This uncompromising excursion into American Gothic is not for the faint-hearted. Adapted from a 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel, the action is set in rural Tennessee in the early 1960s. Lester (Scott Haze), an unstable, childlike man, is evicted from his farm. He retreats with his rifle into the backwoods, sets up a makeshift home in an abandoned cabin and roves the landscape, wreaking havoc and upsetting and intimidating almost everyone in his path. Lester is identified as a local menace by the county sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson), and as his antisocial behavior veers in increasingly unnatural directions, he withdraws into a subterranean existence, regressing to an almost animal-like state. Confirming the promise of his recent adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, James Franco here demonstrates an unmistakable gift for unadorned storytelling, a rich sense of atmosphere, and a willingness to handle extremely difficult material in an unsensational manner. The result is a truly disturbing portrait of pathological atavism, showcasing a performance of absolute commitment by newcomer Haze.
“This is the greatest portrait of necrophilia ever” James Franco was told the other day about his film “Child of God.”
“Thank you,” he replied to Gavin Smith, who moderated the Q&A following Tuesday’s New York Film Festival screening.
The multi-hyphenate-at-large directed and adapted the film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel with producer Vince Jolivette. It’s a disturbing portrait of a sociopath, Lester Ballard – played by an unknown and fantastic Scott Haze – who lives on the extreme outer fringes of society in the backwoods of Tennessee, where he devolves into a brute creature who craves human connection to the extent that he resorts to sex with dead women. In an understatement, Franco said he knew the film wasn’t for everyone.
The never-seems-to-sleep actor mentioned his inspiration to adapt the novel came after read it in a class at UCLA seven years ago. It made “the hairs tingle on the back of my neck,” he said. “It was a way to talk about things that I thought were universal, this need for a connection with an other, someone outside ourselves, the need to love and to be loved” but “ it told it in a kind of extreme and unusual way, basically through necrophilia.”
Adapting books into movies is not new for Franco. He’s already adapted William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and “The Sound and the Fury” is in pre-production. He also just directed and wrote a screenplay about writer Charles Bukowski’s formative years. Franco’s movie and academic endeavors intersect. Franco is now preparing for his orals for a Ph.D. in English, specializing in American literature, so he said even more literary portraits on screen are ahead.
Below are highlights from the Tuesday’s NYFF press conference with Franco via Skype:
What from the McCarthy novel did you subtract or expand on?
James Franco: There’s always a question of how loyal you’ll be to the source and then in what way will you be loyal. Our approach was, yes, we love the book and we want to translate it to the screen in as honorable a way, or to honor the source as much as we can, so almost every scene in the movie you can find in the book, except for the scene where Lester shoots the stuffed animals. He doesn’t have this breakdown moment where he shoots them. That’s one of my favorite scenes.
Otherwise we stayed pretty close to the book. There’s more at the end of the book, there’s a bit of an epilogue that talks about Lester’s fate. Essentially it seemed to be the epilogue in the book was telling or relating one of the Cormac McCarthy’s theme, which is this kind of recurrence of violence or just that violence, there’s something inherently violent about humans and so he will layer his books with violence but also traces of violence throughout history so the ending of the book talked about Lester going to an institution and meeting another man who did even crazier things, ate people’s brains with a spoon.
Talk about developing the tour de force performance of Lester with star Scott Haze, who has to exhibit the qualities of a child but also an animal.
James Franco: I’m well aware that it’s a movie with disturbing subject matter that’s not for everyone, but I think one thing that anyone that has eyes can’t deny is that Scott gives an incredible performance, so I’m very proud that that exists. I’ve known Scott for over 10 years. He’s a friend of a friend. The actor Jim Parrack from ‘True Blood’ is Scott Haze’s childhood friend. So over the 10 years I saw Scott go through some very dark, personal things. He was kind of the friend of the friend that I didn’t really want to spend much time with (laughed). He was just kind of crazy and then he kind of came through all that and became a better man on the other side and so when I finally got the rights to the book I saw that Scott was a dependable person and so I thought I can have the best of both worlds. He could draw on his dark personal experiences as an actor but as a director I could depend on him to be a professional and not be a liability.
When I first read the book I imagined Sam Rockwell in the role or Michael Shannon has become a good friend of mine but I already cast Michael Shannon in a necrophilia role for a short film at NYU, ‘Herbert White.’ I thought let’s cast somebody people don’t know, not that anyone will think it’s really like (he’s a) mountain man or something, but it will just help in the suspension of disbelief even more if it’s like, ‘Wow! Who is this guy? And is he really like that?’ And then I knew if I put Scott in the role he was in a place in his career – you see this with a lot of actors – the one role where they just go for it. They just go to extremes to prepare.
As soon as I cast him he went to Tennessee. We didn’t ultimately shoot in Tennessee but the story takes place in Sevier County, Tennessee, where I guess McCarthy lived for a while. Scott went out there and isolated himself for three months before we started to shoot… He met the locals and learned how to operate that rifle and worked on the accent. I wasn’t with him but I guess he stayed overnight in actual caves on his own (laughed) and so when I got to West Virginia, where we ultimately shot, Scott was fully in character and as a director, (I) just cut back and let it be.
