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The ‘Unfilmable’ James Franco

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Most actors strive to be a triple threat; James Franco puts them to shame. The actor, film director, screenwriter, producer, film editor, teacher, author and poet has an ever growing resume that began with his humble beginnings on the TV show “Freaks and Geeks” and currently ends with his role as writer-actor-director of the new film “Child of God.” The film centers on Lester Ballard, a deranged, violent necrophiliac for whom we somehow feel sympathy.

Franco, 36, a Palo Alto, Califorina native, is known for going back to film school at New York University and pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale University even after his career had taken off. And with a penchant for making films from unfilmable books like this one — based on Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name — the man of many titles is bound to only add more.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds sat with Franco to discuss this project as well as those past and future.

Dorri Olds: Why do you choose literary books that don’t lend themselves to film?

James Franco: That’s a good question. I just saw an interview with Robert Altman kind of talking about the same thing. His process is not Kubrick’s process, and you wouldn’t want it to be. I went to film school NYU, where the MFA [Master of Fine Arts] program teaches you to find your own voice. Before film school I had written screenplays and found I wasn’t pushing myself as far as I could. In school I began to adapt poems for films. “Herbert White” was based on a poem by Frank Bidart, and “The Clerk’s Tale” was by Spencer Reece.

I had such respect for Frank, and then when I got Michael Shannon for “Herbert White” I was like, oh my gosh, I’ve got this great source text and this great actor — I better not let them down. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of Michael.

What was your process regarding this movie?

I found that I’m a better director when I work with a source text that I really respect. I’ve also come to really like collaboration. I talked to Cormac, but it wasn’t like a close collaboration with him personally when we made this movie. But in another sense it was a very close collaboration, because when you adapt the book, you’re reading it in a different way. When you make a movie it’s really an act of translation. What did he mean here? What is he going for with this scene? Why is that in the book? Do I need that in the movie? Is that going to help me tell the story? Am I in line with him here? Do I want to be in line with him here? All of those questions are part of the collaborative process, and that excites me as a creator.

Do you personally identify with the lonely, isolated character?

I think so. If I look at the three features I made after I went to NYU, they’re like a trilogy of loneliness and isolation. [He laughs.] I did a very small movie about the poet Hart Crane [“The Broken Tower”], who was artistically isolated because his work didn’t fit with the prevalent work of the time. I did one about Sal Mineo on the last day of his life [“Sal”], not that he was an isolated guy, but he spent a lot of time alone that last day. Compared to the fame he once had, it was a kind of isolation.

For 10 years of my life I was so overzealous about the way I approached acting in movies that I isolated myself a lot. [He smiles.] I wasn’t the Lester Ballard type, but I did spend a lot of time alone. If I had to guess why I made three movies about isolated, lonely characters, I guess that would be it.

Both the book and the film have the quote, “He’s a child of God, just like yourself, perhaps.” What does that mean to you?

I had the sheriff [Tim Blake Nelson] say it. He wasn’t necessarily the narrator in the book, but he became the conscience of the film. He was the person that knew Lester best. Obviously, it’s a very ironic title. What kind of child of God is Lester? Like Jesus? He’s obviously not that.

For me, the point was that even though his actions are so disgusting, atrocious and wrong, they’re coming from a place that’s very human. I don’t even know if Cormac agreed with me. I brought this idea up to him. Here is a guy that is thrust out of civilized society. He wants what we all want: He wants to connect with another person, but he can’t. So he resorts to extreme means to do that.

In that sense it really guided me in making the movie. It’s a movie with necrophilia, but it’s not a movie that relies on that. It doesn’t thrive on that like a thriller. Or bank on it as horror, or a gross-out movie. It’s more of a character study using his extreme actions as a way to talk about more universal things. For me, if you’re asking about the title, of course if Lester were real, none of us would condone what he does. But within a fictional framework he’s a monster through which hopefully we can see something of ourselves.

How do you decide which book to choose for a movie — your own book, or one by Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy?

The books I adapt, you just listen to the music. These are all books that I love, but I wouldn’t necessarily adapt every book or poem I love. Like “Moby Dick” would be really hard. With some books that I love I get a certain tingle [points to back of his neck]. I get a feeling like: “Oh! I could do something with this.”

Or I have an urge to do something more with a book. I want to engage with it and adapt it. It’s kind of as simple as that. There are other things that factor into that music that leads me to wanting to do that. Does it provide some sort of technological or structural challenge? Like William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” which Scott and I just did. It’s a classic, but structurally it’s all over the place. Am I going to take that on? And if I do, how are we going to do that? That’s what was so interesting about it to me. Not only are there great characters, but also as a director there’s a lot of things that we have to figure out that pull me in new directions as a filmmaker.

I do like a challenge that forces me to make a movie in a way I haven’t made one before. As for giving my own book to somebody else [“Palo Alto”], I love the collaborative process. If I had just adapted it myself I would’ve missed out on that great collaboration with Gia [Coppola]. I’d already written the book, so I wanted to see what someone else would do with it.

Did you tell Scott Haze to lose 45 pounds and spend months isolated in the hills of Tennessee?

I didn’t say to Scott, “Starve yourself.” [He laughs.] And I didn’t lay out a diet plan. We just had a brief conversation before we went into preproduction. Scott had just played somebody in the military. His head was shaved and he was very built. I said, “I want to do “Child of God” and I want you to play Lester, so don’t cut your hair.”

How do you feel about Haze’s performance?

When I showed up at the set, I hadn’t seen Scott in four months. I opened the door to the motel room, and it was a 180-degrees difference from the last time I’d seen him as a military buff character with no hair. [He laughs. He was wearing fake teeth, was scraggly and looked like a creature in the dark. From that point on I just had to point Scott in the right direction. We’d both been studying the book, and he knew the scenes. I just had to put the camera in the right place.

I saw your rough cut online of a scene from McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” Are you going to make that movie?

I don’t know. I want to.

I read you had trouble getting permission to make it. Is that it?

Let’s just say I’m going to figure it out and I will make it. [He grins.]

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