Gia Coppola On Teenagers, Her Personal Style, & S.F. Eateries

We’re not exactly lamenting the fact that our teenage years are over. In fact, we shudder a bit recalling the awkward encounters of our yesteryear. But, had we lived in the saturated, wayward-yet-lively world that is Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, an imaginative interpretation (with a soundtrack produced by Dev Hynes, to boot) of high school, we might be whistling a different tune.
The striking film (which opens today, May 16) is a peek — adapted from James Franco’s Palo Alto Stories — into modern youth in the suburbs of Palo Alto. And, while based around Franco’s experiences in the NorCal town, the feelings and characters relate to everyone who has ever been, well, a teen. With an impressive roster of actors, from Franco himself to Emma Roberts, it’s no wonder the film has garnered some major buzz.
So, we sat down with Gia Coppola to get the skinny on everything from what she was like as a teen to what it was like completing her first full-feature film. And, have you any more questions for Coppola, be sure to check her out in the Bay (alongside actor Jack Kilmer) this weekend.
We read that up until this, you hadn't really considered feature films until James Franco approached you. What was it about Palo Alto that drew you in?
"It just really articulated teenagers in an authentic way that I hadn't seen in a long time. I think teenagers are interesting subject matters, and I was excited by the opportunity to work with James and tell that story. The dialogue was all great, and the emotions were real — there hadn't been anything like that in a while."
The characters are definitely really modern and super connected. What attributes did you really want to make sure you showed the audience?
"Movies today, the actors are all older, the clothes are expensive, they're usually kind of dorky, and everything's perfectly lit. Skin and hair are always perfect, and I just felt in the real world, teenagers aren't like that. They're completely fearless in everything they do because they have no repercussions and don't understand them yet. I wanted to use real teenagers and show what they're normally like, and it was fun to get into that and work with real teenagers and find out what it's like."
Did your teenage years influence the film at all?
"Yeah, I used parts of myself when working on this and trying to understand the characters. But, I had to sort of dig deeper and figure out why they're doing the things they're doing and try to find a way to relate to that. At the same time, it gets into the actors' hands, and they bring their own life to it. Especially the younger kids, like Jack and Nat, and they told me what was hip and not hip, and this was Jack's senior year of high school, so just kind of him being him was enough."
What were you like as a teenager?
"I really struggled in high school because I was in a private all-girls school, and I wasn't very academic. My brain just doesn't work that way, so I was always being told I was getting bad grades and not being good at stuff, and that was kind of disheartening. I hung out with my cousins, and I had friends outside of school, but a lot of it was just being stuck at home and trying to figure out stuff to do, but they were some of my best moments, like hanging out at a 7-Eleven rather than actually going to the party. Those were the more memorable experiences."
What's the biggest difference between teenagers when you were that age and how they are now?
"It didn't really change that much. I feel like when I show it to earlier audiences they are able to connect to it because all the emotions are still the same. It's a physical kind of change that everyone goes through at that age that you can kind of connect to. [There were] moments where I was trying to fit in with them and realized I was kind of outdated on what was the slang or what was up in pop culture. You can't keep all this stuff relevant and follow it as easily as they do.
"But, also, there's social media now that kind of changes things, but I think even with that involved, the heightened emotion is still all there, and you're still unable to say how you feel — you're stressing about what you're going to say. It was weird. I thought cell phones were going to be a big part of being a teenager, and I didn't really want to involve it into this movie because I knew that was another story. But, I was surprised with Jack because I could never get in touch with him because he never had his phone on him, and I thought, Don't teenagers always have their phones on them? so I guess he was just a rare find."
Prior to this, you had worked with Opening Ceremony, and you've done a lot of collaborations, like with Retro. How do you feel collaborations have prepared you for this role?
"I had just finished college when I met James, and I was doing photography and I had just sort of made a short film, but that was sort of the extent of it. When James and I decided we wanted to make this movie, I was using those opportunities with other short films to give me practice in what I was about to take on. And, so, I wanted to not just make these short films with pretty moving images of the clothes and whatever; I wanted to involve stories and include my friends and actors as best I could while playing around with camera equipment, plus get to know a crew that I had wanted to work with. In making my wine and in collaborations with magazines, everything I could kind of connect and say, 'Oh, this is similar to making a movie.' You have all these different departments that you try and articulate what you want, and everything kind of comes to place in the end, and you kind of have to alter it after that. I guess I can kind of view things in that perspective."
What would your dream collaboration be?
"Making movies is the best collaboration and is the most fun for me because it's everything I enjoy. I get to do the music, I get to do the costumes. It lets you dive into fields that aren't really your expertise, but you get to learn about it more and experience new places, so that's always the best."
So, speaking of music, I was loving the soundtrack. How did you go about selecting the artists, and what was your thought process for it?
"We were low budget, so we had to use younger artists, and some of them were my friends. And, thankfully, I have family that makes music, so I got to use them, too. My cousin Robert made some of the score, but also Dev Hynes was someone I was a fan of, and I got him at the right time because he was interested in scoring movies but hadn't done it yet...He really understood the project because he took the kids' emotions seriously and heightened their emotions and didn't belittle it in any way. When Teddy says I love you, it feels like a big weight off his chest, and Dev was able to convey that musically."
How much did the city of Palo Alto play into the movie for you?
"We couldn't film there unfortunately because we were low budget and didn't have the money to transport everyone over there. It was something I struggled with, but James was like, 'It's about the emotions. I pinpoint certain places in the book, but it's really more about being young and emotions.' I like the lettering of Palo Alto and the name visually, so that's why I kept it about that, but this could really take place anywhere."
Have you been to San Francisco before? What do you like to do here?
"Yeah, my family's from Napa Valley, so I'm always passing through here. I'd always go to Tosca a lot with my family and House of Nanking. I really want to go to Fillmore and do the Vertigo tour, but I don't think I'm going to get to do it. It's such a beautiful city, it'd be fun to make something here."
How would you describe your personal style?
"I'm fairly casual. I like Proenza Schouler, and I just wear my A.P.C. jeans all the time. I'm really bummed because I forgot my Superga sneakers that I wear all the time, and I was thinking they're really dirty, I don't think I can wear them anymore. It's fun to dress up for occasions, and I love Yves Saint Laurent, Zac Posen, and Rodarte, but normally I'm casual. And, I've been sort of interested in trying to dress like a director and dress like David O. Russell or something, just wearing jeans and sneakers and pretending I'm one of those guys."
What's next for you?
"I've been writing, and I wanted to work more with James because we didn't get the chance to play around with a super-fun character, so hopefully we can do that."

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