You may know James Franco as a mainstream actor, but it’s hard to deny that he’s also intensely interested in the world of literature, writing, and independent film. He has taken on central roles for many independent films, either as an actor, director, producer, or screenplay writer. He’s a poet, author, teacher and amateur painter. He also is a continual student—studying English Literature, writing, or filmmaking for graduate programs at Columbia, NYU and Yale. Within the acting world, he is known to be extensively researching in preparation for various roles, or, for instance, reading The Iliad on set. Since 2006, he has expanded his acting career to include various projects, many of which are independent films centered on famous writers.
In this video interview with Charlie Rose, Franco describes his career direction:
Charlie Rose: So people ask, you’re in search of what?
James Franco: Well, these are all interests that I’ve had since I was a teenager, I was a painter before I was an actor, I studied English in school, and so these are all interests of mine, and I just—I like the idea of being able to…deliver my subject matter in the best form possible. And so I don’t think every subject is fit for a movie, but maybe it would be better told in a book. I also like the idea of examining how these different forms and mediums interact. How they blend, what their limitations are…
Through the independent side of his career, Franco is interested in seeing his influences come to life, in one way or another. Here are some films:
HOWL (the film)
HOWL is Franco’s portrayal of the young Allen Ginsberg in 1957. It explores Ginsberg’s iconic poem, HOWL at its poetry reading debut and the obscenity trial after the publication in the US. If you are a fan of beat writers, I would recommend Franco’s portrayal of Ginsberg’s interview scenes. Franco’s minute mannerisms as Ginsberg are quite stylistic and well-researched.
The New York Times cites: The film... is an exhilarating tribute from one form (cinema) to another (poetry). It takes Ginsberg's momentous, paradigm-changing poem as its launching pad and landing place; its beginning, middle, and end. You could call it a deconstruction except that sounds too formal. It’s a celebration, an analysis, a critical essay, an ode.
The Broken Tower: the poetry of Hart Crane
This is Franco’s student film for his MFA thesis at NYU. It portrays Crane’s inner world as a romantic poet in the midst of financial struggles and his arduous poetic pour.
The film has been largely criticized for its long still shots, slow-moving progression, and continual scenes of internal despair (there’s no conventional arc or conclusion). Two critical points: The choice to use a handheld camera is jarring in the beginning, and Franco’s role as Crane speaks as someone would from the present day, instead of 1930’s Manhattan. Though, I appreciated it for its passion and intensity which seeks to explain Crane through his own lens. If you like biopic films as intimate portraits of artists, definitely give it a chance. Here’s a trailer and an interview with Franco about the film.
As I Lay Dying
Franco wrote, directed and acted in the film adaptation of William Faulkner’s classic novel, As I Lay Dying.
The film is forthright and raw, gritty and selective. It culminates in the novel’s intensity in Darl's last scene. Some scenes are bone-chilling–more true to the novel. I personally thought that the portrayal of the time period was a bit modern. The way the novel is written–its exemplary technique at joining 15 points of view–gives it an elusive and dangerous character, while the film itself is more linear. If you are a fan of the novel, I would check out the film.
James Franco is also working on:
Bukowski (upcoming film, 2015)
Directing Herbert White: Poems (Franco's Poetry)