What Happens When James Franco Directs a Movie?
In 1956, Lee Caplin, a 10-year-old boy, knew his neighbor in Charlottesville, Virginia, was an important man—a great American novelist. His books were supposed to be dark and complicated—stories about race and the human condition in the South. But to Caplin, the author was a kind, avuncular man who attended his Little League games. Some referred to him by his first name, William, but to the boy, he was always Mr. Faulkner.
One day, Caplin read Faulkner’s short story, The Bear, a coming-of-age tale about a boy who grows up to deny his inheritance—land that was tied to his family’s slave-owning past.
Caplin was floored, and eventually cornered his neighbor.
“Mr. Faulkner,” he said. “This would make such a great movie!”
But the novelist didn’t humor the boy.
“Not all books,” he said, “can be movies.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, some had a similar reaction when they learned that James Franco—actor, writer, director, painter, performance artist—would be turning Faulkner’s masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, into a film.
“Faulkner is notoriously difficult to adapt,” film critic David Denby told me. “The voice is so singular, the novelistic resources so idiosyncratically developed. You could dig a story out of ‘S and the F,’ but why would you try?”
And it’s true: The challenges are daunting.
There’s the setting: post-reconstruction South, early 20th century, Mississippi.
There’s the budget: miniscule, barely over $1 million.
There’s the limited shooting schedule: just 22 days.
And then there’s the structure and style of the novel: long, stream-of-consciousness passages, flashbacks that blend seamlessly into the present tense, chronological chaos and shifting perspectives, which only present another problem: the character of Benjy.
Thirty-three years old.
Entirely incapable of speech.
Following him and his shattered family is like being caught in a maze that rotates every time you find the exit. The Sound and the Fury is a highbrow literary classic, but it may be the last book you’d ever think of making into a movie. Franco, however, plans to honor the novel and all of its difficulties, adding to his burden.
Reviews of his last Faulkner adaptation, As I Lay Dying, another classic of shifting perspectives, were not particularly favorable. Writing for the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky called the movie “an academic art object, somewhere halfway between a graduate thesis and a video installation.” Chris Packham of the Village Voice agreed, saying Franco had transformed “a book that often reads like joyless homework” into “a film that feels the same way.”
Many actors also direct, but few are as high-minded as Franco. Over the past few years, he has taken on several other adaptations of American literature, such as Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, both gritty, venerated novels. Neither film has been released, but the thrust of his work has, for his detractors, supported the idea that Franco is running before he can walk, taking on projects that are perhaps beyond his capacity.
“Personally,” literary critic Dale Peck said, “I think he’s a wonderful actor, and could go down as one of the greats of his generation, if he stopped playing at Renaissance man.”
I was curious as to whether Franco could pull off his latest adaptation—by far his most ambitious. I asked him if I could drop by the set, and he agreed. “Working with material you revere so highly makes you want to rise to the occasion,” he later told me. “I know I better not screw this up.”
One thing that often goes unremarked about Franco is his eye for young talent—actors that aren’t yet stars, but probably will be. That much was clear shortly before 9:30 a.m., at the Golden Oak Ranch in the canyons of Santa Clarita, California, where it’s cold in the morning but often warm by noon. Franco and the film crew gathered by the foot of a rickety wooden bridge that crossed a pond surrounded by tall weeds. The space in either direction was vast: hundreds of acres of field, cut through with dirt roads and dotted with live oaks.
Nearby, 23-year-old Jacob Loeb was transforming into Quentin Compson, one of the most tortured characters in American literature. In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin leaves Mississippi in the fall of 1909 to go north to Harvard, and commits suicide less than a year later. What haunts him is the legacy of the South and his family, which had begun its financial free fall soon after the Civil War. Before that, the Compsons had been part of the old Southern aristocracy—the ruling class that acquired wealth and power on the backs of slaves. But by the time Quentin is born, the ruination is complete; there is only the once-glorious house, a sweeping pasture and little else.
