James Franco – The Actor/Director Finds Salvation in Child of God
by Brad Balfour
The long journey to bring Cormac McCarthy’s controversial novel Child of God to the screen has taken the film from first being screened at last year’s New York Film Fest to finally getting a distributor and landing in cinemas.
From its first screenings at NYFF 51 to its pending theatrical release the first has stirred polarizing reactions. Given that film details the deteriorating conditions of thoroughly alienating and mentally disturbed young man made homeless, it’s not typically audience friendly. The added weight of Franco’s rep, good looks and charming smile coupled with the arch prose of literary luminary Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road), makes this worthy of attention for that alone. But Franco mines McCarthy’s story for some pithy thoughts about humanity and depravity while showcases a taut performance by lead Scott Haze as Lester Ballard.
Since the haggard Ballard engages in necrophilia after finding a dead couple in a car, the extreme elements of the film add an extra layer of moral degradation to this tale of cruelty and isolation. As he further descends into serial killing, the film tests and audience capacity to see him as a sympathetic being. Franco rendition here tries to create a sympathetic gauze sheen layer to a harsh and unrelenting story.
It’s not the first time the multi-hyphenated artist has generated reaction for the many projects he created whether as a film director, producer writer or actor. And besides the many cinematic projects this 36 year old Californian has worked on he has written poetry, novels, created artwork, performance pieces, has his master’s degree and is presently working on his PHD.
This interview incorporates comments made at roundtables held the week before the film’s opening and highlights spoken during the NYFF press conference with Franco via Skype.
There’s this quote in both the book and the film — “Just like yourself, perhaps”— what does that mean to you?
“He’s a child of God, just like yourself perhaps.” That’s from the book, and I put it in the movie. I had the sheriff say it. It wasn’t necessarily the sheriff who’s the narrator in the book, but he became the conscience of the film, or at least the person who knew Lester the best.
Obviously it’s a very ironic title — Lester seems like — what son of God? Like Jesus or something? He’s obviously not. But for me the point was that, even though his actions are disgusting, atrocious, and wrong, they’re coming from a place that’s very human.
I don’t even know if Cormac agreed with me. I brought this idea up to him that here is a guy that’s thrust out of civilized society, he wants what we all want, he wants to connect to another person, but he can’t. So he resorts to extreme means to do that.
It really guided the way I made the movie. It has necrophilia, yes, but it’s not a movie that thrives on that, or a gross-out movie that’s banking on the disgusting horror kind of his actions. It’s a character study using extreme actions as a way to talk about more universal things.
If you’re asking about the title, that’s the connection that, of course none of us would condone, if Lester was real. None of us would condone what he does, but within a fictional framework, he’s a monster through which hopefully we can see something of ourselves.
Why do you like to work with books as source material?
All directors, or artists or whatever are different and they should be. You wouldn’t want them all the same. I just saw an interview with Robert Altman talking about the same thing, that his process is not Kubrick’s process, and you wouldn’t want it to be. Kubrick makes his kind of movies, and Altman makes his kind of movies.
I went to film school, and one of the things these MFA programs teach you is to find your thing. Your own voice, your way of doing things. Before film school I had written original screenplays or co-written original screenplays, and I just found for me that I somehow wasn’t quite pushing myself as far as I think I could.
It really started in film school with poems. I did that with a poem by Frank Bidart, and by this guy Spencer Reece. I had such respect for Frank. Then when I got Michael Shannon in that movie, “Herbert White,” it was like, my gosh, I’ve got this source text that I have such great respect for, and I’ve got this actor I have such great respect for — I better not let them down. I better do everything I can so I don’t embarrass myself in front of Michael.
It makes me a better director when I’m working with a source text that I really respect. I’ve come to really like collaboration. When you adapt a book, you’re reading that book in a different way.
