C California Style

The Talented Miss Coppola

by C California Style

Gia Coppola follows in the giant footsteps of her grandfather, arguably the greatest director of all time. She chats with her friend, filmmaker Alexander Payne, about her eponymous wine label and her first feature film hitting theaters this month—a Northern California-based coming-of-age story.

When Gia Coppola started working on Palo Alto, her first feature film (an adaptation of James Franco’s short story), she decided to call up one of her favorite filmmakers, Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska, The Descendants), to ask for some advice. Now, as the film hits theaters, the writer/directors talk about the experience and touch on one of their other favorite subjects: wine.

Gia Coppola: You were so supportive when I was starting Palo Alto. I was so nervous and just wanted to pick your brain.

Alexander Payne: And I was so flattered that you even asked me, considering who your grandfather is.

GC: My 97-year-old uncle just saw Nebraska. He said it was his favorite movie this year because it was so true. I was curious, though, what was your first feature movie like, and how do you feel about it now? When I saw the first edit of Palo Alto, I thought it wasn’t what I initially intended, but it kind of took on its own form, and I had to realize that’s part of making films.

AP: That’s the case with every film. You have to learn that you are going to be mortified by every first edit. Editing is the ongoing process of disguising how bad the film really is. We try to make the film suck less, so finally at the end of the process you release the least sucky version of the film. By the time you finished editing, didn’t you feel good about it even if it was different from what you envisioned?

GC: Well, it took me a while to stop fiddling with it, and it came to a point where I was only doing more harm than good. My grandpa told me, “Better is the enemy of the good.” So I just had to stop.

AP: There’s another editing phrase: “Films are never finished; they are abandoned.”

GC: Yeah, well, that’s kind of how it felt for a while, and now, as time has passed, I can look at it as its own. For a while movies didn’t feel the same, and it was really hard to watch them. I thought I had ruined something that I enjoyed so much.

AP: You have to cut yourself a lot of slack here. Your first movie is like the first waffle—the iron isn’t quite hot enough; you haven’t put enough butter. The first waffle you always have to throw away, or you, the cook, eat it, but you’d never serve it. You know, the second waffle is servable.

GC: That’s a great analogy.

AP: No one is defined by one movie, unless you just make one movie and you die. Each one is a learning process. I’ve made six feature films, and I still don’t think I’ve made a good movie. I mean, they’re OK. I consider myself a 53-year-old film student; it’s just that now I’m being paid to continue to learn.

GC: I really was trying to figure out how to do this on my own and challenge myself. Of course, I got advice from my grandpa in terms of the business, but I’m still trying to make my own decisions.

AP: You have to make friends with your mistakes. The biggest mistake in my short career has been to allow myself to listen to others against my better judgment. I am OK with the mistakes I make, but if I have inflicted mistakes from either being pressured or being polite—I’m too polite!—and it finds its way in, I regret it later.

GC: You have to love anxiety—that’s what I was told.

AP: Or relax. I want to enjoy the process. You have to sort of laugh with it.

GC: Would you say laughter is your mode to relaxation?

AP: It sure helps. I feel very blessed that I have a sense of humor. Maybe I don’t have the best sense of humor, but at least I have one.

GC: I had such an enjoyable time making Palo Alto, even though it was one of the hardest things.

AP: What I remember about my first film was the sense of freedom about it. You haven’t learned from all those mistakes, so in a way you’re not as careful, and beautiful and spontaneous things can happen from that. All the edges aren’t beveled, and that means there will be some sucky parts, but that also means that there will be some bold parts. I always say filmmaking is like, if you can’t make a good omelet, you try to make good scrambled eggs. Problem solving.

GC: That’s refreshing, because I was so naive in making this that it worked to my advantage. I was so free because I didn’t know what to expect.

AP: It’s like a first love.

GC: I was talking to my grandpa about this because of the winery: Your movie Sideways had a big effect on merlot. They call it the Sideways effect. Recently merlot has been trying to come back.

AP: It’s funny, I would have never predicted that about Sideways. I like merlot; it was just a joke. Somehow it touched on something and entered popular consciousness for a while.

GC: It’s so interesting that it can be that powerful. Do you have a particular varietal of wine that you like?

AP: I like anything that’s well done. What wine are you making now?

GC: I went to bartending school and got really into mixology and the history of wine and spirits. There was an opportunity at the winery to bring in a new wine, and they wanted to target my age group. We’re making a pinot noir, a pinot grigio and a frizzante.

AP: What grape is used in frizzante?

GC: It’s a chardonnay. A sparkling chardonnay.

AP: I’m increasingly amazed by the versatility of Syrah. In California wines and in Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, it can have a variety of really distinct perfumes and tastes. Do you see a connection between wine and film?

GC: It was really interesting to understand that world, especially designing the bottle and coming up with the label and figuring out the marketing. It was a lot like making a movie, and it made it easier to view it in that way.

AP: You’re also creating an experience for others. I liken cooking to film, in that when I have people over for a dinner party, I’m creating an experience—a beginning and middle and end—and I hope a proper sense of rhythm throughout. I consider music is to film what wine is to food. This other element that comes at it laterally. Sergio Leone used to say that music is 40% of film. The right wine with the right food has that impact. Is this pretentious enough for your article?

GC: That was beautiful—I loved it. Thank you. I’ve gotta come out and visit you in Omaha soon.

AP: You do! And what are you doing over there in Paris, France?

GC: I’m doing some promotion for the movie and then going back to New York. I recently moved there to experience a new place. So yeah, definitely let me know when you are in New York. I’d love to just hang out even when we aren’t being recorded.

AP: Thanks, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.

Photographed by: David Mushegain
Fashion editor: Samantha Traina
Hair: Charles McNair at Jed Root for L’Oreal Professionnel. Makeup: Kristina Brown at Jed Root for Chanel Beauté. Stylist Assistant: Shadi Beccai.