In director Gia Coppola’s latest film, “Mainstream,” her first since 2014’s coming of age indie, “Palo Alto,” the filmmaker once again chronicles the story of disillusioned youth looking for outlets of validation. This time she targets social media and current influencer culture obsessions via her protagonist Frankie (Maya Hawke). Frankie is swept away by the enigmatic YouTube influencer Link (an uninhibited Andrew Garfield), and they quickly amass a sizable online following after a recording of him goes viral. What follows is the skewering of a generation reliant on social media and technology while also veering slightly into fantastic territory as Link’s antics grow increasingly absurd. While our critic wasn’t completely sold on the film as a whole at the Venice Film Festival last year when it premiered, Coppola has already carved out a distinct tone between her two feature films and established herself as a talented artist worth following.
We spoke to the writer/director about working with Garfield to create his larger-than-life character, the ongoing toxicity of social media, working with Dev Hynes (also known as Blood Orange) to create a perfect score, and more.
With the rise of “influencer culture,” was this an idea that had been brewing for a while, or was there a specific incident that inspired the story?
I think navigating social media; I was developing all the emotions that I think we go through when we’re on it. It wasn’t until I saw this film, “A Face in the Crowd,” when I had this “a-ha” moment when I really connected to that, and it felt really relevant even though that movie was made in the 1950s. I always liked these kinds of outrageous characters since they’re fun to work with and create. Still, it felt very true to what was going on in the modern-day of facing situations that are always inflating your ego and being on a device that’s such a part of your everyday life. So how do you navigate that, and how do you stay sane and authentic?
Once you had that inspiration, did the script fall into place for you, or were there certain characters you gravitated towards writing?
I always knew the kind of character dynamics that I wanted, but how do I place it into this new context and also say things that I want to say without being expositional or lecture people so that it was still fun and still tracking these emotional journey’s and connecting in that way. It was really when I met Andrew [Garfield], and we did a lot of work-shopping that the film came alive and figured out how to execute it and what’s inspiring to him.
Was there a certain influencer or social media personality that you were looking for his character Link to model himself off of or that maybe you wrote in mind?
I wouldn’t say it was one particular person. I’d say it was this archetype that’s everywhere, and it’s been in different generations and certain films I love to have them like in “Network” or “A Face in the Crowd,” and I wanted to do something in that vein. The specifics were more drawn to what’s right for the story and what’s exciting to Andrew. Like him running naked was a much tamer concept at the start, but he embellished it to run wild and add the prosthetic, which was really fun because you’re always a little bit nervous for someone of that caliber to be down for that, but he was a chill guy, and I think he found it liberating to do those things.
What was the casting process like? You’ve worked with Nat Wolff before on “Palo Alto,” so was it nice to have that familiarity?
I always knew I wanted Nat to play that part. After “Palo Alto,” he’s just become like my little brother, and he’s nothing like the character he played in that film. He’s lovely and friendly and charming, sociable, and a great musician, and I wanted to put all of those qualities that he naturally emotes and put them in this character that I knew needed to be the guy that was the true blue that you wanted the Frankie character to open her eyes to.
Was there ever a want to shift the perspective of the film and have it more from Links? Or did you always want it to be from Frankie’s point of view where this sort of self-professed free spirit comes in and takes over her life?
I always knew I wanted it to be a coming-of-age story about a woman in her twenties, and it’s kind of every girl’s “bad boy” story about recognizing the really exciting one isn’t actually the right choice to be with and to have this simplified storyline in this much larger, complicated world. It was tricky with Link’s character where you don’t want it to overshadow her’s which it does, so it’s interesting as the film continues to see her become a much quieter voice. It was an interesting balance to have to track and monitor, and Maya [Hawke] does such a good job of including the audience in what sort of emotion is going on with that character.
You made a point of saying that you didn’t want the film to lecture people on social media, but there’s the certain scene with the character Isabelle (Alexa Demie) that shows everything wrong with it, so was there a certain toxic element of social media that you did want to shine a light on or make a specific point about?
I think there’s a lot of pros and cons to this world, and I wanted to shine a light on both of them. Cyberbullying is the worst-case scenario that can happen in this space, and it’s important to kind of bring that into the discussion and recognize that it’s a real thing. It’s upsetting to see that happen to young people who are still forming their identities and taking on all that pressure and bullying.
While they’re very different films, there’s a common theme of youthful aimlessness and a need for validation in both “Palo Alto” and “Mainstream.” Is there a certain thread between what sort of stories you’re interested in exploring?
I remember reading this quote that Fitzgerald wrote that says you tell the same story, but it’s always in a different way and a different space. In some sense, I kind of relate to that where there are themes and emotions that I’m always connected to that I want to bring to life because those are the sort of characters that make me feel less alone and wanting to kind of dive into what is personal for me at the moment to give me catharsis and let me learn about myself in the process.
I loved the soundtrack of the film, so I was curious how much of a hand you have in crafting that because the inclusion of a Blood Orange or Grimes song in this case really helped set certain scenes. How important do you think the soundtrack is to the overall tone of the film?
For the soundtrack, it’s exciting when you have certain ideas of songs you want to put in, and then when it’s put against picture, it just doesn’t work. The picture really tells you what song is right as well. I knew I really wanted a teen girl soundtrack, something pop that was fun and uplifting. Also, with Dev Hynes’ score, I trusted him wholeheartedly and let him run with it, and all I really even contributed was setting the acts and the arcs of those acts and what I hoped to convey. He’s just a genius, and I like anything he does.
I’ve been curious about how creative types kept themselves motivated throughout the last year. You’re a photographer as well – did that help you in staying creative?
It’s been an interesting question to ask people during this time how they stay creative, and I definitely went through some hard times of struggling to figure out what that was for me. There was photography and I also really felt inspired by podcasts and these sort of new fictionalized podcasts that seem because they’re an auditory experience, you can really be as wild as you want. I’ve seen some really creative examples of that that inspired me.
“Mainstream” is available now via IFC Films.