James Franco defends himself against the haters: "I can’t and won’t let it kill my spirit"

"Look at this challenge I took on": Salon talks to the star about finding his voice and having something to prove

Published March 4, 2017 8:30PM (EST)

James Franco in "In Dubious Battle" (Momentum Pictures)
James Franco in "In Dubious Battle" (Momentum Pictures)

In his 38th year, James Franco’s obsession with turning his favorite literary works into low-budget, low-profile film adaptations has approached mania. His list of directorial IMDb credits for 2017 alone is exhausting, not counting his upcoming acting credits for projects as varied as "Alien: Covenant" to "Blood Surf," where Franco infiltrates a gang of “surf witches.” Last week, the multi-hyphenate released "In Dubious Battle," a critically ravaged adaptation of one of John Steinbeck’s earliest novels, detailing the plight and revolt of migrant apple pickers in the 1930s. This weekend, Franco and co-director Pamela Romanowsky’s "The Institute" bows theatrically and on video on demand as a psychodrama-revenge tale set in 19th- century Baltimore.

In addition, Franco has helped launch Elysium Bandini Studios, which has a live-streaming platform featuring videos, interviews and projects that it exclusively produces and distributes to raise funds and awareness in support of young filmmakers. With all his outside-the-box creative ventures, detractors see Franco with a permanent, squint-eyed wink, as if this were all some kind of bizarre performance art. As a director, Franco is “getting better” as Variety noted, as the projects have grown, relatively, in size and scope. Ultimately the question comes down to, why?

I spoke with Franco (and then asked a second round of questions by email) about why he's so committed to literary adaptations, the plight of the outsider and his new streaming platform.

Do you feel there has been a marked progression for you as a director?

In terms of the number of cast, that’s one way I can mark the growing challenges of the movies I’ve directed. Everything is growing in size. My first film, which was my thesis feature at NYU, was about the poet Hart Crane. It was essentially a one-man show, so going from that to "Child of God," which is essentially one man running around the woods, was a small step forward.

Then it was "As I Lay Dying," which was essentially the story of five family members in a wagon, [and] felt like a lot. With "In Dubious Battle," not only is the cast big, but I’m dealing with Hollywood legends. On top of that, the film is about a labor strike so the background players are integral. It’s not like they’re just wandering around in the background. So I had to direct over 100 people in the majority of the scenes. It was really a moment for me to step back and realize, “Wow. The movies are getting bigger.”

By adapting these lofty literary projects, are you trying to win over your detractors or does the joy lie in taking on difficult material?

First and foremost, I love literature. I love American literature, and it’s one of the things that I’ve really studied the most. One of the things I was taught in MFA programs was to find my voice. I thought that combining my two worlds of literature and movies was something that could be part of my voice.

A lot of my passion comes from a longtime love of these writers. Cormac McCarthy is the only living author I’ve adapted at this point, so it was very gratifying to feel like I was collaborating with Faulkner or Steinbeck on some level. I did this movie "The Disaster Artist" about the making of [the so-bad-it's-hilarious cult classic] "The Room," and that was a movie I did in a really different way. I had Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg produce and New Line distributing.

Doing something like that versus "In Dubious Battle," which was really an uphill battle, I think I took on these classic literary adaptations to be able to say that I’m not just an actor trying to direct. Look at this challenge I took on. I’m sure subconsciously, it was a way to defend myself.

"In Dubious Battle" currently has a 29 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. At this point, do you just expect critics to be venomous towards your directorial efforts?

What can I say? I think it’s going to change. My hope is that as a sensitive and creative person, I can’t and won’t let it kill my spirit. When I started as an actor, if I listened to that criticism, it can destroy you as a creative person. My hope is that it’s going to change.

Were you drawn to the topical elements of "In Dubious Battle" being the plight of migrant workers gouged and stripped of human rights?

I definitely was. The way it came about was that I’ve always loved Steinbeck. I grew up in northern California, in Palo Alto near Steinbeck country. I read his books in high school and he’s always felt like a friend in a weird way. He writes that way, too. His characters are so comforting to me, and you feel like you really know them. I remember I wanted to be a marine zoologist because of Doc in Cannery Row. I did "Of Mice and Men" two and a half years ago on Broadway, and that reunited me with him.

