Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Sundance opener “HOWL,” hits theaters this Friday. Epstein and Friedman provided indieWIRE with an exclusive clip from their film that stars James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.
“HOWL” often gets mischaracterized as a biopic. It’s really a poem-pic—or a dramatic documentary. It’s also the story of a very particular moment.
We shot the film in 14 days.
It’s the story of the creation of Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary work and its attempted suppression through an infamous obscenity trial. “HOWL,” the movie, interweaves three stories: the 1957 obscenity trial; an animated ride through the world of the poem; and a “documentary” portrait of a golden moment in the life of an artist who galvanized a generation. Playing the young Ginsberg, James Franco recounts road trips, love affairs, and his search for personal liberation that led to Howl, the most timeless work of Ginsberg’s career.
The action of the film takes place from the early 1950s to 1957—the period leading up to and immediately following the creation of Howl.
We meet Allen and his muses (Kerouac, Cassady, Orlovsky) as they are coming of age in the super-consumerist world that was being constructed around them after World War II. It was a golden moment, when this band of talented, sexy writers found one another and unwittingly started a cultural movement, in part through their shared passion for art, spontaneity, and love. Faced with the looming, dehumanizing military-industrial complex and the new threat of atomic annihilation, they responded with “angelic bombs” of poetry.
These were smart young men, “the best minds of my generation,” according to Allen, but most of them were tragically lacking in some crucial craftiness needed for survival: They fell out of buildings, off bridges, out of windows. They stuck their heads out of train windows and were beheaded—yes, beheaded! But Allen was able to survive, writing and making myths out of this band of doomed outsiders.
This sequence examines one instance of Ginsberg’s creative and emotional process in writing Howl—one of those rare moments that inspire artistic expression so deeply felt that it can resonate through generations.
“Howl” was conceived as a multifaceted narrative about the creation and impact of a revolutionary work of art.
The poem Howl is a collage of styles, mixing poetry from colloquial speech and jazz rhythms, with potent juxtapositions of the sacred and profane—a “lamb stew of the imagination.”
The film seeks to echo the multilayered, multitextured narrative strategy of the poem with a collage of filmmaking styles that we hope will similarly resonate. There are five narrative threads interwoven in “HOWL,” each with its own cinematic grammar and narrative logic:
– Our starting point was the creative and emotional process that led to the writing of the poem. This part of the story is told in Ginsberg’s own words, the text edited from mulitple interviews he gave over the course of his life. Ginsberg’s creative process and his life story are dramatized in a reimagined interview that he gave to a reporter from TIME magazine—but that was never published, the text never found. Here the interview is condensed into one all-night marathon—late evening to very early morning (inspired by Shirley Clarke’s 1967 film “Portrait of Jason”).
– Moments from Allen’s life that informed the poem are imagined as flashbacks (16mm black-and-white scenes mixed with archival material).
– The poem itself lives as phantasmagoric animation imagined by graphic novelist and Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker.
– The poem also lives as it was first presented to the world—as spoken-word performance art, in a re-creation of the first reading of the poem by Allen at a small San Francisco gallery in 1955.
– Finally, the reaction of the mainstream culture to the revolutionary work is presented in the 1957 obscenity trial—a courtroom drama about the meaning of art, the role of the artist, and what limits, if any, there ought to be on free speech. All the text from the trial is edited verbatim from court transcripts.
We chose this clip because it introduces several of the story elements and filmmaking styles we used to tell the story.
SHOOTING THE SCENE
The beginning sequence is archival footage, to set the context in which Allen’s story unfolds—the world of “angel-headed hipsters.” The images were found by researcher Emily Osborne and edited by Jake Pushinsky to music suggested by music supervisor—and long-time Ginsberg collaborator—Hal Willner. Allen’s voice segues the cut to the interview in which he begins telling the story of how he ended up in the psych ward.
In conceiving Allen’s “interview,” we watched films from earlier periods that used this technique—specifically Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason” and Bob Fosse’s “Lenny.” The interview was set up very much as we would set up a documentary interview—small crew, intimate setting (albeit with a lot more coverage and angles and a period-perfect set). All of the sets and just about all of the shot setups were inspired by actual photographs Ginsberg had taken at the time. As documentary directors, we were very concerned with the veracity of the world we were creating.
We had long admired the work of production designer Thérèse DePrez, and one of the films she worked on, “American Splendor,” was hugely inspirational and influential in our conceptualization of “HOWL.”
Thérèse brilliant and heroically created the set of Allen’s apartment in a New York townhouse. Working from a few photos of and by Allen and his friends, and with a very small budget, Thérèse filled Allen’s world with rich, authentic details, from wallpaper to ashtrays (even a copy of a literary magazine Jeffrey’s father had published in Greenwich Village in the 1950s).
The interview—inspired by the lost TIME magazine interview and constructed from extracts of print interviews that the real Ginsberg gave over the course of his life—was set in 1957 (the same time as the obscenity trial). This is the oldest we’ll see Allen in the film. It’s the moment he changed from a struggling, drifting poet to an international celebrity/artist/activist, a transformation that owed largely to the publication of Howl and Other Poems and the subsequent obscenity trial. The short beard is meant to suggest the wild hirsute exuberant Ginsberg that would become a more familiar cultural presence in the 60s.
