Last night, actor-cum-director James Franco nervously introduced “My Own Private River” to a full house at the Film Society at Lincoln Center‘s Walter Reade Theater. The 9pm screening of Franco’s film, a companion piece composed of never-before-seen outtakes from Gus Van Sant‘s milestone drama “My Own Private Idaho” starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as young, gay street hustlers, was part of the Film Society’s annual “Film Comment Selects” program. “Film Comment Selects” highlights films curated by the writers of Film Comment Magazine, a periodical produced by Lincoln Center and edited by Gavin Smith.
“I didn’t want to compete with Gus’ film,” Franco explained during a post-screening Q&A moderated by Smith. Still, the complicated story behind the production of Franco’s film rivals Van Sant’s own seminal film.”My Own Private River” was originally a 12-hour art project called “Endless Idaho.” Franco got Gucci to help pay for the cost of digitizing the old film stock Van Sant gifted to him and turned into ‘Endless,”‘ which was screened as an art installation at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. According to Franco, Van Sant offered to give him a tour of the Idaho locations where he shot “My Own Private Idaho” provided Franco accompanied him during press junkets for “Milk.” Since Franco is such a big fan of the film, he readily assented, calling the opportunity “a dream come true.” Soon after that, Van Sant and Franco reviewed unused footage from ‘Idaho,’ which gave Franco the idea to reassemble the footage with a new focus on the late River Phoenix’s character, Mike.
“I edited the film as I imagined Gus might have if he made ‘My Own Private Idaho’ today,” Franco said. He called ” Idaho” one of his favorite movies and praised River Phoenix’s performance as the late actor’s best. Franco then skittishly explained how he used conversations with Van Sant, with whom he had previously collaborated on “Milk,” to determine how to edit the footage Van Sant didn’t put into the theatrical cut of ‘Idaho.’ “Since Gus likes longer takes now, I tried to match that style,” Franco said, citing newly-retired Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr as a key influence on both Franco’s editing of ‘River’ and Van Sant’s own recent films. But that’s not all Franco did to get into Van Sant’s head. To get a better idea of what his mentor was thinking, Franco shot 8mm adaptations of two of the three scripts that Van Sant combined to form the one that he eventually used as the basis for “My Own Private Idaho.” To do this, Franco enlisted the help of actor Henry Hopper, Dennis Hopper‘s son and the star of Van Sant’s most recent film, “Restless.” Hopper played Phoenix’s role in an adaptation of a script that was also tentatively titled “My Own Private Idaho.” Franco also got character actor Udo Kier, who starred in the original “My Own Private Idaho,” to help film his two 8mm test-run adaptations. “It was fascinating to see him play this role that he played 20 years ago,” Franco confessed. Unfortunately, Kier could only participate in one of the two practice-run 8mm films Franco shot before making “My Own Private River.” “He kept giving us excuses,” Franco laughed, saying that Kier was concerned about learning lines his lines for the upcoming “Scooby Doo 3.”
Franco additionally enlisted the help of former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe to help score, “My Own Private River.” “I had approached Michael to help with the film because I knew he was close with Phoenix,” Franco recalled. “This was before I worked with Michael on the two music videos for their most recent album [Collapse Into Now.]” Franco says that the music Stipe provided for the film are actually reworked versions of songs featured on Collapse Into Now.’
Before releasing “Endless Idaho,” Franco was sure to seek the approval of River’s brother Joaquin, who initially gave his blessing to the 12-hour cut. Later however, Joaquin had second thoughts once the film was apart of the Gagosian’s installation. “I assured him that there wasn’t anything damaging about the new footage of River, but Joaquin was still uncomfortable.” Franco said. Phoenix preferred the 102-minute edit that Walter Reade attendants saw last night. That cut, as Smith pointed out, is also exactly the same length as Van Sant’s original 102-minute theatrical cut of “My Own Private Idaho.”
When asked about the fate of “My Own Private River,” Franco sheepishly suggested that it would probably not be released to own on DVD or Blu-Ray. “[‘My Own Private Idaho’ distributors] New Line [Films] doesn’t want us to compete with the original [film] either,” he joked. “But I do hope to continue screening it as I hope more people get to see the film.” [Photo Credit: Eugene Hernandez/TIFF]