“One thing that I love about playing characters based on real people,” James Franco told indieWIRE at the Sundance Film Festival yesterday, “is that it gives me this extra jolt of responsibility where I feel like I especially need to get it right because I owe it to the original person or the people that love that person and respect that person. I feel much more obligation to just do my homework and really do everything I can to nail that role. And the other side of it is, usually when I’m portraying a real person it’s somebody that I love or at least respect in a lot of ways. So I want to celebrate them and do the best job I can. I like the idea of showing that to audiences through a portrayal of what I love about this person.”
Here at Sundance, Franco showed audiences what he loved about Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg in “HOWL,” Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein’s unique retelling of the obscenity trial that faced Ginsberg’s poem of the same name. While the film – which opened the festival Thursday night – has been met with a generally mixed response, critics are unanimously praising Franco’s performance.
Franco came to be involved in the project through his work on another film where he portrayed a real life person, Scott Smith in Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.”
“I was doing ‘Milk,’ and everybody on the film watched [Rob Epstein’s doc] ‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ for research,” he explained. “So I was aware of Epstein, and I was aware of him before that actually – I was a fan of ‘The Celluloid Closet.’ Then Rob actually helped me find a very rare interview he did with Scott Smith that was very helpful for my performance. And then about half way through filming ‘Milk,’ Gus Van Sant – who is the executive producer of ‘HOWL’ – gave me the script and said, ‘Rob and Jeffrey would really like you to do this movie.’ I still haven’t asked them how I came into their heads. I’d like to find that out.”
Franco said he’d been a fan of Ginsberg and the Beat Generation since he was a teenager, so the idea of the project was “immediately interesting.”
“I just thought, because I had been such a big fan of the Beats, I’d wanted to do a movie about that for a long time,” he said. “But I never thought I would be playing Allen Ginsberg. I thought I would be playing one of the other ones but [Epstein and Friedman’s] approach seemed so great and I guess I thought if they have faith that I can do it, I guess I’ll give it a shot.”
To prepare for the role, Franco found whatever film footage he could of Ginsberg, though it was somewhat challenging for the period “HOWL” depicts.
“The periods we depict range from early ’50s – maybe even late ’40s – to the late ’50s, and really the only piece of film on Ginsberg from that time that I found was the great Robert Frank movie called ‘Pull My Daisy,'” he said. “And there’s no dialogue. It’s just Kerouac reading narration over it. But Ginsberg’s in it and he’s about the age that I’m depicting. So you kind of see how he walks and moves. And then, as he got older he became much more public and did more interviews, so it was easier to find stuff from the ’60s and ’70s… And I figured, there was probably not that much of a change. I mean, he certainly looks different. He got bigger and he has a beard and he’s bald. But I figured the gestures were probably fairly similar.”
Franco said that studying Ginsberg gave him a considerable sense of how autobiographical and biographical “HOWL” the poem really was.
“It really does involve so many things from his life and his friend’s lives,” he said. “So if you study his life, you realize he’s talking about a specific incident [in the poem], not just some abstract image. It becomes poetry, but you can really see the seeds for the images in the poem.”
Beyond “HOWL,” Franco is in the midst of an impressively packed point in his career. He has a whopping five other films – “Date Night,” “Eat, Pray, Love,” “In Praise of Shadows,” “Your Highness,” “127 Hours” – slated for release in 2010. He is currently enrolled in both NYU’s MFA filmmaking program and Columbia’s MFA program for fiction writing. He just finished a much-discussed 20 episode stint on “General Hospital,” from which he wrote this piece about how it qualified as performance art. And he has two short films that will be screening at the Berlin International Film Festival next month.
“I’m doing a lot of things other than acting,” Franco said. “I still enjoy acting. But I get a lot of satisfaction from directing and writing. I hope to do more of that. I plan to do more of that.”
Associate Editor Peter Knegt is part of the indieWIRE team covering the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. More on his blog.
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