Gia Coppola on family, filmmaking and the dark side of internet stardom
The Los Angeles-based director swipes up on her second feature, Mainstream, "a cautionary fairytale" about social media fame, delusion and excess.
Gia Coppola doesn’t set out to make films that are off-the-wall. It’s just in her nature.
“I always go in with the intention of creating something that’s very simple and straightforward, but I’m quite weird so it becomes this bizarre thing,” she says, Zooming in from her sunlit home in Los Angeles. “I can’t seem to help it.”
Coming from a long line of “bohemian” filmmakers and actors – Sofia is her aunt, Roman her uncle and Francis Ford her grandad – the 34-year-old had her an indie hit with Palo Alto, her 2013 adaptation of James Franco’s short story collection of the same name, which starred Franco and Emma Roberts. Since then Coppola has focused her attention on photography, music videos, shorts and commercials for the likes of Vogue, Gucci and Dev Hynes. But she’s also been taking time to develop her follow-up feature.
It took her seven years but today Coppola is here, bright and early on a sunny autumn morning, to discuss Mainstream, a suitably unconventional look at the pitfalls of internet stardom that she shot last year. Starring Andrew Garfield as the brilliantly twisted Link and Maya Hawke as downtrodden filmmaker Frankie, the pair find love and fame while creating a sinister and provocative viral online show.
Touching on the power of celebrity and our increased desire for clicks, likes and instant gratification, Coppola was eager to explore the dark reality of social media stardom. “We all love to see the wheels come off,” she says with a wry smile. “It’s human nature that we have this sick fascination with people’s trainwrecks.”
Below, she talks to THE FACE about her family network, the realities of being a director and what she thinks about people who set out to become social media famous.
What did you set out to create with Mainstream?
It sort of started from stumbling across A Face In The Crowd, which is a 1950s film about the transition of radio to television and this grifter character that becomes egomaniacal. I was just really blown away and inspired, and it felt so relevant, even though it was dealing with older technology. That kind of led me down the path of watching movies like Network and Broadcast News, and just really loving the way they question media.
I also have a friend who was representing social influencers. Not understanding what that was, I wanted get to know that [industry] more and figure out what it was that I was feeling towards it.
The film shows the dark side of internet stardom. Why was it important for you to tell that story?
I wanted to make a cautionary fairytale. I think you see [this topic] so frequently because it’s such a new landscape that we don’t know how to really navigate, and we’re not sure how it affects our mental health. I was keen to explore the inner workings of what’s really behind all of this stuff, like how susceptible anyone is to instant gratification that is at your fingertips 24/7 and how to instil better values for yourself. I had these questions and themes on how to protect yourself in that way.
How do you feel about people who set out to become social media famous?
I think if you set out in life to just become famous, that’s not really satisfying or fulfilling. I think we’re in a culture where it seems like excess and money and fame are what seem so valued. But in fact, during this pandemic, we’ve learned that nature and connection and truthfully expressing yourself is what really makes life feel worthwhile.
What made Maya Hawke your Frankie and Andrew your Link?
I was really struggling to figure out who the right Frankie was and I wasn’t really finding her. But I did a photoshoot [for Zac Posen] where I was taking Maya’s picture, and we just had a very natural connection where I felt like words didn’t need to be involved. And then I just kind of saw it. I was like: “Oh, that’s Frankie right there.“
With Andrew, I obviously was just a really big fan. He’s super talented. To have that level of mentorship to help figure out these bigger ideas and put it in an emotional context was special. He’s usually typecast as this hero and good guy, so I think having that undertone of a character that’s going to do a lot of very unlikeable things helps the audience stay invested.
You’ve said before that having a family that is such a big force in the industry made you more resistant to seeking filmmaking as a career. What was it that you initially set out to pursue?
I don’t think I knew. I just remember being a kid and people would say: “Are you going to be a director too?” And I was like: “I’m a kid and I don’t know what I want to do.” I was struggling in school and not really finding my place. And it wasn’t until I realised that I was shy, and that the camera feels comfortable, that pieces came together for me.
I studied under [photographer] Stephen Shore at [liberal arts school] Bard College [in New York State] and that opened my world. Nothing about it was technical. It was all very conceptual – not allowing books and the mundane parts of life, [but allowing] anything that can feed your inspiration. Then it became a natural progression. I realised that I love photography, but I wanted to keep challenging myself. With movies, there are more things that I enjoy, the music and costumes, but also collaborating. You’re not as alone.
How have your family been a support system as you create your work?
I mean, my family is very bohemian. It’s all about expressing yourself creatively and doing it for things that really interest you and not doing it for any other reason. I’m very fortunate that I have people that are very experienced to turn to. They say: “Maybe this would make more sense if you moved out there.” Or if a budget isn’t making sense, I ask them what to do.
There’s been a sizable gap between Mainstream and your last feature…
It was seven years which is crazy because I don’t know how the time went by so fast. I feel like I’ve been working on the movie for so long. But Palo Alto was very simple. It just took a very long time from start to finish, and I think that’s just the nature of movies, especially if you’re making independent, unusual movies that don’t fit into a typical genre or box. And that was maybe the main challenge with Mainstream. When I felt determined, and I needed to get this idea off my chest, I wanted to make something that I felt connected to, not just to check the box, to make another movie.
How has your directorial style evolved since Palo Alto?
I feel like I have learned so much. But then every time you’re on a new project, it has very new challenges that you have to then learn from. I remember [director] Alexander Payne [Election, Sideways] once said that making movies is like making pancakes. First, if your griddle is too hot, then it’s a little burnt. And then maybe you get the temperature just right but then the batter cools down… It’s a gauge that is constantly shifting.
When you’re writing, where do you tend to hunker down?
I have such a love-hate relationship [with writing] that I can’t figure out what my thing is, and I think that is my thing! My grandpa is really adamant that you have your desk, your routine, your set time of day. But then my grandma was like: “Well, I’m a woman, I was a mom, you just work wherever you can at whatever time.” You didn’t have the luxury back then to have your set time to be creative. I don’t have a routine as much as I’d like, but I do this thing where I write five pages and not judge myself, and that’s the hardest part. It’s about turning off what my grandma calls the F U C K radio station.
What future projects are on the cards?
I feel very inspired to keep trying different things, doing different genres. I’m also very fascinated by the podcast space – I find auditory fictional storytelling really interesting. You don’t have to deal with locations in the same way, so you can be really far out as much as you want. That’s a different sensory experience that I’d like to try. I never want to do the same thing twice.
Mainstream is out today via digital download