The granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola, it was perhaps inevitable that Gia Coppola would get involved in the film industry in some capacity. While she didn’t start off on that path, she did eventually get there, making her feature directing debut in 2013 with the Emma Roberts starring Palo Alto, based on a collection of short stories by James Franco.
That dreamy exploration of young adulthood earned positive reviews for the first-time filmmaker, which makes it a bit of a surprise that it’s taken seven years for her sophomore feature to hit the screens. That return has come in the form of Mainstream, a film about how our understanding of and relationship to fame and technology has evolved in the social media age.
Mainstream stars Maya Hawke as Frankie, a bartender and aspiring filmmaker who finds inspiration in the eccentric likes of Link (Andrew Garfield), an unusual character who gets Frankie more views than she ever dreamed of when she uploads a film of his ravings on the folly of being glued to your phone onto YouTube. Along with Frankie’s best friend Jake (Nat Wolff), the group sets out to achieve that ever elusive fame and fortune by using Link to become a sensation on the internet. Naturally, things don’t go quite as well as they’d hoped.
This cautionary tale for the social media age taps into themes that have been present since the dawn of time, something which Coppola discussed with me when we sat down for an interview about her latest feature.
Read on for my conversation with Mainstream filmmaker Gia Coppola:
Mitchell Beaupre: I wanted to start by asking you the hard-hitting question: Would you rather have permanent diarrhea, or penises for fingers?
Gia Coppola: (laughing) Penises for fingers.
MB: It’s obvious, right?
GC: I remember when we wrote that scene, we were thinking of “would you rather”s and then Tom Stuart, my co-writer, made that one up and Andrew and I both thought of it genuinely and we thought penises for fingers. As we thought about it more though, we realized that if you had penises for fingers everything would be so sensitive, and we were cracking up and realized that’s the scene right there.
MB: It’s been a few years since your first movie, Palo Alto, came out. Where did the idea for Mainstream come from, and what was the process like for you to bring it to the world?
GC: Back when I made Palo Alto I was a photography major in college, while bartending in order to pay rent, and when I got the opportunity to make that film it was such a magical experience. I got to be with friends and be creative together, but I was never thinking of this bigger agenda of where it would lead to. When it was over I didn’t expect it to be the kind of film that would be released in that way, I thought it was just some small little thing that we made for ourselves. I wasn’t really thinking of myself as a filmmaker yet, and it took me some time to figure out what I wanted to say, and what I wanted to make. I knew, though, that I didn’t want to just make another young adult film. I really wanted to challenge myself in new ways and experiment, and to do something totally opposite. Then, I stumbled across the film A Face in the Crowd, and that was really inspiring to me. It felt so relevant to what was going on, and also sort of what I was feeling and experiencing with the internet and social media. From there I was able to take those emotions and put them into this story.
MB: A Face in the Crowd certainly comes to mind while watching the film, as does something like Network. That idea of the corrosive nature of fame is evergreen. Could you talk about updating that concept for the internet age?
GC: I think the toxicity of fame and how it affects a human being is a very old story. It’s just now that it’s part of our everyday lives and it happens to everyone all of the time because you’re always on your device, and it’s designed to keep you tethered to it. Now it’s even more challenging to figure out how you stay sane and grounded in the face of this thing that’s really calling to you 24/7.
MB: How much research did you and your team do into the world of YouTube and social media and the kind of content that’s being put out there in this way?
GC: A lot. Part of that idea stemmed from a friend that was representing social media influencers at a time before YouTube was really a thing, and there was this sort of tidal wave coming of these people doing this bizarre content that would create massive followings in ways that we don’t even recognize yet. I was following that, and doing a lot of reading about how social media is designed, and how it impacts our mental health. Another big thing was that in the casting process for the film I was able to get to know these YouTubers and understand their perspective. I didn’t want to just slander these people, because they are very genuine. They really relate to their audience and connect with them in a different way than the kinds of celebrities that we’re more accustomed to.
MB: In order for the movie to work the audience needs to understand where Frankie and Link are coming from when they set off on this adventure. We have to see their good intentions before it all starts to go to hell. Was that a crucial component of putting the story together for you?
GC: Yeah, at the end of the day I really just wanted to make a simple love story. That’s how all of those sorts of moments start, it’s that you have good intentions, but then somewhere along the way you lose the plot. I’m always fascinated with that kind of storyline of where do you lose yourself, and how do you gain yourself back again. I wanted to explore how someone who is getting a lot of attention is able to stay sane and make sure that they’re creating things not just to get likes – that they’re making things for themselves, for what’s inspiring and fulfilling to them, and that will hopefully connect with people in a real way.
MB: Some people have drawn comparisons between this movie and Palo Alto because they’re both about a younger generation, but they really are quite different. You brought on a lot of the same crew from Palo Alto – could you talk about working together again with these collaborators to make your second feature?
GC: Those are my people, so it’s such a luxury to get to make movies with the people that you love. I find that when I make things I’m less interested in whether so and so person has this flashy resume, and much more interested in whether or not I connect with them. I want to make sure we are collaborating on the same level, and that’s what’s exciting to me. I love getting to make things where you have that back and forth of having different ideas, but then the other person has this expertise in the field so you go with what they think. That’s what’s really fun about it all for me.
MB: The first thing I ever saw that you directed was the Blood Orange music video for “You’re Not Good Enough”, which is one of my favorite music videos ever. You’ve got Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) making the music for the film here. What’s that collaboration been like between the two of you, and how has it evolved over the years?
GC: Dev came on to Palo Alto because at the time I had a Twitter I think, and I just sort of tweeted to him and said that I’m a huge fan. I asked him if he would score the film, and he said yes. I absolutely love his work, and I trust him wholeheartedly. With something like this I was so excited to see him take on this tone, and I mostly just didn’t want to get in the way. I want everyone on my films to do what’s instinctual to them. Maybe I’ll make a tweak here and there, but I don’t often have those kinds of notes. It’s inspiring to work with people who you can just trust like that.
MB: The movie has an ambiguous ending that doesn’t tell the audience what to think, but certainly leaves them with questions to ponder on after it’s over. What do you hope that audiences are reflecting on when they leave the film?
GC: I think mostly it’s about self-reflection. It’s about questioning what your part in all of this is, and how are you checking in with yourself in that sort of space. For me, it’s really about that idea that all that glitters is not gold.
Mainstream is currently playing in theaters and available on VOD
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]