‘Howl’ for the Opening Night feature
Ryan Summerlin January 20, 2010
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are no strangers to the Sundance Film Festival. The Oscar-winning documentarians have premiered three films together in the past.
This year, however, their Sundance experience is sure to be a bit different. Epstein and Friedman are the writers and directors of "Howl," the Allen Ginsberg biopic that has been selected as one of the Opening Night films.
To have their film kick off the Dramatic Competition is "a dream come true," says Epstein. "Sundance is really where we wanted to launch the film it’s an independent film, it was made in that spirit so we feel it’s the perfect home for it to have its debut," he says.
Epstein and Friedman joined forces in filmmaking more than 20 years ago. Since then, they have collaborated on a variety of projects, from episodes for the History Channel to "Paragraph 175," the 2000 Sundance jury prize documentary that explores the experiences of homosexuals during the Nazi regime.
"Howl" marks the duo’s first foray into narrative features. According to Friedman, Ginsberg’s estate approached them about five years ago (or, by Epstein’s count, eight years ago) with the idea for a film about the poet’s signature piece, "Howl."
"The name Allen Ginsberg conjures up all sorts of images and questions and thoughts and responses, so that alone intrigued us," Epstein says. "It became a challenge like a puzzle, trying to figure out how to take the poem and make it cinematic and tell this one piece of Allen’s story in a way that could work as a movie."
Ginsberg’s poem sparked a literary and social revolution. "I think one of the appeals was that the poem and Allen’s writing of the poem to us sort of represented the first inklings of the counterculture, so it seemed like a really important moment to try to memorialize," says Freidman.
When Ginsberg penned "Howl" in 1955, it was considered obscene because of the homoerotic connotations. Ginsberg was taken to court on charges of obscenity in 1957, but emerged victorious and became one of the most influential poets of the Beat Generation.
Epstein and Friedman considered many different avenues in translating Ginsburg’s work to the screen. At first, they thought the project might be documentary fodder. "One of the reasons we ended up making a dramatic film was that there just wasn’t that much material for a documentary, so we had to create it," says Epstein.
They started writing the script about two years ago and attended a Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab last year. "In terms of the writing, it was really breaking the poem down into thematics trying to pull out what we thought of as the key themes to the poem," explains Epstein.
"We approached it as we approach our documentaries," adds Freidman. "We started by doing a lot of research we read a lot of interviews with Allen that had been published, we went through the trial transcripts there was a wealth of material in both of those that became distinct elements in the film."
The filmmakers decided to focus on Ginsberg’s life from 1950 to 1957, including the events leading up to writing the poem and the ensuing obscenity trial.
Once the script was finished, Epstein and Friedman started to hear from actors who were interested in the project. "We didn’t have any expectation, but great hopes," says Epstein. "We just didn’t know how people would respond to the idea of us directing a dramatic film coming from our documentary background but, in fact, all the actors mentioned that as part of the reason they were interested."
The principal cast includes James Franco (as Ginsberg), David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels. Werc Werk Works, an independent production and finance company based in Minnesota, produced the project along with executive producers Gus Van Sant and Jawal Nga.
"Ultimately it’s a great tribute to Ginsberg," says Epstein. "People really just believed in getting this story out there and they liked our approach."
Anther reason many people were drawn to the film is its connection to the current debates about censorship and freedom of speech. "Those first-amendment issues are what drew the producers initially to the project," says Epstein. "[Werc Werk Works CEO] Elizabeth Redleaf and [President] Christine Walker were very excited by the idea that this film was addressing those issues in a narrative way."
"Everything felt like déjà vu, including the content of the poem," adds Friedman. "The issues that compelled Allen to write the poem are still very much part of the national conversation."
Now that production is finished and the fruits of their labor have been recognized, Epstein and Freidman can take a deep breath and enjoy their nonfiction feature debut. "Until you’re in that director’s seat, you don’t know what that experience is going to be, but it was a great one," says Epstein. "We had a really fun time making the movie. It was just one of those projects that things came together for."
"Howl" will receive its world premiere at The Eccles Center Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 21, at 6 p.m. and will screen throughout the festival as part of the dramatic competition. Epstein and Freidman, along with many of the cast members, will be in attendance on Opening Night. "We’re hoping it’s unlike anything audiences have seen before and that they’ll enjoy it," says Friedman.