Gia Coppola '09: Filmmaking's Next Generation
In the Bardian
Photo ©2013 Fabrizio Maltese/Contour/Getty Images
By William Stavru '87
During the past year, Gia Coppola ’09, somewhat reluctantly, has
become a regular on the film festival circuit, with her feature film directorial and writing debut, Palo Alto
, being screened—and lauded—at such prestigious venues as the Telluride, Venice, Toronto, and Tribeca film festivals. Coppola says, “Film festivals are scary to me, but if the cast and crew are with me, then they can be fun. We’re able to celebrate the work.” Based on the eponymous collection of stories by James Franco (Scribner’s, 2010), who also stars in the film, Palo Alto
details the troubled lives of a group of high school students in Palo Alto, California, exploring the teenagers’ characters and how their exploits and relationships become searches for meaning.
Coppola, who admits that her own high school years were neither fun nor productive, says she felt a kinship to the characters and was drawn to the dialogue and sense of teen malaise conveyed in the book. “In 2010, I met James Franco and we started talking about photography and about his book. I read it and thought the language and mood were spot on for the world he was creating, so we decided to turn it into a film,” she says.
In the book, myriad characters wander in and out of interlinked stories, so Coppola had a challenge in adapting the collection. “I had to combine characters and focus on the meatier stories, letting others go. James gave me some good advice along the way,” she says. “One of my biggest surprises in writing the screenplay—aside from discovering how lonely and draining writing can be—is that the film goes through several filtrations until it becomes something very different than what you’ve started with. Over time, the script almost starts to tell you what it needs to be.”
Coppola and her small crew started filming on Halloween 2012 in Woodland Hills and other neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. She says, “The shoot was low-budget and very familial; the boys [the crew] lived in my mom’s house and I often cooked dinner for them.” They wrapped in 30 days.
With the surname Coppola, one can expect that Gia is genetically predisposed to a life behind a camera lens. She is matter of fact when discussing her large, dynastic Hollywood family. Sticking to a short list of who’s who: Her grandfather is director/writer/wine producer/hotelier Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather
films, Apocalypse Now
); her aunt is director/writer Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation
, The Virgin Suicides
); her cousins are accomplished actors Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman. She appreciates the many talents of each, especially her aunt and grandfather. “I love my grandfather’s work—I just rewatched The Conversation
—and Sofia’s films,” she says.
Although she was determined to maintain a healthy distance from her family in order to find her own voice as a writer and a filmmaker, she did seek guidance regarding the business aspects of filmmaking. “My grandpa gave me some advice in dealing with industry executives and the money people—it’s incredibly hard to find financing, and even harder to figure out distribution. Sofia, as a young, soft-spoken woman director, had dealt with the same issues I was facing. Even though I know I have great people to turn to, I didn’t want my family’s ideas to infiltrate my work too much or rely too heavily on those connections.”
Coppola maintains that, regardless of the amount of help, nothing could have equipped her for directing her first project. “There’s no way you can be prepared for your first film; you just feel like a teenager going through very teenage insecurity,” she says. “My grandpa likes to say that directing is all about problem solving and that you need to learn to love anxiety. That’s true.”
Postproduction brought the young filmmaker other important teachable moments. Coppola says, “I learned the most in the editing room. When you’re shooting, you work from a script and let the film take its course. But I didn’t fully understand how important editing is and how it can dramatically change the look and tone of the film.”
One thing Coppola did understand before directing her film is how to use a camera, which she learned as a photography major at Bard. She chose the College in order to study with Stephen Shore, Susan Weber Professor in the Arts and director of Bard’s Photography Program. “I was a fan of Stephen’s work, so I studied photography,” she says, adding that she also enjoyed working with Gregory Moynahan and Robert Culp, both associate professors of history, who taught “an interesting class on revolutions.” Shore agreed to advise Coppola; her Senior Project was an exhibition of street and diaristic photography. “I liked the idea that Bard was close to New York City, but I could have a rural college experience,” she says. “I also liked that Bard is a liberal arts college but one that has a very creative environment.”
After graduation she tried bartending (“I liked making gin martinis, served cold, cold, cold!”) and booked work as a fashion photographer. “I was just trying to find work that inspired me. Then I shot behind the scenes on the set of Twixt
, my grandfather’s film that came out in 2011. That’s where I learned a lot about how a movie is made.”Variety
said Palo Alto
“brings a fresh humanity” to the topic of disaffected modern youth: “Coppola’s adaptation balances the tired sensationalism of kids behaving badly with a welcome dose of sympathy. . . . Coppola cycles through a wide range of emotions, from humor to horror, as these not-quite-kids, not-quite-adults pick fights, deface public property and seek easy gratification . . . [Palo Alto
] boasts a clear and confident voice of its own, and it will be exciting to see where the young Coppola goes from here.”
With her first feature film complete, Coppola is enjoying having more down time, which she spends reading books (she was in the middle of John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra
at the time of this interview) and considering future projects. “I’m not sure what I will do next,” she says. “I have some original ideas, but I don’t know if they will go anywhere. A dream project would be to adapt a story by Raymond Chandler. It would be fun to modernize an old mystery the way [director Robert] Altman did with The Long Goodbye
is set for wide release in June, following a limited release in Los Angeles and New York. Read the spring 2014 issue of the Bardian: