Start a conversation with 27-year-old filmmaker Gia Coppola by saying you just saw an article about her headlined “A Hollywood Prodigy” and she’ll reply with a very soft, embarrassed, “Oh.” Follow-up: What’s it like seeing things like that these days? Response: “I haven’t really been looking — but yeah, I don’t know. That’s part of it, I guess.”
By “it,” she means the hoopla leading up to the wide release of her feature film directorial debut “Palo Alto,” adapted from a book of short stories written by actor James Franco. The movie, about a group of restless, confused suburban teenagers, stars Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) as April, a high school student in an ill-advised relationship with her soccer coach (Franco). Plus, there’s 18-year-old Jack Kilmer, playing April’s age-appropriate crush, Teddy, in his first acting job (he’s the son of Val, who also has a small role).
Even for a new director, Coppola — who also wrote the movie — has a special amount of pressure. That’s thanks to Grandpa Francis Ford and Aunt Sofia, and the expectations that come with being born into a legendary filmmaking family. Not to mention the craziness that surrounds pretty much anything wild-card James Franco does these days. Talking to Coppola by phone from Los Angeles, we asked her about Franco’s distracting personal life, if she ever considered doing anything other than filmmaking and how she finally persuaded her grandfather to take a small role in the movie.
How did you meet James Franco and get involved in the movie?
We met in a very random way — I say cosmic, because I feel like everything came into place that way. I ran into him at a deli and then later that night I ran into him again and we got introduced, and he remembered me from the deli.
I had just graduated college and I was figuring out what I wanted to do. I was working as a barback and I was a photography major. So we stayed in touch and I sent him some of my photographs; we wanted to work together in some way, and one of the ideas was to make his book into a feature-length film. I read his book and I just really loved it because it was conveying teenagers in a real light, and the dialogue was so great . . . and I myself was sort of reflecting on that period on my life. So I really connected to it, emotionally.
How did you decide which parts of the book to focus on in the film?
James said, “Pick the stories that you like the most and then make a test film of one of them.” And so when I made that test film I kind of discovered what was working and what wasn’t working. I combined the characters and made it more of an ensemble piece and it interweaves the storylines.
Which story was your test film?
“April in Three Parts.” [About April and Teddy.] I just really loved the story because it was romantic and these two kids really liked each other but they couldn’t really express how they felt. And they were being pulled in different directions and had this missed opportunity because they were being influenced by other people in their lives. I connected to the young girl character, obviously, because she’s sort of shy and introverted and observant, and I liked those qualities in her.
Did James Franco jump in and offer his own thoughts during the filming process, or did he stay out of the way?
He was very open to me having my own interpretation, and I think that’s sort of why he didn’t direct it himself — he wanted to have another viewpoint on it. But this was new for me, so he was very supportive and helpful when I needed it and I definitely kept him updated. He’s a director, and he’s one of my favorite actors. . . .I learned a lot from getting to work with him.
Did you have actors in mind already when casting started?
I always wanted James to play the part [of the soccer coach] but I was sort of shy to ask him because I didn’t know if it was weird to be in the movie of the novel that he wrote. Like I said, I really admire his acting, so I wanted to be able to learn from him in that sort of way and work with a very skilled actor.
Everything was just trying to reach out to as many people as I could. I was a fan of Emma [Roberts] and I kept running into her randomly, as well. There was sort of a gut instinct that this was the right person, and I was so happy to have her be a part of it because she was very supportive of me and very supportive of the other actors.
Jack [Kilmer] I’ve known since he was 4 years old, and he’s just so interesting as a real teenager. He’s never acted before, but he just has a natural quality about him where it’s very captivating and you just want to watch him.
How did you meet him when he was 4?
I had known him because at the elementary school I went to, part of the program was that in sixth grade, you have to mentor a younger class. I was assigned his class, so I remember him as a 4-year-old. He was always in and out of my life, and when I worked on my grandpa’s movie “Twixt” I got to know Val very well, and Jack was around for that. I had dinner with Jack not really thinking of him as a contender or anything, just having dinner with an old friend — then all of a sudden I was just like, he is so much more interesting than what I’m seeing out there.
Val Kilmer also had a role in the movie [as April’s step-father] — did the two of them cross paths a lot while filming? Did Val get dadlike and give advice?
Val and I really wanted to make sure that this was Jack’s film and that by having [Val] in it wouldn’t overshadow anything. I am a big fan of Val and he’s such a talented actor, and I was just trying to fill in as many parts as I could, and so it was just helpful for me to have him in there. It was a fun little moment to play. But they weren’t on set the same days. Val obviously came to visit when Jack was around sometimes, but Jack really wanted his space.
The movie is a lot about teenage romance, but also about the difficulties of keeping friendships in high school, especially when your friends are having different experiences. Which one do you think is a more powerful theme at that age?
I guess I just remember when I was growing up, that’s such an important age . . . I just remember the friends and choices being very important to the way you grow and the decisions you make sometimes.
I wanted to ask about the role of parents in the movie – they were in there a little bit, but only to show how they impacted their kids [usually in a negative way]. How did you want to portray them?
I just remember that pivotal moment when you’re a young adult and you realize that these authority figures are human beings too, and they’re figuring out their lives just as you are, and they’re flawed. It’s sort of a pivotal moment at that age when you realize they’re not this authority person. So I was remembering that as a big moment and wanted to show it from that viewpoint.
Obviously, James Franco has made a lot of headlines lately that are not movie-related. Do you ever get upset that those kind of stories — like him trading messages on Instagram with 17-year-old girl — might overshadow the film?
It’s totally irrelevant to the movie. I admire James, and I think he’s such a wonderful guy that I have nothing but adoration for him.
What was it like working with him on set? It seems like he’s always so busy with a million projects.
He’s amazing because he has such a great work ethic. It’s really inspiring because it motivates me to work hard, and he’s a great multi-tasker. I don’t know how he does it – I really try.
What was it like growing up in this legendary filmmaking family? Was it a given you would go into filmmaking, or did you ever want to rebel and go to med school or something?
I was always a little intimidated getting into it, and I was always asked, not by my family, but by outsiders, “Oh, are you going to be a director when you grow up?” And I would get annoyed, so I purposely wouldn’t go into the film school or whatever, and find my own thing. But then I just kind of naturally fell into it just because it was everything that I enjoyed in one medium, so I couldn’t help but like doing it.
And your grandfather has a voiceover role as a judge in the film [when Teddy gets court-ordered community service]?
I really was trying to get as many favors as possible, and then he really didn’t really want to do it. But I couldn’t afford a courtroom, and so that was my way of going about it — he had a good “judge-ly” voice, and he gave me one shot. That was all I got [laughs].
Are you tired of questions about James Franco and what it was like growing up in your family?
No, I mean – no. I’d like to talk about James forever, he’s the best.
What’s next after this movie?
I’m writing, and I hope to do something with my other cast members again and James. It’s time to say goodbye to “Palo Alto” and be present in this moment at the same time.
Palo Alto Opens May 16 in area theaters. Rated R for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language — all involving teens. 98 minutes.