That was such a good experience that I wanted to do more. Some of my favorite movies are John Ford’s "The Grapes of Wrath" and Kazan’s "East of Eden." "Of Mice and Men" had already been done twice as a movie, so I went back to all the Steinbeck books. I read "In Dubious Battle" in high school, and it’s part of the Dust Bowl trilogy, along with "Of Mice and Men" and "Grapes of Wrath." It’s his first book, so it’s younger Steinbeck. It’s not as polished as the other two. What I did find were a lot of qualities that I thought could be cinematic and topical.

As I’ve been doing these literary adaptations and period pieces, one of the things I’m constantly thinking about is how I can keep it from not feeling like homework or a museum piece. How do I make it feel alive and related to issues today? What are the techniques I can use to update it? I’m making a movie that wouldn’t have existed had it been made during the Depression. There was this great political conflict at the center of this book. It’s a conflict that is eternal. It’s the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. We started shooting two years ago, so there was no way I could know where we would be politically now, but it’s eternal.

Have you always identified with outsiders?

I always have. I’ve been going through weird changes recently. Lester from "Child of God" is a murderer and necrophiliac. He’s the darkest of the dark. On the surface, there’s not a lot there to sympathize with. Nor should you. What I loved about that story was underneath; it really is a story about love and the need for love. Lester is a character so far cast out of society that necrophilia is the only way he can have a companion. If you can get over the grisliness and disgust for the act, he’s trying to get what we all want. I can relate to the feelings behind that longing. Thank God, I can’t relate to murder or necrophilia, but I can relate to feeling like I want to connect to people and finding that really goddamn hard.

With "In Dubious Battle," I want to get involved. In this time that we’re living in now, in just the past three months, I’ve never known so many people around me to be so politically aware and engaged. I’ve never been this aware of what’s happening in politics. It’s the same with the characters in the movie. These people are apple pickers who didn’t want to fight. They’d much rather be able to do their jobs and live their lives, but they’re pushed so far that they don’t have a choice.

They can’t care for their families and their very lives are threatened. They’re pushed to stand up, unite and try [to] change things. It’s either that or perish. What I related to is that I do want to be involved. I do want to fight for what I believe in and fight for others who don’t have the same rights. That struggle is as important as ever right now.

[Editor's note: The final two questions and replies were sent via email.] 

When did the idea first spark for EBS? How do you approach talent like Shepard Fairey, Rufus Wainwright and Tony Hawk to contribute?

I have known Jennifer [Howell] for years and have been admiring what she has achieved for The Art of Elysium, pushing for creative artists' expression through her charity's programs. My business partner, Vince, and I have also been supporting emerging directors, writers and actors to create projects through Rabbit Bandini Productions, expanding into the academic arena by teaching students. It has been a deeply rewarding journey and when Jennifer told us about creating content that could unleash young talents' passion while giving back to community service programs at the same time, we decided to bring our resources and filmmaking experience to a more powerful level and Elysium Bandini Studios was born. As far as Shepard and other brilliant minds, many of them have been working with the charity for several years, some even before I got involved. It's great to have their support.

In terms of content, does anything go? Is anything off-limits? 

We are still in a start-up phase mode, creating more content for the platform, at the moment we are showcasing The Art of Elyisium's first feature films, like "Forever," some documentary style short stories, interviews and a library of some of my past experimental and independent projects. [The] focus is around art, film & theatre, fashion and music so whether it’s a documentary, a music video or a feature film, it will connect to one or more of those topics, while ultimately allowing the filmmakers to unleash their creative freedom.

By Drew Fortune

Drew Fortune is a Los Angeles freelance writer. He's a regular contributor to A.V. Club, Interview Magazine, and his work has appeared in Spin, Paste, and many other publications. Tweet him @drewster187.

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Books Editor's Picks Film In Dubious Battle James Franco John Steinbeck Movies