ACTOR, AUTHOR, AND ARTIST JAMES FRANCO TURNS THE MIKE (AND HIS CAMERA) ON THE STELLAR YOUNG TALENTS WHO ARE BRINGING HIS ACCLAIMED COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES TO LIFE ON THE SILVER SCREEN
In his debut book of short stories, published in 2011, James Franco captured the angst-filled and often nihilistic proclivities of bored teenagers working through their impassioned (and hormonal) tendencies. Inspired by his hometown of Palo Alto, California, the tales speak to all of those tension-filled moments that only high schoolers can truly appreciate—getting drunk, making out (with your soccer coach), driving dangerously, breaking hearts, committing vehicular manslaughter, and so forth.
The material being too rich not to develop for film, Franco tapped first-time director Gia Coppola to give Palo Alto its cinematic sheen. Rave reviews would follow this past April at the Tribeca Film Festival. Now, Coppola and Franco (who plays the aforementioned creepy coach) are sure to have a summer hit on their hands, having flawlessly tapped into the cultural zeitgeist. Here, Franco checks in with his fledgling director and well versed castmates Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, and Nat Wolff.
GIA COPPOLA, DIRECTOR
James Franco Hi Gia! How do you remember everything coming about?
Gia Coppola You sent me the book Palo Alto and I read it and it just felt right. Something that I was interested in. It was a slow process of you kind of guiding me. Asking me to take the stories that I like and writing them in a script format, and then I started taking those stories and intertwining them into one thing.
JF I remember sending you the book and saying, “I know it might be a little crazy because we don’t know each other that well.” I remember saying, “I feel like you’re the right person for this, I’ll give you the rights, and I’d love for you to do it.”
GC You said, “Pick one of the stories and make a test with your friends.” And I did the three-part “April” story. And I learned a lot through that, in just hearing the words off the page.
JF You wrote a draft and then I said, “Go shoot a test. Try not to spend any real money and just do it.” It’s something that I learned in film school and I have my grad students do, where they don’t use the actors they’re gonna use in the movie, they don’t use the real locations, and they don’t spend time on lighting or anything, but it’s almost like a rehearsal for the director. It’s low pressure, so you can experiment and try things and try shots. Then you edit it together and see how it feels. I asked you to do that and I think yours came out at like 30 or 40 minutes. I thought it was really good. You said that you learned a lot, but you were embarrassed. But the point was that it was not supposed to be polished or anything. I was really impressed by how natural your actors were, which is not an easy thing to capture.
GC I think we shot it over a period of two weekends, and I borrowed my uncle’s 5D camera and just got my friends together. I kind of imagined this thing, and when I saw that it didn’t meet my expectations, it kind of freaked me out. I wasn’t sure I could do this. I’m glad that you liked it. I think maybe because they were my friends it came across as more natural. I’m not really sure how we did that, but I’m glad it worked out.
JF Did anything change after the test? Did it give you insight?
GC I think it helped with writing and going back to the script and hearing the dialogue. I had never worked with dialogue—ever. And understanding blocking a little bit. Spending time with my friends to see how I can help them and explain to them what the scene needs. And trying to understand for myself what the scene needs.
JF Tell me about how you broke the book down. That process.
GC I think I had a version where I cut every single page of the book and glued it onto 8-by-10 hole-punched paper, and I would highlight in different colors all of the moods and tones and dialogues. And then I had enough space on my paper to write my notes. Then I could see through to what it was that I was liking about your stories and how they were similar. I already had the separate stories laid out in script format, so that made things a little bit more clear. I figured out that with movies you can’t have too many characters because it gets overwhelming.
JF That was one thing that I think you did that was so impressive. I was so happy to work with you on it because you brought a bunch of stories together and wove them in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do because I was too close to the material.
GC I like how it’s episodic in the book. It made it feel like high school, where you have these separate stories but the same characters weave in and out of each other’s lives.
JF Tell me about the actors that you found. I think it was all largely due to you. It seemed like you had known some of these young actors before you worked with them.
GC I’ve known Jack since he was little. He went to my elementary school, and part of the program there is mentoring a younger class. I had to mentor his class, and I just remember him really little, maybe four. He was so wild and destroying everything. Now he’s just really mellow and introverted. I remember him from that and when my grandpa was making Twixt. Val was in the movie, and Jack would come visit and mope around. I think we went out to dinner one night and during the audition process I was meeting all of these kids whose lives were dedicated to auditions. They just didn’t feel like real teenagers to me, and then at dinner with Jack he felt really normal. He surfs and paints. He was being so funny at the dinner table. He came in and read and he just has a natural ability to feel comfortable in front of the camera. Then Emma, I saw her in Celeste & Jesse Forever and thought she was really good. She really liked the script and your book and she was eager, so I thought she would be nice to have around.
