Gia Coppola was feeling out of touch with popular culture when she stumbled upon the ending of Elia Kazan’s 1957 satire A Face in the Crowd several years ago. The story of a folksy truth-teller who rises to dangerous levels of fame and influence on television seemed oddly prescient (and this was before it became “trendy” again after the 2016 presidential election). The image of Andy Griffith laughing maniacally stayed with her.
At the same time, she was watching the rise of internet stars from afar and wondering where art fits in a world where everyone just wants to watch others play video games and unbox toys.
“I’ve always sort of felt a little bit like an alien or something. Just what I like is very different, I think, than what most people like,” Coppola, 34, said. “I think now because of the Internet it’s even more in your face of what gets gratification.”
It was the genesis of her sophomore feature, Mainstream, in which a struggling young artist (Maya Hawke) inadvertently creates a monster when her videos of an antiestablishment loner (Andrew Garfield) go viral. The film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, is in theaters and on demand today.
But even with a surname like Coppola, a well-reviewed debut film under her belt and a timely topic, it wasn’t an easy or straightforward path to getting Mainstream made. Her 2013 film Palo Alto was an evocative look at the lives of suburban teens that had more than a few people throwing out favorable comparisons to her aunt, Sofia Coppola. But this, she knew, was decidedly weirder.
Things started to fall into place after she met Garfield through Greta Seacat, an acting coach they both work with. Coppola doesn’t want to act. “Nothing terrifies me more,” she said. It’s just a means to a deeper understanding of actors.
And in Garfield, she found not just an actor she’s always admired but a kindred spirit and a collaborator who would introduce her to a co-writer, Tom Stuart, as well as agree to star in and produce the film. They spent a lot of time up at what he calls “Camp Coppola” in Napa workshopping the concepts that would end up on screen, like when Hawke’s character Frankie vomits animated emojis into a sink.
“We became fast friends and felt a sweet kind of creative connection and shared a similar kind of childish of humor,” Garfield said. “She’s such a gentle soul.”
Not only would he get to help a friend realize her creative vision, he’d also get to play and experiment a bit himself with that scariest of all concepts: Unlikability.
“There’s a fear of being liked by an audience and a pressure to create characters that have a likability,” Garfield said.
His character, Link, is a kind of street corner philosopher/exhibitionist, which let him access some “Off-putting and grotesque and darker parts of ourselves.”
It also provided an opportunity to go off the rails with a crazy character who at one point runs down Hollywood Boulevard (mostly) naked.
“I did one take and she was like, ‘Are you OK? That was one of my favorite moments of my life. I can’t believe that you did that for me.’ And I’m sitting there going, let’s (expletive) do it again!” Garfield said. “How often does one get a chance to run around Hollywood Boulevard with their butt cheeks hanging out and not get arrested?”
The guerilla-style stunt, he said, was like, “Thieving the reality of the people who happened to be on the block that time and feeling like you’re creating something that was totally alive.”
Much of the film is set in and around the ugly-beautiful stretches of that famed street, near where Coppola was raised and now chooses to live as an adult.
“I just have a deep love for it and what it represents to people on the outside and how it’s so unglamorous but there’s so many amazing characters,” Coppola said. “It feels like a metaphor for Los Angeles in a way.”
It was a quick shoot, only 19 days, and a family affair. She used American Zoetrope, the studio her grandfather Francis Ford Coppola founded in 1969. Her mother, Jacqui Getty, did the costumes. Her cousin Jason Schwartzman co-stars. And her uncle Roman Coppola’s tote bag company even makes a cameo.
Garfield described the Coppolas as a, “soulful artistic hub.”
“It’s a very generous family,” he said. “And it’s very, very cool to be included in that world for a period of time.”
And Coppola’s interests go beyond feature filmmaking. In a different family she may have been able to coast on the famous name into dilettantism, but hers instilled a work ethic and always insisted that she have a job and pay her own bills.
She went to bartending school, trained at Thomas Keller’s now-defunct Beverly Hills offshoot of Bouchon, has a bachelor’s in photography from Bard College, does film and photo shoots for fashion brands (she met Hawke on a Zac Posen project) and is deeply involved in the wine label that bears not just her name but her photography on the labels. She wanted the wines to be unpretentious and reflect the way she and her friends chose bottles in their 20s. It’s part of the reason there’s a bottle cap top instead of a cork.
Yet no matter the medium — wine, fashion, photography, film — the aesthetic is always intractably and beguilingly her own. And now that she’s gotten Mainstream out of her system, she feels like she’s open to anything and everything and even trying different genres — in her own way of course.
“Her uniqueness is her giftedness,” Garfield said. “I’m just so proud of her.”
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