Gia Coppola, the 27-year-old granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, has filmmaking in her blood.
Her directing debut “Palo Alto,” about the lives of Bay Area high schoolers, recently graced the San Francisco International Film Festival as its centerpiece selection and opens in theaters this week.
But the young Coppola didn’t take a direct path to get behind the camera. “I was always turned off by the idea of getting into filmmaking,” admits Coppola, who attended the festival.
She went to Bard College to study photography. Her first movie job was as an assistant costumer on aunt Sofia’s “Somewhere.”
When she met actor James Franco, she gave him some photographs and he gave her a copy of his short-story collection “Palo Alto,” and suggested that she might be the one to make it into a movie.
“James said, ‘Take the stories you like and write them as screenplays.’ I took about five of them, the ones I connected to,” she explains.
Franco encouraged her to make a “practice” short film, without worrying about quality. She did, and it gave her several ideas on how to approach the feature.
Calling him her “favorite actor,” Franco also won a role in the finished film as Mr. B, the girls’ high school soccer coach who falls in love with one of his players, April (Emma Roberts).
Having the author on set might have been awkward, but Coppola says that wasn’t the case. “He always wanted me to have my own interpretation. I never felt that awkwardness.”
In another role, she cast newcomer Jack Kilmer, son of actor Val Kilmer. Coppola became friends with the Kilmer family while working on Francis’ “Twixt” and noticed Jack had the qualities she was looking for.
“I had to chase him down for awhile, since he was being a teenager, and not looking at his phone,” she laughs.
“Palo Alto” was a true family affair for Coppola. Her grandfather’s voice can be heard on the soundtrack, great aunt Talia Shire plays a small role and cousin Jason Schwartzman provides a song.
April’s room was even filmed in Coppola’s own childhood room, apparently unchanged since high school (including a movie poster of Sofia’s “The Virgin Suicides”).
Old family friend Don Novello, a veteran of “Saturday Night Live,” plays an art teacher. He improvised a monologue that eventually changed the ending of the film.
“That’s what’s so fun about being collaborative. I feel like I work better that way. Let the film take its own course and see where it goes,” says Coppola.
One small moment in the film reveals something of Coppola herself, when April eats her lunch sitting inside her locker, half tucked away from the world.
Coppola admits, “I used to have my lunches that way.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff
Written and directed by Gia Coppola
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes