TORONTO — James Franco has three movies playing at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, providing a pretty solid glimpse into the range of his cinematic interests. Given that Jonah Hill called his project philosophy, “One for them, five for no one” during that recent Comedy Central Roast, the three flicks’ variety should come as no surprise.
There’s a commercial romance drama co-starring Mila Kunis and Liam Neeson called Third Person, which should be an audience pleaser; another, based on Franco’s book Palo Alto, which stars bright young actors and was directed by Gia Coppola; and Child of God, a film that Franco directed, which centers on a serial killer-necrophiliac living in the backwoods of a rural Tennessee town in the 1960s.
The actor-director-screenwriter-producer-author-artist-student-professor (really, there aren’t enough hyphens to fully facilitate a proper title for Franco’s résumé) has heard the criticism, but he’s not all that concerned with mainstream perception of his more esoteric endeavors, as one of his three films at TIFF proves.
Despite strong early reviews, Child of God will not be an easy sell — which is both to be expected and entirely beside the point.
“I don’t like being bound. I don’t like being bound by a certain discipline, meaning acting isn’t going to allow me to express all I want to do, so I direct and do other things,” Franco told BuzzFeed. “And I also don’t like being bound by mediums or distribution outlets, meaning there are certain expectations for commercial cinema, so if I want to make a video piece or an art piece or film piece that isn’t so worried about narrative and wants to emphasize something else, then I’ll find a different outlet… It is a matter of categorizing and it is a strategy, not in the sense of putting anything over on someone, it’s more about I have these interests. Where is the audience for this project? Where is the audience for this project? And maybe it’s one of the reasons why it seems like I’m all over the place, but it’s really just kind of giving each project its due, and also enabling me to continue with each of them.
“If I want to do something like Birdshit that has sort of a narrative, but really, it’s more about the dance and the projections and presentation, PS1 [the Museum of Modern Art art institution in New York City] is the perfect place for that,” he continued, speaking of the performance art/dance piece he helped put on in April. “If I took that to Laemmle’s [the Los Angeles art house chain] or the AMC, people would say, ‘Fuck you, James!’ If I take it to PS1, expectations are different and I can play with the form more.”
Understanding that difference in audience — and thus return on investment — is a crucial aspect of keeping his ambitions sustainable. When Franco took his BDSM movie Kink to the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, he knew it would get attention, which allowed it to play at other, smaller festivals around the world. Because it was produced on a low budget, much like Child of God, the movie could survive in that more niche world.
“Knowing Child of God is a movie with a very difficult subject matter, I’m going to figure out a way to do it,” Franco explained. “A lot of people have tried; Tim Blake Nelson told me way back when, Sean Penn tried to make this and Tim was going to direct it and Sean was going to produce it, and they didn’t. And part of that is the money. So what I’ve figured out is how to make it good, but for a responsible budget, so that I don’t have to go and appeal to Avengers-sized audiences. I can appeal to the art house audience, and that will be enough.”
Yes, Child of God certainly will be an art house entrant, but it also has more mainstream roots. Though, given his public profile, it’s almost hilariously on-the-nose that Franco would make a movie about a serial killer-necrophiliac, it’s not his idea, and he’s not even stealing it from the avant-garde. The film, which is based on the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, was well-reviewed upon its recent premiere in Venice.
And if anything, Franco had to work to make the book more palatable to an audience, given the horrors on the page that detail the life of Lester Ballard, a troubled, backwoods-drifting loner, who’s shunned by society and mentally off-balanced. He finds company with big stuffed animals and, eventually, dead young women; it is a disturbing sight, but one that tugs at some odd compassion in a viewer.
Though Franco remained incredibly faithful to the source material, he did have to do some cutting in translating the novel to the screen.
“There were other murders in the book and different kinds of things that I felt like, if you actually watched those things on screen too much, it’s going to really turn the audience’s sympathy away from this character,” Franco said. “What I think is most powerful about the book is that you’re able to read this and not see him as a monster; that you follow him, and not that you condone his acts, but you follow him and you go on the journey with him. And that’s what we needed with this movie… It’s building to this character saying, ‘Oh, I can have a love life if I sleep with these bodies.’”
Franco says he knew that Scott Haze, a TV and movie veteran who owns his own theater in Los Angeles, would be willing to devote himself entirely to Lester’s transformation. Haze, who had been living in isolation and putting on a considerable amount of muscle for another role, made an about-face and began starving himself to look like a character that subsisted on berries and scavenged meat while squatting in derelict shacks.
“I knew I had to be isolated and I really respect people like Kobe Bryant, athletes that do things and are disciplined,” Haze said. “I look at James and look at the way he’s been able to accomplish all those things; it’s an inspiration… James is like, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna do it.’ So I said, ‘You know what? This is a dream role. I have a great opportunity, I’m very blessed. He can give this to anybody,’ so I just investigated what I could do to try and seize the opportunity and not let it pass me by by being lazy.”
As one can tell just from his already-iconic turn as the corn-rowed, voice of a generation gangster Alien in Spring Breakers, Franco is big on immersion.
“There’s something about — and it might be with actresses too — but I know it’s with actors, where it comes to a point where you want to do some sort of preparation where it feels like you’re doing something tough,” he said. “You’re doing something masculine. You’re not just putting on makeup and clothes and saying some lines. You’re really getting dangerous. I remember the first time I really did that, just threw myself into something, was when I played James Dean. And it yielded great results. [Ed.: The performance won him a Golden Globe]. So then, from that point on, I said, ‘Oh fuck, I’ve got to do this with every role.’
“I think it’s something that Robert De Niro really kind of introduced to cinematic acting,” Franco continued. “The legends of what he did for Raging Bull, as far as boxing training and gaining weight for the second half, he really set it in motion, and set the generation before us and our generation on that. But it doesn’t yield results for every role. So like, for Flyboys, I played a pilot. I went for months, every day, got my pilot license, and then you go and they’re like, ‘Oh, insurance says you can’t pilot a plane.’ So it’s like, I guess I look more confident sitting in a cockpit, but the guys over there, who didn’t get their pilot licenses, look just as confident. So it doesn’t always yield results. But this was a role that an actor could throw himself into.”
Looking at Franco’s schedule over the last week — Venice for the film festival, New York for a book signing, Toronto for his movies, and then back to New York — is dizzying, and a testament to his professional and artistic immersion, whether you connect with his projects or not.
But is this all a matter or Franco just pursuing many interests, or is each project a tile in a larger-picture mosaic that only he can see a la Joaquin Phoenix and I’m Still Here? According to the man himself, it’s the former.
“I’m in a position where I get to do a lot of these things. I wasn’t always in that position, but now I’m in a position where I can work on projects that I believe in,” Franco explained. “Part of that isn’t just, ‘OK, you were in Spider-Man so you get to do whatever you want’; it’s also a matter of making them in a certain way.”