Andreas Wiseman talks to James Franco about his latest feature As I Lay Dying, which premiered in Cannes.
Based on William Faulkner’s 1930’s classic American novel about a family’s quest to bury their mother, James Franco’s Un Certain Regard entry As I Lay Dying has long been a passion project for the impressively prolific actor-director.
Logan Marshall-Green, Danny McBride and Tim Blake Nelson star alongside Franco in the Millenium Films and Rabbit Bandini-produced adaptation, which Franco first discovered while a student.
“I first read the book in High School,” Franco told Screen. “I remember I had to stop hanging out with some of my friends for a while because I kept getting into trouble. I had a bunch of weekends I had to stay home and on one of those my father recommended the book to me. I read it late into the night and became obsessed with it.”
Some years down the line, Franco’s interest in the seminal novel was reignited while reading a biography of his Milk co-star Sean Penn: “I read in the biography that Sean had wanted to play the character I played and Jack Nicholson would have played the father. That was the spark for a feature,” he explains.
Columbia University graduate Franco was drawn to the book’s experimental techniques, which have in turn influenced his direction: “The story is structurally complex and narratively simple at the same time. Because it has that simple through line I could hang more complicated digressions around it,” he says.
“But I didn’t want the film to feel like a museum piece or a school lesson,” he continues. “It needed to be the same American classic but it needed to be vitalised in new ways. This is the trick with a lot of period pieces. Baz Luhrmann on The Great Gatsby, for example, is in some ways very loyal to the period and in others he is making a film for the audience of today.
“I didn’t want a hip-hop soundtrack but the way it is shot and structured - using splitscreen and an unconventional voice over partly inspired by reality TV, for example - are unconventional. It’s a period piece framed by contemporary techniques.”
Among the surprises is the casting of Eastbound and Down funnyman Danny McBride: “Danny is an old friend,” laughs Spider-Man and Oz star Franco. “I think this was a new experience for him. I thought to include him because he comes from the comedic world and that he would add a fresh spirit to the character.”
Next up for Franco the director is Garden of Last Days, in which he will star opposite Emilia Clarke. Dramas Child of God and Bukowski should be ready for potential autumn festival berths.
With so many intriguing projects on the go at any one time, what is the secret to Franco’s remarkable level of output?
“I guess I have a lot of things that interest me and that I love. There are so many projects that I want to do. So many books I’d like to adapt and subjects to explore. I guess I get sad when I think about the projects that don’t happen. I don’t like to let anything go.”
“My work is my passion,” he concludes. “I’m not working for another end. The process is the end and where I’m most happy.”