In Conversation with James Franco
October 19, 2012
Notes by Erin Essenmacher
I fell in love with Austin when I first came down in 2009 for SXSW with my film MINE. So when my friend Richard Alvarez told me he was going to head down to the Austin Film Festival because his script made it into the scriptwritng competition, I jumped at the chance to come back. I had no idea that I was in store for such a treat. AFF has a reputation for being a real writer’s festival and that’s true enough, but what I’ve also found is a hidden gem — one of the best-run fests I’ve been to, filled with really smart, down-to-earth creative souls and plenty of star power – specifically the kind who really appreciate the craft and are happy the spend a couple of days hanging out with other filmmakers talking shop. And that’s exactly what I found when I went to hear a conversation with the actor James Franco– no pretention and no BS. He was in town in part to promote Francophrenia, a thriller that Franco directed based on his time on General Hospital (that’s a whoooole other post). He stayed to talk talk shop and even stayed after to take pictures, hang out with audience and sign autographs. Here’s a sampling of the conversation:
Franco started out by discussing his him 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle and based on real-life story of mountain climber Aron Ralston who is forced to cut off his own arm to save himself when a boulder falls on him in a remote Utah canyon.
“Whether you love it or hate it, it illicits a reaction and that’s worth something. People passed out at every screening I went to, and I get it — it’s like once he’s trapped, the audience is trapped with him and tension builds and builds and builds.”
Franco then discussed the challenges of filming a movie set in one remote location and centered on one actor.
“The set-up was new for the DP and the director – I mean, how do you cover a scene when you only have one actor? Danny [Boyle] and the DP became like performers opposite me….We had to build set on stage to scale for most of it because it was feasible to shoot in the actual location. We did shoot in the canyon for two weeks. The crew had to be helicoptered in and out. There was lots of climbing – it three hours to get to the site each day. We couldn’t have shot the whole thing there.”
Franco then discussed how Boyle worked with him to get the best performance in what is a pretty difficult story.
“There’s a scene where the main character first tries to pull his arm out with brute strength. Danny told me not to hold back, to pull, kick, thrash — and he said ‘whatever you do, don’t stop until I say cut.’ I said, ‘okay, I hope you get it in one take, because if I do that I’m going to get pretty bruised and banged up.’
He just said ‘I know. Just don’t stop until I say cut.’ And then he shot for 21 minutes straight…I wish I had better pictures from that. I was so bruised up…but so much of the story was based on behavior, we needed real struggle, frustration, and that’s what he got — he has a performance from me getting progressively tired and frustrated.”
Franco also talked about the challenges of filming a story based on a real life character. “We didn’t want Aaron Ralston on set most of the time. If you do a movie based on real person, how much you bring them in depends on the project. We all have a perception of ourselves. Danny wanted me to talk to Aaron extensively beforehand because Danny and I not climbers, and get the lingo, the behavior. And I did that. I would ask him what he was thinking or what he remembers he was thinking at different points.”
Franco then took questions from the audience:
Q: You really have a way of becoming these characters. Can you talk a little bit about your process?
JF: Acting became my life. I would do anything necessary to get in that world. So I did crazy things, even unnessecsary things. Like when I was working on Freaks and Geeks. Paul Feig is from outside Detroit, Michigan. Nobody asked me to but I went and I went to his high school and I met his A/V teacher had conversations I thought he would have had. I have no idea if it had any discernible effect on my portrayal of character, but that’s what I did. But the mistake was I did all of this character development and research without the director. It’s not just about the character, it’s about the story and you can’t develop the character independent of the story. Actors do all this prep and show up with one specific idea of how character is…it makes for uncomfortable moments on set. That’s how it was for me in early films. I learned that movies are a director’s medium. My job is to help director realize their vision.
Franco then went on to talk about making the film Spring Breakers:
Harmony Korine went to Daytona because someone told him to, but apparently Spring Breakers don’t go there anymore. Then he went somewhere else and finally found them and people were throwing up on his door and blasting Taylor Swift and it was too much for him. He had to leave. He ended up at a hotel on a golf course where Hulk hogan was strangely enough hosting a wrestling competition for little people and that’s where he wrote Spring Breakers.
He did most of my research for me. Picked St. Petersburg and cast local people and found these great locations. Like he introduced me to this local guy named “Dangerous” and I just hung out with him and talked to him and just ended up using a lot of his stories as my inspiration. You end up with a movie that’s gritty, real, connected to place. The effect is to make it feel more real, more spontaneous.
Q: Is there any script you’ve had to champion?
JF: I like scripts based on books, old books like As I Lay Dying. I just stated a project based on Cormac McCarthy’s 3rd book, Child of God. It’s about a guy that goes through the woods murdering people and sleeping with their corpses, but it’s not a horror story – no one wants to that (editor’s note: at this point the audience is equal parts gasping and laughing). A lot of people wanted to do it — Sean Penn and the woman who made Rat Catcher, Lynne Ramsay.
I don’t love — I shouldn’t say this — I don’t like reading scripts. I like reading books. Scripts are so much about package — this script with director and this star. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of waiting — I just want to do it. So I just go do it, and I’ve been able to do it.
Q: Is there a role you found challenging to get into?
JF: (hesitates) No not really but maybe that got in my way. Paul Thomas Anderson — when he was making The Master we met about the lead role, but didn’t really talk about The Master. We talked everything but. Then we would talk on the phone but I wasn’t sure what it was about – we would just bullshit. Finally he asked me to do it.He said “do you think you can do it?” and I said “yes!” and then he said “but I want it to scare you!” What? I mean I can do it but it doesn’t scare me. Then I saw Joaquin in that movie and I got it – ‘oh he wanted me to lose my mind.’ I won’t do a movie if I don’t think I’m right for it – it’s a disservice to the material and the film.
I’ll say what was challenging – doing the Oscars because the material they gave me was crap. (editor’s note: at this point the audience breaks into wild applause)
Q: Do you see yourself in the characters you play?
A: I always want that – to understand what’s driving them. Right now I’m doing a role in this weird movie and I’m the villain. The script is written that I’m bad to be bad. And that’s not that interesting. So I talk to director – “why is this guy doing this?” Basically this guy hasn’t achieved anything and this is his shot at actually doing something, of making his mark and he doesn’t care how many people he hurts in the process. I hope I don’t do that in my own life — kill people to get what I want — but I do get that idea of how far would I go to get what I want? And that makes it more human, more relatable.
Q: What’s your advice to those trying to make it in the film industry?
A: Being here is a good start. And do it on your own. Be with other filmmakers, go where they are because they become your collaborators. Go and meet your people and get together and figure out how to make your thing. One thing that pisses me off is when I hear “oh I need a million dollars to make my movie” – no you don’t. I made one of first films for $350k – and that was a period piece set in Mexico. You don’t need a million dollars – just go do it.