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'Palo Alto' promising debut for writer-director Gia Coppola

This photo released by Tribeca Films shows Emma Roberts as April in a scene from the film,

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This photo released by Tribeca Films shows Emma Roberts as April in a scene from the film, "Palo Alto," directed by Gia Coppola. The movie opened in U.S. theaters on May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Tribeca Films)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - It took a dark tale of teens and a pedophile in a Northern California suburb for Gia Coppola, the granddaughter of Francis and niece of Sofia, to also become a filmmaker.

"Outsiders were always asking me if I was going into film," says the soft-spoken 27-year-old writer-director, whose first movie, "Palo Alto," debuted in New York and Los Angeles last weekend. "It deterred me. It felt intimidating to have that kind of attention."

But she agreed to adapt James Franco's book "Palo Alto" after her mother, Jacqui de la Fontaine, introduced the two. Coppola had recently graduated from Bard College in New York, where she studied photography. Franco was impressed with her eye.

"There was this intense focus in a lot of the detail that added up to this dreamy feeling," says Franco of Coppola's photos. "I thought that would be good for this material."

Franco became Coppola's partner in the making of the film as well as her mentor, helping her push beyond the fear of helming a feature.

"He let me know that he trusted me . I didn't feel judged in any way," says Coppola, who shot short online videos for fashion companies before "Palo Alto."

Nearly five years after her initial chat with Franco, the film is finally in theatres. "I thought we were making something so small," says Coppola over coffee at a Hollywood cafe. "I thought we would just release it on the Internet."

But Tribeca Film had other ideas. In December of last year, the independent distribution company nabbed the North American rights to the film.

Starring Franco, Emma Roberts, Val Kilmer and his 18-year-old son, Jack Kilmer (making his acting debut), "Palo Alto" will expand to 15-20 screens this weekend.

Not a bad start for a low-budget film that initially struggled to gain financial backing. "No one wanted to invest in a first-time director with dark material and real teenagers," says Coppola.

But she didn't run to her film world relatives for cash. "It was important for me to do it on my own," says Coppola, who gained behind-the-scenes experience working on Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Twixt." ''James and I wanted to keep it small and not have a second party involved."

Taking an acting gig in the 2013 thriller "Homefront," Franco used his salary to help pay for "Palo Alto." ''It was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me," says Coppola. "He really stuck by me."

Coming from a family with a history of making films about teenage turmoil, Coppola was determined to find her own voice.

"I love my aunt and my grandpa's movies about teenagers and they are definitely influences, but they are different movies," she says.

"It's important to do your own thing and not necessarily try to emulate your family," says Roberts, whose father is Eric Roberts and aunt is Julia Roberts. "Gia has such a specific vision. A lot of what is good about this movie is what isn't said. In real life there is a silence and you don't know what to say and you're embarrassed."

When Coppola agreed to make "Palo Alto," she felt she hadn't really experienced much else in life other than having been a teenager. "That was the only story I could tell honestly," she says.

Coppola spent her "awkward" high school years in Los Angeles with her mother. (Her father died in a boating accident before she was born.)

"At the time, I was so uncomfortable," she recalls of her adolescence. "(As a teen) everything is a big deal and you act in extreme manners. After getting older I was able to look at things calmly."

Coppola says she's been influenced by filmmakers like Federico Fellini, David Fincher and Lena Dunham.

"When I saw that (Dunham) was successful it felt like there was a chance for everyone," she says.

Next Coppola plans to direct a music video for Blood Orange, the artist behind the synth-heavy music in "Palo Alto."

"I want to challenge myself in a new way," she says. "But it always has to have some sort of personal connection for me to feel excited about it."

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