It’s no secret that James Franco doesn’t just act these days. Fewer people may realize that in recent years, during a spate of creative activity that also includes directing movies, assembling art installations, writing fiction and working on a number of university degrees, he has maintained a consistent set of interests. Case in point: “Child of God,” his adaptation of the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel opening this week, marks the most recent of several directing efforts in which Franco wrestles with the process of adapting novels into films. Earlier this year saw the release of “As I Lay Dying,” his William Faulkner adaptation; another Faulkner adaptation, “The Sound and Fury,” hits the festival circuit this fall. He has also directed movies about writers Charles Bukowski and Hart Crane. But “Child of God” provides the latest indication that Franco’s recurring interest in adaptations has a genuine direction.
In the movie, Scott Haze stars as the maniacal Lester Ballard, a psychologically damaged man cast into the woods after his father’s suicide who eventually turns to necrophilia to satisfy his urges. Though Ballard is a frightening, decrepit screen presence, Franco’s unorthodox narrative magnifies the character’s solitude, questioning whether underneath his misdeeds he may deserve some modicum of sympathy. Since “Child of God” played at film festivals last fall, Franco has naturally gone on to complete a lot of projects, including a stint on Broadway for “Of Mice and Men” and the upcoming Seth Rogen comedy “The Interview.”
But with “Child of God” opening in New York and Los Angeles this week, the actor sat down with Indiewire in New York to discuss his intentions with the movie and how it fits with the rest of his work.
You seem busy as usual.
I’m doing great. We just filmed “Of Mice and Men” at the National Theater last night.
Was that the last time you’ll do the play?
The last time. Though we might take it to London, which would be fun, next year. Everybody had such a great time and it’s such a great piece to do, so everyone’s just feeling like, “ah, it’s not enough.”
There are some interesting parallels between “Of Mice and Men” and “Child of God.”
Tell me. What do you see?
There’s a Lenny-like quality to Lester Ballard, the main character in the movie.
I like that. Scott [Haze] made an interesting parallel as well. We were wondering, “What was Lester like when he was young?” There’s this scene in “Forrest Gump” where everyone on the bus is like, “You can’t sit here, this seat’s taken.” The problem is that Lester’s got that experience as well, where everyone’s like, “That dude’s weird.” One of the guiding motivations for me in this movie was that Lester is somebody who wants what we all want: He wants to connect to another person, to love and be loved. Now, I brought that up with Cormac [McCarthy]. I’ve only talked to him on the phone, but I brought that up. Cormac’s never really gives you straight answers about his work. He was like, “Nah, I don’t know, James. I just know there are people like that in our world all around us.” OK, fine, so Lester’s a psycho killer.
But I don’t want to make a movie about a monster. I want it to talk about something else, just like Humbert Humbert [from “Lolita”], who’s a monster and tells us within that fictional framework — even though he loves young girls — his passion. If you just put somebody else in the place of Lolita, it’s human love. Yes, the object of his love is something that we don’t condone, but the actual feelings are something very human that we all feel. That’s how I felt about Lester. Here is somebody who’s very human. It’s just that his situation is set up in a way, like Lenny, where he chafes with civilized society. He can’t get what he needs in civilized society because his exterior — who he is — prevents him from doing that.
This is obviously a project that you can’t do at a studio — it actively challenges the idea of an easy viewing experience. But you’ve done plenty of studio movies as an actor. So how do you feel about the contrast between working within the system and outside of it?
For me, because getting these kinds of movies done are so important to me, I’ve had to learn how to negotiate that world that you’re talking about. Because films do cost so much money to make, it is in some ways cheaper now. But if you want it at a certain technical level, it does cost money. So you have to figure out how to make it at manageable level. If you’re doing something about necrophilia, how are you going to make it in a manageable way and still make it good? Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can do it a little easier than maybe other folks.
But you’re exactly right: With “Oz,” if you’re spending $150 million…I mean, they were trying to push technical boundaries. That’s where new ground is being covered. This is just me, but I don’t want to mess around too much with pushing content boundaries. Maybe I just read too much about “Heaven’s Gate” or something. I want to break boundaries, but not when there’s so much money. There’s always a balance. So I made this movie at a certain level. Something like “Interior. Leather Bar,” I made that for nothing. And if it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s like, “Oh well. We got to make what we wanted.” It’s always about that negotiation, that balance of money and content.
Yet here comes “The Interview,” the comedy in which you’re co-starring with Seth Rogen, which has angered the North Korean government. That makes it sound like you’re cooking up something subversive even though it’s a studio movie.
