James Franco: The Great Wizard of Academia – interview

Husam Asi with James Franco

Often film stars arrive at interviews accompanied by their managers, publicists or make-up artists, but James Franco shows up to our rendevouz at the Langham hotel in Pasadena with his young students. Armed with video cameras, the youngsters, from Franco’s creative writing class at the English department at UCLA, record every move of their mentor, who himself looks like one of them: wearing jeans and a leather jacket and smiling playfully.

“They’re filming me, but it’s not because the project is about me,” Franco explains, almost apologetically. “Really, it’s because it allows them access to what I do.” The UCLA English department asked him to teach because they wanted a film-centred class for their students outside the film school. “So I’m trying to give them not only creative writing experience and assign creative writing projects but to show them different aspects of the film industry, filmmaking and promotion.” So he is teaching them how Disney is promoting his latest film Oz The Great and Powerful.

Franco is not your typical Hollywood star. When I first met him, 3 years ago, he was enrolled in four graduate-school programmes: fiction-writing at Columbia University, fiction at Brooklyn College, poetry at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and filmmaking in New York University. The following year, he was admitted to do a Ph.D. in English literature at Yale.

“I finished most of my degrees,” he says, nodding his head and smiling proudly. “But a Ph.D. takes a long time. I’ve done all my course work at Yale. You do two years of course work and then I have to take my foreign language exams.” Then he complains that his attempts to master a foreign language were in vain. “Those are looming very large on my horizon, and I’m very scared,” he chuckles.

“I’ll do those and then I have to take my oral exams, which basically is reading 100 books in a few months, then three teachers can ask you any question about them. And then you write a dissertation.”

In the meantime, he teaches at  USC’s film department, NYU’s film department and CalArts, in addition to the UCLA’s film and English departments. Having been disenchanted by the education system in his MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs, Franco has devised a new method of mentoring students in the art of filmmaking, which requires them to collaborate on adapting books, whose rights he had acquired.

“They’ll have a draft, and everybody will comment on it, which is typical for an MFA program,” he enthuses animatedly. “But it’s slightly different here because normally in an MFA environment, everyone has his or her own project, so when you’re commenting on somebody else’s project you have less of a connection to it, but here all projects are connected. So the notes are more about bringing everyone together rather than just commenting on a foreign project, a project outside yourself.”

Once the script is solidified, all the students go out and shoot it on a budget of $5 without the real actors or locations. “They do every shot or an approximation of every shot, and then they edit it together and bring it in and we watch it,” he says.

After discussing it and agreeing on a direction, Franco helps them get financing, resources and of course big stars to act in the movie, such as Natalie Portman, Chloe Sevigny, Olivia Wilde, Kristen Wiig, Seth MacFarlane and Kate Mara, who took part in these projects. “The young students get an opportunity to work with the best actors around and then because I own the rights to the books, we can go and release the films.”

Sounds like heaven for any aspiring film student, and hence the interest in his classes is overwhelming, which begs the question, who are the lucky ones to get in. “It’s a collaborative atmosphere in my classes. So I want students that are enthusiastic and willing to work with others instead of these students that maybe make the best films or write the best screenplay, but don’t want to work with other students. They kind of disrupt the class. So I work with the other administrators to find the best, but the best collaborators.”

You may think that the academic actor wouldn’t have time to achieve anything with such astonishing extra-curricular activity, but you would be wrong. Since he embarked on this academic journey in 2006, he has been able to star in several movies such as Pineapple Express (2008), Milk (2008), Eat Pray Love (2010) and 127 Hours (2010), for which he earned an Oscar nomination. He also played a recurring role in TV show General Hospital (2009), which lead him to exhibit an art show in MOCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art) about his character in the show, which he filmed and turned into a movie called Francophrenia. He also had the time to co-host the 83rd annual Academy Awards with Anne Hathaway in 2011.

Often directors spend years making a movie, dedicating their entire time and energy to the process, yet, amazingly Franko was able to to write and direct several movies in his recent busy years, including As I Lay Dying, which he hopes to premiere this year, and currently is working on a new one.

It’s exhausting just listening to him listing the projects that he is working on, and before he unlocks the mystery of his time planning, he reveals that he spends his “spare time” with his many friends. “I’m fortunate enough that my hobbies or my interests are my work,” he reflects, his smile stretches from ear to ear. “So I don’t really need a hobby to distract me or pass the time.”

The question is how does he squeeze all the above in his schedule? “These are all things that with proper planning are achievable,” he stresses, his hand charting a plan on the desk. “So I guess I just take the necessary steps to achieve them and everything has its place and gets its due attention, and I make it happen.”

Franco teaches in New York on Sundays and in LA on Mondays and fills the rest of the week with other projects. “So I’m working on a film, I’ll just go into work and I’ll act or if I’m directing, I’ll direct. My day usually doesn’t end after the 12 hours of shooting. Maybe I’ll have homework to read for Yale. Or I’ll reread the books that I’ve assigned to my classes. I just had a show open in Berlin, so if I have paintings or various forms of art that I need to accomplish, I’ll work on those. So everything sort of finds its place.” Indeed, he also paints and exhibits his art in various galleries in New York.

It’s Friday, and Franco is here to talk about his lead role in the 3D-fantastical adventure Oz The Great And Powerful, which united him with his favourite director Sam Raimi, who directed him in the Spiderman movies. The film imagines the origins of the wizard character first brought to life in author L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

As he often does with the roles he plays, Franco, who has been a big fan of Oz since childhood, prepared assiduously to inhabit the wizard’s character, watching the 1939 Oz movie, reading the book and even spending two weeks with a famed Vegas magician Lance Burton. “He did teach me some secrets,” he giggles, shifting in his seat. “I learned how to have a flame arise from my hand. And I could turn that into live doves and then I could pull rabbits out of a hat and that kind of things,”

Although he had never possessed any the magical skills that his character excels in, Franco found a great parallel with him. “I think Oz is a great stand-in for both the things I do as an actor and what Sam Raimi does as a director,” he explains. “Oz is a performer. He’s an entertainer, and he also deals with illusion. It even gets as specific as his love for Thomas Edison and early forms of film projection. So you can read Oz as an early form of a director/performer or a filmmaker of some kind.”

Like Oz, the Palo Alto-born actor was a dreamer. He used to dream about becoming a great actor while working at McDonald’s, after he dropped out of UCLA in 1996 in order to pursue an acting career. “Now, I can say that I have achieved everything I dreamed about,” he giggles in satisfaction. “I’ve gotten to act with my favourite directors. I’ve written and directed projects that I am proud of. I am very fortunate. I have a very good life.”

Having attained his life goals, the 34-year-old star doesn’t stress over making the next great movie, albeit he still seeks out good parts. Recently, he has starred in This is The End, The Iceman, Spring Breakers and Lovelace.

“Of course, I want to do good work, but I try not to spend as much time on this career building kind of thing or pursuits that involves only myself,” he exclaims. “It’s one of the reasons I teach. I love that it takes me out of myself, that I get to look at students’ work, that I get to provide them with opportunities that they dreamed about. It’s a great place to be; to be able to give that to other people.”

Suddenly, Franco pauses, his joviality gives way to solennmess, his eyes moisten, struggling to get the words out of his mouth. He glances around reflectively, searching for the elusive syllables. “I’m so blessed to be able to do that because actually it’s one of the things that makes me most happy,” he says in a soft tone. “I get emotional when I get emails from students saying how amazing the experience was or that you know their dreams are coming true. It’s great. There’s nothing better. So to be part of that is a great gift to me.”

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