If you just read the book, you’re taking in the narrative, you’re taking in the characters, you’re understanding it in a certain way. If you make a movie it’s really an act of translation. You have to say what did he mean here? Why is that in the book? Do I need that in the movie? Am I in line with him here? Do I want to be in line with him here? All of those questions are questions of collaboration, and that is what excites me as a creator.
Not all actors do read the book.
It’s also on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s very important to read the book. Sometimes, if it’s a movie that’s decidedly not loyal to the book, maybe it would be better not to read it. But we knew from the beginning that we wanted to capture the spirit of this book.
Was there any special diet plan for the role?
I didn’t lay out a diet plan for Scott [laughs]. We just had a brief conversation very early on before we went into pre-production. He had played someone in the military, so his head was shaven and he was very built. I said I want to do this book Child of God and want you to play it, so don’t cut your hair and quit eating [laughs again].
So it was your idea?
No, I didn’t say to Scott to starve himself. I knew that Scott was ready to throw himself into something. I didn’t really have to say much. And I was right. He took it and really ran with it. So I can’t take much credit for what he did in his preparation. That was all his own volition.
What was the toughest scene to shoot on an emotional level? Scott mentioned one with two dogs…
Not two dogs, there were like six dogs, but two were like military [laughs].
What was your reaction when this incredibly difficult scene didn’t make the movie?
It’s hard for me to cut that stuff. I actually might do a class at AFI where I work with editing students and they make a new version of this movie; I just give them everything.
How do you decide which projects you do? Is it determined by challenge?
I wouldn’t necessarily adapt all the books that I love. But you also get a sort of little tingle, a feeling like, “Oh, I could do something with this.” Or, “I have an urge to do something more with this.” I want to engage with this, and basically adapt it. I guess it’s kind of as simple as that.
There are other things that factor into that. Does it provide some sort of technical or structural challenge, like The Sound and the Fury that Scott and I just did. That’s a classic, [but] it’s structurally very all over the place — are you going to take that on? If you take it on, how are you going to do that?
Not only are there great characters in there, but as a director there’s a lot of things that we have to figure out that pull me in new directions as a filmmaker. I do like a challenge that forces me to make a movie in a way that I haven’t made one before.
As far as giving my own book to somebody else, I love the collaborative process. So if I had just adapted it myself, I would have missed out on that great collaboration with Gia [Coppola]. I had already written the book, so I wanted to see what someone else would do with that. I didn’t want just one more version of my own thing.
What did Scott bring to the film that you didn’t envision when you started the project?
Scott did all of his preparation. So when I showed up to the set, it was there.
Do you personally identify with isolated, lonely characters?
I think so. If I look at the three features I made after I went to NYU, they’re like a trilogy of isolation. I did a very small movie about the poet Hart Crane, who was sort of artistically isolated, because his work didn’t fit with the prevalent work at the time. I did one about Sal Mineo in the last day of his life. Not that he was an isolated guy, but he spent a lot of time alone that last day. In some ways you could say he was, compared to the fame he once had, at the end of his life it was a much smaller sphere.
Then, obviously, there’s Child of God. I didn’t design it that way, but I think that for maybe ten years of my life I was so overzealous about the way I approached acting in movies that I did isolate myself a lot. Not that I was a Lester Ballard type, but I did spend a lot of time alone.
When you first took this on, when was the moment when you thought you’d found the angle to crack into this and translate this book into visual storytelling?
The book is in three sections. What was really interesting is that in each section Lester’s behavior kind of progresses. But they’re also told in different ways. There’s a shifting distance between the reader and Lester in each section.
In the first section, there are these voices and these interstitial chapters. They never really tell you where they’re taking place, but it’s as if a group of guys is sitting in a bar and telling stories. Some of the stories are about Lester, and some of the stories aren’t. Like there’s a story about a guy boxing a gorilla at a state fair or something. In that section it’s as if Lester is almost a legend, it’s almost the legend of Lester. You’re close with him sometimes, but you’re then pulled back with these interstitial chapters.