The Compson family sells the pasture to send Quentin to school. As the eldest child, he is the family’s last hope for redemption, and yet he knows he will never succeed. He is too cerebral, too effeminate, too frail and too burdened. He is also sexually conflicted and in love with his beautiful, promiscuous younger sister, Caddy. He believes in chivalry and is obsessed with her purity. Several months before he goes to college, she has sex out of wedlock with a handsome, young, working-class man. She gets pregnant, and Quentin is sick with anger. He resolves to be a man and restore his sister’s honor. That his failure is inevitable reinforces his sense of weakness, his inability to save the Compson family.
It’s a crucial scene. And as Loeb prepared for it, he paced near the rickety bridge, readying himself to confront the man who slept with his sister, played by Logan Marshall Green. With his mustache and long hair, Green carried himself with a sense of virile outlaw coolness. The contrast between the two men was stark. Loeb, who is 5-foot-8 and thin as one of the weeds surrounding the pond, attempted to work himself into a holy, uncontrollable rage. He channeled the fruits of his research, which involved restricting his diet and calling suicide hotlines. For a while, he even quit jerking off. “Repression,” Loeb said. “I was interested in that aspect of repression.” Now he was bringing it all to the surface.
He was certainly dressed for the role, and his attire enhanced the futility of his mission. Wire-rim glasses. Baggy wool trousers tucked into knee-high socks. Brown sports coat. Bow tie. Shaggy hair parted to the side, thick with pomade. He bit down on a knuckle and took deep, hysterical breaths, shaking his head from side to side. In just a few moments, he would threaten Green’s life.
Not long ago, Loeb had been one of Franco’s students at the California Institute for the Arts, where he was teaching a film class. Then he got a role in Bukowski, and now he’s considered a Franco regular, which happens to be the case for almost all the primary actors in the film. This was not a coincidence.
“He needs people he knows can do the work,” Loeb said, “without babying and guidance.”
Matt Rager, the film’s screenwriter, told me the same thing. “James likes to work with people he can trust. There’s this impression of him as a megalomaniacal figure, which can’t be further from the truth. He loves to defer, delegate and collaborate. He directs the way he would want to be directed: with space.”
So, with space in mind, Franco, wearing a cardigan and winter hat, summoned his actors to the bridge. He walked Green down the on-ramp, and explained to Loeb when, roughly, he would shove him from behind. Then he brought them beside the pond, just before the bank. “You take him like this,” Franco explained to Green, grabbing Loeb’s shirt with one hand and mimicking a gut punch with the other. Green nodded, and Franco headed toward one of the cameramen, peaking over his shoulder. “Open up a little,” he said, and patted him on the back.
The scene called for Green to discharge a revolver, and someone from the crew shouted, “Test fire in the hole!” but no one had handed him a gun and nothing happened. Several men humping heavy equipment chuckled.
“Bang,” one of them said.
A sprinkler whirled in a distant field.
“OK,” Franco said. “Let’s get that sprinkler off! Who’s dealing with the sprinkler?” He walked halfway up the on-ramp, paused and chugged a bottle of water. He looked to his left and stared at the ducks gathered on the pond.
Green stood idly by on the bridge, leaning against a railing. Now he had the gun, and practiced aiming it toward a marker in the tall weeds, a placeholder for two glass bottles. To highlight the absurdity of Loeb’s endeavor, Green planned to nonchalantly pull out his gun and shoot them both, exploding one after the other. Then he would offer the weapon to Loeb and say, “I’m giving it to you. If your threat’s serious, you’re going to need it.”
“Really, this time fire in the hole!” a young woman shouted.
Green pulled the trigger, the gun fired and Loeb jumped. A group of ducks quacked and frantically flapped their wings.
“Is Ahna coming?” Franco called out. He was referring to Ahna O’Reilly, his ex-girlfriend, who was playing the role of Caddy. About 20 minutes earlier, she and Green had filmed the movie’s big sex scene, and now she would come to Loeb’s aid after Green punched him in the stomach. As if on cue, she stepped out of a van and approached the set. Her long, slightly curled blonde hair hung over her right shoulder, and her white Southern gentry dress flowed below her knees, just above black lace-up boots. When they shot in Mississippi, back in late September, she was attacked by fire ants, which crawled up inside her corset and even into her extensions. Now she smiled warmly and flashed her lime-colored eyes.
