Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco

Cannes: The actor-director-artist tells Salon what he learned from Robert Altman, Sam Raimi and Harmony Korine

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 22, 2013 12:01AM (EDT)

James Franco at the Cannes Film Festival    (AP/Todd Williamson)
James Franco at the Cannes Film Festival (AP/Todd Williamson)

CANNES, France – James Franco hardly counts as a newcomer to filmmaking, having directed at least six or seven features since 2005. (The ambiguity about the exact number comes with something like “Francophrenia,” a film consisting entirely of his appearances on “General Hospital,” which were edited into a spurious narrative, or “My Own Private River,” an art project that repurposes much of Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.”) But there’s no question that the 21st century Renaissance man’s new adaptation of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” -- which premiered here on Monday -- marks his debut as a director of serious, art-house-oriented narrative features.

You can’t say he’s stayed in the shallow end of the pool, or steered away from tough material. While Faulkner’s books often contain scenes of violence, and “As I Lay Dying” features a dramatic and disastrous river crossing, they are dominated by the writer’s dense and lyrical prose and overlapping, subjective points of view. Parts of “As I Lay Dying” are narrated by the recently deceased Addie Bundren (Beth Grant in Franco’s film), one of many reasons why the book became a landmark of literary modernism. There are few, if any, fully successful cinematic adaptations of Faulkner novels (Douglas Sirk’s “The Tarnished Angels” might be the exception, based on the relatively obscure book “Pylon”), and Franco deserves full credit for the bravery and intellectual seriousness he displays in taking on one of the most difficult.

Franco himself plays the doomed Darl Bundren, often the novel’s narrative center, and the film's strong cast features Tim Blake Nelson as the family’s toothless patriarch; Jim Parrack as the stoical, muscular Cash Bundren; and fast-rising Ahna O’Reilly as Dewey Dell, the pregnant teenage sister. Franco relies on a resourceful but sometimes bewildering split-screen technique to deliver the story’s shifting perspective as the dirt-poor Bundrens embark on a quest to get Addie buried. How well the film works is a question to debate at another time (it's scheduled for North American release this fall), but for now let’s say that Franco has created an oblique and somewhat unforgiving film that appeared to bewilder at least some of the packed-in premiere audience, whose median age was around half the Cannes norm. (The media here, inevitably, has nicknamed Franco’s coterie of young fans the “Franco-philes.”)

Clad in his evening tuxedo (with straight black tie) and gloriously fashionable aviator-style mirrored shades, Franco took a few minutes on the beachfront jetty of a private club here to talk about his turn toward filmmaking.

James, you've built a very successful career as an actor, including making a number of high-profile commercial films. What does directing a film like this one, which almost certainly won't be commercial, do for you?

Well, I've been acting in movies professionally for 16 or 17 years now. I've been a movie lover for longer than that. I remember when I was only acting, people would ask me, "What is your dream role? What movie would you love to do if you could?" For a long time, my answer was that I'd love to play the young Tennessee Williams or the poet Hart Crane. And then it would just sit there. I would sit around for some filmmaker to make those movies and ask me to be in them, and nobody ever did.

Then I started directing my own movies, before I went to film school. Those initial things partly came out of this frustration that I had as an actor, because I went into the movie business not quite understanding the dynamics or the way that movie-making worked. Now I understand movies as a director's medium. That's how I think they work best. So when I'm hired as an actor, I want to help my director achieve his or her vision. I feel that's how I give my best performances, and that also means I only work with people I believe in on projects I believe in, and then I can turn myself over to it. But at the same time, I started directing my own things because that balanced out that surrendering of control. Then I would have projects that I could control.

When I say control, I don't mean that I want to be a dictator and control all aspects of filmmaking. I mean that I get to control what the subject is and what the approach is that we're gonna take and who I'm gonna work with. Then I went to film school, and after film school I had this moment where it was like, OK, now you can make all the movies that you want to make! So what movies do you want to make? Now you're a director! I have a literature background, and I learned that when I turned to that, it did a lot of things for me. It gave me great stories, but it also gave me something else. It showed me that when I work with a source that I love, that's written by someone I respect immensely, it makes me work even harder, because I feel a great responsibility to the source.

I learned that while I was still just doing short films at NYU. I used this poem called "Herbert White" by Frank Bidart, and Frank became a friend of mine. The fact that he allowed me to use his poem and that Michael Shannon acted in it -- I had these two giants in my world who were doing my project, and I didn't want to let them down, if anything! It showed me, among other things, that [when you're] working with great people, you make better projects. But also that starting with a great source makes me better. So what this does for my soul is that this is one of the projects that I would make. If anybody said to me, "You can make anything, what will it be?" Well, it would be this. It would be "As I Lay Dying." It would be the other movie that I made that's not out, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God." This is it! I really can't ask for anything more than to be able to make these movies.

