Breaking the rules: James Franco
James Franco believes in exploring the many aspects of creativity beyond acting. That's why he's also directing, writing and studying for his PhD, he tells Doretta Lau
On a spring day in Santa Monica, Hollywood star James Franco is directing a gaggle of models on a set at Pier 59 Studios West. At first, it is hard to spot him in the scrum of stylists and cameramen - he is wearing a baseball cap and is holding a large camera in front of his face. Fog from a machine swirls around him.
Franco is shooting the campaign for 7 For All Mankind's autumn/winter 2013 collection. The theme is Romeo and Juliet, and it marks his fourth collaboration with the Californian fashion brand. For a previous season, he explored the poetry of William Blake in a short film. He cites filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith as influences for these projects.
As the models clad in slim-fitting jeans stop for lunch, Franco takes a seat in a dressing room. He is wearing a grey long-sleeved shirt layered over a white tee and black jeans. His persona quickly shifts from kinetic fashion photographer to actor. When the tape recorder is on, he speaks slightly slower, aware that an interview is both a conversation and a performance.
"The great thing about doing this 7 For All Mankind campaign was that it involved all of these aspects of filmmaking, this world that I knew from my other job," he says.
"But there was a new kind of freedom because we were making these films for a different purpose, not to put into big movie theatres and sell tickets. There was a new freedom to … make more, kind of art, films, that we didn't need to tell stories in conventional ways. We could break a lot of the rules, or the tacit rules, that have been handed down for theatrical films. And so it was great. I felt this great sense of creative freedom."
In his latest film Spring Breakers, Franco - who is now studying for his PhD in English at Yale University - transforms himself into a gun-slinging, dental grill-sporting gangster named Alien. He embodies the character so completely that he out-swaggers rapper Gucci Mane, who plays a rival named Archie in the movie.
"Alien was a dream role," says the star of such films as Oz the Great and Powerful, 127 Hours and Pineapple Express. "It's one of my favourite things I've acted in. It's a role I wouldn't have known how to do or research without the help of [director] Harmony Korine … The great thing about the character is he's a bit of a goofball and he's funny and that's what makes him a little scarier - he doesn't have a real grasp on the boundaries of civilised behaviour, but because he has guns and all of these things his actions have serious consequences."
For years he and Korine had talked about making a movie together. One day, Korine sent over a treatment. "He said he wanted it to be like a Gaspar Noé film meets a Britney Spears video," says Franco, who told the filmmaker that the idea sounded perfect.
"Finally, about a month before we went to shoot, Harmony was in St Petersburg, Florida, and he had me go down there. He had met this local guy named Dangeruss who had a hard upbringing and was trying to make it as a rapper," the star says.
"He lived a bit of a dangerous lifestyle but he was a very sweet guy and let me into his life. I got to follow him around and he told me about himself. He became the model for the inner life of Alien. Somebody who does enjoy the materialistic things but also has artistic dreams, where he has something a little more going on than just the exterior."
In addition to shooting fashion campaigns, acting, and studying literature, Franco has been directing films. Last month, As I Lay Dying, a film adaptation of the William Faulkner novel, which he directed and starred in, screened during the Cannes Film Festival.
"I didn't want As I Lay Dying to feel like a museum piece or something - I didn't want it to feel like a school essay. Faulkner is very raw. He's got crazy stuff going on in his books, but most Faulkner adaptations I see feel quaint.
"I feel like it's hard for me to think of one that captures how brutal these books can be," Franco says.
"People getting corncobs shoved up them, murders, abortions, castrations - crazy stuff. But I can't think of any … movies that … show that with the intensity that's in the book. So I wanted to … use contemporary techniques to make it feel as raw as I felt the books were. So the production design is period accurate, but the techniques to capture it are very contemporary."
Over the past few years, Franco has worked on several book-related projects: he played poets Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane, directed a film about writer Charles Bukowski, directed an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel Child of God, and is set to adapt The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III.
"I've been a book lover since I was young," he says. "I was an English major. I'm working on my PhD in English. So literature is a huge part of my life. And film is also a big part of my life. So I feel as if the combination or bringing those two areas together is something that excites me. It's something I feel particularly suited to do and it's become my voice. It's where, at any art school they'll say, find your voice. Well, this is the direction I feel I can be original."
Franco's involvement with literature extends to its creation. In 2010, he published a short story collection Palo Alto. His novel Actors Anonymous is set to be released on October 15, 2013, through Amazon Publishing's literary fiction imprint Little A. His editor is Ed Park, a founding editor of the magazine The Believer.
"I'd been in one of Ed's seminars [at Columbia] and he introduced all these books that involved unusual ways of writing and I felt like that was something I wanted to do with this book, so he seemed like the perfect editor. And he has been, so it's been great."
"Energising and inspiring" is how Park characterises his working relationship with Franco. "James is bursting with ideas and open to direction. There are hundreds of additional pages that we left out - we were really dealing with an ocean of story, figuring out the structure in a way that felt organic and right. He was incredibly responsive to even my most radical ideas - and on the flip side, my ideas were a response to the mind-expanding reach that was already present in the work itself."
Franco sees his endeavours as an actor, director, writer and artist as part of a single artistic process.
"It's not about conquering as many things as possible. I see them as all interrelated. I see combining different things as a way to expand the boundaries of what each form can do or that one medium will inspire another or change its form," he says.
"So that's why when people say, 'You're a successful actor, why not just stick with that?', well, I'm not into following a conventional journey as an actor. I want to explore and see what new things can be discovered. That's what an artist is supposed to do."
Just who is James Franco then?
"I'm just a guy who from an early age learned to communicate through creative mediums," he says.
"It's the way I interact with people. Most of my friends are people that I work with. Most of the people I meet are people I meet on creative jobs. It's the way I know how to interact with people. It's the way I know how to talk to people.
"And I feel as if different ideas or projects are best suited for different forms so that's why I enjoy working in different mediums in different arenas. The idea of using different mediums is well established in contemporary art or for contemporary artists - it's just that it isn't as established for actors.
"It just always seems silly if an actor has a side hobby of painting or something like that, but I'm not going to let that stop me from doing what I think I should be doing."
Spring Breakers opens in Hong Kong in August