By most counts, Gia Coppola is the fourth generation in her famous Hollywood family to enter the world of film. But her “grandpa”, the man otherwise known as Francis Ford Coppola, says she’s the fifth.
Not only did his father, Carmine, win an Oscar for scoring The Godfather: Part II, but his grandfather, Agostino, helped engineer the Vitaphone, which brought song to silent films.
“They were excited,” says Gia Coppola, 27, recalling her family’s reactions when she told them she would be writing and directing a film. “But mostly this was my chance to try to do it on my own.”
Based on a short story collection by actor James Franco — who stars as a charmingly lecherous high school soccer coach with a penchant for underage bedmates — Palo Alto traces the meandering lives of a loose (so to speak) group of California teenagers. Dreamy, poignant and devoid of any trace of moralising, the film depicts their partying, hook-ups and awkward crushes with unblinking ease, almost tenderly. The film drew warm reviews at last year’s Telluride Film Festival where it had its debut and where Francis Ford Coppola came along as his granddaughter’s plus-one.
Venturing into feature directing and screenwriting is a hefty lift for anyone. If you count Sofia Coppola, Talia Shire, Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman among your kin, not to mention a living legend for a grandfather, cries of nepotistic advantage are inevitable. But Gia says she largely steered clear of her family in making Palo Alto, instead seeking some mentoring from Franco.
Whisper-thin, delicately boned, Gia is reserved and private in person, evoking her aunt Sofia. Her father was Francis Ford’s firstborn, Gian-Carlo Coppola, or Gio, a fledgling film producer who was killed in a grisly boating accident in May 1986. He was 22, and his girlfriend, Jacqueline de La Fontaine, was pregnant. Seven months later, Gia was born.
She dropped out of school before her senior year, took community college classes, then transferred to Bard College to study photography. Once there, she also reunited with her first boyfriend, Sam Freilich, now a literary agent who remains her beau.
Gia still did not consider a future in film, put off in no small part by her family’s collective talent. It was not until she graduated and returned to Los Angeles that fate, or something like it, intervened. She was asked to appear in a short film for fashion label Built by Wendy. Gia demurred but agreed to make a film herself, along with her friend, musician and video-maker Tracy Antonopoulos. She cast Nathalie Love, who has been her best friend since both girls were 7, and ended up loving filming. It felt like an extension of photography, Gia says.
Yet the prospect of directing or writing a full-length feature remained distant. Then, about five years ago, Gia found herself at the same Hollywood party as her mother, who had been speaking to a charming actor named James Franco. Would Gia like to meet him? She would.
Franco had been kicking around the idea of having his book Palo Alto: Stories adapted, preferably by a woman, since he felt that would give the largely male-centred stories a more layered approach. “I realised she had the right sensibility for it,” Franco wrote in an email.
Gia found she could easily relate to the teenagers in the stories — their awkwardness, their zigzagging emotions, their general confusion and dawning realisations that grown-ups are flawed too. She cast Emma Roberts in a lead role and enlisted many first-time actors, including Jack Kilmer, whose father, Val Kilmer, also plays a small part.
Still, Gia could not find financing: Would-be investors balked at the number of neophytes involved. Finally, Franco stepped in, giving his earnings.
Filming started on Halloween in 2012 in Los Angeles. Jack Kilmer and his co-star Nat Wolff slept on rollaway cots in de La Fontaine’s garage, where they watched old movies on Francis Ford Coppola’s old TV. De la Fontaine showed up often with cupcakes and burgers.
“It was all young people,” Wolff says. “There’s something about it being her first movie that made it so we all felt like we were in it together.”