New heir to the Coppola throne talks monster cockroaches and her dreamy debut, Palo Alto, with actor Jack Kilmer
Taken from the autumn issue of Dazed:
Teenagers in the suburbs do everything harder: drugs, sex, partying, neurosis. Compared to their urban peers, they are the true malcontents. This makes total sense, because teenagers as a psychographic and the suburbs are both filled with compromised dreams and yearning. Give a kid a driving permit at 16 and Friday nights unsupervised in a McMansion, coupled with the invisible safety net that comes with picket-fence privilege, and the ’burbs become a hotbed for risk fantasies. Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, Palo Alto, gets suburban disillusion better than any film since her aunt Sofia’s The Virgin Suicides. The film, based on James Franco’s book of short stories about his upbringing in the titular somnambulant Silicon Valley suburb, explores smalltown adolescence as a purgatory where camaraderie, lust, and assbackwards decision-making are all realities. Franco himself plays Mr B, a leering soccer coach with the hots for April, a vulnerable 16-year-old played with pitch-perfect intuition by Emma Roberts. But the real revelation is 18-yearold Jack Kilmer – son of Val and his Willow co-star Joanne Whalley – playing sensitive stoner Teddy, who wouldn’t mind sharing a blowback with April. He and Coppola share a unique bond – not only are they both scions of titanic Hollywood dynasties, but for both of them Palo Alto is their first big movie experience. It’s not the first time their families have collaborated: Coppola served as creative consultant for her grandfather Francis Ford’s 2011 horror movie Twixt, which brought both of Jack’s parents back together as a bickering couple.
People are obviously comparing Palo Alto with The Virgin Suicides. Have you always been fascinated by teenagers in suburbia?
Gia Coppola: I love Virgin Suicides, it was a big movie for me when I was a 15-year-old. But also I had no other stories to tell; as a teenager there were no other experiences for me to connect to. Visually, I love the setting of suburbia.
Jack Kilmer: I think the suburbs are an interesting place to be. When you grow up in a city, you’re exposed to so much culture. There’s a lot to take in. You don’t have that in suburbia, so you go and find or create it. You have to be more creative as an outsider to that.
Gia Coppola: I also think that can lead to you getting into more trouble. Sometimes the best part of your night at that age is just driving around, figuring out where you want to go. I did that even though I grew up in Los Angeles. You can’t really go anywhere, but you don’t want to be at your parent’s house. So you end up just hanging out in the 7-Eleven parking lot.
How has your families’ work influenced your view of how movies are made?
Jack Kilmer: I think it was just normal for me, it was their work. But then I saw Willow when I was 11 years old. It was this sci-fi epic, and my parents played medieval warriors, riding horses, wielding swords. I remember getting a huge kick out of that. But it wasn’t weird, because they were in a film. It was just a crazy visual.
Gia Coppola: I’ve always been very comfortable in a set environment. All the collaborating going on, seeing how actors work – it all excites me. My grandpa showed me how to build stamina onset behind the scenes on Twixt. He showed me how everything works, and the gruelling hours. It was a nice opportunity for us to have quality time and to be with him from start to finish. He was open to my ideas, and showed me the ropes.
Jack Kilmer: I remember I walked in on set, and you were there, so good. You were so intense, eyes focused on the monitor.
Gia Coppola: (laughs) What was great about that is that you have these massive headphones and eyes on this big camera. It really is this world you’re lost in – you don’t see anyone around you. I remember your father came in and I backed into a heater.
This is a first for both of you. Jack, it’s your acting debut. Gia, your directorial debut. Did you know before Palo Alto that you wanted to work together?
Gia Coppola: Jack and I have been in and out of each other’s lives, so I was always updated on his growth as a child. (laughs) Val always sent me pictures. But I really didn’t know him that well.
How did James Franco’s book become your movie?
Gia Coppola: After I originally met James, we stayed in touch and I sent him my photos. We’d discuss ways we could collaborate. He presented the idea that he wanted to make the book into a featurelength film and said: “I think you should do it.” I really liked how authentic it felt, and the dialogue. I was also in a place in my life where I had enough distance from my teenage years, so I could understand the experience a bit better, and yet still close enough to remember it all.
“In most films and TV shows today, the actors are 27 and don’t hold themselves like teenagers do. It’s become pretty common to play teenagers as fools — all they seem to do is party and drink. There’s no deeper meaning. It’s very one-dimensional” – Gia Coppola
Jack, you were in high school before all this. Did you think you’d be acting?
Jack Kilmer: Not until Palo Alto. But I definitely wanted to be involved with movies somehow. I was open to it. I had heard that Gia was doing a film from my dad. She asked me to hang out after that. Do you remember the first time we talked about it?
Gia Coppola: I remember we went out to dinner. After we had dinner, I was like, “I know the perfect kid for the role, he has to do it.” And then you came in for an audition, and you did great, and I wanted you to do the part. But I kept texting you and you wouldn’t text me back! (laughs)
Jack Kilmer: Yeah, I guess I was really unfamiliar with what an audition really was. I thought we were just hanging out and reading some material!