The second section, you’re very close to Lester. It’s the section where Lester discovers the teenagers in the back of the car, it’s where Lester makes his huge transformation into the wild crazy man in the woods. But also, he makes his own kind of personal discovery of how to find intimacy. You could read it as a guy seeking intimacy or a guy seeking love and those other voices disappear in the second section. So you’re very close to Lester in the second section.
By the third section, it kind of pulls back again. Lester is now a full-on murderer, but you’re not as close with him anymore. You don’t know how much he’s murdering until there’s this big reveal [that] he’s got like a cavern full of bodies. You don’t see him doing all that killing.
I loved that shifting distance in the book. I tried to do a little bit of that in the movie, where I didn’t do so much of the interstitial chapters. I did have voiceover early on in the movie, to give a sense that people are talking about Lester. Then you get close with him, and then by the end, again, the pulling back, I realized, actually was very helpful. Because even though Lester is so extreme, and so horrible, I didn’t want to repel the audience. I wanted to shock the audience sometimes, but I didn’t want it to be a slasher film, where we’re banking on the murders. I didn’t want it to be a horror movie or anything like that. I wanted people to be able to engage with Lester as a character. So by being able to pull back and not see every single murder, it actually made him a more watchable character. Not necessarily sympathetic, but more watchable.
In the movie, there wasn’t one very controversial scene from the book involving a mentally challenged child burned in a fire.
I had it in the first draft, because when I adapt these books that I love, I want to put everything in it. Inevitably what happens is, maybe I’ll do an edit like I did the first edit of the movie, and it was like way too long. I worked with Curtis Clayton to bring it to down, because it’s so hard for me to cut things out. It was so hard for me to cut that scene out of the script. Partly it was budgetary, but what the budgetary restrictions sometimes make you realize is, well, do we need another murder? And if we have this additional murder in here of a woman and a child burned in a house, will that serve the story that we’re telling? It’s one thing to tell it in a book, it’s another thing to watch it in a movie.
The main thing that it would be doing is that would just be turning Lester into more of a monster. I’m trying to put up a smoke screen so that people can emotionally connect to him while he’s still doing all these bad things. If we put in such an explicitly horrible act, it’d be harder to keep people watching Lester as anything but just a complete monster.
Was there a time when finally started the dailies were coming back, and seeing these things visually, where you guys were just taken aback from just seeing it?
(Laughs). When we were making it — I had a really great production designer, Kristen Adams, who I work with — they went out and built that little cabin for us to burn down. I was like, “That’s the cabin.” Then they went and found these actual caves, and it was like, “This is it, this is Lester’s home.”
The first time I saw Scott it was like, “I’ll never see Lester another way.” He just went off in that four-month cocoon he was in, he came out of it, and was basically the character I saw when I read the book. It was, for me, a really blessed experience of seeing this whole thing come to life in front of my eyes.
Scott has very physically demanding scenes in this movie. What were some challenges?
Scott was almost always in character. I remember there was one lunch on the second to last day, where Scott would finally come into the catering tent and eat with us. It was like, “Oh, there’s Scott!” I hadn’t really seen much of him, because he kind of kept to himself, and he kept the accent going and everything.
One time in January, Scott was running around in that skimpy outfit. I had to keep telling Scott, “I’m not going to shoot you any more today” because he was going to go, like Lester, charge through the water. And it was so cold he was going to get sick. So I was just like, “You are not allowed to go…”
I had to say stuff like that, because I knew he was so in character that he would just do it. So there were things like that. Meanwhile the whole crew is on the side of this hill, and it was so muddy, and we were tying ourselves to trees to shoot him sliding down the hill in the mud. It was like mountain climbing filming that day.
Did you have any trepidation about adapting the more shocking scenes?
Sometimes as a director you have a scene or a moment or something in your head that’s the kernel, the thing that excites you about the project. For me it was that scene where he discovers the teenagers. Not because I’m into necrophilia, but because it was such a beautifully sculpted scene that showed character development through behavior. I really loved that as a director and actor and writer. So we shot that first.
