The cinematic polymath and serial art experimentalist gives Dazed the inside story on his unstoppable oeuvre
James Franco really wants some coffee. He’s just flown in from a shoot in Canada to model for Dazed’s cover, and tonight he’s filming again. In the morning he’s teaching a class at UCLA, then getting on a plane to Mississippi to shoot his film adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1929 classic The Sound and the Fury. Following acclaimed lead roles in Spring Breakers, Oz the Great and Powerful and This Is the End, this month he's rounding off one of his most insane years to date by becoming the first curator of Visionaries, Dazed Digital’s landmark moving-art series. Alongside two original short films of his own, he will showcase new work from rising artists Ryan McNamara, Isaac Julien and Bruce Thierry Cheung. Phew. Being James Franco, actor/director/writer/artist/teacher/student/PhD-candidate/object-of-desire, requires excellent time management. It also requires excellent coffee. But here, on the Venice Beach boardwalk on a Sunday afternoon, there’s not a cup of joe in sight.
Woozy reggae music and the sounds of a drum circle drift over as the world zooms by on rollerblades and skateboards. We walk on to the sandy beach and set up camp. Today, he’s wearing a black t-shirt bearing the name “Fassbinder” in Spinal Tap lettering – a homage to the great German filmmaker that merges the experimental with the ironic, the highbrow with the playful. It really is the perfect shirt for James Franco to be wearing right now. To quote Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, “This is my exact inner structure, done in a t-shirt.”
We start to discuss how the dual roles of James Franco, mainstream actor and arthouse auteur, feed into and muddy each other. He answers questions lying on his side, one hand making shapes in the sand. He rarely makes direct eye contact, his Ray-Bans pointing towards the crashing waves of the Pacific. Distant gaze aside, he’s warm and easy to talk to. He notices a copy of my book, Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim, the first pimp in America to write a literary memoir. He takes a photograph of the cover with his smartphone. Perhaps he’s feeling a pang of nostalgia for the gangsta lifestyle he depicted as Alien in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Books are his thing and cinematic adaptations of literary works are his current passion, his favourite way of “pulling one artform into another.” It’s perhaps what is dearest to him, creatively, right now. “If I said that Child of God, my Cormac McCarthy adaptation, is the thing that is closest to my heart, then it might sound kind of weird, because it’s about a guy who is a necrophiliac,” he says. “So it’s not like, ‘This is the real me.’ But as far as how we made it, and how deep we went with that project, I feel like yeah, that is me, getting to do something exactly the way that I want to do it. In that sense, it is very personal, it is very me.”
The son of two artists who met in a painting class at Stanford University, he became known for his breakout role on cult TV show Freaks and Geeks, then played the title role in James Dean (one of his idols) in 2001. This led to major Hollywood roles in the Spider-Man trilogy, Pineapple Express, the Oscar-winning Milk, 127 Hours and many more. Somehow, along the way, he evolved his eclectic meta persona as an über-actor in a constant state of artistic flux, experimentation and collaboration. Because James Franco the actor has never been fully content being just James Franco the actor.
“ That was my voice, that was what gave me energy and was an area I could work in where I was saying all the things I wanted to say”
His list of collaborators is long. He just loves mixing it up with other artists. Most recently, he invited photographer Gia Coppola – Francis Ford’s granddaughter – to direct a film adaptation of his book of short stories, Palo Alto, despite Coppola having never directed a movie in her life. But Franco saw that her sensibility was in tune with his and hired her anyway. “I went on instinct,” he says. “Probably in the back of my mind I thought, ‘She’s part of the Coppola family – she probably has it in her bones to make a movie.’” And Franco is not frightened to get his hands dirty. To raise money for the Gia Coppola project, Franco took a role as a villain in Homefront opposite Jason Statham. Who said crime doesn’t pay? “I gave Gia the money I made from Homefront, and she made the movie.” Palo Alto stars Emma Roberts and Val Kilmer’s son, Jack, and is, he says, “very, very good.”
Over the past year he has been merging his great loves of American literature and filmmaking with an adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying that he directed, co-wrote and starred in, Child of God and now The Sound and the Fury. At the age of 35, he has finally realised that bringing film and literature together is “my thing. That was my voice, that was what gave me energy and was an area I could work in where I was saying all the things I wanted to say.” Interesting that it is when reinterpreting the work of another artist that Franco, consummate collaborator, should feel most like himself.
He had already made some “good and wacky” movies based on his own screenplays, such as The Ape (2005) and Good Time Max (2007), but felt that for whatever reason, there was “a little less passion” when he was writing his own original screenplays. “I feel more excited when I am linked to something that has literary weight,” he explains. “I feel like I am responsible. Like there is more of an obligation to make it the best it can be. When it’s just generated fully from myself, I don’t know... I just feel myself getting a little lazy. I’m embarrassed about it. It’s so different when you have the rights to a Cormac McCarthy book – you certainly feel that you need to rise to a certain level and so it makes you work harder.”
