The teens are lost, the adults are wrecks, and everyone is grasping for some meaning in Gia Coppola’s feature debut Palo Alto, based on James Franco’s 2010 collection of interconnected short stories of upper middle class teenage angst.
Emma Roberts stars as the heartbreaking April, a quiet teen who catches the leering gaze of her adult soccer coach, played with unsettling charisma by Franco. As April navigates the increasingly inappropriate attention and escalating physicality of her relationship with Mr. B, her classmates drift in and out of trouble, parties, and desperation in Coppola’s dreamy portrait of this grim, privileged suburb.
EW got a chance to speak to Roberts and Coppola about the film, Franco material, and how they reimagined some of the more intense scenes for the big screen. Check it out after the jump. (There are some slight spoilers.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hi, thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to us.
GIA COPPOLA: Emma, hi! I didn’t realize you were on this call too.
EMMA ROBERTS: Oh, hey!
Can we talk about your character April?
EMMA: I found her really interesting just because she’s so opposite me. She’s much more of an observer and a listener. She’s not the social girl in high school. I was definitely the social girl.
GIA: I always loved the story “April in Three Parts” because it was always very romantic and sweet that these two kids liked each other but are just being pulled in opposite directions. What was so interesting about James’ writing is that he was really able to tap into a young girl’s emotions so well.
EMMA: He really did!
GIA: He articulated how I felt when I was that age and all those insecurities. It was pretty much all there. Obviously I was working with short stories, so at times I kind of used my own experiences, but I think she’s a combination of all of our experiences. Of course Emma made her come to life.
EMMA: That’s what made it so fun. It was a nice collaboration of what me, James, Gia, and all the other actors felt and experienced when we were younger.
Emma, I read that you love Margot Tenenbaum. Are there any shades of her in April?
EMMA: Definitely not at all.
GIA: But I feel like that character…I remember I watched that movie when I was younger and it was like, she was the epitome of cool because she was just so laissez-faire. And she had awesome style.
EMMA: No, no, she’s my favorite character in cinema. But she didn’t influence April at all. I just didn’t think of them as living in the same world. April, to me, was a cross between me a little bit when I was younger, definitely Gia a little bit, and I took a lot of mannerisms from my little sister, actually. She’s 13. She has long, dark hair. She’s a little awkward sometimes. And she’s always kind of twitching her mouth around because she doesn’t know what to say, so I kind of took some mannerisms from her.
What about April’s escalating relationship with her soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco)? How did you develop that, and how do you think April actually sees him?
EMMA: The relationship with Mr. B was really interesting and, as an actress, really fun to get to build because it’s really weird. Actually, maybe Gia should answer this first.
GIA: April is obviously not getting the fulfillment she needs from her home life, and that makes her very vulnerable and susceptible to Mr. B’s character, who is just kind of stunted emotionally. He just can’t connect with someone his own age. Therefore they’re kind of the perfect fit. She’s not really being treated the way she wants to be treated and he’s able to give that to her. He genuinely loves her.
EMMA: She’s mature and he’s immature. They’re kind of meeting in the middle.
Was there any improvisation?
EMMA: A couple of the scenes were improvised. James and I would start talking in character for a moment and Gia would start rolling and then we would go into the scene. A lot of the improv was just with props and where we were sitting and just reactions and stuff.
GIA: But it was your idea about the days of the week underwear!
EMMA: Ha. Yeah. When I was younger I always wore days of the week underwear all the time, because I thought they were so cool, but I would always get the days wrong. In the script it said she was wearing underwear with stars on them or something. And I was like, “What if it were days of the week underwear? Could we do that?” And Gia said, “Totally.” I just love that image. I feel like at least I wore them all the time. I still have a set somewhere.
That kind of brings us to the sex scene between Mr. B and April. It’s shot in a really experimental way. It was a really cool choice.
EMMA: I’m so glad you appreciated that, because I was so nervous. I was like, “Are we going to have a hard-core sex scene?” And Gia was like, “No, no no no no.”
GIA: Yeah, I just feel like sex scenes are not really interesting to me in film. It’s always kind of standard. I also didn’t really want to film that. It wasn’t in my comfort zone, so we decided to do it in an experimental way to just feel what’s going on, and get a sense of what April is feeling rather than showing it in a straightforward way. There’s intense stuff in that book. It’s my way of dealing with it without really showing it.
Palo Alto is currently playing in limited release.