Gia Coppola: Remember how there was a giant cockroach climbing the wall while you were doing your scenes?
Jack Kilmer: Yeah, I remember that!
Gia Coppola: I wish we had a photo of it. We did all the scenes like that. We kept looking at this cockroach. I mean it was monstrous. This big. (holds up four fingers)
How did you feel about your character Teddy — did you relate to him?
Jack Kilmer: Yeah, I definitely did. Back then, I was a lot more like Teddy. Actually, playing him helped me outgrow certain character traits, like being introverted and awkward. For me, the challenge was my fear of the camera. I just needed to get past it and relax.
What does Americana mean to you?
Jack Kilmer: What’s Americana?
Like Bruce Springsteen, the 4th of July...
Jack Kilmer: Oh that, yeah. I like that.
Gia Coppola: I love all that stuff. I’m so proud to be American.
Jack Kilmer: Me too. I’ve driven all around America with my dad. My dad lived in New Mexico for a number of years, and we’d drive back and forth to see my grandparents. Being on the road feels like home.
Gia Coppola: After college, I drove across the country twice with friends. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. I find it really inspiring seeing the country that way.
I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of technology usage by the kids in the film, and hardly any mentions of social media. Was that omission intentional?
Gia Coppola: Reality? But visually, I don’t know how to work in that element. I’m curious to see how it’s going to be incorporated more in movies because it’s such a part of everyday life. For this, though, I wanted timelessness. And it’s not part of the culture of the book.
Jack Kilmer: I think it’s a shame, but social media almost has the same impact as in-person at this point. Seeing a photo of a girl you like kissing your best friend is just as bad as seeing it in front of you. The trouble is, it’s hard to control what you see online. But the emotions are the same as they’ve always been.
“Now that I’m getting older, I feel like I’m getting younger, and liking all these things I probably should have liked ten years ago. Like, all I want to do is listen to the top 40 and watch blockbuster movies” – Gia Coppola
Music forms such a key part of the movie’s tone. What was playing during the shoot?
Jack Kilmer: I remember I listened to Blood Orange for the first time. Gia was playing it in the car on the way to set.
Gia Coppola: I liked to drive around, just playing music for everyone. But we also listened to a lot of music on set. Nat (Wolff) really got pumped by listening to Eminem on his own, and he’d come out, crazy and ready to go. (laughs) And then Jack would be listening to Brian Eno.
How did Blood Orange get involved?
Gia Coppola: I originally just tweeted Dev (Hynes) that I liked his music. We had mutual friends, so I got his email address and sent him the movie. And I explained we had a very low budget, but I wanted him to be involved. Luckily, he was really excited to be involved and created the right vibe for the project — modern but timeless.
Jack, you also have a quick song in the film. Do you make music yourself?
Jack Kilmer: I’ve recorded loads of music — three or four albums. I’m looking for a way to put it out there. I’ll probably just put it out for free soon.
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
Jack Kilmer: I like everything but especially rock’n’roll. Elliott Smith is probably my favourite. And The Beatles.
The coach-player dynamic between April and Mr B, which sees Franco’s character getting involved with one of the players on his soccer team, has been controversial. How did you navigate that?
Gia Coppola: That storyline was really tough. I was so thankful to have Emma (Roberts), who has been acting since she was nine. I admire James’s work, so I asked him to play Mr B. He wrote the roles and knows the inspiration behind those characters, so I trusted him to handle it and to advise on how it should be handled. That made it a lot easier! What’s frustrating for me is having so many stories about teenagers that I loved, but seeing it lacking in contemporary culture. In most films and TV shows today, the actors are 27 and don’t hold themselves like teenagers do. It’s become pretty common to play teenagers as fools — all they seem to do is party and drink. There’s no deeper meaning. It’s very one-dimensional. And they all have shiny, brand new clothes. Their skin is perfect.
Jack Kilmer: Yeah, a lot of those conventions piss me off. Sometimes you can laugh at the stupidity, but it’s important that there’s an alternative – a more honest representation.
What was your own high school experience like?
Gia Coppola: I went to a private all-girls school where I didn’t feel I fit in. I got my GED and went to community college, and then I realised I really wanted a sense of community, but wanted to focus on something creative, not academic. That was never my strong suit. I was introverted. I was trying to figure out what I wanted. As a teenager, I wanted to be sophisticated and avant-garde, and I was really judgmental. But when you’re a teenager, you’re fearless because you don’t know the repercussions to anything.
Jack Kilmer: I was a lot like that in high school, too. Obsessed with being authentic. A lot of music. There’s still so much to seek. We’ll always be striving to discover new artists others haven’t heard. Being original is a big focus in my peer group.
Gia Coppola: Now that I’m getting older, I feel like I’m getting younger, and liking all these things I probably should have liked ten years ago. Like, all I want to do is listen to the top 40 and watch blockbuster movies.
Palo Alto is out in cinemas today
hair Cash Lawless at The Magnet Agency; make up Deanna Melluso at The Magnet Agency; photographic assistants Nick Brinley, Daren Thomas; special thanks Vita Inc. Tokyo