James Franco says he’s been obsessed with “My Own Private Idaho” since he was a teenager, which led to “My Own Private River,” a remix of Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” that puts a greater emphasis on River Phoenix’s performance and inserts a number of the actor’s alternate takes and deleted scenes.
“I never wanted this to be seen as in competition with [‘My Own Private Idaho’] or in any way trying to outdo that film,” said Franco at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which screened the film to a packed house of Francophiles and River Phoenix fans at the Walter Reade Theater Sunday night. “I was able to let the camera sit with River a lot longer in this film because ‘My Own Private Idaho’ had been made. This one can be supported by the prior film.”
Here’s a recap of some of Franco’s anecdotes from the Q&A session with Gavin Smith of Film Comment after the screening.
Origins of the film: While promoting “Milk,” Van Sant gave Franco a tour of the locations in “My Own Private Idaho.” Afterward, they spent two days watching the reels from Van Sant’s original shoot. “That to me was like, ‘I have a treasure chest that’s been sitting in storage for almost 20 years,’” said Franco. “To be able to see all of the raw material and takes of what I consider [River’s] best performance was incredible.” Van Sant stated how he might have edited things differently today, and the idea was sparked to recut the film.
On his first edit: “To me, it was like, 20 years later, my favorite American film, my favorite American filmmaker, my favorite actors, every minute should be seen,” said Franco. “There was 25 hours worth of dailies and I made a 12-hour cut.” However, River’s brother Joaquin was uncomfortable with the idea of screening the 12-hour cut, so Franco’s film has only been released in its current 105-minute version.
River’s last scene: Franco revealed that River made for a difficult time shooting the last shot for the film. “River won’t say [his line.] He’s goofing off, doing silly Italian accents, making funny faces and then by take seven, he’s drawing all over the slate,” said Franco. “At first glance it seems like River’s being a brat. Gus told me later he was on the walkie getting really pissed. But finally he said it and that’s a wrap. And they brought out a cake and River went [mimes dropping his face into a cake]. Gus’ interpretation was that River didn’t want filming to end. That was the last take of the best performance of his life. And then he was gone two years later.”
On home video possibilities: Franco said that while he would like more viewers to see “My Own Private River,” a more commercial on-demand or home video release isn’t likely at this time. “There is the original movie and not only do I not want to compete with the original movie, but New Line also does not want us to compete with their money,” said Franco.
On the soundtrack: “My Own Private River” features a couple of reworked songs from R.E.M.’s recent album. “After I had the cut, I went to [Michael Stipe] and asked him to do music for it. He never scored a film before,” said Franco. “I went to him because I knew that he and River had been close friends. I wanted as much connection to who River was at that time and I wanted to involve as many people as I could that had known River or were a part of River’s life.”
On his use of close-ups: “In the films that I’ve directed, I use a ton of close-ups,” said Franco. “But when I use a ton of close-ups, I sit on the close-ups. I guess as a filmmaker I figured out that I kind of have an aversion to dialogue. I don’t like a ton of dialogue. […] So by getting in close to the actor and sitting with them, I feel like you allow the audience to be close with them and to understand the character without the character having to talk about how he’s feeling.”