Gia Coppola strikes out

Francis Ford's graddaughter, Sofia's niece – the next Coppola on her directorial debut

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Autumn Durald

With Palo Alto, her directorial debut based on James Franco's eponymous collection of short stories, Gia Coppola is finally joining the family business. But despite the wealth of cinematic know-how available to her just by shouting across the table at thanksgiving dinner – her grandfather (or Grampa, as she endearingly refers to him) is Francis Ford Coppola, her aunt is Sofia – it was actually Franco himself who took the fledgling filmmaker under his wing.  The result: a dreamlike parable about teenage ennui in the suburbs, and an assured debut by a future auteur looking to give Auntie Sofia a run for her money. We sat down with the soft spoken 26 year old on the morning after the film's Toronto premiere, to discuss  her creative partnership with Mr. Franco, the challenges of being a young filmmaker, and the benefits of growing up with directing’s first family.  

Dazed Digital: How emotional of an experience is it for you to watch Palo Alto with an audience?

Gia Coppola: It’s always a little tense at first, but each audience is different, and the way the audiences at Telluride, Venice and Toronto have responded to it, has been really interesting. It’s just hard to watch the film over and over again and think to yourself, “I can’t touch this anymore.”

DD: You’ve lived and breathed this film for 2 years now. Is it hard to let go?

Gia Coppola: That’s the hardest part. 

DD: When you watch it now, do you still feel like there are certain things you need to tweak?

Gia Coppola: Yes, but I had reached a point where I realized that every time I would touch something I was only hurting the film. I knew that I was done, but it was still hard to let go. 

DD: Did friends intervene and say, “Gia, it’s done.”?

Gia Coppola: Yeah, and the festival deadlines definitely helped too. 

DD: What first attracted you to James’ book?

Gia Coppola: I hadn’t really read anything or seen anything that felt truthful to what it’s like to be a teenager, and I love that it was from the perspective of a teenager, and I just connected to it. The dialogue was also really spot on. It felt real. 

DD: Did you have a relationship with him before you read the book?

Gia Coppola: Not so much. We had just met and were getting to know each other when we began talking about what we were interested in creatively. I showed him my photos and he sent me his book. 

DD: Did he tell you about his childhood, and what it was like to grow up in Palo Alto?

Gia Coppola: Every now and then we would talk about the characters and he would give me little insights into what life was like there. 

DD: What was it like having him on set?

Gia Coppola: It was nice for me to have him because I could ask him for advice, and for help, and he’s a director too, so it was really helpful, especially this being my first film. 

DD: Is there something unique about Palo Alto, or could these stories have taken place in any American suburb?

Gia Coppola: I think these are universal experiences and emotions, and even though they take place in Palo Alto, they really can occur anywhere. 

DD: Talk to me about the difficulty of adapting a book into a screenplay. 

Gia Coppola: James really helped make it not an intimidating process, and it was a step by step process. He just told me to take the stories I like, and write them in the script format as best you know, and to not worry about dialogue because we can just put it in later.  

DD: When you’re alone in a room trying to write, how do you conquer that initial fear of the blank page?

Gia Coppola: Well I think it’s easier to adapt because you already have material in place to start, and get the gears moving.

DD: How did Dev Hynes get involved with the project?

Gia Coppola: I’ve been a fan of Dev’s music for a long time. I knew a friend who knew him, so I got his e-mail and reached out. He had seen some of my short films, and was a fan, so we were very excited to get to work together. 

DD: Would he send you snippets of songs while you were in post-production?

Gia Coppola: Yeah, I would explain to him what certain scenes meant, and what I was trying to convey, and he just worked on music that really helped the emotion of a scene come through.  He would send me songs, and sketches of the score, and then he just came in and did it to picture. 

DD: Did he record with a live band?

No actually, he didn’t. His process was really interesting. He did it all on computer, but he can literally play every instrument.

DD: How much did growing up with your family inform your process as a filmmaker?

Gia Coppola: I’ve been around it my whole life so it felt natural, comfortable, and I’m so lucky to have a family that’s experienced, and makes wonderful movies that I can turn to for advice. 

DD: Did you turn to Sofia for advice?

This movie is a Rabbit Bandini project, so James was really my mentor and he really helped my find my own voice, but Sofia is like a big sister and I look up to her, and I don’t think that i would have been able to feel like I could do this too if it wasn’t for her.

DD: Has she seen the film?

Gia Coppola: Yeah, I sent it to her. 

DD: Were you nervous to hear her reaction?

Gia Coppola: She’s my family so she’s going to be supportive. 

DD: Making a feature film seems like the most monumental achievement. What’s the most challenging part?

Gia Coppola: I’m just so lucky that I get to do it at a young age, and James is so wonderful in that he’s so interested in giving young people a chance, and I hope that maybe more people in the industry will be open to that because we’ve got some good ideas.

DD: Do you think film school or art school is a necessary step for young filmmakers?

Gia Coppola: I didn’t go to film school. My Grampa always says just watch a lot of movies. He didn’t go to film school, he went to theatre school. It’s interesting to learn about the technical side of it, but I think it’s more important to learn about writing, and working with actors.

DD: But isn’t there tremendous value in being surrounded by other young, creative people?

Gia Coppola: I think when you do things outside of what you’re interested in, you meet people and get ideas to bring in to whatever it is you love doing the most. 

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