Talk about your interest or fascination with necrophilia? You made a short and now this feature.
James Franco: Okay. It’s true there ‘s a weird pattern. In fact early in my writing life even before the short at NYU I wrote a script about a man who works in a morgue and has friendships with all the bodies that come it. It’s not necrophilia, it’s communing with the dead. And I think for me, in my personal life I’m absolutely not attracted to dead people or anything like that (laughs).
If I look at some of the other projects I directed it hasn’t been planned this way but I do deal with characters who are either isolated and/or have a very rich imaginative life and so in case of Hart Crane (from the movie Franco directed and wrote, ‘The Broken Tower’), there was a character who was isolated. His work did not work with the modernist kind of writers of the day and (he) was isolated in that way. I view Lester the same way. Not that he’s an artist but maybe he’s a stand in for someone who is unable to fit into civilized society but he wants a connection with another so badly when he stumbles upon this opportunity; he figures out that he can have a relationship outside himself if he animates it with his imagination and so I guess for me it’s just, necrophilia’s an extreme way to show someone living in their own kind of imaginary world.
You seem to be fascinated with the outcast, those on the fringes or outside respectable society. Why do you want to make these stories now, especially now in a time when our society seems to be moving towards this corporatizes, homogenized kind of standardized representation?
James Franco: In a MFA program of any kind, art, directing, acting, one of the things you’re taught is to look for your voice, or try to find your artistic voice or your place. What can you do that others can’t do? So one of the things I found is that I’m in an unusual position. I’m in this very commercial film world. I’m in the pop culture world as a performer but I also have these interests that maybe are tangents to that world but don’t really lie in that world so maybe my thing, where I can generate a lot of energy is to bring those two worlds together.
Maybe it’s my place to bring some of these ideas into kind of more of mainstream outlet and why is it important? Making things homogenized is dangerous. We always need to question. I’m not about anarchy. I appreciate structure but we always need to question who we are and why we are and how we view ourselves and how we interact with others. These are things that always need to be constantly questioned and I think that’s one of the things that I try to do.
Do you consider your movies to provide life lessons and if so what do you want to deliver from this film?
James Franco: When you make a piece of art or film it’s not always kind of a moral enterprise. Films rest in a weird place. For a long time they’ve been mass entertainment. They don’t have to carry the role of educational tools or moralistic tools, at least as a primary function, so when I make one, and one like this, primarily I look to do a portrait, examine sides of what it is to be human through an extreme subject.
This isn’t a film that will guide you in being a better person. It’s not that kind of movie. And it also isn’t to say things should be this way or things should be that (way). But what I think it does is maybe very relevant is that it shows, here’s a person that can’t function in civilized society. He’s kicked off the farm. He goes to the cabin. He loses the cabin. He goes to the cave. He’s literally pushed farther and farther away from civilization. I think that’s a relevant topic today. The way that we socialize, at least we can say that the inner circles of mainstream communication are so bound up in technology that the way we socialize now is so intertwined with learning technological languages and social networking languages that there are many people that just give up, don’t want to do that, don’t want to engage with that. So you can say they are on the outer circles of this kind of communication.
The point of the movie isn’t to say if you don’t tweet or do Facebook you’re going to become a killer, or sleep with dead bodies, but it’s an extreme portrait of somebody on the outside. I don’t know if it’s a lesson per se but it’s a kind of a lens to look at a phenomenon that is happening in our day in it’s own forms and will continue to happen. People will be pushed outside the inner social circles.
Talk about the connection between your movies and academic studies.
James Franco: Right now I’m preparing for my oral exams for my English PH.D, so I’m reading a lot of books I’ll be questioned on. Then I’ll move on, if I pass, I’ll move on to my dissertation and I think that will involve American literature. That’s my specialization but also the ways that these different mediums interact with each other, so, yes, adaptation from literature to film (is my interest), but also the boundaries of the medium. What does one medium do that is better than the other?
And thinking about them, transforming to another one and back as translation of medium, rather than just thinking about adaptation, which I feel is kind of a more limited view, but actually looking at them as different kinds of language.
The films that I make are also very informed by my academic work because, like I said, searching for my voice wasn’t planned this way. One of the things about my voice is yes I like to adapt great literature. But also make it feel current or contemporary in other ways. Whether it’s the technology I use or the structure of the film or that kind of film, so I guess what I’m trying to say, is yes, my academic life is informed by my confessional creative life and vice versa.
Paula Schwartz is a veteran journalist who worked at the New York Times for three decades. For five years she was the Baguette for the New York Times movie awards blog Carpetbaggers. Before that she worked on the New York Times night life column, Boldface, where she covered the celebrity beat. She endured a poke in the ribs by Elijah Wood's publicist, was ejected from a party by Michael Douglas's flak after he didn't appreciate what she wrote, and endured numerous other indignities to get a story. More happily she interviewed major actors and directors - all of whom were good company and extremely kind- including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Plummer, Dustin Hoffman and the hammy pooch "Uggie" from "The Artist." Her idea of heaven is watching at least three movies in a row with an appreciative audience that's not texting. Her work has appeared in Moviemaker, more.com, showbiz411 and reelifewithjane.com.