James Franco has his fingers in many creative pies
January 30, 2015
James Franco is a modern renaissance man.
He’s an actor, filmmaker, producer, writer and teacher.
Over the past 15 years, he has acted in more than 100 films, directed more than a dozen films and his production company, Rabbit Bandini, has produced more than 50 films.
Franco, who is in two Sundance Films — "I Am Michael" and "True Story" — and also produced the Slamdance film "Yosemite," was interviewed by Variety film critic Scott Foundas for Slamdance’s Coffee With series at the Treasure Mountain Inn on Thursday.
Coffee With is a Slamdance program that allows filmmakers and filmgoers to hear about the ins and outs of artists’ careers in a relaxed setting.
Franco opened up about his endeavors and explained all of these outlets satisfy his creative urges.
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"It’s all connected and it’s all one thing," Franco said. "I take all those things seriously and I’ve gone to school for all of them because I do respect them and tried to learn about each one.
"Now, if I have an idea for something I want to do, I’m in that place where I can have the form match the content," he said. "Some things are better as a painting. Some things are better as books or as movies."
Franco’s journey began as an English major at UCLA.
"I wanted to go to film school, but since he didn’t apply as an incoming freshman, I was told to wait until he was a junior to apply again," he said. "That was too long to wait, so I left school to study acting in the valley, and I’m fortunate to have a career as an actor."
However, as an actor, Franco didn’t quite understand how movies worked.
"They are a director’s medium," he said. "I now know films work best when the director is the guide."
This was something he learned as an actor.
"I would do a eight months of research and come to the project with this character and the director would say it’s not right," he said.
So, Franco decided he wanted to be a director.
He made his directorial debut in 2005 with a film called "The Ape," based on a play by Merriwether Williams, the head writer for "Spongebob Squarepants."
"I spent my own money and had some good people on the crew and my producer Vince Jolivette was as new as I was and we were finding our way," Franco said.
During that process, he learned that filmmaking, while an art form, was still a business.
"You sell units," he said. "You don’t make one piece that you sell to a collector, because you are making something for multiple viewers."
Unfortunately, that way of thinking can be detrimental to an artist.
"You find there is this thing that gets into your head like rules — tension arcs, characters, stories — you’re supposed to tell," Franco said.
Succumbing to his desire to learn more, Franco returned to film school, this time at NYU.
There, he learned a valuable lesson.
"One thing that NYU taught me was that you can take the time to make the movies you want to make with the stories and budget you want to do," he said. "You can do the Spider-Man films to make money, but now this is your time.
"So I decided to make films that I wanted to see that no one was making," he said.
Some of the films he has directed include the documentaries "My Own Private River" and "Venice 70: Future Reloaded" and the features "Child of God" and "The Sound and the Fury."
As a producer, Franco has worked on such film as "Interior. Leather Bar," "I Am Michael" and "Yosemite," which premiered at Slamdance right after the Coffee With discussion. (See accompanying story).
The newest chapter of Franco’s creative life is teaching film at UCLA and USC.
"This came out of the love of being around certain institutions," he said. "I love being around schools and it was time to give back."
During the classes, which are all production classes, Franco refers to his acting experiences to urge young filmmakers to follow their dreams.
"One of the things when I was an actor I found that I was still dependent on all these people to apply my trade," he said. "I had to get cast in something or someone had to write something that I liked and if I was lucky enough to find that, I had to actually get it."
The main thing he emphasizes to his students is to create a community.
"The students need to find their own people so they aren’t dependent on the gatekeepers in the industry," he said. "This way, the students can make movies."
He also encourages them to pursue the inroads of the industry to make other films.
"At the same time, make other films that you want and do well," he said. "In that sense, I can show them that they can do this.
"I hate knocking on doors and pitching ideas," Franco said. "Isn’t it more fun to go out and do it then show people what you meant? That’s how I teach."