A young Coppola plumbs James Franco's teenage tales in 'Palo Alto'


Posted at May 09 2014 06:48 AM | Updated as of May 09 2014 02:48 PM

Gia Coppola hails from Hollywood royalty as the granddaughter of Oscar-winning filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, but when she made her directorial debut she sought the help of actor James Franco to tap into teenage angst.

Coppola, 27, adapted Franco's book "Palo Alto," a collection of short stories exploring suburban ennui in his California hometown, into a film starring young talent, led by Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer, out in US theaters on Friday.

The filmmaker, the daughter of Gian-Carlo Coppola, who died before she was born, and niece of director and writer Sofia Coppola, began working on the film five years ago after graduating from college with a photography degree. She wanted to tackle a subject that she could relate to - the plight of the American teen.

"When I read (Franco's) book, I just really fell in love with it," Coppola said. "The dialogue felt real, and I haven't seen anything like that in a while that really articulated what it's like to be young today, even though his book took place in the '90's."

Coppola's family has a history of exploring coming-of-age stories, from her grandfather's 1983 films "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish" to her aunt's 1999 feature film debut with "The Virgin Suicides," all of which Coppola said she referenced during her own debut process.

The film features vivid cinematography influenced by the director's photography training, and follows four characters who Coppola pulled together from the stories of Franco, who also appears in the film.

April, played by Roberts, is introverted and mysterious, the object of Teddy's (Kilmer) affections but who is seduced by her 35-year-old teacher, Mr. B (Franco). Fred (Nat Wolff) is the dangerous rebel without a cause who woos the shy and quiet Emily (Zoe Levin), only for their relationship to take a dark turn.

While Franco's book is set in the 1990s, Coppola sets her film in the present, sprinkling cell phones in lightly, but she said she wanted the film to feel "timeless."

Teen boredom

Franco, 36, wrote "Palo Alto" as part of his Master of Fine Arts writing degree at Brooklyn College, and while he has delved into writing and directing films, he said he didn't want to adapt his own book as he felt too close to the material.

He chose Coppola, whom he met five years ago, to direct the adaptation after seeing her photography.

"The photos seemed to have the sensibility that was similar to the one I was trying to capture with the book," he said.

"They looked like little glimpses at youth that was filled with dreaming, a bit of the mundane, a bit of skepticism about the world around them, but also engaging with the world with a creative spirit."

The actor was quick to emphasize that his own childhood growing up in Palo Alto, an affluent San Francisco Bay Area community, was a happy one, but he wanted to capture the boredom he and his peers suffered.

"Even though I was in this great place and I was at a really good school and I had friends and people thought I was cute, I still remember feeling more like ... nothing works out," he said.

Despite Coppola's Hollywood ancestry, Franco said financing the film was difficult due to the darker premise of the teenagers' stories. He said he donated his own salary from a film project to make the movie for a budget of under $1 million with his production company Rabbit Bandini.

Playing physical education teacher Mr. B wasn't so easy for Franco, who made his own breakout in Judd Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks" television series as a brooding rebellious teen. The actor said he "hated" one particular scene in "Palo Alto," which didn't make the final cut, in which he reprimands two teen boys.

"I hated being on that side of things, because my alliance is with the kids in the book, all my feelings align with the kids, so I hated being the bad adult," he said with a laugh.