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Gia Coppola tries to find her voice with directorial debut 'Palo Alto'

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TORONTO - Gia Coppola takes a while to open up as she discusses her directorial debut.

Like the teens she brings to life in "Palo Alto," the soft-spoken 27-year-old explains she's still trying to find her voice. It's that kind of connection with her characters that made her want to adapt a book of short stories by James Franco for the big screen in the first place.

"I hadn't seen or read anything about teenagers that felt truthful and realistic in a long time and when I read his book I just really loved it," said Coppola, the granddaughter of Hollywood heavyweight Francis Ford Coppola.

"I loved that it was in the perspective of teenagers and I loved the dialogue and the emotion."

The film, which is dark and unsettling at times, follows the lives of teenagers in Northern California as they exhibit both reckless behaviour and a desire to connect with others.

Coppola said there was a lot in the characters' stories she could relate to, and that she made the film in the hopes that her audience, whatever their age, would feel the same.

"I just hope it resonates," she said. "Maybe it can sit with them for a little bit longer after the movie is done and there's something they can connect to and not feel so alone."

Coppola tried to keep the film authentic by casting young actors to play key characters. Among them are Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts' niece, who plays the timid April, and Jack Kilmer, Val Kilmer's son, in the part of tender but easily influenced Teddy.

"They would tell me the new slang, they would keep me updated on what's cool and what's not cool," Coppola said with a smile. "I wanted to involve them as much as possible."

Coppola also made the decision to cast Franco as a high school football coach who has an affair with April, which meant she was directing the person who wrote the material her film was based on.

"He was so supportive when I needed him. I'd ask him for advice now and then but he also gave me a lot of freedom,"she said of their working relationship.

"I think it might have been a little weirder for him to play a character that he wrote."

Franco, who specifically asked that Coppola be the one to turn his stories into a film, admitted that portraying a character he had created was a little strange, particularly because it wasn't the role he would have chosen for himself.

"When I wrote that book and I read that book, I identify with the kids. I'm writing about my youth," he said in an interview.

"So I felt like, oh I'm playing the villain. I want to be with the kids. But I also felt like it was a valuable component ... It's not about me looking cool, it's about me helping the movie."

Franco said the entire experience of watching his written work come to life was ultimately very gratifying.

"I didn't want to adapt my own book. I wanted another voice to add to it and I wanted it to be filtered through somebody else's sensibility," he said, adding that his examination of Coppola's photography was what initially drew him to her.

"The tone, the feeling I was trying to evoke with those stories was in line with what I saw her invoking in her photography. And I also knew she comes from one of the best filmmaking families in the world and even though she hadn't made a feature before, I thought she'll be able to do it."

For her part, Coppola makes it clear that while she was supported by her famous relatives, "Palo Alto" is very much her own independent project.

"I hope that people see the film because they're interested in the story and not so much to see what the spawn of the family member can do," she said. "I wanted to feel I could do it on my own."

"Palo Alto" opens in select theatres on Friday.

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