Gia Coppola suspected the persnickety question might pop up. And it did.
So did you shoot "Palo Alto" in Palo Alto?
She pauses from sipping a cappuccino in her swanky Fairmont Hotel room in San Francisco, where she's holed up for interviews to promote her filmmaking debut -- about growing up the hard way in suburbia -- at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. Looking young enough to be cast as a character in her own movie and every bit like a member of one of the world's most prestigious filmmaking families, she good-naturedly laughs at the irony.
"We were super-low budget and couldn't transport everyone," Coppola, 27, explains candidly.
So, alas, Woodland Hills in Southern California stood in for the Silicon Valley's iconic suburban town. Sticklers might balk, but it hardly matters, since Coppola's evocative film, based on Palo Alto native James Franco's vignettelike book, is less about creating a literal geographic location than about realistically portraying the everyday lives of teenagers. That jibes with Franco's literary goal: to capture the "universal emotions of growing up," she said.
The film, which is being released under Franco's company Rabbit Bandini, and in which he co-stars as a disarming soccer coach who's attracted to an underage athlete played by Emma Roberts, opens in limited release Friday.
It was a chance encounter with the multifaceted Franco in a deli that eventually influenced Coppola to not only sit in the director's chair, but to mold a few of the stories in the book into a screenplay. After a few conversations and exchanges, Franco presented her with an advance copy of his book. He was searching for someone to make a film out of it and was impressed with a series of evocative still photographs she had taken and shared with him.
"I read it with the intention that he wanted it to be a feature film," she said. "I felt like I could see it, and I was very eager to do it."
Franco's nudge helped her jump into a rather intimidating cinematic gene pool full of heralded relatives, including grandfather Francis Ford Coppola ("The Godfather" series), aunt Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation") -- whom she resembles -- and uncle Roman Coppola (also a director and co-author of "Moonrise Kingdom"). Some relatives, including Bailey Coppola and Talia Shire, have small parts in her film.
Did she feel pressure, given the breadth of her family's accomplishments?
"I think that was partly why I didn't ever really want to consider (making a movie)," she said.
Conversations with Fran-co are what changed her mind, she says.
"It was his idea to make it into a feature-length film, and I was excited to work with him and I felt sort of safe in his environment. ... He took me through it step by step, so all of that pressure wasn't relevant anymore," she said. "I was just kind of creating with my peers and I could be completely free."
Coppola responded to the material because she's a fan of movies and literature that depict the genuine teen experience and prefers telling stories through vignettes. She greatly admires "Dazed and Confused," "American Graffiti" (a film her grandfather produced) and "Diner," among others.
"I love anything about teenagers," she said. "They're fascinating. But I felt like what drew me to his book was that I hadn't seen or read anything about teenagers that I really was connecting with and felt was articulating what I remember what it was like growing up."
Most teen movies she'd seen recently featured older actors playing teen roles and were "really glossy, overlit, and with (characters with) perfect and expensive clothes and perfect hair and perfect skin. It didn't feel authentic anymore."
At 27, memories of being a teenager are still fresh, as are the challenges of growing up, no matter who your family is.
"I wasn't good at tests," she said. "I wasn't good at essays, and it was really disheartening a lot of the times to not be good at stuff. I wanted to be creative, but I couldn't figure out what was my calling, so I longed for the childhood that I heard that my dad had -- where he just got to work on my family's movies and do just that. But I guess it was good that I struggled in high school and that I have this story to tell now."
It was an attempt to get a better sense of her father, the late Gian-Carlo Coppola, that led Coppola to pursue studying photography at Bard College in New York state. Before she was born, he died in a tragic 1986 boating accident that made national headlines.
"I had gotten my dad's old camera, and I knew that he liked to do that, and so I was trying to understand him by taking up something that he liked."
And like her father, who worked on the sets with his dad, Francis, Gia Coppola found her experience working with her grandfather to be especially helpful.
"I learned a lot from just working on my grandpa's film 'Twixt,' and that was just sort of my film school, to just observe him." ("Twixt" was a little-seen horror thriller directed by Francis Ford Coppola that featured Val Kilmer -- who has a small role in "Palo Alto" and whose son, Jack, has a major one in it -- along with Bruce Dern and Elle Fanning.)
But the best advice she said she received almost sounds like it could be echoed in a commencement speech for her characters in "Palo Alto" to hear.
"Just really trust your gut and follow that, and if something's not working, fix it right away, because you're going to regret it. You're going to live with that the rest of your life."
For a review of "Palo Alto," see Page 3.