sets growing up and observing how they work with actors, and then figuring it out on my own and making my own mistakes.

Which sets stand out?
I remember being on Dracula and Gary Oldman scaring me in his bat costume. He sneaked up on me, and I turned around and there was a bat tapping on my shoulder. And then I worked behind the scenes on my grandpa’s movie Twixt. He enjoyed showing me how everything comes together and taking me through it all. That felt like my film school.

There are a lot of famous last names in your movie. Besides yours, there’s Emma Roberts, Christian Madsen, and then Val Kilmer and his son Jack. Was that at all on purpose?
It just happened that way. I wasn’t trying to be judgmental based on their backgrounds. We wanted it to be Jack’s film and not have his dad take away from that. But I also had to figure out casting on my own, and Val was available because he was Jack’s dad and visiting the set.

I read that you had the cast keep dream journals. How else did you want them to prepare?
I really just tried to spend the rehearsal period getting to know each other and not doing the scenes over and over so it’s stale by the time you filmed it. And then I was trying to remember the improv games my grandpa did on set. There’s this one where you toss an invisible ball and you make a sound every time you catch it.

Did they all bond?
Jack and Nat [Wolff] lived at my mom’s house during filming, and I would drive them to work and she would cook them dinner. We were a family, and that’s what was coming across.

Are you going to make another film?
I’ve been writing something. I want to do it with James. He’s a busy guy and always moving around, but we stay in touch. I can be meticulous and slow and timid where he’s fearless and has this amazing work ethic. He works above and beyond anyone I know.

Do you think he sleeps?
I don’t think he sleeps that much. I think he just works super-hard and he has an amazing memory and is super-intelligent.

What else is going on in your life?
I jut moved to New York, which has switched things up for me. I moved to Chelsea because my friend had an apartment available in her building and my apartment in L.A. was under construction, so I cancelled my lease.

How do you like it?
Chelsea seems a little too grown-up for me. Maybe I’ll try a different area. Brooklyn sounds more like it.

You went to college at Bard. Do you prefer the East Coast or the West Coast?
I think I like the West Coast more. I thought it would be nice to have seasons again, but it was a rough winter.

So what do you do in New York?
It’s still the same as when I was a teenager. You spend time figuring out what to do, but those moments goofing around figuring it out are the most fun. You know, you’re hanging out in the parking garage. The in-between moments are the best.

Gia Coppola on Palo Alto and the Family Name