The first day Scott did that scene where he discovered the bodies and did all that stuff. You have people around that you trust. You know on a certain level this is make believe — we’re not really harming anyone, we’re all friends together. I’ve also learned if I believe in something, I have no inhibitions. I’ve done art projects with Paul McCarthy where his dirty ass is in my face. It’s like, “Okay. If I believe in something I would do anything.”
So it didn’t feel hard to me at all. And with Scott it seemed I was just directing it, I didn’t actually do it. That’s from the book.
What did you subtract or expand on from the McCarthy novel?
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 we love the book. We want to translate it to the screen and to honor the source as much as we can. 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 themes, that there’s something inherently violent about humans. He will layer his books with violence but also traces of violence throughout history. 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.
Scott Haze developed a tour de force performance of Lester who has to exhibit the qualities of a child but also an animal. What was it like getting that performance?
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. I’ve known Scott for over ten years. He’s a friend of a friend. The actor Jim Parrack from True Blood is Scott Haze’s childhood friend. So over the ten years I saw Scott go through some very dark, personal things. He was kind of crazy and then he came through all that and became a better man on the other side. When I finally got the rights to the book, I saw that Scott was a dependable person. 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 or Michael Shannon in the role, but I already cast 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? Is he really like that?” 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 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 [laughs]. So when I got to West Virginia, where we ultimately shot, Scott was fully in character. As a director, I just cut back and let it be.
What is your interest or fascination with necrophilia? You made a short on the subject and now this feature.
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 in. It’s not necrophilia, it’s communing with the dead. 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. So in case of Hart Crane [from the movie Franco directed and wrote, The Broken Tower], there was a character who was isolated. He did not work with the modernist writers of the day. [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. So I guess for me it’s just, necrophilia’s an extreme way to show someone living in their own imaginary world.
You seem to be fascinated with the outcast, those on the fringe or outside respectable society. Why do you want to make these stories now, especially in this time when our society seems to be moving towards corporatization, homogenization and standardized representation?
In a MFA program of any kind — art, directing, acting — one of the things you’re taught is to look for your voice. Try to find your artistic voice or your place. What can you do that others can’t do? 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. Maybe 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 more mainstream outlets. 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. How we view ourselves and how we interact with others. These are things that always need to be constantly questioned. I think that’s one of the things that I try to do.
What is the connection between your movies and academic studies?
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. 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?
[I’m interested in] 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. 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. I guess what I’m trying to say, is yes, my academic life is informed by my confessional creative life and vice versa.
Do your movies provide life lessons and if so what do you want to deliver from this film?
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. It also isn’t to say things should be this way or things should be that [way]. What I think it does is maybe very relevant. 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 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 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.
When you pitched this film to investors, did you say, “This is will work and people need to see something like this because of X Y and Z?” How did you finance this movie?
When I was pitching around? We didn’t really pitch it around. Vince, my producing partner, deals with that stuff, but I didn’t have to go to anybody and say, “The world needs this necrophiliac story.” [Laughs.]
It’s a negotiation between art and business. As an actor I’ve been in the biggest blockbusters, I’ve been in critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated, Oscar-winning movies. I don’t need to make a movie to aim for commercial success, or even critical success. I can just make the movies that I want to make just for the sake of loving those projects. Because of that, I’ve had to learn how to balance certain things. This isn’t one of the main reasons I did Child of God, but I can look at Child of God and say, “It’s a very tough subject. It’s a period piece. It’s the 1950s.”
A lot of this takes place in the woods, and there’s not a ton of actors in this. So if we’re smart, we can actually manage a great and dark piece of material like this, and it doesn’t have to cost what recreating Boardwalk Empire costs, because we’re just out in the woods, and the trees look the same in the ’50s as they do now [laughs].