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James Franco, Emma Roberts and more explore teen angst and antics in 'Palo Alto'

James Franco and Emma Roberts
James Franco and Emma Roberts
Tribeca Film

The movie drama “Palo Alto” (directed by Gia Coppola) focuses on a group of high-school teens as they navigate their love lives and engage in risk-taking shenanigans. Shy, sensitive April (played by Emma Roberts) is the class virgin, torn between an illicit flirtation with her soccer coach Mr. B (played by James Franco) and an unrequited crush on sweet stoner Teddy (played by Jack Kilmer). Meanwhile, Emily (played by Zoe Levin), meanwhile, offers sexual favors to every boy to cross her path — including both Teddy and his best friend Fred (played by Nat Wolff), a live wire without filters or boundaries.

Emma Roberts, Gia Coppola and James Franco at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival press conference for "Palo Alto"
Carla Hay

As one high school party bleeds into the next — and April and Teddy struggle to admit their mutual affection — Fred's escalating recklessness starts to spiral into chaos. An unflinching portrait of adolescent lust, boredom, and self-destruction. “Palo Alto” is based on a book of short stories written by Franco, whose hometown is Palo Alto, California. “Palo Alto” the movie had its New York City premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Here is what Franco, Coppola, Roberts, Kilmer, Wolff and Levin said at a New York City press conference for the movie on the day that “Palo Alto” had its Tribeca Film Festival premiere.

James, when you wrote the short stories that the book “Palo Alto” is based on, was it ever in your mind the book would become a movie?

Franco: I started writing the book when I went back to school. I moved to L.A. to go to UCLA for about a year, and then left and then went to acting school. I was fortunate enough to have an acting career for about seven years, and then went back to school. And so when I went back to school, at the time, it didn't have anything to do with my acting career. I had other interests I wanted to give time and energy to those other interests.

I just wanted to write a good book. I was an English major, and had a great respect for literature. I wanted to write a book as a book. Then once it was out, of course I thought about an adaptation. I very quickly realized I didn't want to do it, partly because I had been doing a lot of different collaborations on different kinds of projects.

I realized how much could come out of a collaboration. In the best case, other people involved can bring it into other areas you never thought about. So I knew that I wanted someone to be able to take the book and capture some of the spirit of the book, but also bring their own sensibility to it and give it a new form.

Not long after the book came out, I was introduced to Gia by her mom and some other friends. Our first conversation was about movies and Gia’s photography. She had just finished school. About a week later, I saw some of her photos. I had a feeling, just by looking at her photos, that she was the right person.

There was a sensibility in the photos that I felt had a crossover with what I was trying to do with the book and the way they looked at youth and the lives of teenagers. But also, she had her own thing in addition. There was some crossover, but hopefully, she’d be able to add her own sensibility and aesthetic to the project. So I asked her to do it — and five years later, we're here.

Gia, it was never your plan to go into filmmaking. Is that correct? Can you talk about why “Palo Alto” brought you into directing?

Coppola: I've always loved movies, and it was always around me. I've always enjoyed being on my family's sets. [Francis Ford Coppola is her grandfather. Nicolas Cage is her second cousin. Sofia Coppola is her aunt.] But I was always intimated to go into that field. I've always enjoyed photography, and I started playing around with film a little bit with my friends and making movies for fashion films.

When I met James, we wanted to collaborate in some form or another, he presented a few ideas, and one of them was his book “Palo Alto.” I read it. I knew he wanted to make it into a feature-length film. When I read it, I just really loved it.

Emma, this is a very interesting role for you, as April's silence tells more about her than what she actually says. Can you talk about how you found the character in that way?

Roberts: That's one of the things that I loved about the script. It was very subtle, and a lot of what you see on screen was brought to the screen because of the people that were cast. There was so much emotion that Gia wrote in the stage direction, and not necessarily the dialogue.

That made the movie interesting, because in most of your life, you don't know what to say, you don’t know what everybody else is going to say — especially in high school; there’s a lot of awkward moments. I liked that Gia didn’t try to make it neat and pretty, but let those moments kind of be there. That’s one of the things I really love about the movie.

I had just finished college, and was interested in that period of life of high school and to understand those awkward years. Teenagers are an interesting subject matter; they’re always really fascinating. I loved the book.

It depicted what I felt were my teenage years. And other stories, I didn’t necessarily go through that I thought were important. I was really excited to collaborate with him, and by chance, he believed in me. He made it an environment where I could be free and comfortable.

Jack, “Palo Alto” is your first movie. What was the experience like for you?

Kilmer: Gia did a really great job. I wanted to be in a movie that was inspiring to me and not just, “Yo, put me in front of a camera.” It was just, “Hang out and be yourself,” which is one of the reasons why her style of directing is so good. She’d just make these environments that were awesome to work in.

Zoe, can you talk about why you tend to play characters who troubles and not very sympathetic?

