In the thick of adulthood, high school memories can sometimes be a blur of crushes and slumber parties. But 27-year-old filmmaker Gia Coppola’s directorial debut (out May 9), based on James Franco’s book of short stories Palo Alto, is here to remind us of the darker aspects of being a teen—from drug experimentation and self-harm to ill-advised sexual encounters. Coppola isn’t much older than her film’s young stars Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, and Emma Roberts, and the L.A. native admits she’s still fascinated by the crazy limbo teens straddle between childhood and adulthood. That’s why Franco’s tales of troubled young people struck her as the perfect vehicle for collaboration.With his encouragement, she adapted the book into a script and took it on as her first big project. “I think doing a movie about teenagers was good debut subject matter, because you go through a lot of those emotions when you make your first feature film,” she tells me over tea in N.Y.C. “You think you know what you’re talking about but then you don’t really, and you’re making all these decisions by, like, pulling them out of a hat. In a sense, I went back to being a teenager in this process of making a film.”
Coppola’s soft-spoken and a bit shy, but she’s also smart and impeccably cool. One thing she’s not is your typical Hollywood name-dropper. Her grandfather is film legend Francis Ford Coppola and her aunt is indie icon Sofia Coppola, but she’s careful to point out that Palo Alto isn’t affiliated at all with Zoetrope, the studio her grandfather co-founded with George Lucas. After graduating from Bard, where she studied photography, Coppola began making short fashion films with her friend Tracy Antonopoulos for brands like Built By Wendy, Opening Ceremony, and Zac Posen. She also went to bartending school and worked slinging drinks. “I wanted to try something out of my comfort zone that was not in a creative environment,” she says. “I thought it would inspire me creatively and I could use that.”
Coppola’s film expertise was acquired directly on sets where she was able to watch and help out her talented family. But when it came time to branch out on her own, those associations became daunting. “I was always intimidated to take a film class in school, so I never did that,” she says. “But since I was getting my film education from my family, I could take classes in literature and other subjects, which was probably better. I was always nervous to say that [filmmaking] was something I wanted to do.”
Now that she’s comfortable asserting herself as a director in her own right, Coppola cites her aunt Sofia’s first film The Virgin Suicides as an inspiration for Palo Alto, which seems entirely appropriate given the teen terrain. Plus, both Coppolas are making their way in an industry dominated by dudes, which provides added incentive to succeed. “Seeing a woman filmmaker do it first,” Gia says of watching Sofia work, “that’s what really made me think I could do it too. I guess it felt natural because it was always around me, but when [Palo Alto] started to come alive, then I knew I really wanted this. Now that I’ve done it once, I just want to do it again.”
Photographed by Meredith Jenks
Makeup: Andrew Colvin, Hair: Takeo, Stylist: Lara Backmender, Stylist's Intern: Gaby Romero, Top and trousers: Proenza Schouler, Necklace: Conroy & Wilcox
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of BUST. Get it on newsstands now or subscribe!