Exclusive Interview: James Franco on As I Lay Dying
I saw James Franco’s latest movie at the Cannes Film Festival, where it played Un Certain Regard. I got to share Franco with a roundtable behind the Palais des Festival, but it wasn’t enough time to ask all my questions. In fact, it was only enough time to ask two. So now that As I Lay Dying is opening in theaters this week, we got another chance to interview Franco exclusively, by phone. It was a faint connection from wherever Franco is currently working, but he was as thoughtful as ever sharing his artistic process behind the cameras with us.
As I Lay Dying is based on the William Faulkner novel about a family in the beginning of the 20th century bringing their matriarch (Beth Grant)’s body to Jefferson per her wishes. Franco’s subsequent film, Child of God, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, recently played the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest.
Crave Online: In cinema, the most famous use of split screens we all know are by Brian De Palma. What was your intention using the split screens in As I Lay Dying?
James Franco: Right. Our use of the split screen is from the book. In the book, each chapter is told from the first person perspective of a different character. The reason I adapt something, and definitely when I adapt something like As I Lay Dying that I love, what I’m trying to do is capture the spirit of the book and in this case capture the structure of the book, but with the understanding that I am trying to turn it into cinematic form.
So I thought, how can I get the spirit of multiple perceptions? Then I thought, well, I could just do it like the book and have a section told through the eyes of one character, and then another character, etc. But I thought if I broke it up like chapters in the book, it would feel a little rigid. Then we came upon this idea of this multiple perspective idea, the split screen idea to capture multiple perceptions where it just kind of happens simultaneously. You get this feeling of many eyes on a single scene or pieces happening simultaneously.
Unfortunately I have not seen Child of God yet, but I know Cormac McCarthy plays with format a lot in his books. Was there a similar challenge adapting that?
Yes, obviously it’s structured very differently than As I Lay Dying but the real challenge of that one was how to present a protagonist, or an antihero, who is a murderer and a necrophiliac in such a way that he’s watchable. In a movie that is using that subject matter but isn’t a thriller, isn’t a horror movie but is more of a character study. I think that was the biggest challenge of that movie and I think we did it.
What I saw in my character is that yes, he’s doing very dark things but at the core of what he’s doing is a very basic human need, a need to connect, a need to love and be loved by another, a person outside of oneself. So that character’s solution that he stumbles upon is to have relationships with dead people and it’s very grizzly and it’s very dark, but I like that it was a very unsettling approach to a very universal kind of subject.
There are elements of As I Lay Dying that could seem very mainstream and marketable. There’s a survival story of these calamities that happen along the journey to Jefferson. Did any studios or distributors ever suggest cutting a more marketable trailer version of the film?
No, not really. We were working with Millennium from the beginning and all through shooting they were very supportive of almost everything that we wanted to do. It was a smaller movie for them and I guess we had enough elements in there that they felt they could make their money back, so they really let us just make it the way we wanted to make it.
You have a name that means something in movies, especially comedies but also dramas like 127 Hours and big adventure movies like Oz the Great and Powerful. Do you hope for James Franco the director to carry a similar name and value?
Sure, yeah, I’ve been working hard. I’ve made quite a few movies in a certain amount of time and I’m very happy with all of them. I suppose if someone were to say about the last three or four movies that I’ve made, none of them are out, but they’re all either based on or inspired by literary sources. We’re talking about the challenges of adaptation, I feel like they all are more to the spirit of their sources but also use contemporary filmmaking techniques to capture certain aspects of each book. So I guess I like that kind of consistency. Maybe that would be one of my things as a director. It’s certainly something that inspires me when I go to direct.
You seem to have a sense of humor about it too, like on the Roast when people make fun of how prolific you are. Is that important also to present all sides of yourself with a light touch?
Yeah, because I know that in the past when I was younger, 18-28, I was a very serious young man and took myself very seriously and had a hard time laughing at myself. I found that I wasn’t very happy and I think taking myself a little too seriously to the point where I couldn’t laugh was contributing to that unhappiness. It made it hard to be around me too, and that’s something that I really don’t want. When I think about other people that I’ve known that are just hard to be around, it’s just a bummer. You don’t want to be around somebody that takes themselves so seriously that you are afraid to interact with them. I don’t want to go through life that way so I’ve found that a sense of humor and being able to make fun of myself is a very healthy thing to do and it just helps my creative relationships and my personal relationships and makes life much better.