Franco gave some last-minute instructions to Green, and then they were rolling.
Loeb walked tentatively onto the bridge, where Green, smoking a cigarette, was waiting for him.
“Did she send you?” Green asked.
“No,” Loeb said, trembling. “Nobody did. This is just me. And I’m telling you to get the hell out of town.”
It was going well, and soon Loeb spastically swiped the cigarette out of Green’s mouth. Then he threw it in the water, Green fired his revolver, and suddenly a Toyota rolled around the pond.
The crew gasped.
“Pause!” Franco screamed. “What the fuck?!”
The confrontation was finished by noon, when everyone broke for lunch, and, despite the car hiccup, Franco had captured everything he wanted: the characters’ conflicted minds, the tension in the atmosphere and the moment Quentin’s spirit breaks, irreparably. By the end, he was in a good mood and bobbed his head to an inaudible beat, summoning a classic of another kind. “Everybody knows me,” he rapped. “I’m like a movie star.” It was a song by the Geto Boys, and the line he quoted seemed oddly apt.
Franco, of course, is a movie star, but his career has traced a circuitous path. Before Milk, in 2008, he was a middling Hollywood heartthrob, known for his role in the Spiderman franchise. Then, out of nowhere, he was someone to be taken seriously, a source of intellectual intrigue and fascination. As it turned out, there was a brain behind the pretty face, though no one had bothered to notice—the type of story journalists adore. At the time, he was enrolled in several prestigious MFA programs, and read Proust on set. People saw in him shades of Marlon Brando, but when he wanted to be more than Brando—a novelist, say, or a performance artist—they just as soon sniffed out the potential for schadenfreude. He was called a fraud, attacked by those who believed he encroached on their sacred, highbrow cultural territory, which, because he was unwilling to kiss the ground, somehow made it less sacred, less highbrow. That’s why people scoffed when he later enrolled in Yale’s Comparative Literature program to earn a PhD, and were satisfied when a photo of him appeared sleeping in class. The incident confirmed the notion that the outsider did not belong, which provided a sense of relief. Though had anyone asked, they would have learned that Franco was attending an after-hours lecture at 10 p.m. on his own time.
But after lunch, the director did not have such things on his mind. He, himself, had to get into character. “I always wanted to play Quentin,” Franco told me. “But now I’m too old.” He is 35 and discovered Faulkner as a teenager, when his father gave him his first copy of As I Lay Dying. The author became a kind of obsession for him, and so, too, did the desire to make his very difficult novels into films. “The structure of the books are so unusual,” Franco said. “They’re so experimental. Because The Sound and the Fury is a classic, you have to adapt that style, that structure. It’s the most exciting part.”
He was cleanly shaven, a change for him, and rubbed his chin as if searching for his beard. “One thing Faulkner does is put fucked up things into a novel, and then cover it up with prose. Other adaptations are quaint and tame, but I try to bring the wild out.”
Which is why Franco, casting the risks aside, has chosen to play Benjy, the Compsons’ developmentally disabled son.
When he arrived on set—a field beside a dilapidated barn—Franco was wearing high-waisted trousers, suspenders and a powder blue button-down shirt. The scene was to be shot from Benjy’s perspective, so Franco would have the jarring task of providing direction while remaining in character. According to the plan, he would come lumbering down the field and happen upon Miss Quentin, the bastard child of Caddy, played by 14-year-old actress Joey King. The year was 1928, and Miss Quentin, a tad promiscuous like her mother, had just linked up with an entertainer passing through town. Benjy finds them sitting together on a tree swing, making out.
