James Franco (Milk, Pineapple Express) is a tad mysterious, mainly because we all want to know why he's doing so many things on top of his acting.
Well, this Saturday at the Palm Springs Shorts Fest, which showed Franco's three 2009 shorts, Franco told Variety's Peter Bart how he came to write and direct the films, star on the currently running soap opera General Hospital, study at NYU, Columbia and Yale, and prep a show of his art--on top of all his film work. He was charming and engaging. and finally it all started to make sense.
After wrapping Danny Boyle's 127 Hours (about Aron Ralston, who was trapped in a remote hiking accident and had to saw off his arm with a knife), and before starting his role in the upcoming Fox prequel Rise of the Apes (which will be made using the same Weta Digital performance capture technology as Avatar), Franco wedged in a back-breaking 20-episode three-stint on General Hospital, shot at MOCA last week. "We shot 77 pages in one day," he said. "That would be half a feature film."
All this started when Franco had a revelation about his acting. "After eight years of acting, five or six years ago I wanted to start directing," he said, "in part motivated by my need to be in control." He had some "weird experiences" with directors, he said, and realized that "I would never be able to express what I wanted to express as an actor." He had thought that more would be asked from him as a contributor to the process. "I was trying to direct the film I was in as an actor," he said. "I wouldn't want to work with me." So he decided that from now on he'll give directors what they want, in the spirit of helping them achieve their visions. "That's my job," he said, and it's "more enjoyable," too, to give his trust to someone like Boyle.
While developing an evolving project with director Carter (which started as the short Erased James Franco), the feature entitled Maladies, now set to star Julianne Moore, Catherine Keener and Kathy Bates, Franco was to play a soap opera star. So he proposed to General Hospital that they write him a story arc as a crazy painter. And through his friendship with art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who took over running MOCA, Franco worked out the use of the L.A. museum as a location. "The character's name is Franco," he said. "It's difficult for anyone who knew who I was to watch the shows and not be aware that it was me James Franco there. So you're not being sucked into the soap opera world. The real world and the soap opera world are tied together." He loves the idea that the art world (poetry, art) and the commercial world (film, soap opera) are colliding. "There's been pop art for 50 years," he said.
Franco is learning how to become a director because he wants to initiate and follow through on his own ideas. Franco, 32, wrote and directed the three shorts for the grad directing program at NYU, all based on poems he had discovered during his lit studies. For him it was about taking a textual medium and translating it into a visual one, keeping the narrative and tone intact.
Franco won an award at the Berlin Film Festival for The Feast of Stephen, the best of the three. The almost silent, hand-held black-and- white five-minute short shows a geeky young man fantasizing that the sweaty shirtless guys playing a game of pick-up basketball in a New York City playground are naked. Franco wanted to pay homage to Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, which eroticized the world of bikers.
The 13-minute second film, Herbert White, was also effective, as we watch Michael Shannon as a shut-down family man and logger who destroys trees with a huge claw-like machine; he also has a serious problem, which we eventually discover.
The third short, the 14-minute The Clerk's Tale, is set in a Brooks Brothers store and details the dull lives of two salesmen. It closed Critic’s Week at Cannes. Franco said he cast veteran Charles Dance and performance artist John Tully because he was hoping to use him for his Joni Mitchell impersonation (inspired by the ending of Beau Travail) but he cut it out of the film. I wish he hadn't; this film put me to sleep.
Other shorts at the well-attended Palm Springs fest (June 22-28), which is in its 16th year and functions as a qualifying run for shorts that eventually earn Oscar nominations (68 so far have been nominated), include work from performers Kirsten Dunst, Alicia Witt, Meryl Streep, Forest Whitaker, AnnaLynne McCord, David Morse and Mathew Rhys. 314 short films screened at the fest along with more than 3,000 submissions in the film market. First place winners of the fest awards are eligible for Academy Awards consideration. Eligible this year are winners The Gold Mine (La Mina de Oro) (Mexico), Hermann (Germany/UK), Angry Man (Sinna Mann) (Norway) and The Shutdown (Scotland).
This year's audience award winners were live action: Wish 143 (UK), animation: Ormie (Canada) and documentary: Born Sweet (Cambodia).