There’s a scene in Mainstream, Gia Coppola’s sophomore feature about a YouTube vlog squad, that’s basically designed to go viral. In it, Andrew Garfield, completely naked save for a gigantic, flappy dildo swaying between his legs, runs down Hollywood Boulevard yelling at passerby, before getting arrested and dragged off by cops.
The scene wasn’t always supposed to be that aggressive. Initially, Coppola just wanted Garfield to run down a quiet street in nude underwear. The scene would be low-key and understated, a safe space interspersed with actors who could fake being surprised. But nothing about the film or its subject matter is subtle, so the on-screen prank grew bigger, bolder, and wilder — even garnering social media attention — mimicking the very thing it seeks to satirize.
No one in Mainstream ever means for things to get out of control. The film stars Maya Hawke as Frankie, an aspiring filmmaker working as a bartender in a L.A. magician’s haunt, and desperately searching for connection. So, when she meets Link (Garfield), she’s instantly intrigued. With no cell phone and too much personality, he’s destined to either be a cult leader or internet famous. The two start pumping out viral hits with the help of Jake (Nat Wolff), Frankie’s friend and co-worker, rounding off their group as a writer. But as Link’s fame grows and their trio morphs into a toxic love triangle, Frankie is confronted with the dark side of being on the frontlines of internet culture.
To further blur the lines between fiction and reality, Coppola, who co-wrote the script with Tom Stuart, cast real YouTube and social media stars like makeup artist Patrickstarrr, vlogger Juanpa Zurita, and even the polarizing Jake Paul, as themselves. The result is social media “fairy tale” — complete with its own, twisted prince charming.
Refinery29: What got you interested in the whole concept of viral fame?
Gia Coppola: “A while back I [asked] a friend: ‘What do you do?’ I hadn’t seen her in a while, and she was representing different YouTubers with massive followings. I didn’t understand that these people who would just open a box, or play video games had this huge following, and what was it about them that was so engaging and alluring. I had a lot of questions. Where does creativity lie in this sort of space? [Elia Kazan’s] A Face in The Crowd was definitely an influence — this wild and crazy guy that is so much about ego and fame and power, and how do we stay sane and authentic in an environment where that is so much a part of our everyday?
That movie is about the transition from radio to film. At one point in Mainstream, Nat Wolff’s character says: “My little niece worships these guys who do and say nothing.” As a filmmaker, how do you grapple with the idea that young people are turning to TikTok and YouTube instead of movies?
“That was partly where the inspiration was coming from. Film and TV is transitioning into the internet — what are the pros and what are the cons, and how is it evolving creativity? Attention spans are getting shorter, and because of that, there’s something about being flashy and exciting. How do you fit into a world like that when you’re not the loudest person in the room? Sometimes the loudest person in the room isn’t saying anything worthwhile or authentic — they’re just loud. What are these kids connecting to? For this film, I wanted to make sure that it felt exciting and fun and not a lecture, but also subliminally have these questions and messages in there.”
This is a movie that’s so rooted in a specific moment in time. Were you ever worried it might feel dated, say 10 years from now?
“The internet is a rapidly changing thing and I was inspired by the challenge of how do I take this non-visual world and make it cinematic and try to make it classic. IMy motive was that it’s about the emotions, and making sure that arc was traditional and something you could relate to in any generation at any time. My challenge was to make it beautiful in a space that’s very different-looking.
“When I make something I feel like there’s always a twinge of my own reality. This, to me, feels like a fairy tale and a satire. I’m not trying to fully capture what’s going on, I’m trying to be more imaginative and surrealist with it. It was my attempt to keep it in its own world.”
Are you an online person?
“With social media, there’s a lot of great things and fun inventive technologies, and ideas that are coming out of it. And then there’s weird stuff that I don’t relate to or understand.”
You cast real YouTubers as themselves. Was it important to you from the beginning that their voices be heard?
“It was really fun to audition them and find out what things are like on their end, and make sure that I wasn’t just ridiculing people. I got to know them, and they are very sweet, talented young people that want to do a lot of good, and they have a deep connection with their audience, which is very meaningful. It’s more about the emotions that we are faced with when you have that much attention. How do you navigate that? Some people can and some people can’t. It was helpful to get to talk to them, and get their advice. They’re good actors.”
Jake Paul especially is now such a controversial figure — were you ever worried about handing him this new and elevated platform?
“I was definitely trying to be conscious of that. At the time, Jake Paul wasn’t as controversial, but yeah, it’s interesting how people respond to that attention.”
Did you find that you came in with judgment or any preconceived notions?
“It wasn’t judgement, it was more fascination. How do I fit in that? In general I really try to not come from a place of judgement. Understanding where people come from, especially with character arcs, is so important to get to the root of something. There’s so much fascination in social media and how it’s out there, and why it’s out there. I love it as much as it’s so bizarre and weird to me.”
Do you feel like you’ve found some answers to the questions that you had before making this movie?
“I can’t specifically say what those answers are, but I had to make this film. I couldn’t go on in life without getting this off my chest and figuring out what this world is. I had to go in, in order to get out. I feel very cleansed now in my relationship with all of this stuff. I feel a little more detached, in a way that isn’t so overwhelming and consuming.”