I think what Seth Rogen and [co-director] Evan Goldberg do is that they’ve figured out a way to work within the studio and commercial world and still be subversive. Part of it is that they’re such great comedy writers and in comedy you can be very subversive in ways that feel like you’re not, but it actually is that. So on one level, “This is the End” is just a wacky, silly horror-comedy, and on the other level it’s not. We’re talking about things like what Soderbergh’s “Contagion” is talking about — like, what happens if civilization falls apart? How do we behave? Yet they do it in a comedy context, so they get away with a lot more.
Meanwhile, you’ve accrued a filmography as a director even faster than them. How are you so prolific as a filmmaker, much less as an actor?
I’m not doing it that fast.
Faster than a lot of people. Your IMDb page does not lie.
Right. A lot of people are unnecessarily slow. It drives me crazy. One of my M.O.’s is “Just get it done.” I hate all that pitching and stuff behind the scenes: “Oh, we have to get this to make it.” However I can bypass all that and just make the movie, I do. I’m proud of that. I can actually get these things done. That’s the worst! Waiting around and talking about movies, waiting for this or that deal? If you truly love filmmaking and getting things done, just go and you can do it.
You’ve played a lot of different characters, but your filmmaking choices are much more specific. Your recent films are really focused on the mechanics of adaptation. A lot of filmmakers with particular sensibilities prefer to do original work. What’s the allure of adaptations to you?
As Harmony [Korine] says, “Every artist works differently.” That’s great; you want that. Some directors work well with original material. Others work better with adaptations. Most of Kubrick’s movies are adaptations.
But your movies are much more explicit attempts to render the text in cinematic form. You include text from the book on the screen at the beginning of “Child of God,” and the cuts to black seem to replicate the abrupt chapter endings that McCarthy often uses. In “As I Lay Dying,” you used split screen to explore Faulkner’s narrative technique. That’s a world apart from Kubrick making “2001” out of Arthur C. Clarke’s book.
Exactly. It was a discovery I made at NYU when I was in the film school. During our first year we had to make a series of three short films. I had just finished by bachelors degree in English and I had read all these poems. When I was in the English department, I was already working on movies for about 10 years, but I wanted to turn [poems] into movies. All of a sudden I was at NYU and they were like, “You have to make these short films.” I was realized these poems were perfect. That started the ball rolling. It was like, “Oh, I like this adaptation thing because it’s another collaboration.” If I get to use Faulkner or Frank Bidart’s poems, it’s like a collaboration with my heroes. Even if it’s not a personal collaboration, in some ways, their work is getting me closer than if I was working with them.
So that became my thing. In the MFA program, one of the things they teach you is to find your thing, find your voice, find your way of doing things. So that adaptation was a way to bring my literature world and my film world together. But not only that. This idea of really wrestling with the text is very important to me because so many people have said these great books have terrible adaptations.
There was a previous adaptation of “Sound and the Fury.” [Franco’s adaptation premieres on the festival circuit this fall.] Nothing against Joanne Woodward or Yule Brynner, but what they clearly did not do was try to adapt the style and structure of that book. They just took the narrative. And if you just take the narrative, it’s just a Southern melodrama about a family falling apart. If you don’t take the style and the structure, that’s not “The Sound and the Fury.” So I think that’s my mission — the adaptation isn’t just the story or the characters. It’s also the style and the structure, if I’m going to be loyal to it. But you can’t just do it literally. It’s a different medium. So I thrive on finding those filmic solutions to adapting texts.
Speaking of solutions, we should discuss distribution. You’ve experience it every which way. You’ve obviously been involved with movies that have opened very wide. This movie is getting a limited theatrical release. But “As I Lay Dying” went straight to VOD.
Well, I have to say, the release of “As I Lay Dying” was a bummer. We took it to Cannes and got great reviews. It was with a company that just doesn’t do those kinds of movies. Millennium [Entertainment] does movies like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D,” you know? They just don’t do these movies.
You also made the documentary “Saturday Night,” about “Saturday Night Live,” which never came out at all.
It’s coming out! That was really just a function of us making a documentary of a TV show before we got the network’s permission. We got Lorne Michael’s permission but not NBC’s permission because it started as a project at NYU. So then we were in that situation where it was like, “Ah, fuck, we made this great thing, and now we gotta get all this information.” So we finally got it and I think it’s going to come out in time for the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live.” I think it’s just going to come out on Hulu, which is good enough. At least people will see it. I think they will like it.
That was a case where, again, it wasn’t a ton of money but we got great content. It was like, fine, we got to make something that really interests me and I didn’t have to think about, “Well, we gotta put this scene in because have to make this amount of money…”
It’s just like, let’s just make the movie we want to make and we don’t have to worry about it. Really. It’s just about getting it out to the people who want to see it.