Imagining what it’s like to actually be James Franco is an exhausting endeavor. I’m tired even by the thought of attempting to list all the different projects that he juggles on a regular basis. But for the actor/producer/director/writer/artist/student/professor, it seems to be worth it — especially when it’s fun.
His latest project to debut, the second season of the comedy series “Making a Scene With James Franco,” features Franco and his team working to create mash-ups of beloved TV shows, with Franco in the lead roles. This means a lot of unexpected combinations, like “Breaking Bad” and “Sex and the City,” as well as a lot of wigs. Indiewire spoke with Franco about what intrigues him about pastiche and parody, which “Saturday Night Live” players help with script punch-ups and why he’d rather make a web series than go to the beach.
Let me start off by asking about how this project came together.
This is the second season, so when we were putting together the first season there were a few elements that were really interesting to me. I was really excited that I would get to recreate some of my favorite movie scenes or television scenes, but I also wanted to have some part of it be out of my control, some step of the creative process to be imposed on me, and so we kind of came up with this idea that we wouldn’t pick which movies or shows would be used, that we would go online and ask everybody what they wanted to see, so we don’t choose the shows. And then, in addition to that, once we have those names we use a wheel to decide what’s going to be mashed up, so we don’t decide what gets mashed up.
I love that because in a way it takes some of the pressure off us. Like, if the mashups are really weird or if the shows that are picked are really weird, we didn’t choose them, so nobody can blame themselves. It also turns the whole project into sort of a problem to solve: Once the wheel decides what we have to mash up, we really have to figure it out. Of course, any kind of moviemaking or making of a show involves problem solving of that sort, but here it’s much more overt, like “All right, here’s the two things you have to put together. How are you going to do it?” I like that. It’s a challenge, a comedic challenge. Initially we didn’t even know if it was going to be funny. We just thought it was just going to be weird, but at least we get to recreate some cool scenes but it was just going to be plain weird. But after a few episodes we realized it was actually kind of funny.
It’s a really interesting series in that respect. One of the aspects I really like about it is the fact that there’s no artificiality to it. You film the team behind the scenes, brainstorming the project. How did you assemble that team?
Well, part of the reason we show that is to hammer home the idea that we’re not choosing the elements, that these are chosen for us, and I think that gives the whole project a different flavor, putting that in the foreground. That team, on this project, there’s actually a lot of steps and so there’s a lot of teams. The team you see on camera is made up of friends, people I went to film school with, some of my former students that I taught at UCLA and CalArts and then also some of my fellow teachers at UCLA. So that’s the first group, and that’s when we spin the wheel and spitball initial ideas about how these things are going to come together.
And once we do that and write down rough notes, then we have a writing team that is led by one of my former students Jason Romaine, and they do a first draft, and then I gave those drafts to two people at “SNL” — a writer named Mikey Day and then Vanessa Bayer — and then they did little passes on those scripts, and then once we had those we could use those as guides for the production and for setting everything up. But then once we’re on set a lot of things change there too, so there’s a few teams.
How much time did the second season take to shoot?
It doesn’t take that long, actually. I’m in Toronto, I’ve been here a while working on this Stephen King miniseries “11/22/63,” and I think we shot the AOL stuff over three or four weekends in New York. So on weekends I would drive to New York with my posse, where one of my producing partners, Jay Davis, had everything set up. He was doing a lot of the pre-production work and setting up so it was all ready when I got there, and then we would shoot Saturday and Sunday and do two or sometimes three in a weekend.
What do you think people might say about the fact that this is how you want to spend your weekend?
[laughs] I mean, what are they doing that’s better? They’re going to the beach and laying on the beach? Okay, I can do that too, sometimes I do that, but creating things with your friends is the best. There’s nothing better. So I get a chance to work on a project like this with all my friends or anybody I want, it’s a blast, and everyone loves it and everyone involved has a great time. So I’d say its the perfect way to spend a weekend, I’ll take it over lounging on the beach and getting sunburned any day.
It does seem like a lot of fun. Do you have a particularly favorite aspect of it?
I like the way the parameters of the project… It wasn’t at all planned, but I realized after a while that the way it’s set up allows us to be really goofy and make something that doesn’t have the same kind of pressure on it as some of these other projects. Big budget projects have a lot of pressure because there’s a lot of money involved, but here there’s just enough money that we can give a sense of the shows in a decent way, but there’s not so much money that we can’t try whatever we want to try.
In addition to that, I like the way the mashup idea takes the pressure off having to make fun of the shows. We’re not really making fun of the shows because we don’t have to, it’s more about how do we bring these two worlds together. And that’s where the comedy comes from, just making sense of these foreign elements coming together, rather than let’s do a spoof of “Breaking Bad.” It’s not really like that, it’s more like how the heck can you bring “Breaking Bad” into conjunction with “Sex and the City.”
And the answer turns out to be a lot of wigs.
There’s a lot of wigs. [laughs] There’s a lot of wigs, sometimes I play multiple characters so I wear multiple wigs. I think the hair and makeup is sort of key with this kind of thing because we can’t stage high action or big sets or anything like that, so the look of the characters is what does a lot of the selling of the shows.
As an actor, is it liberating to put on the wigs or is it limiting?
[laughs] It is liberating. If you’re doing a project where you don’t have the onus of having to convince somebody you’re the character — like, nobody’s actually going to think I’m Carrie from “Sex and the City” — but if you are in a context where you just have to sell it enough, and you get to put on this wig and there’s enough support by the context to support you in that character then you’re liberated. You get to do something you otherwise never get to do.
In general there is a lot of drag in the show, which is something that has a really interesting tradition behind it. Is that something you think about when you’re doing it, or is it just “I’m going to play this character for a moment”?
There’s a lot of drag… there’s so much in fact that it’s not really an explicit joke even. For me it’s more like, “I’m never going to play these characters in any other context so I’m just going to go for it.” [laughs] I’m never going to be these characters and I’ll never get this chance again.
You’re living the dream.
The whole project in general, you’re talking about creating something with your friends, but you’re also riffing off somebody else’s creation. Is there something about pastiche in that fashion that appeals to you specifically?
It’s a very specific kind of thing that we’re doing. It’s not as if I’m making a multi-million dollar television show, and I’m calling it “Breaking Rad” and I’m just ripping off “Breaking Bad.” It’s a very specific thing. Television shows and movies are these huge cultural touchstones, they’re things that have touched us all in one way or another, whether we’re emotionally engaged in the series or not everyone’s probably going to be aware of the characters in “Sex and the City” and “Breaking Bad.”
And so I like being able to reference our collective understanding of something and then build on that. Messing with it, having fun with it, that’s always really interesting to me, because some of these shows I absolutely loved but I’m also very aware that we just live in a weird time. I don’t think it’s ever gonna stop, where our virtual lives and the lives of the characters we watch on TV and in the movies, in some ways they have almost as much significance in some cases as real people. That’s a very strange and powerful and weird phenomenon, and so if I can sort of have a conversation with that phenomenon I find that very interesting.