JF Nat has a great crazy energy in the movie. I just directed him in a couple of scenes in The Sound and the Fury. We only had a few scenes, so it was hard to figure out what was going on, but it felt like when he thought about something too much he got stiff, but when he let loose he was really, really good. And there was this wild kind of energy that I see in Palo Alto.
GC When we did rehearsals, we didn’t do any of the scenes, so that it wouldn’t feel stale when we filmed. We just did a workshop of them all playing around and getting to know each other, so the dialogue was still fresh when they did the scene. I felt like he was really helpful to me. He and Jack just had a natural relationship that worked so well with what the movie was about. I think having Jack around was good for him.
JF I can see that.
GC We didn’t do much. We did a table read and a week of playing games. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was getting advice from people here and there. I felt like as long as we got to know each other and got comfortable, it would make things easier.
JF You did some improv things? What would you do?
GC I asked around for some improv games and then we would just draw. I used some dream assignments that I heard about where everyone writes or records their dreams after they wake up and then they try to find some parallel to their characters. The next day, we reenact the dreams with all of the actors. And through that they can see the parallels.
JF So they come in and describe a real dream that they had and then you act it out?
GC Yeah, I think maybe if they read the script the night before and they sleep on it and they write a note to themselves—please help me, guide me-—then the next morning you record what you dreamed about. Then we reenact the dream. Sometimes it worked.
JF I can see it working, especially as a way of bringing actors closer together and bringing actors closer to the material in a way that’s not forceful or deliberate.
GC Yeah, they can imagine those moments in their dreams rather than something that they have to make up.
EMMA ROBERTS, ACTOR
James Franco I’d love to hear about what your actual high school experiences were like. When I ask about high school, what jumps out at you? Or did you even go to high school?
Emma Roberts I was homeschooled, which was definitely not like a regular high school experience. But I kept in touch with my childhood friends who were all obviously in high school. So I’d basically tag along to their proms and football games, and people would always be like, “Do you go here?” And I’d be like, “No, I’m homeschooled.” And they’d be like, “Why are you always at our football games? You don’t go to this school.”
JF What school was that?
ER Brentwood and Archer, in L.A. So I did get to do all the high school stuff, I did go to prom and all that stuff.
JF Who did you go to prom with?
ER I was that person who went with the boyfriend’s friend. I had a really bad spray tan, ’cause I used to get made fun of for being pale. I thought, I’m gonna get a spray tan and be really glamorous, but I looked like I rolled in mud. So, um, that was really fun.
JF Right. And why were you homeschooled?
ER Well, my last year of regular school was seventh grade. Basically I got a TV show on Nickelodeon when I was 12. It was a three-year thing, and the school that I went to counted attendance for half the grade. So even if I got A’s they wouldn’t give me a good attendance score. My mom was like, “We’re just going to homeschool you.” And I ended up working pretty much the whole time. I was on set, traveling, and going to lots of different places, I got to experience life, so that was cool. But sometimes I’d fantasize what it would be like if I went to high school and was a cheerleader or something.
JF And so you were acting from a very young age?
ER Yes. I went on my first audition at nine, and I actually got the part. It was for the movie Blow, with Johnny Depp. And then from that, I was like, “Oh my God, I got the part, Mom, can I keep auditioning?” And she said okay. I didn’t get anything for a really long time, but I was like, “This is so fun!” My mom just thought I was the weirdest child, because what nine-year-old likes to go to auditions and memorize lines?
JF Speaking of being wise beyond one’s age, tell me about working with Gia [Coppola]. I imagine she was one of the youngest directors you’ve ever had. How was it?
ER I really loved working with her. I’d known her for a while, just in passing. I’d see her at events. But we just got along really well, and I remember I heard she was doing Palo Alto, and I read your book, like literally the day it came out. I did. Cover to cover. And I was like, “Oh my God, I love that book, I have to be in the movie!” I really wanted to work with her, so I was excited to get the part. It was fun. She’s so calm. A lot of directors are very scattered and very, like, you know, screaming things, or not really 100 percent there, because they have to think about a hundred things, but she’s just so present and calm, and she has a very unsuspecting sense of humor. She’s very serious and then she’ll saying something very inappropriate and you’re like, “What did you just say?” She’s fun to work with, and it made the shoot go by quick. I wouldn’t have been able to do the performance I did without her. She really made me feel comfortable.