Having worked with us over the previous months on Allen’s emotional life, James could concentrate on Allen’s physicality and vocal rhythms, using video and audio clips we provided, as we went into production. By the time he arrived on set, the transformation was uncanny.
We developed narrative arcs for each of the story threads. In our research, we learned that Allen would often be wary at the start of interviews, until the questioning felt worthy of his serious reflection. At this point in the film, Allen has taken us into his confidence, and he shares absurd and painful stories of his hectic, chaotic early adulthood—from stolen goods to a car crash to a mental institution where he’s confronted by the specter of madness, a feeling he was quite familiar with from his relationship with his mother, Naomi.
The scene flashes back to the “cold-water flat filled with junkies and thieves,” from which Allen went to his respectable straight job every day. This scene was shot in another apartment in the same townhouse. Cinematographer Ed Lachman helped us conceive these flashback scenes in the style of 1950s New York photography and cinema, including photos by Allen and his contemporary Robert Frank, whose experimental Beat film “Pull My Daisy” featured rare footage of the young Ginsberg, Kerouac, and their friends. The set was created from scraps and treasures gathered by Thérèse and by Russell Barnes’s resourceful art department, and delightfully dressed by set decorator Robert Covelman in a few inspired hours. The frenetic music for this flashback sequence was, again, suggested by music supervisor Hal Willner. We squeezed a lot of these little scenes into just a couple of days, thanks largely to the creative strategic scheduling of first A.D. Tom Fatone, a true rock star.
The black-and-white memory sequence of escaping the car is quick-cut with archival newspaper articles that reported on these actual events. The quick-cutting eases the transition of styles, while also grounding the film in the real world.
It took script supervisor Tony Pettine a while to get used to our crossing the eye-line for multiple angles, but we reassured him that we intended to use jump cuts for jazzy effect. Editor Jake Pushinsky heightens the psychic intensity by crossing the eye-line for Allen’s sigh when he talks about being admitted to the psychiatric institute in Upper Manhattan. Allen describes wondering if he might be going mad and how he chose to identify as heterosexual to avoid electro-shock treatments.
We wanted these interviews to feel completely alive in the moment, and at the same time to have the integrity of real lived memories. James was able to play these layers so simply and convincingly, it was lovely. After one take he said, “Shit, this is longer than Shakespeare! There’s more dialogue in this movie than all my past films put together.” But he never missed a word or performed a less than emotionally honest beat.
The interviewer’s line here is invented: “And your mother was institutionalized, wasn’t she?” The story of Allen and his mother, Naomi, was seemingly so painful that he chose to express it exclusively in poetry, never in interviews. It seemed such a glaring absence in the voluminous record that we thought it was worth dramatizing—with an unanswered question …
… which he answers, in the film, with poetry. The poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955 was re-created in a storefront in Lower Manhattan. Just as Bernie Telsey and his associates helped us assemble an awesome cast of actors for the speaking roles, our extras casting agent presented us with a great range of faces to choose from. We were able to put together a cast of “participants” who could be directed to respond viscerally to James’s reading and who felt authentically of the time—especially after costume designers Kurt and Bart and hair designer Colleen Callaghan got through with them.
This scene was our opportunity to feel the power of the spoken word most theatrically—Allen pouring his heart out to a small group of sympathetic friends and strangers. We shot the reading in two days—one with James and the extras and another with James alone. There were certain lines in the poem that we knew had emotional and story weight, and we knew this passage about madness and his mother was critical. James got what we were looking for very quickly, usually in just a couple of takes. At this point in the sequence we introduce Carter Burwell’s gorgeous, haunting score, which gently carries the emotion through the remainder of the scenes.
The sequence ends as it began, with actual archival footage from the period—in this case, a man receiving shock therapy. This is a low point in Allen’s life, winding to the end of Act One—before he discovers the joys of physical and emotional love. But that’s in Act Two. You’ll have to see the movie for that!
Go to page two to learn about their decision to cast Franco…
When it came time to cast the role of Ginsberg we asked ourselves: ‘Who is the most talented, intellectual, and versatile actor of the current generation?’ And really there was only one choice: James Franco. It was actually our friend Gus Van Sant who read our script and suggested we show it to James, who at the time was shooting “Milk.” We also sent James some images of Ginsberg from the period, to show that it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine him as young Allen.
We met with James and learned that he was a student of literature, just completing his degree at UCLA. He had been a Ginsberg fan since he was 14 and began hanging out at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Moreover, he was the same age as Allen was when he wrote Howl (30), his mother is Jewish, and he was familiar with—and said he was a fan of—our documentary work.
By then he had read the screenplay and liked it. He said, “I want to do this. I’m there for you guys until I’m too old to play the part.” Since we didn’t have financing yet, we didn’t know if the statement would be prophetic.
Because James signed on so early we had considerable time to work with him. He was extremely generous with his time. He flew to San Francisco for a couple of days to rehearse with us, and we met again in New York. We went through the script line by line, discussing what was going on with his character at every moment. His probing questions helped us to clarify elements in the script and his character. We also did camera tests, experimenting with black and white versus color, seeing how James looked wearing Allen’s glasses, and eventually, videotaping James as Allen performing the poem.