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Gia Coppola Takes a Walk on Palo Alto's Wild Side

Adam L. Brinklow | May 16, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

The film Palo Alto, opening in Bay Area theaters today, constructs a dark side for the quiet peninsula city—disaffected teens, drugs, and self-destruction. And it springs from an unsurprising source: The newest heir to House of Coppola, 27-year-old Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia), making her directorial debut.

Palo Alto tells a tale as old as time: privileged but troubled teens finding their way without guidance from their useless or creepy elders. "I hadn't seen any movies about those aimless years in a long time, and I missed them," says Coppola. "I was getting tired of movies about teens with expensive clothes and perfect skin."

Coppola also wrote the script for Palo Alto, adapted from James Franco's 2010 book Palo Alto Stories. She had impressed Franco with her student photos, which he called a "fantastic prism on everyday experiences." Nine years older than Coppola, Franco lured her into taking on the adaptation as her first post-college gig. She picked out a half dozen of the book's interweaving tales and fashioned a story she could relate to: an abortive love story between two characters who can never quite get on the same page, while one of them is being courted by a creepy teacher (played by Franco himself, in one of his trademark skeevy performances).

Coppola filled out the cast largely with high-school age actors who could pass for Bay Area teens. "Most movies use older actors, but I thought if I could just put kids on camera and get them to be themselves what could be easier?" Actor Nat Wolff was living in Coppola's mother's garage at the time of the shoot. Coppola knew Emma Roberts from their mutual film family background (she's the daughter of Eric Roberts). Jack Kilmer (son of fourth-place Batman Val Kilmer) was midway through his senior year of high school when shooting began.

"I used to be Jack's babysitter," Coppola says. "Our families were all out to dinner one night and I noticed how much more interesting he was than everyone around him. I figured he might have real screen presence. He didn't want to do it at first, because of his father's name. I had to stalk him for a while before he gave in."

Palo Alto screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, but today will be the first chance most Bay Area audiences have to see it. How does Coppola expect the real Palo Alto will feel about the boozy, disaffected image the movie projects? She admits that until reading the book she was unfamiliar with the town. "Mostly I just passed through it on the way from San Francisco to LA. But now it's changed so much because of tech. It's a whole other world now." At any rate, she likes the way the name appears on the movie's poster. "When you look at it for a while, you begin to feel dizzy."

Coppola remains noncommittal about her next project, but she did tell Vanity Fair that she's always had an eye for action movies, calling herself a "pyro who loves exploding things." Maybe she could helm the next Godzilla sequel? Franco can play the monster.

Palo Alto opens today in theaters across the Bay Area.

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