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To hear the cast tell it, the set of Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s feature directorial debut, was one big youthquake. “It was a kids’ club; all of us were under the age of 30,” says Emma Roberts. “We all were really young and so passionate about the project, and we all really just came together.” In theaters May 9, the film “is a solid voice in a generation of pit vipers,” declares Keegan Allen. Nat Wolff agrees. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s false [about Palo Alto]. It came from a really real place.”
Coppola (niece of Sofia and granddaughter of one Francis Ford) adapted the screenplay from James Franco’s book of short stories. Centering on a group of wayward suburban high schoolers, the highly stylized film has a dreamy, lo-fi quality balanced with refreshingly awkward dialogue delivered, in many cases, by actual teenagers. Its emotional honesty — due in large part to the closeness between the young cast and their 27-year-old director — strikes a similar nerve to Larry Clark’s Kids and grandpa Coppola’s The Outsiders. “Gia and I are both women so close in age and we really understood each other,” says Roberts, who has known Coppola for years from growing up in L.A. “That’s part of the reason she cast me in the movie. We just had an understanding of working together.”
Coppola is at the helm of a crew of kids, all at varying points in their rising careers, who represent Hollywood’s new generation. Roberts and Allen star in hit TV shows (American Horror Story and Pretty Little Liars, respectively) and Wolff is starring in this summer’s romantic drama The Fault in our Stars. “She just found these great, great young actors,” says Franco. “And not only great choices because they were good actors and right for the parts, but a lot of them were doing it for the first time.” Such is the case of Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s 18-year-old son), who has known Coppola “pretty much my whole life, or since I can remember.” As Teddy, a quiet, well-intentioned dreamboat with a penchant for bad decisions, Kilmer’s gentle intensity and skater-boy style are sure to launch a thousand Tumblrs. “He just has something that is very captivating about him,” says Coppola. “The way he goes through the world is interesting, and he’s a real teenager.”
“A lot of the stupid shit I did in my own teenage life in high school I also did in the movie,” says Kilmer. “Filming helped me grow up a bit.”
A casual scroll through Coppola’s Tumblr and Instagram unearths many photos of the cast; clearly, their intensive month-long shoot resulted in some serious bro-ing down. “[Jack and I] actually moved into Gia’s mom’s house together. We lived in the garage,” says Wolff, who plays Teddy’s hyperactive best friend Fred with a visceral energy teetering on the edge of disaster. “Jack had never acted before, and I’d never done any type of character like this before, so we were both nervous as hell, but we really did become best friends while making that movie.”
As the plot goes, Teddy is in love with the disenchanted April (Roberts), who’s in the midst of an affair with her high school soccer coach, Mr. B, played by Franco. The affair between 17-year-old April and the mid-30s Mr. B touches on a sore spot in our sexual consciousness (not unlike Franco’s recent Instagram slip-up), but for her part Coppola feels Franco’s character “doesn’t look at himself as a pedophile or whatever. I think he just can’t relate to women his own age, and so April is in his maturity level. In the 1800s men were married to women younger than that, so it’s just sort of carnal I guess.”
Oddly enough, we can partially thank Sylvester Stallone for the making of Palo Alto. As Franco, who is currently making his Broadway debut in Of Mice and Men, explains, “It was a little hard to get money because it was a pretty dark film and Gia was a first-time director — so I told my rep to find a movie that would pay me enough that I could just give it to Gia and get the movie made. I ended up doing a movie that I kind of enjoyed called Homefront, which was directed by Stallone.”
In addition to the blockbuster kick-start, Coppola was grateful to have Franco on hand for her first directing experience. “He was always available to me when I needed him and I really relied on that support,” she says. “I would text him images every day, and when he was on set it was really helpful because he’s a director too. It was really exciting to work with him in the capacity of directing him as an actor, and learning about that world, because I felt very comfortable with the photography and other elements of making a movie, but working with actors was really nerve-racking for me.”
Despite any anxiety Coppola may have felt, her cast knew they were in good hands. Allen, another friend of Coppola’s, with a memorable part as a drug dealer who’s thrown off by Fred’s erratic behavior, zeroes in on the director’s gift: “She just knows how to grab the awkwardness of human contact and make it a beautiful thing.” Franco echoes the sentiment. “What I love about Gia’s touch is that she took some really dark material about young people and she didn’t shy away from the darkness, but she made it hopeful. She gave some of the kids a way out.”
The kids, as they say, are all right.
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