James Franco has self-branded himself as an experimental
writer-director with an artistic knack for adapting the great works of the
American literary tradition, thanks to his directorial efforts "The Broken Tower," "As I Lay Dying" and "Child of God," all films based on classic novels or works of poetry.
Criticized by some for epitomizing a filmmaking style marred by artistic obscurity, and praised by others for inspiring unconventional interpretations and visual techniques, Franco’s latest film, "As I Lay Dying" (based on the novel by William Faulkner), in some ways eludes a typical firefight of opinions for and against it. What is undoubtedly outside the realm of debate on "As I Lay Dying" is that the film truly embraces the meaning of a convention-pushing passion project. The drama remains a curiosity-capturing work that warrants debate not merely in terms of like and dislike, but more importantly of old and new, familiar and unfamiliar.
With "As I Lay Dying" currently playing in New York, Franco spoke to us of his long Faulkner-admiration, the expected literature-to-film adaptation obstacles that began with his debut "The Broken Tower" and continued onwards, and more.
Why adapt Faulkner’s "As I
It was a long gradual process, I've loved Faulkner since I was about fifteen or sixteen. "As I Lay Dying" was the first Faulkner book I ever read, my father gave it to me. I had been in a lot of trouble at the time in Palo Alto so there was a period when I just stayed home on the weekends to avoid trouble and I remember vividly reading "As I Lay Dying" over the course of one weekend going back and forth and just really trying to understand the book reading late into the night on Friday and Saturday while all my friends were out, but loving it; actually cherishing that experience of just reading. So that was when my relationship with the book started.
Then I remember before I went to film school at NYU I was planning to make a short film based on a Faulkner story called "Red Leaves" which deals with the early history of his fictional county Yoknapatawpha county and it was almost like a mini "Apocalypto." There was a big chase scene and all the natives in this story were living in a beached river boat and we wanted to do everything authentically. We budgeted it and it was going to cost like way too much money and I remember my producing partner Vince saying, "well why don't you just spend this money on film school and you know people just won't understand if you spend this money on a short you're just not going to make it back, why don't you just go to film school?" So I went to film school and one of the great things I got at film school was the realization that if I'm spending all this time and effort to learn how to direct, I should just be making the movies I want to make. I am no longer in the position where I need to wait around for people to cast me in movies that I like. I can actually start the ball rolling and make the movies that I want to make or the movies that nobody else is making. So that kind of pushed me to look at all the literature that I've loved over the years. Also I have a bachelor's in English and I'm studying English literature now and so I had all these books that over the years I kind of daydreamed about making or hoped that somebody would come to me with a script based on Hart Crane's life. So eventually I came to "As I Lay Dying," and I like it for many reasons.
It was one of my favorite Faulkner novels and I think what I also knew or at least thought about when adapting it was that it was structurally and stylistically complex which I like because if I was going to adapt it, it would push me in new directions as a filmmaker (and) I would have to find solutions that were as unconventional as the novel. But I also knew that it had a film-simple through line. The mother dies and the family needs to take her body from the country to the city to bury her. And so, what I saw there was this great kind of spine that I could rest all the other stylistically complex things on top of. Robert Altman talked about that, if (the story) has a through line like a clothes line that he can always turn to that will always be there to structure the movie and then on that he could hang whatever he wants and can go off on tangents because he'll always have the through line to return to. I guess I thought, "oh wait this can really give me a chance to try certain stylistic things that will be justified because the novel is so unconventional, and I also can keep the audience tethered because I can always depend on this overarching narrative that's easy to fall on."
We incorporated a lot of the poems in ("The Broken Tower") and that movie was actually a culmination of a series of short films I had been doing all based on single poems. In the short films, one based on a poem by Anthony Hecht, (one based on a poem by) Frank Bidart (called) "Herbert White," and one by Spencer Reese called "The Clerk's Tale," I had been trying different things. They're poems, they're narrative poems, but they're still poems, so adapting a poem is not the same as adapting a short story where, generally speaking, there's more of a narrative where I think you could say narrative is more or less primary. In a poem, tone, rhythm, structure these things are almost as important as narrative, and so when you're adapting that you're kind of adapting different things. With "The Broken Tower" I just wanted to find a way to just put the poetry in there. You look at ("The Broken Tower") and each poem is kind of presented in a slightly different way. You have the character at a poetry reading reading a poem, you have a poem in voice-over with images that are not the literal images of the poem. So (for example) there's a poem called "North Labrador," that is told in voice-over and (the actual poem consists of) imagery of an arctic region and (in "The Broken Tower") the image you actually see is Hart Crane wandering through a pasture with cows but you could say emotionally the images and the voice-over poem kind of resonate with each other. Then there's a poem about the Brooklyn Bridge and it's read in voice-over but what you see is the actual bridge, so there you could say the images and the voice-over poem kind of match up.