Can you talk about some things you've learned from the directors you've worked with? It's a really interesting list, and I wonder if there are specific things you got from those people that you've applied in your own directing.

Yes. One thing people ask me now is, "You do so many different things -- will you give up acting for directing." Fortunately I don't see a need to pick one over the other. I enjoy directing more, because when you direct it affords more collaborations, more discussions about the film you're making. One thing acting still gives me is an opportunity to work with the absolute best in my business. Because I'm established as an actor, I've been fortunate enough to have great directors want to work with me.

I have a good rundown of my favorite directors. I'll start with Danny Boyle. What I see in Danny Boyle is somebody who picks subjects that will push him, technically and formally, to try new things. If you look at his body of work, each subject and each film is different. It's made in a different way, and part of that comes from the subject. For example, in our movie, "127 Hours," the question was, how do you film a man isolated in a canyon and make that feel dynamic. He had to come up with that, he had to discover it, and a lot of it was discovered as we made it. But in addition to trying to be innovative and challenge himself, he is also somebody that wants to entertain. He has those two forces in all his movies, and you can see that informing all the decisions in the movies -- the subjects he chooses and the way he makes them.

With Gus Van Sant [who directed Franco in "Milk"], everyone will say, "Oh, Gus says very little on set." But one of the reasons he doesn't have to say much on set is that he is a master at assigning people to the perfect roles and bringing the perfect people together on a project, whether it's casting the right actors or using Harris Savides -- may he rest in peace -- for the last decade or so. So that when all these elements come together, he can just stand back and let them naturally coalesce. Every once in a while, he'll come in and make little adjustments, but it doesn't need to be forceful. And the other key thing about him -- it sounds like a small thing, but I think it's a very big thing -- is that he's consciously relaxed on set, so that everybody feels they're free to try things or contribute.

That's something that Sam Raimi is also good at, in a different way. [Franco appeared in all three of Raimi's "Spider-Man" films.] He deals with the biggest productions possible. But he never loses his cool and is the most fun to be around on the set. That's important, because if you're gonna work six months on a project, sometimes seven days a week, you want everybody to want to be there because they'll continue to give you their best. You want to be around someone like Sam, and you want to work for Sam, because he's so fun and he brings out the best in everyone. I haven't directed a film of the size he works on, but he really showed me that there are essentials to filmmaking, right? You have cameras of some sort, you have performers of some sort. You have those departments that run these things. You block scenes or you do some free-form blocking or whatever. You have certain things that are true to a very small movie and true to a big movie. When you have all these other departments on a large effects movie, they're just extensions of those essential aspects of filmmaking. They're just other departments that you collaborate with as a director. He really showed me that it's not a daunting thing, It's just communicating with other artists and craftspeople to achieve a different kind of effect.

Harmony Korine is a master of research. He's somebody who is not content with the surface level of anything. He is going to find whatever is odd or unusual or weird about a place or a situation. He'll find the weirdest places and the most unusual characters that have never been seen on film before. It was like that on "Spring Breakers": We had about a year to talk about that film. I signed on and I said, "I'll do anything with you," and we had a year before we shot. He sent me hundreds of photographs and videos and interviews and songs, everything that went into the pot to create that character -- things that I would have never been able to find on my own. Then, when we got to our location, he found the most interesting places in St. Petersburg, Fla., to shoot in and then used them -- he used the real places and the real people. So he's great at that, and he's also really good at touching on the Zeitgeist.

Sorry, long answer! And then, you know, Robert Altman, Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, they all showed me that structure is important but also that the script is not the be-all, end-all. [Franco acted in Altman's "The Company," Apatow's "Knocked Up" and Rogen's forthcoming "This Is the End."] There is room for discovery in front of the camera, for improvisation of behavior or improvisation of lines. Those are all things that I've taken, and I can remember experiencing those things with those directors for the first time and thinking, 0h, that's opened my world a little bit.

When I directed my first film -- it was this strange little film called "The Ape," based on a play I wrote with a woman named Merriwether Williams, who writes for "SpongeBob SquarePants" -- I had just worked with Robert Altman on "The Company." As far as I know, he didn't use the script. I remember there was this scene where Neve Campbell had this two-page monologue about her dance life that had started really young and how she didn't have a regular life. We got there that day, and Altman used three or four cameras on every setup, and he said, "All right, James -- don't worry about that script. You'll walk in and she'll be in the bath, and you kinda walk over and say hello, or say something cute, and walk over to the couch. Oh, there'll be the VHS tape of her dance stuff, her as a little kid. You push that in and start watching, and she'll come out of the bath and you guys can say a couple things about it, and then maybe you kiss or something." And that was it! That was that two-page monologue gone, and it just became about the behavior. We did the whole scene in one take, and it showed me, like, oh! Sometimes you don't need the script. On Seth and Judd's movies, they maybe do the script once, and then you let the cameras roll and just find it.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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