James Franco & Gia Coppola on their collaborative film, Palo Alto | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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James Franco and Gia Coppola on their collaborative film, Palo Alto

Palo Alto opens in theaters May 9th

May 09, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


James Franco put his writing aspirations on hold when he dropped out of the English program at UCLA to become an actor. The gamble paid off when Franco was cast in the sitcom Freaks and Geeks; from there, it didn’t take long for the actor to cross over into film. Unsatisfied with the direction his career was taking, he re-enrolled at UCLA in 2006. It was there he first had the idea for a series of short stories based on his memories of growing up in Palo Alto, California.

In 2010—the same year Franco received an Academy Award nomination for 127 Hours—his short story collection, Palo Alto, was published by Scribner’s.

“[At first] I just wanted to write it as a book,” says James Franco. “Once it was out, of course I thought about an adaptation. I quickly realized that I didn’t want to do it, partly because I’d been doing a lot of different collaborations and I realized how much could come out of [those]. In the best cases, the other person will take the work and bring it into places that you’d never think about.”

Franco finally found the ideal collaborator to take on the adaptation of his book, but she wasn’t a filmmaker. Instead, he went with a young photographer named Gia Coppola.

“I was introduced to Gia by her mom [stylist and costume designer Jacqui Getty] and some other friends,” Franco says. “Our first conversation was about movies and photography. She’d just finished school. A week later I saw some of her photos, and I just had a feeling that she was the right person. There was a sensibility in the photos that crossed over with what I was trying to do with the book, in the way that they looked at youth and the lives of teenagers.”

Although she’d never directed a feature film, Gia Coppola came from an outstanding filmmaking pedigree: she was the grand-daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and niece of director Sofia Coppola. She’d previously worked as a creative consultant on her grandfather’s 2011 film, Twixt.

“I always loved movies, and they were always around me. I enjoyed being on my family’s sets. I guess I was always a little intimidated to go into that field,” says Coppola. “I enjoyed photography and I started playing around with film a little bit with my friends, and making these little fashion films. When I met James and we wanted to collaborate in some form or another, he presented a few different ideas and one of them was his book. He wanted to make it into a feature-length film. When I read it, I loved it.”

Franco wasn’t afraid to let the inexperienced director adapt his book. He trusted Coppola to choose which stories from Palo Alto she’d carry over to the film version, and only offered up his advice and opinions when she reached out to consult him. Coppola was free to change the story and characters in any way she wanted.

“I think my single, biggest creative decision with this movie was choosing Gia,” says Franco. “After that, I really wanted her to be able to bring her own vision … I’m not going to ask someone to do a movie and then try to control them.”

“He believed in me and made it an environment where I could be free and comfortable,” says Coppola.  

The first-time filmmaker also wrote the screenplay for the film, and pulled together its young emsemble which includes Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, and Jack Kilmer. For the role of Mr. B, a high school faculty member who has an affair with a student, Coppola eventually turned to Franco, whom she admitted to secretly wanting to cast from the very beginning. The role required some adjustment for Franco, who had based pieces of the source material on memories from his youth.

“There were a couple scenes that ended up not being in the movie, where I was being this reprimanding teacher,” says Franco. “I just felt like, oh, man, what a bummer! I identified with the young kids.”

Palo Alto opens in theaters on May 9th. For more information about the film, check out paloaltomovie.tumblr.com.



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