Of course, there are critics. At the Venice film festival, a journalist wanted to know why he would want to adapt a book instead of just making something up on his own, “as if that is somehow superior. But I completely disagree with that.” The artist Richard Prince, one of his favourite artists, talks about “adding on”, the art of appropriation, and that’s something Franco is also interested in exploring at this point in his career. “You take something that is there, and then you add on to it.” So does he see himself as a creative butterfly sprinkling magic Franco dust on this book, that art film, that blockbuster? “I’m a butterfly in the sense that I have a lot of interests,’ he says. “But not a butterfly in the sense that I am facetious.” He sighs. He really wishes he had that coffee right now. “Listen, I was always doing all this stuff. I was always writing and experimenting. I directed films before film school. But I hid it a little bit more. I was a little embarrassed about it. Now I just make the things I want to make and I don’t worry about it. You know?”
“There is this weird thing that has been created around me. It's me and it’s not me, it's my creation and not my creation. So I just use it. In the art world I can play and be free”
Academia is hugely responsible for shaping Franco by helping to remove any sense of boundary in him as an artist. A deep understanding of context will do that to anyone. In fact, he may quite possibly be the most educated actor in Hollywood, and now teaches filmmaking at three different schools: UCLA, his alma mater (he studied English literature), NYU (where he got his Master’s in film) and USC. He's also a PhD candidate at Yale. What education has given him, he says, is the confidence and tools to continue exploring art for the rest of his lifetime. Perhaps that’s why he has ventured into such non-traditional territory, taking a role in the soap opera General Hospital for example, and creating the leftfield art films appearing on our Visionaries strand. Animals, the centrepiece of his Dazed Digital takeover, is an exercise in video art rather than a narrative. It features two masked quasi-naked people pretending to be animals. The female animal’s breasts are taped and the male animal's penis is tucked back. They are rolling around in paint and smearing it on each other and on other artworks. When I ask Franco if that was him, playing the part of the male, he’s surprisingly coy. “Oh, I don’t know who that was.” It’s part of an ongoing seven-or-eight-part project (he’s not sure) featuring animals playing dodgeball, doing Pilates, you name it. It’s dadaist, nonsensical stuff. What’s it all about, Franco? To “push mediums through each other and layer them on top of each other,” he says.
There are hundreds of canvasses on the set of Animals, which was filmed at Pace gallery in London. The canvasses consist of inkjetted collages made from photographs of other performances, videos and books. “So the performances were turned into photographs and collages and put on canvasses, and then the paintings on top of those (done by the masked people) turninto a performance that turns into a video that turns into photographs that have been now put on to other canvasses and collages. It’s this continual layering. Building layer upon layer. One medium flowing into another and one medium capturing another and putting it into another.” Head spinning yet? (If you’d really like to see the layers up close, some of the collage paintings will be on display at Colette in Paris.)
Of course, there’s a very specific reason Franco is making experimental film. It’s his idea of playtime without having to worry about being “James Franco”. “When we were kids, we didn’t have the normal everyday structures and implicit understanding of who we are – all the things that civilisation does to keep us behaving in certain ways,” he explains. “If all that is taken away and we have this space where you can just play, it’s cool to just explore it and let that energy be the engine for your work.” There's a similar energy to that behind his collaboration with Douglas Gordon, the exhibition Psycho Nacirema, which features, among other things, Franco in a wig and make-up as Janet Leigh from the original Psycho.
And because these films are not meant to be released in theatres and don't have to sell tickets, it removes all the pressure. “It allows for much more freedom, because I don’t need to entertain or to make the investment back. All of those art films are for me about finding a free space.” All of which, of course, flows back into the massive churning river that is the James Franco persona, which is something even Franco himself cannot claim to fully understand. That's why he toys with it at times, as in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is the End, in which his character is based on the public’s perception of him. “There is this weird thing that has been created around me,” he muses. “It is me and it’s not me, and it’s partly my creation, and not my creation. So I just use it. And I can play Marion Crane in Psycho just because it’s in the art world. There, I can play and be free.”
Which is the exact opposite of what the Hollywood system is about, with its demographics and market-research-driven filmmaking. But Hollywood as an institution is just as dear to Franco as all the subversive art-making. Hollywood is something James Franco defends – it is the beast that it is, he says, and it is short-sighted to judge it too harshly. “It’s called the movie business for a reason. If you want to make a movie of a certain type and certain size, it costs a lot of money, much more than it takes to produce a painting or to write a book. And so there is a great investment and they need to make that money back. And so that’s why in a certain sense there is less freedom. But that’s okay.”
Is that depressing for him? Does he worry about the future of Hollywood, whether it will even exist in 50 years time? He can’t predict anything, he says. “It’s funny comparing what is dominant in the commercial sphere versus what is deemed worthy of critical acclaim. I don’t know which is better or worse. Like how poetry, where no money is made, is full of infighting amongst poets. Poets can be the most vicious to each other because the only thing there is to fight over is cultural capital, rather than financial capital. Maybe one day, movies will be more like poetry in that sense. They won’t be making money any more, compared to video games. So it will all come back to the art of it. Maybe.” He stretches. His car has arrived, a black sedan glinting in the sun, waiting to whisk him to his next destination, where, God willing, some caffeine awaits.
Hair Jamal Hammadi at Jed Root using Hamadiorganic.com; make-up Karan Franjola at Marek and Associates; set design Kadu Lennox at Frank Reps; photographic assistants Lorenz Schmidl, Alexandre Jaras, Gray Hamner; styling assistants Coline Bach, Leah Henken, Jenna Wyman
Taken from the December 2013 issue of Dazed & Confused