Levin: Whenever I read a script, for some reason, I’m really drawn to the “bad girls,” in a way — not really the “bad girls,” but something that brings more depth to a girl role, especially in a role like this, where [Emily] can be seen as just promiscuous. A lot of girls in high school are like, “Oh, she’s just a slut.”

But I don’t think people are just black and white. Gia gave me this awesome opportunity to play a role that has so much going on. It was really fun to explore this life and that sort of character.

Nat, was Fred in “Palo Alto” your most challenging, darkest, most complex role? How much preparation did you do, and how much did you see yourself in Fred?

Wolff: We're exactly the same. No, when I went into my meeting with Gia, I actually said, "I don't think this is me. I don't know if I can play this part. I feel like my reactions are much more like the Teddy character." She said "Yes, that's why I like you for this role, because you can play the opposite."

I guess my way of playing the character is to play guy who needed a lot of attention. Whenever he walked into a room, he needed everyone to look at him. Growing up, he didn't get attention from doing good things, do he started doing bad things. I guess I found the sh*tty part of myself that needed attention and tried to sustain that throughout the movie.

I also tried to find the opposite: the humor, fun and charming parts of Fred, which I saw in the script. When anyone comes up to me after seeing the movie and says, "You're so awful," it almost hurts my feelings in a good way. It feels I definitely found that part of myself, I guess.

James, were you always going to be in “Palo Alto”? Did you have any control over the material?

Franco: I asked Gia to do it. I would say my biggest creative decision on this movie was choosing Gia. After that, I really wanted her to be able to bring her own vision. That's how I work with my graduate students as well, and when I produce movies. I'm not going to ask somebody to do a film, and then try to control them. What I do try to do is have them go through certain steps, so that they're aware of what they want to do and how they want to do it.

So with my grad students and with Gia, I have them do a low-budget test of the large part of the material. So Gia made a 45-minute test about a year before we actually shot. It's good for several reasons. It allowed Gia to be on a set, try put together what she's thinking about, because it's different than the photos. It also allowed her to rehearse as a director without the all pressures of the real thing; she could just kind of feel it out.

It also allowed me to see if she was getting what she wants, if she’s able to capture what she wants. Once I saw that, I thought she was more than able to make the film, and I liked the direction she was taking. From that point on, it was more about, “Gia, I just want to make sure you have everything you need to do what you want to do.” The casting and writing is Gia’s, and I just oversaw it.

Here and there, I would say, "Well, if that’s what you're going, what do you think about this?" Really, just minor suggestions. As far as being in it, I never thought about it. Gia would run names by me for this role, and I'd say, "That's good. He would be good."

Coppola: But I always secretly always wanted him to do it.

Franco: She did eventually ask me. I felt like I felt fine that I could do the role. There were a couple scenes that are not in the movie that I did with Nat and Jack, where I was being this reprimanding teacher. I felt like, “Oh man, what a bummer.”

I felt like I could identify more with the young kids. Those are my people, even though I know I'm older. Those are my heroes, and now I’m the villain. It felt weird. Other than that, I was happy to be a part of the movie if it was going to help.

Coppola: I'm a big fan of James. I wanted to work with him in that way and acting in that and sense. It was wonderful to have him around on the set. He’s a director too, so I could ask him, “What do you think about how to block this?” I really wanted him to play that part.

Gia, were you influenced at all by your Aunt Sophia's films?

Coppola: She's my aunt. I look up to her. She's also a young female director, so of course she made me feel like I could do this too and inspired me to do it within my own demeanor and not having to be a big, forceful presence as a director. I'm a big fan of her movies. I take it as a compliment.

Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff and Jack Kilmer each has a parent who’s a famous actor. Was it a coincidence that you cast all these second-generation actors in “Palo Alto”?

Coppola: I picked people who were right for the part. I didn’t think that because they were all second-generation that that would be a reason for me not to cast someone. They were all perfect for these roles, and that’s why I chose them.

James and Gia, did you have a chance to talk about how to adapt the screenplay from the book? And also, can you talk about why a lot of dark subject matter that was in the “Palo Alto” book, such as Nazism, racism and prostitution, wasn’t in the movie?

Franco: The Nazi thing is a 12-year-old who just carves a swastika into a window because he doesn’t understand what he is doing. So it’s not like a secret Nazi book. It’s more like kids playing with symbols they don’t understand.

The same thing with the “n” word. It’s about learning about history and what is still alive and how certain things have change or not changed. And also, they do a re-enactment in class in that story. It’s about, “If you’re doing it as play acting, when does it start to have a real effect on people. And if it’s just play acting, are you responsible for it?”

I guess the way the question is framed is misrepresenting the book or what my purpose is. Gia chose her stories. I gave her the book and said, “Pick the stories that speak to you.”

I didn’t tell her how to write [the screenplay] or what to do. I just said, “Go for the ones that really speak to you. And then start fleshing those out.” And then she figured out — and this is something that I probably wouldn’t have done if I directed it myself, and I’m glad that she did, because I don’t think I have the energy to rework my stuff — she brought them together and interwove them and gave them a unified arc in a way that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do. [He says to Coppola] My guess is that once you did the test, you could see more how it could be brought together and unified, right?