JF So obviously I had most of my scenes with you.
ER Lucky you!
JF I was lucky, and it was a weird experience for me for two reasons: it was a movie based on the book that I wrote, which was a piece of fiction, but it was loosely based on things that had happened to me or other people that I knew. No matter what role I played, it would’ve been weird just to act out things that were based on my life. But then it was even stranger because I was playing essentially the villain of the piece, and when I was writing about it, I identified with the young people. I identified with the teenagers, you know, I’m on their side. So that was a little weird for me, but I felt like Gia asked me to do it, and I was happy to do it, to help the movie. I also felt that the way to play it was to try to play him as non-creepy as possible, and that maybe that would be even creepier. I tried to play it like he is this nice guy and you can see why maybe people do like him. And try to cut down on any of the lecherous behavior and let the actions kind of reveal how creepy and wrong he is. What is your take on it? ’Cause it is creepy. How old were you when we did the movie?
JF Okay, so on another level, if it was just you and me, we could legally date. It was based on a guy who went to jail. What’s your take on your character?
ER I mean, I can’t really fathom that in real life. I have a little sister, so that really disturbs me, but as far as in the movie, I felt like it was interesting and it was something that isn’t overdone. It shows what a confusing time my character, April, is having. And you kind of meet her in the middle; you see the beginning of the relationship and the end, and you see how much she changes in that time. I think there’s something interesting in that, because as a teenager you go through things and they shape the rest of your life and some of them are weird. I thought it was cool that you weren’t afraid to show that. It happens. It felt honest. And I think Gia did a really good job of not going too far with any of it.
JF She’s good. Well, there’s a lot I can say about Gia. I’m really happy about the way she presented it. The movie goes to some dark places, and the characters go through some dark things, but for your character, and Jack’s character, Teddy, it feels like there’s hope.
ER I totally agree with you. That’s what I liked about it. Even when we were shooting it, there is a bit of sweetness, even when they’re going through those things. Gia cast the movie so well that no one was that unlikable, even when they should’ve been. I think that it’s really important in a movie like this to not make them so horrible that you don’t want to watch them. You’re curious about what happens to them down the line. You’re like, “I wonder if they end up together, I wonder where she is?” I think that’s really cool.
JACK KILMER, ACTOR
James Franco Jack. What’s up, man?
Jack Kilmer Hi, how you doing?
JF Good, I’m in Morocco shooting with Werner Herzog. But anyway, tell me a little about your story. How much acting had you done before this movie?
JK Pretty much none. Other than, like, lying to my mom about…pretty much none.
JF You’ve been around movies growing up. What was your experience before this? Like, had you been to a movie set or anything?
JK Oh, yeah. I mean, my parents met on the set of a sci-fi movie, Willow. And they’ve been working all throughout my childhood. It was really normal to visit them on set. From a really young age I’d sit in the trailer. I would see when they were learning lines; that was a part of their day. I grew up where most of the conversation at dinner was about actors and actresses. My parents were really into people and characters, you know what I mean? I grew up around them talking about the characters they’re playing and how they’re going to do it.
JF And so tell me what you think about this character. Is there anything you can say about the experience of playing him or anything in that world?
JK He’s not too social, but he’s kind of popular at the same time. Does that make sense? I think he is somebody who likes to drink a lot. He’s in his head all the time.
JF Did you go to a public or private high school?
JK I went to both. I went to New Roads in Santa Monica and I did a year online, like free school on a computer. I went to high school from ninth to eleventh grades.
JF What was your experience like?
JK I had a close group of people that I would hang out with all the time. I don’t know, it was kinda fun. I’m a lot happier now that I’m not in high school. I guess the actual academic side of high school was really tough. And I took a really extreme standpoint—I would fail some classes and in other classes I would be getting all A’s. It was weird.
JF At least writing the book I found this really interesting thing; tell me if this is what you’re saying. When I was in high school, I had friends and I had some good experiences, but I was also very confused. And I was kinda lonely a lot. There were some really sad things in all of that, and so at the time I think I probably wasn’t that happy, but going back and writing about it, even though I was writing about some hard experiences, it was actually really enjoyable. Did you find anything like that when you were acting in a movie about high school, as opposed to being in high school?
JK That’s a great way to put it, exactly. It actually really helped me reconcile a lot of the really annoying things about high school and understand them and laugh at them and then move on.
JF Right, yeah. I mean, I guess one of the great things about art is that you can take experiences and material from life and wrestle with them or rework them and come to terms with them.
NAT WOLFF, ACTOR
James Franco Hi Nat. How old were you when you started acting?
