Gia Coppola didn’t consider it inevitable that she’d enter the family business. It was James Franco who nudged her into moviemaking. Coppola, who studied photography at Bard College, had sent Franco samples of her work that convinced him she should adapt his book “Palo Alto Stories,” a portrait of adolescent angst in suburban Silicon Valley.
While her relatives didn’t recruit her into the film world, the writer/director freely acknowledges her heritage. In “Palo Alto,” grandfather Francis Ford Coppola voices the part of a judge sentencing a high-school hell-raiser to community service. The bedroom of female lead April (Emma Roberts) — shot in Gia’s own preserved childhood room — features a poster for aunt Sofia’s “The Virgin Suicides.” “Certain doors are open to me” because of her famous name, she said in a recent phone conversation, “but I have to work twice as hard to prove that I’m my own person and that I can do this on my own.”
Coppola said working with Franco (who appears in the film as a skeevy athletic coach) made the project “a step-by-step process. I could just be free and not think about the pressures, given my background, from outside sources.”
If those burdens included great expectations because of her bloodline, she’s in the clear. The film has been hailed as a promising debut for a filmmaker of real talent. Roberts (Julia’s niece) and co-star Jack Kilmer (son of Val) also have won the kind of strong notices nepotism can’t deliver.
Coppola said the project appealed because she’d just finished college and had enough distance from high school to be objective about it.
“My teenage years were spent, a lot of the time, driving around figuring out what you want to do,” she said. “The best part of the night is when you’re just hanging out in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. His book painted it in an accurate way that I hadn’t seen in a long time.”
Taking on the familiar theme of high school malaise meant going up against some classics, she said. “I love ‘Dazed and Confused,’ ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ and ‘American Graffiti’ and ‘Last Picture Show.’ I missed seeing movies that articulated emotions about teenagers’ growing pains. It’s such an important time in people’s lives because you are just changing hormonally and physically. It’s very complex.”
Movie talk was a constant throughout her youth, and she picked up some experience working on her family’s sets. Still, Coppola said, “There’s really no way to prepare for your first movie. Alexander Payne says it’s like making your first waffle. That really depicts it right.”