The entertainer was played by Keegan Allen, a regular on Pretty Little Liars, the popular teen drama. He was in his mid 20s, tall, dressed in a dapper blue pinstripe suit, red tie and shiny brown leather shoes. King, by comparison, looked every bit her age. She was fair-skinned and had puffy, curly hair that was adorned with a blue headband. From another vantage, she could have been Little Orphan Annie.
“We’re witnessing a big moment in Joey King history!” Franco announced. “This is her first kiss, everyone! Not her first onscreen kiss, but her first kiss ever!”
King grinned and rolled her eyes.
Allen stood near the swing, messing with a book of matches. In the script, his character lights one, closes his mouth around the flame and removes it, still aglow. But there was a problem: He didn’t know how to perform the trick. On a higher budget film, someone would have likely taught him beforehand. A few of his cast mates tried to help, but they didn’t know, either.
“I’ve heard you can use Vaseline,” Allen said. “Put Vaseline in your mouth.”
“No!” King said. “Vaseline is very flammable.”
A bearded crew member walked by. “Just Google it, dude,” he said.
They agreed to cut the trick out of the script.
Franco strutted across the field and called out to King. “I’m giving you one of the pretty little liars for your first kiss,” he said. “You gotta tweet that. You’ll get so many likes on that tweet.” She and Allen looked at each other, laughed awkwardly, and took their seats on the swing.
“When should I notice you?” King asked Franco, who, as Benjy, would be approaching them from behind.
“Don’t worry,” he said, trying to put her at ease. “I’ll give you enough time to kiss him. We can do extra takes.” Franco laughed. “I want a nice kiss. A nice kiss. Slip him the tongue!”
“Just don’t walk too slow,” King implored, giggling nervously.
Franco placed a hand on her shoulder, paternally. Then he said: “Remember, you’re a saucy young lady.”
Nearby a few members of the crew adjusted the placement of some props—what appeared to be small, green bushes. “Hurry it up,” Franco said. He grew impatient, and after a minute strode out there in a kind of huff, rearranging them himself.
“James hates wasting time,” Lisa Vangelo said. She was holding a camera, and had been following Franco for the past year, making a documentary about him. “He doesn’t like having to wait. He’s very particular and knows what he wants. When James is ready to go, he expects you to be ready, too.”
Eventually, Franco called “Action!” King kissed Allen, no tongue, and Franco, as Benjy, interrupted them, crossing the field with a strange, loping gait, bent at the waist. Sometimes he groaned. Sometimes he bellowed. And sometimes he just stared blankly, mouth open, grabbing aimlessly at whatever was in front of him. Franco wasn’t yet sure whether the character should be quiet or loud, and wanted to give the editor plenty of options.
After a series of takes, Allen stepped off camera and stood by the barn. “As an actor,” he said, “you’re always scared of messing up. But not with James. James understands where you’re coming from.”
Before coming out to California, I also spoke with the novelist and film buff, Jonathan Lethem. I posed the same question to him that I posed to Denby and Peck: Why bother making The Sound and the Fury into a movie? What could possibly be gained? He was a bit more encouraging—a bit more optimistic.
“I really hope James is going to film all of Faulkner now, one after the next,” Lethem said. “I don’t see dangers, just opportunities. Sometimes crazily impossible adaptations make good movies.”
Perhaps, then, Franco’s greatest strength as a director is the very thing his critics call his greatest weakness: the penchant for the unconventional, for taking on projects that, to others, might seem ill-conceived, insane or even embarrassing. He’s willing to fail, so long as he can fail spectacularly and on his own terms. That he might have the ability to succeed—that he might know exactly what he’s doing—somehow upsets the natural order of things.
But Franco doesn’t care about the natural order of things. For instance, he’s willing to place actors in roles for which, on the surface, they seem improperly suited. Danny McBride, beloved for the comedic, inappropriate characters he portrays in movies and on television, had a small but meaningful part in As I Lay Dying, and was cast in the role of town sheriff for The Sound and the Fury. Seth Rogen, equally unlikely, is making a cameo, too, as a telegraph operator. Comedic actors can succeed in complicated roles, like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, or Ben Stiller in Greenberg. They just need the chance to prove it.