Coppola: Yeah, you told me to take the stories that I liked the most. So I had separate screenplays. And once I did my homework and presented it to you, you said, “Now, make a test of the stories with your friends. Just borrow a camera and do it over a weekend.” So I did that.

I think in that experience, I figured what was working and what I liked and what I didn’t like and decided it was better to entwine them and not have so many characters, make them fit for the screen so people can keep track. I always sent him pictures and tried to keep him in the loop. He gave me a lot of freedom but was also very supportive when I needed it.

Gia, how did your background as a photographer influence the way you filmed “Palo Alto”?

Coppola: I feel very comfortable in the cinematography aspect of it because I had a photography background. I was working with people I was working with on smaller projects. My DP [director of photography] and I have a really great relationship where we can communicate. I sent everyone a lot of pictures. It’s a nice way for me to communicate.

My photography teacher Steven Schwartz, I used his color palette, keeping the cameras still so that we could compose the frame and figure out lighting. I trusted my cinematographer a lot because I was really nervous with the actors because I was really shy.

Can you talk about casting Val Kilmer (Jack’s father) as April’s stepfather Stewart?

Coppola: I got to know Val working on my grandpa’s movie “Twixt.” I did behind-the-scenes. I was just there every day. I’ve known Jack since he was 4 years old. We went to the same elementary school. When he was in sixth grade, I had to mentor his class. He’s been there almost my whole life, since he was a little kid.

In that time of working on “Twixt,” I had gotten to be really close with Val, and Jack would come up every now and then to the set. It was really important when I cast Jack that I wanted this to be his movie, and not have Val take away from that in any way.

He’s a great actor and I thought it would be fun to work with him. I was trying to fill in all the parts with as many people as I could. It was just a fun little role and I tried not to take away from Jack.

James, can you compare and contrast what today’s teenagers in Palo Alto are like to teenage experiences you had when you were growing up in Palo Alto?

Franco: I grew up in Palo Alto. I set this book in a specific place and a specific time, but Palo Alto is one of the nicest cities in the country. The school I went to — Palo Alto High or Paly — is rated in Time or Newsweek every year as one of the Top 50 public schools in the country.

My journalism teacher Mrs. Wojcicki is the mother-in-law of Sergey [Brin, co-founder] of Google. They’re building a journalism building that’s better than the J-school that Columbia [University]. It’s a really, really nice place to grow up.

That being said, I know my stories are pretty dark. The point was not to write a social exposé of Palo Alto. I know I don’t represent all the types of people who grow up in Palo Alto or teenagers across the country.

What I think it’s trying to do is maybe what I see in some of the films by Gus Van Sant, like “Paranoid Park,” where there’s this backdrop of a murderer and an accidental murder, and it’s his dark secret. For me, that dark secret gives weight to going to high school, how intense it feels for everybody when they’re coming of age.

Of course, I hope we haven’t all partaken in an accidental murder, but sometimes it feels like we have secrets or weights on us that equal that, at that time. And that’s kind of the effect that I wanted by piling these dark stories on top of each other. It would give the feeling of being in high school and not the actual representation of what happens in a typical high-school career.

That being said, the darkest things in there did happen, not all to me, but they are based on things that happened in Palo Alto, either I witnessed or heard about. I became very friendly with some of the people in the police force there. They’d tell me different stories about things they dealt with, with different teenagers there. Most of the dark things are based on things that really happened.

The teenagers [in Palo Alto] now, I do go back. My mother still lives there. And I’m still friendly with Mrs. Wojcicki, and I go back and talk at Palo Alto High School. Steve Jobs’ daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs is in my class. They have computer labs that are insane!

At one point, I wanted to do a project with the kids there. And I just wanted them to talk about their lives, like, “How do you think your lives are influence by growing up in Silicon Valley? You’ve got Mama Google here giving you all these resources. Steve Jobs is donating all these computers. How do you think that’s affecting you?”

And they had no perspective on it. They’re like, “I think we’re normal teenagers.” So I can just see that their resources are amazing. They have their own little television studio there on campus and everything. We didn’t have texting when I was in high school. It was crazy if you had a pager. So yeah, things have changed in some ways.

Jack, what advice did your father give you as an actor and as a father?

Kilmer: As a father, he’s a really supportive guy. He’s always supported me and whatever I’m into. As an actor, he told me to be as honest as possible and to follow my instincts. He wanted to share his experience, growing up acting. And it was cool with me having space and figuring things out on my own.

James, what’s next for you as a director?

Franco: I’m probably going to direct a movie called “Zeroville,” based on a book by Steve Erickson, by the end of the year. I’m acting in and directing a movie called “The Adderall Diaries,” based on a book by Stephen Elliott. It’s his “Executioner’s Song” or “In Cold Blood,” where he’s following this murder trial that has nothing to do with him, but this guy Stephen Elliott infuses himself into it and puts himself into it, so it become his drama as much as the courtroom drama.

For more info: "Palo Alto" website

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