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James Franco bares it all as director, writer and star of 'The Broken Tower'

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The dramatic film “The Broken Tower” (based on Paul Mariani’s biography of the same title) is a glimpse into the world of real-life poet Hart Crane, who was considered by many to be a visionary who was ahead of his time. James Franco (who stars as Crane) wrote, directed and produced “The Broken Tower,” a black-and-white independent film that was released in the U.S. in 2012.

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“The Broken Tower” movie chronicles his early life to his journeys to New York, Cuba and Paris. Crane, who was gay, also has his love life depicted in “The Broken Tower,” including much-talked-about explicit sex scenes involving Franco and another man. Here is what Franco said when he did a roundtable interview with me and other journalists around the time that “The Broken Tower” was released.

How did you get into Hart Crane’s poetry?

I was an English major at UCLA, and I left after a year to act professionally. And during that time, I was still in love with literature. And so, I tried to educate myself. It was sort of this aimless education that one writer might lead you to another. It was that kind of thing.

And so, somehow I was led to Hart Crane’s poetry. And I found it very, very difficult. But it was a book of his collected works. The introduction was written by Harold Bloom.

And in the introduction, it said, “You should read this biography by Paul Mariani called ‘The Broken Tower,’ and it will help you understand poetry.” And so I went and got that. And it did help me understand poetry.

But the other thing that happened was I read it — this was almost 10 years ago — and had this feeling like, “Wow, this could be very cinematic.” His life is basically the quintessential tortured artist/poet.

But I was only an actor. I had never written or directed a movie. I didn’t really know how to act on that impulse. I just sort of threw it out there.

In interviews, people would say, “Who do you want to play?” And I’d say, “Hart Crane.” I guess I was just waiting for a writer and director to come along and say, “James, I want you to play Hart Crane.” Nobody stepped forward.

And so then, years later, I went back to UCLA. I finished my English degree, and then I went to film school. And at film school at NYU, we had to make a series of short films in the first two years. I stumbled on this idea of turning poems into movies. I kind of had a similar experience that I had to reading that biography back at UCLA.

I read a very short poem by this guy named Anthony Hecht called “The Feast of Stephen.” I don’t know what exactly it is about these poems that make me think, “Oh, this could be cool movies.”

It’s probably the imagery. There’s a sense of narrative in some of them. But I had that feeling again, like, “Oh, this should be a movie.”

So when I got to NYU and they said, “All right, your first assignment is to make a four-minute, black-and-white [film], on 16mm. You can’t have dialogue between characters. You can add sound after, but not while you’re filming.

And I thought, “Oh, that poem would be perfect. It’s four stanzas. This [movie] has to be four minutes.” I timed it out. It took me about four minutes to read it.

So I thought, “All right, I’ll go and shoot the images of the poem. And after, I’ll read the poem on top of the images.” So we went and shot it.

And what I realized after we shot it is that the poem had been translated into images, and it didn’t need the text over the top in voiceover anymore. It had become its own thing. It had become a poem of images.

So I kind of developed that idea with the next shorts I did. I did a poem called “Herbert White,” based on a poem by Frank Bidart. I did one called “A Clerk’s Tale,” based on a poem by Spencer Reece. And the amount of text and imagery used in those varied.

I started developing an idea, so some text of the poem started seeping into those movies. So then, when I did my thesis, I had to do a feature film, and I remembered “The Broken Tower” biography, and I thought, “That will be a perfect progression, because it will be a feature film that’s not based on a single poem. It’ll be based on a poet’s life.

“And I can plume poetry in various ways — poetry with imagery that is not the literal translation of the poem. Poems about the Brooklyn Bridge that have the image of the bridge accompanying it. I can have the poet doing a reading, so it’s just him delivering it as he would have when he was alive.” And various things like that. That’s sort of how the project developed.

You’ve talked about how very few people understood Hart Crane’s work. Do you think you understand his work?

I think I understand it better. I understand his intentions. One of the big guiding things for this essay he wrote called “General Aims and Theories,” where he acknowledges how difficult his poetry is, but he talks about how he’s looking for a different kind of reading experience. It’s not about the surface level. It’s about the way that the secondary meanings of the metaphors are resonating with each other, as weird as that sounds.

It’s more kind of like music, in a way. That’s also how I wanted to structure the film. I wanted the texture of the film to feel like the texture of his poetry. And so that’s why you get the movie in the way that it is with these episodic sections that hopefully give you information about his life, just like the poems do. There are autobiographical bits in the poems, but they’re also working off of each other in certain ways. And that’s where you get some of the meaning.

How essential do you think Hart Crane’s sexuality was to his work?

I think his sexuality is key to him and is key to some of his poems. A line I can think of right now, an early poem [of Crane’s]: “My Grandmother’s Love Letters.” At the end, he says, “I take her by the hand and lead her through realms she wouldn’t understand” or something like that.

It’s basically about his sexuality. He’s talking about his grandmother’s love life with his grandfather. And then, he turns to himself and says, “Well, my family wouldn’t understand if they think about my love life.” And you can see that all throughout.

The “Voyages” poems are famously written about his lover Emil Opffer. The first “Voyages” poem is very dark. I decided at the end of the movie, where the last line is “The sea is cruel.” It’s basically using the sea as a metaphor for life and going out into the world of experience. Leaving the world of innocence and going into the world of experience and how it can be crushing.

So I think his sexuality is important to him in his work but also in his life. It’s hard to find poets who have taken on Crane’s style. It’s hard to find strict disciples of his poetic style. But there are poets and writers who looked up to Crane.

Robert Lowell wrote a poem for Crane called “Words for Hart Crane” that’s used in the film. And it also focuses on his sexuality. [Allen] Ginsberg was very inspired by Crane. Tennessee Williams, but it seems like they were drawn to his life as much as his work. I think that’s the same for me too — to be drawn to the biography as much as the poetry.

And so, I think we can say that Crane had two sides to him, or maybe his friends saw two sides: the side that was incredibly dedicated to his work — so much so that it probably helped drive him to suicide when he felt like he couldn’t write anymore, and really spend his whole life trying to get to a place where he could just write, and that’s all he read wanted — and then he had this other side that they called the Roaring Boy where he would drink a ton and have tons of casual sex, mainly with sailors. And he seemed to be very comfortable with his sexuality at a time when being “out” was in some cases maybe dangerous or threatening to his straight friends. I think that was a side to him that scared some of them.

And so, when depicting that in a movie, I thought the only people he didn’t want to come out to were his parents because he was afraid he wouldn’t inherit his father’s money if he knew that he was gay. Otherwise, he was very comfortable with who he was at a very young age. So I thought it was important to put that kind of “in your face” attitude across.

One way of doing that was to have a couple of explicit sex scenes. I knew the blowjob scene would be the scene that the first reviewers would use because it’s easy to get readers that way. I feel like, based on the other responses, that it did achieve its effect. Just like Crane’s friends were maybe threatened by his “out-ness,” people who are maybe attracted to the poetic side of Crane’s work might also get a little jolt of this other side of Crane too.

Paul Mariani said some people told him, “Is that the blowjob movie? I don’t want to see a blowjob.” It’s not a movie about a blowjob. It’s a movie about a man. But it says to me, “Oh, maybe I am giving you a sense of what Crane was like.”

For more info: "The Broken Tower" website

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