While waiting in a holding area for James Franco to discuss "The Broken Tower" (currently available on DVD/VOD and opening at New York's IFC Center on Friday), I can make out everything Franco's saying to another journalist in the next room, despite a closed door and office chatter around me. Franco's not in a shouting match; he's just passionately discussing the subject of his first feature to get a theatrical release, the poet Hart Crane.
Passion is a word synonymous with the multi-disciplinary artist. What else can account for his unwavering drive to tackle a myriad of artistic endeavors (among them: acting, directing, writing, hosting, editing, and creating modern art installations), on top of attempting to conquer the world of higher education?
In "The Broken Tower" (his thesis project for NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where he went on to get an M.F.A. in filmmaking), Franco plays Crane, a gay poet known for his difficult, highly stylized work, who took his own life at the age of 32. Shot in black-and-white, Franco's film, like Crane's poetry, is challenging, unconventional and clearly a work of passion.
I was exhausted looking over your IMDb page. You have over 10 films listed in pre or post-production.
I mean for a lot of those films, I worked for a day really as favors. Like for "Cherry," I worked a day because Stephen Elliott directed it and I optioned two of his books. Michael Shannon did "The Iceman," and he was in "The Broken Tower" and had done one of my student short films, so he basically said to me, "It's time to do one of my things!" So there's a few things like that, that are kind of misleading.
And then some of them are from the classes that I teach — "Tar" and "Black Dog, Red Dog" — those are films that we're going to put out, but they're part of the classes that I teach at Columbia. They're collaborative features.
Now with "The Broken Tower," what were you familiar with first: Paul L. Mariani's Crane biography which serves as the basis for the film, or Crane's poetry?
I was familiar with both. I was an English major at UCLA when I was 18, and then I left after a year to start acting. I was educating myself during that time. Not having any real direction, one writer would lead me to another. I stumbled along Hart Crane and I found it very difficult, but Harold Bloom wrote this introduction to his collection of works. He mentioned Paul's biography, saying it will make the poetry more understandable. So I went and got that. When I read that (this was almost 10 years ago), I had this sensation like this would be a great movie. But I was only an actor at that time. I didn't know how to put a movie together, or direct a movie. I was putting it out there saying, "Hey I'd love to play Hart Crane," and I was waiting for a director or writer to come up to me. But nobody did.
When I went to film school about three years ago, the first two years you're required to make a series of short films. I started making films based on short poems. So when I got to my thesis, I knew I wanted to make a feature and I remembered the Hart Crane book, and I thought this would be a great progression. I would make a film that's not based on one poem, but one that's based on a poet's entire life, and I can include poetry in various ways within this one film.
You shot this right after playing another gay poet, Allen Ginsberg, in "HOWL." What was it like going from "HOWL" into this?
Well, Ginsberg was very influenced by Crane, but in some ways you could say they were very different. The main difference is their level of accessibly. Ginsberg loved to communicate with people. He became a teacher. His whole mission was to connect. I think the movie "HOWL" is very loyal to that side of Ginsberg. That movie wants to deliver that poem to the audience, it wants to make it understandable. The poem is accompanied by animation to give you a visual sense. It gives you a backstory about events that might have inspired parts of the poem. So you're getting everything to help you understand the poem, because that was one of Ginsberg's missions.
With "Broken Tower," Crane knew his poetry was difficult. He wrote in a very dense way on purpose, I think because he wanted people to read in a different way. He didn't want a surface-level reading. I wanted the movie to be loyal to that side of Crane, to let the structure and the tone of the movie reflect Crane's work and his personality.
Which makes "The Broken Tower" by no means an easy sit. The abstract structure is challenging and fascinating in equal measure. I'm guessing you didn't make this with the intention of getting it seen by a wide audience; it's a thesis project. Were you wary of releasing this, in fear of polorazing your loyal fan base?
Some comments I've heard or read online…"It's a mix between art film and student film." To me, that's just a really easy way to try and describe what it is. I'm an older student for film school. I didn't need to go to film school to get movies made. I went because it put me in touch with younger filmmakers. It gave me permission to just experiment and try things. You don't need to be guided by the commercial theatrical marketplace that I've been working in as an actor.
The film is exactly how I intended it. And I had teachers at film school who would read the script and say, "James, comes on. Give it more of a conventional arc." And I'd say, "No, I want to be loyal to Hart Crane. The way I'm going to do that is not make a traditional biopic or a Lifetime movie. The way to do that is to make it as rigorous of a viewing as reading his poetry is."
I know that will limit the audience for this kind of film, but I'm aware of that and responsible. I didn't make it for a huge amount of money. I let those restraints influence the style. I feel like it has a very intimate, but also very epic feel at the same time.
One of the things I've learned as a filmmaker is to have some aspect of the movie be something that I admire greatly, whether that's an actor I'm working with, the subject matter, or a book. That makes me raise myself to their level. In this case, it's Crane. I did it for him.
I know I might face critical response, or won't have much commercial success, like if I had made a romantic comedy. But I've been involved in the biggest commercial movies, movies that broke box-office records. I've been in movies that won Academy Awards. To me, neither of those things were goals — the critical praise or the commercial success. It was about making something as true to the subject as I could, but not being reckless about it.
You've since directed "Child of God," an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel; a film with no doubt a bigger budget and more riding on it to perform commercial wise. What did you take over from your experience making "The Broken Tower," to "Child of God"?
"Child of God" is a little bigger, but it's also a very difficult subject matter. It's about a murderer who's also a necrophiliac. But it's not a horror film. I feel like it's really a poetic psychological study. Almost like a metaphor. And so again I was thinking responsibly. I felt so honored that I got to use Cormac's book; he's probably my favorite novelist. So I wanted to rise to the occasion.
I feel like sometimes people do an injustice to people like Cormac by spending too much. People have been trying to make a "Blood Meridian" movie, but the budgets I heard were hundreds of millions. That is going to have an effect on content. Yeah, you're going to get some spectacular visuals, but one of the keys to that book is the darkness, and one of the keys to my book is the darkness. Once you have more money, you have more people invested in how it's going to play in theaters. They're not going to want that darkness. So I made it for a fairly modest budget so I could keep that integrity. I never want to do something for a low budget that will then start to take away from my subject. I'm always very careful to make sure that we still have everything we need.
The main thing: it enables to make movies I really feel would never be made otherwise. I mean, once I started making "Child of God," I heard all these stories. Sean Penn at one point had the rights and wanted to make it; Harmony Korine's wife told me she was talking to Lynne Ramsay about the book years ago, but nobody made it! And I know for a fact, Tim Blake Nelson, who's in my movie, was going to direct Penn's version. And they were trying to do it for a certain budget, because there's a big flood scene. I just thought, if that flood scene is going to prevent us from doing it, then we'll just do it in a certain way.
Just be smart about how you do it, and be aware of its potential, and then be responsible to that.