"The Broken Tower"
Focus World "The Broken Tower"

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 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."

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.

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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.