In May, Milk Made’s Erin Kelleher sat down with James Franco for an interview at JF Chen in Los Angeles, the gallery which will house his Rebel exhibition from now until June 23rd.
During the interview, he talked about his fascination with James Dean and the ways in which he draws inspiration from him, his recollections about how the idea for the exhibition developed two years ago, his experience collaborating with the other artists who contributed to Rebel, and his notions about teenage delinquency, angst, and rebellion and how they are portrayed in his book, Palo Alto. We also discussed time management and how he is able to work on a number of large projects at once (and, yes, he does both eat and sleep regularly), his experience as a professor at NYU, the texts that he assigns for his students, and the details surrounding his upcoming book, Actors Anonymous.
Milk Made: You have been very involved with this exhibition, Rebel. Can you talk a little about that, and your experience preparing for it? Have you always been a fan of James Dean?
James Franco: Let’s see. I’ve had a long history with the raw material, with my being fascinated with James Dean from way back when I was in high school, and when I was in acting school I studied his work, and I eventually played him in a television biopic in about 2000. Then, about nine or ten years later, I read this book that was all about the making of the film, Rebel Without A Cause, and it re-sparked my interest in the material, and I wanted to revisit it, but I knew that I didn’t want to do it in a way that I had done before, with a kind of conventional film that would just tell the making of the movie. I think what was most interesting to me at that point were all of the myths that had arisen surrounding the film, surrounding the people involved in the film, because the myths and the rumors had become just as powerful as what actually happened in the film itself. James Dean and Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo had become iconic in a lot of ways, so I wanted to really examine that aspect of it, and that kind of started us on this path.
MM: You both directed and acted in some of the films in the exhibition. How was the process of directing a film different from that of starring in one?
JF: Well, I don’t think that any of the films are really directed in a way that you might think about when directing a feature length mainstream theatrical movie. They are all collaborations that had a very loose kind of structure, and we found all of them in the process. There were, of course, ideas that we had beforehand, but they were all evolutionary.
MM: There are some modern figures who are quite well known and rather controversial themselves who contributed to this exhibit, like Terry Richardson and Harmony Korine. What was the experience like in collaborating with them for Rebel? Were you working with them directly?
JF: Yeah. I’ve done a bunch of photo shoots with Terry Richardson, and he’s become a friend of mine. About two years ago when I first started thinking about this project, Terry, incidentally, came to me with this other idea of shooting me in drag for a magazine called Candy. And I thought: “Oh, that’s an interesting idea, and I think it actually relates to some of the themes that we want to deal with in the Rebel project. So, yes, why don’t we do it for Candy, but we’ll also incorporate it into the show.” And Terry is great to work with, I love working with him. And then Harmony is somebody that I have admired since I saw Kids in high school, but I had never met him. But when we were putting this project together, I happened to meet him and I told him how much I admired him and wanted to work with him, and he said the same, so we started talking about projects we could do together. Then it dawned on me – of course he should do something for Rebel because the original film, Rebel Without A Cause was a movie that captured teenagers and teenage delinquency and teenage rebellion in a fresh way, in a way that spoke to teenagers in their terms, and I felt like Harmony is the person that does that best now. So, of course he should be involved, so I asked him, and he was interested.
MM: This exhibit has been partially been described as exploring “teenage angst and issues of identity then [in the 1950s when the film Rebel Without a Cause was made], related to identity now” as well as exploring “Hollywood and [how it relates to] the art world.” Some of these themes are reminiscent of those in your work, The Dangerous Book Four Boys and Palo Alto. Do you recall feeling that sort of angst as a teenager? Were you rebellious?
JF: When Nicholas Ray came up with the concept for his film, Rebel Without A Cause, he knew that he wanted to make a movie about teenage delinquents, but he knew that he wanted to put them in the suburbs. Up until that time, movies about teenage delinquents had been made – there was a film called Blackboard Jungle that sort of wrote it up as an economic issue. Nicholas Ray, on the other hand, knew that he wanted to work with the material in a way that wouldn’t have anybody write it up to economic circumstances, and would instead show that something inherent to being a teenager makes you angsty, makes you confused – it’s a time to figure things out. And I think that that was what I was interested in when I wrote the book, Palo Alto. It takes place in one of the nicest suburbs in the country, but it’s not about exposing the sociological aspects of Palo Alto as much as it’s using those figures in that place as forms to speak about teenagers as a whole. So, yeah, as a teenager I got in some trouble, and it was a confusing time, as it is for most people.
MM: I have to ask you about time management. You act, you direct, you write, you’re teaching at NYU, you’ve helped to create this exhibit, and you recently announced that you will be putting out another book through Amazon. Honestly, do you sleep? Do you eat? How do you balance all of your work?
JF: Yes, I sleep, and I eat. (Laughs.) I mean, I do a lot of projects, but each of them gets care and time. It’s just that a lot of the projects are long-term projects, so that I can work on them over the course of months or a year, or even two years. We started talking about the Rebel project two years ago, and it’s been developing over all of that time. I’m filming a movie in New Orleans right now, but it’s not as if I did that movie and then I did this, you know, last month. (Laughs again.) It’s been a long process, and by doing it that way I can do multiple projects at once.
MM: And how is teaching at NYU going?
JF: It’s great! I just finished my second semester as a teacher; I teach in the graduate film program at the Tisch School of the Arts there at NYU. The classes are, I think, unusual and very specific; I get a class of about ten to twelve students and I bring in a source text – in the last two classes they have been books of poetry, contemporary poetry, one by C.K. Williams called Tar and one by Stephen Dobyns called Black Dog, Red Dog – and the students, as a class, take the poems, adapt them, and then shoot them, together, but in a way that allows for the final product to be unified, that they have an episodic but unified feature length film at the end of the class. We’ve done it twice now, and it’s been a great success.
MM: And your newest book is entitled Actor’s Anonymous. Is there a release date for that yet?
JF: I do have a book deal, and I am working on it. I don’t know quite when it will come out; they take a while.
MM: And it’s through Amazon, which has been quite a hot topic. Will it be released in print as well, or will it be available strictly digitally?
JF: Oh, no. It will be a real book, in print. One of my favorite teachers at Columbia was a guy named Ed Hart, and he read my thesis at Columbia, and about a year after that, he moved to Amazon and now edits books for Amazon Books, and he said, “I thought your thesis would make a great book for Amazon.” (Laughing.) Basically, the class that he taught dealt with literature in this vein, or at least in the kind of work that I was aiming for with this particular piece, so it had less to do with Amazon Books and more to do with working with this editor who really understood what I was trying to do.
MM: Well I am really looking forward to reading it when it comes out, James. Thank you so much for your time today, it was great to meet you.
JF: Thank you. It was great to be here.
Photos by: Chris Swainston
- Opening Night: "Rebel"
- MGU Wants You!
- James Franco: The Dangerous Book Four Boys
- Niv Bavarsky
- Milk Artists: Andreas Englund