Nat Wolff I was young. I was first in a band and I was on this TV show that was kind of like a mock-documentary about our band, and then I just got into it through that. I was about nine or ten. And then I started doing plays in New York.
JF What was the name of the band?
NW It was called the Naked Brothers Band, which is also what it was called on Nickelodeon.
JF It feels like everyone in the movie had unusual high school experiences, because most of you were working from a young age. You were working on these jobs as kids, but with adults, and that’s an interesting kind of phenomenon. You have adult responsibilities and a job that adults also have.
NW I’ve never really thought about it like that. You know, the better young actors are the ones that seem young, but at the same time you’re expected to be professional like an adult. I feel, strangely, like I had a very normal childhood. I didn’t grow up in L.A. and before I had even auditioned I was just on set with these kids in my band and none of us were really actors. We were all 11 and the whole idea of the show was to just catch lightning in a bottle. We learned to act unaware of the camera. It wasn’t until recently that I developed any kind of professionalism or technique. Now I know that there are times that you have to play to a certain side. At the time it was a lot of improv and hanging out with people. I think I took that to Palo Alto, because that was the most similar experience. We all became friends and all lived in [Gia’s mother] Jacqui [Getty]’s house. It just felt like an acting camp as much as the scariness of making a movie.
JF Did you know anyone before making the movie?
NW When I was younger I knew Emma. I had a crush on her. We weren’t super close or anything, but I remember thinking she was really cool. And I was shorter than her, so we have a good picture of us and now I’m a foot-and-a-half taller. I have to say that so it gets in the article, so that everyone knows I’m not still shorter than her.
JF So she was the only one you knew before that. And what happened? You met Gia. What was that like?
NW I read the script and I auditioned for the part of Teddy and didn’t hear anything. Then I hung out with Gia and I said that the relationship between Teddy and Fred really reminded me of the relationship in Mean Streets between Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. That’s exactly what she had thought of. She said she was thinking about that when she was writing the script. She said, “I really want you for the part of Fred.” I said, “I feel like as a person I’m more of a Teddy.” And I said, “I’ve never done anything like this.” And that’s why she wanted me for it. She really just took a leap of faith. Once we started rehearsing Gia said, “Jack’s never acted before and I think it’s really important that you guys become really close.” And it just happened that, without trying, we became really good friends. I don’t know when we all started staying at Jacqui Getty’s. It started off as just a couple of nights after late rehearsals. His parents were away and my parents weren’t in L.A. so we just ended up using Jacqui as our surrogate mom. She would make dinner for us every night and breakfast. We had this kind of ridiculous bachelor pad in her garage. We’d watch A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse Now and all these movies that Gia’s family has in there.
JF Was there something about you guys roaming the streets in the middle of the night?
NW Yeah, we got in trouble with Jacqui because we went out on Halloween and I guess Jack started posting Instagram photos of us and we got all of these frantic calls because we were supposed to be on set the next day. I left. Apparently Jack ended up…it sounded like a lie, but I think it actually was a stomach flu.
JF I like what you said about Mean Streets because it’s as if Harvey Keitel’s character feels responsible for De Niro’s character, almost as if it’s another side of himself. He cares as much about Johnny Boy as he does about himself, and so the kind of conversations they have are like conversations between two sides of the same person. It’s not totally black-and-white like that, because the way you guys played it was Teddy has his dark side and Fred has his sensitive side as well, which you really fleshed out. I like that the kind of conversations you guys have are really like two people who are close but ultimately choose different paths. It really does feel like yin and yang—both connected and opposite.
NW Every time Teddy starts to push away he latches on. He tries to pull him back into the darkness. I like that there’s both, that you can see him be a dick to Emily in that scene with the blow job and then you see there’s some kind of sweetness when he’s teaching her to play guitar. It’s not really black-and-white. But it’s the same thing. I was thinking that you played the opposite too, with the gym teacher role. There was real sweetness and then I loved you telling that joke about pulling the horse’s penis. That you don’t have to be hung like a horse. There’s a sweetness to that guy and a kidlike charm. I’m so excited about the film.
JF When it was going around the festivals, people would compare it to Kids, which is a movie that I really love. But Kids is very bleak. There’s very little hope, and I feel like in Palo Alto at the end there’s hope. Maybe not for your character, but what your character does get is a little bit of a soul. You realize that he’s not just the devil or a bad kid. He’s hurting as much as everyone else.
NW Maybe even more.
PALO ALTO IS IN THEATERS MAY 9
ARTWORK JAMES FRANCO