The next day Franco was sitting at a rectangular table, having just applied sunblock to his face, when McBride pulled up a chair. His hair was short and neatly combed, and he was freshly shaven, save for a bushy mustache. Franco’s smiling face reflected off his Ray-Bans.
“You look like a sheriff!” the director said. “You look 10 years younger.”
“Dude! I saw a pic of what you were looking like in this movie,” McBride said. “It’s a good look. You look awesome.”
The two men engaged in some shoptalk, and Franco explained that, after the shoot was finished, he was heading to Morocco for two weeks. “I get to make love to Nicole Kidman,” he said, beaming.
“Two weeks?” McBride said. “Shit, that’s a good amount of time. Just enough to avoid getting kidnapped, too.”
Later in the afternoon, shortly after 3 p.m., the actor was dressed for his part—charcoal suit vest, matching pants—and ready to go. He paced the front porch of a white clapboard country house. “Shit,” he said. “I ain’t played a sheriff before.”
Standing not more than 15 feet away, in a fedora and suit, beside a Model T, was Scott Haze, who plays Jason, Quentin’s other brother. He made Variety’s “Ten Actors to Watch” list in 2013, and was tasked with depicting a character who believed, inherently, that the world was out to get him. His eyes conveyed the sense that he was just barely keeping it together, and that every slight, every unlucky episode, was a last straw that stood between him and some extreme act of violence.
In the scene, it is 1928, Quentin has long been dead, and the family is way past collapse. Jason, stewing, turns up at the sheriff’s home, asking for help. His niece, Miss Quentin, has stolen his hidden stash of money and run off with the entertainer. The sheriff, though, is unmoved, skeptical of Jason, familiar with his issues, knows he ultimately pushed Miss Quentin away. He listens, asks a few questions and demurs, leaving Jason on his own, where he always expected to find himself.
McBride took a seat on a rocking chair beside the front door and slowly rubbed his hands together, tapping into a coolness that would be the counterpoint to Haze’s rage. Franco looked around. The cameramen were in the right position. The lighting was ideal. And the actors were in character.
“Rolling!” he said.
Everybody watched the emotional tug of war in a kind of baited hush. When Haze finally dropped the rope, it was heartbreaking.
“So that’s it?” he said, disbelieving, staring up at McBride, who leaned on a porch post, lording over him. “You’re not gonna help me? Just let those thieves scuttle off outta town?”
“If you had any proof, I’d have to act. But without that, I figger it’s just like you said—none of my business.”
“That’s your answer then, is it?”
“That’s it, Jason.”
Haze stormed off in a cloud of dust, and McBride looked after him, unblinking, imagining what might happen now.
“Cut!” Franco yelled, and the tension abruptly broke.
“Holy fuck,” Keegan Allen said. He was standing off to the side of the house, watching.
“Yeah, that’s how you do it with me, man,” McBride boasted, falling out of character. “One shot and done. I’m just gonna phone it in now.” Then he pivoted toward a cameraman, an old friend from film school. “Darius?” he asked. “Can you see my dick in these pants? With these pants, I feel like you can see my dick. I planned that.”
Lee Caplin, the young boy who once lived next door to Faulkner, was hanging out by the monitors, grinning, his eyes filled with gratitude. “I’m so glad I came for this,” he said. “What a wonderful scene.”
Earlier in the day, he was relaxing in the dilapidated barn, talking about the film and how he got involved with Franco. He’s the executor of the Faulkner Estate, and they’d been introduced six or seven years ago. “I felt he was in the right zone,” Caplin said, “in it for the right reasons.” Now he was a producer on The Sound and the Fury, and recalled the terms of their agreement, a one-time usage license, for which Franco received a substantial discount. “Instead of seven figures,” he said. “It’s six. And a modest six.”
The barn was musty, and dust motes peaked through the walls. Caplin explained that he believed in his director, and then grew wistful for a moment. “The Sound and the Fury?” he said. “This? This should be James Franco’s masterwork.”