The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Palo Alto.
The film is based on a book of short stories by James Franco. Can you tell us about how the project developed?
Coppola: James and I met up randomly – I had seen him at a deli and then later that night I ran into him again. My mom had met him prior and she introduced us. I had just finished college as a photography major and we chatted about that and how I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. We stayed in touch and I sent him my photographs and he mentioned a few things we could collaborate on, including his book of stories, Palo Alto. He wanted to make it into a feature but wanted someone else to direct so it would have a new interpretation. When I read it I really loved the book, it was very emotional and realistic. I hadn’t seen anything in a long time that depicted teenagers in a way that felt truthful.
“Gia doesn’t judge the characters; she just presents them.”
The character of Fred really is a force of nature. How did you learn about this role?
Wolff: One of the reasons I loved the script and the movie so much is that Gia doesn’t judge the characters; she just presents them and let’s you take away what you want. And I think she has compassion for all of them, even my character, who I think is the hardest to like in a lot of ways. He was sort of my favorite in the script because he was weirdly charming. I read the script about two years ago and had a meeting with Gia where I said, I don’t know if I can play this guy, I don’t think I am this guy and she said, “I think you can do it.” It was great to have someone that trusted me with a part like this, and a lot of it was just finding the part of me that needs a lot of attention, that I like to keep hidden. Lots of parts of me were helpful in finding the charm and comedy in Fred.
What was about Nat that convinced you he could play Fred, and how did the rest of the casting come about?
Coppola: When I first met Nat, he was the first kid that seemed like he understood that character. One of my references was Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro’s relationship in Mean Streets. That was the first thing he said and I thought, he gets it. We were talking and vibing well, and I thought this whole casting process was about trusting my gut. I didn’t feel like I was getting a sense of people during the audition process, it was through talking and getting to know someone that I found my basis for figuring out who was right for these parts. I had seen Nat in another movie – Stuck in Love – where I saw little glimpses of Fred that I thought could work. He’s a young actor but very talented, and he bonded with Jack [Kilmer] and they went on little adventures and had a real relationship. And it was sweet to see how Jack was learning about acting from Nat, since he had never acted before. I had actually met Jack when he was four years old because I had to mentor him in an elementary school program, and he was like a little tyrant! But he’s quite different now. Jack kept coming in and out of my life, and we went to dinner and I wasn’t really thinking about him as an option since he had never acted before, but he was the most captivating of all the kids I had met with, and he has a natural quality about him where you want to watch him. All the casting was weird instances of trusting my gut. I kept running into James randomly, I’d run into Emma [Roberts] randomly, so that was how it all formed.
Wolff: I can tell one really funny Jack story. Chris Messina plays my dad and is such a genius actor and such a nice guy, but was totally creepy in that one scene. Jack had to do that scene with him, and I watched it on set and it was just amazing. Then at lunch, Jack didn’t want to sit by Chris. That moment was so real and Jack was creeped out by him.
Coppola: It was written as a weird scene, but then Chris was like, I think my character should hit on him. And we didn’t tell Jack. I was impressed how long he Jack stayed. We did it to see how long Jack would stay in that scene. I told Chris to play it as creepy as he can and see if Jack will just get out, but he stayed.
Wolff: He stayed through the whole thing, even with the hair touching and the bouncing on the couch.
Nat, how did you and Jack prepare together?
Wolff: We basically lived together in Gia’s mom’s garage, with two beds set up. We were given water once a day (laughs) and some bread.
Coppola: No, you guys were like sneaking out, going to In-N-Out Burger.
Wolff: So crazy! Wow, what bad boys. Going out for burgers.
Coppola: I’d see Instagram pictures of you guys stealing coconuts from the fridge.
Wolff: Jack would always post photos of us in her mother’s house when we weren’t shooting scenes. And then her mother would post on his Instragram pictures “I’m coming home right now!” No, but it did help. You can fake being friends with somebody, but it’s much easier when you actually are friends with somebody, and we became really close filming the movie. I was so nervous playing a character like this one, one that I had never played before, and he was nervous about acting for the first time. The fact that we loved each other made our scenes so much easier.
The seduction scene with the coach on the couch was so visually dynamic and involves some elements that weren’t really present in the rest of the film. Can you talk us through that scene and the decisions you made there?
Coppola: James’ book is really dark and there were elements that I related to and elements I didn’t relate to. I felt instead of being shy about it, I should really push myself and figure out a way to deal with these things within my creative range. I feel that sex scenes have a tendency to be kind of standard and formulaic, and I enjoy being a little experimental at times. We had a little extra time and I wanted to shoot some stuff with Emma, and in the edit we discovered this was a more interesting way of conveying the emotion of that scene by dealing with her instead of the straightforward sex stuff. And there was also that voiceover scene with Fred and Emily. We tried a few different ways to go about that material, but it wasn’t working.
Wolff: It was basically rape, bringing in all those guys. It was really scary.
Coppola: It was super intense. And we all felt really uncomfortable and couldn’t figure out how to portray that material. But it was important to the story – this stuff goes on. I thought I should try and tell it, but I couldn’t figure out how. So we took this voiceover passage from the book but added two layers, and the film told us that was the right way. I think it conveyed the feeling of it more intensely than had you seen it.
Wolff: I remember when it was the voiceover that wasn’t played on top of each other, and you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. But, when you see the movie, at least for me, and you hear it with the voiceovers laid in, it gave me this sickening feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t even hear what he was saying, there was too many stories going at once, but you get that sickening result.
Was it your intention to portray Fred as someone who is mentally ill, or someone who is just a kid and more human than that?
Wolff: The first time I read the script, I thought he was probably mentally ill. But once I started playing him, I just tried to play him moment by moment and find the parts of him that I could justify, as opposed to separating myself from him. And I think that’s why I was able to do it. I think if I had just said, I’m playing a mentally ill person, it would’ve ended up as a caricature of what I thought that was. Gia helped me in justifying every single moment and the audience gets to decide what they think of him. I think that’s what I like about the movie.
Coppola: I feel like Fred is a combination of everyone’s crazy friend. What did James say?
Wolff: I said to James, we all think that the Teddy character is supposed to be you, is that right? And he said yeah, so I said, who am I supposed to be? And he said, I think you’re supposed to be me too, like the devil version of me. I think Teddy and Fred are like two sides of the same coin. That opened up a lot for me, and I realized Fred can be sympathetic. Fred wants to be better than he is.