Cinema in her blood

Cinema in her blood

Hollywood debut

By most counts, Gia Coppola — whose first film, Palo Alto — has released this week, is the fourth generation in her famous Hollywood family to enter the world of film.

 But her “grandpa,” the man otherwise known as Francis Ford Coppola, says she’s the fifth. Not only did his father, Carmine, win an Oscar for scoring The Godfather: Part II, but his grandfather, Agostino, helped engineer the Vitaphone, which brought song to silent films.

“They were excited,” Gia Coppola, 27, said, recalling her family’s reactions when she told them she would be writing and directing a film. “But mostly this was my chance to really try to do it on my own.”

Based on a short story collection by actor James Franco — who stars as a charmingly lecherous high school soccer coach with a penchant for underage bedmates — Palo Alto traces the meandering lives of a loose (so to speak) group of California teenagers. Dreamy, poignant and devoid of any trace of moralising, the film depicts their partying, hookups and awkward crushes with unblinking ease, almost tenderly. The film drew warm reviews at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, where it had its debut and where Francis Ford Coppola came along as his granddaughter’s plus-one.Venturing into feature directing and screenwriting is a hefty lift for anyone, even if — especially if — that person hails from what is arguably Hollywood’s most illustrious dynasty. If you count Sofia Coppola, Talia Shire, Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman among your kin, not to mention a living legend for a grandfather, cries of nepotistic advantage are inevitable.

But Gia Coppola said she had largely steered clear of her family in making Palo Alto, instead seeking some mentoring from Franco. “It definitely opens doors,” she said of her name. “But at the same time, I have to work hard to prove that I have my own voice. It’s not interesting for me if I get all this help and cheat. I want to learn.”Whisper-thin, as delicately boned as a bird and with honeyed hair and dark chocolate eyes, Coppola is reserved and private in person, evoking her aunt Sofia. Yet she holds a singular position in the family; her entry into it came on the tail of its biggest tragedy.

Her father was Francis Ford’s firstborn, Gian-Carlo Coppola, or Gio, a fledgling film producer who was killed in a grisly boating accident in May 1986. He was 22, and his girlfriend, Jacqueline de La Fontaine, was newly pregnant with their only child. Seven months later, Gia Coppola was born.

She is the namesake of Gian-Carlo; her full name is Gian-Carla. Although she was largely raised by her mother in Los Angeles — who went on to marry and divorce Peter Getty, of the oil family — the Coppolas took her firmly under their wing. “They kind of took over that void of not having a father,” she said.

“There was this new baby girl in the family, this younger sister we were going to look after and protect,” said Robert Schwartzman, one of Gia Coppola’s second cousins. “We all raised Gia; it was like this group effort.”

He and Coppola grew especially close. She attended private schools in Los Angeles, the Center for Early Education and then the Archer School for Girls, where, cripplingly shy, she felt alienated from the other students. So Robert and sometimes his brothers, Matthew Shire and actor Jason Schwartzman, drove her to school. Still, Coppola struggled. Academics were not her strong suit. She yearned to be creative, but hated having attention directed her way. But she found refuge in taking photographs.

“I was more of an observer, and so it was hard for me to think what to say,” she said. “That’s why I felt really comfortable with photography, rather than being inspected.” She dropped out of Archer before her senior year, earned her GED, took community college classes, then transferred to Bard College to study photography. Coppola still did not consider a future in film, put off in no small part by her family’s collective talent and famous last name. “It deterred me a little bit,” she said. “I think I felt a little intimidated.”

It was not until she graduated and returned to Los Angeles, where she picked up a job as a barback at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, that fate, or something like it, intervened. She was asked to appear in a short film for fashion label Built by Wendy. Coppola demurred but agreed to make a film herself, along with her friend, musician and video-maker Tracy Antonopoulos. She cast Nathalie Love, who has been her best friend since both girls were seven, and ended up loving filming. It felt like an extension of photography, Coppola said, “but with more things to play with.”

Yet the prospect of directing or writing a full-length feature remained distant. Then, one night about five years ago, Coppola found herself at the same Hollywood party as her mother, who had been speaking to a charming actor named James Franco. Would Coppola like to meet him? She would.

Franco had been kicking around the idea of having his book Palo Alto: Stories adapted, preferably by a woman, since he felt that would give the largely male-centered stories a more layered approach. After meeting Coppola, asked if she would adapt and direct the film. “I realised she had the right sensibility for it,” Franco said. “Sometimes I have great instincts for these things, and sometimes I don’t, but in this case I did.”