In hindsight, no one should have been confused when the ever-unpredictable James Franco made his first appearance in 2009 on the ABC soap opera General Hospital. True, the guy’s an Oscar-nominated actor who’s clearly too overqualified to guest star on network television’s daytime world of melodrama and overdone on-screen performance, but don’t forget that we’re talking about the same James Franco who hosted the 83rd Academy Awards in a state of visible indifference, released a collection of short stories in 2010 (Palo Alto: Stories), once directed a dance-theater show, and dreamt up Three’s Company: The Drama, an experimental that reframed the classic John Ritter-led sitcom into something much darker.
And those are just a few of Franco’s excursions into an unabashed, for-the-world-to-see performance art. Yet, his long-running stint on General Hospital is arguably Franco’s strangest resume builder thus far, especially when you consider that his homicidal, artsy fartsy character’s name was, yes, “Franco.” As the bizarre new mockumentary Franco (or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) makes hilariously clear, though, Franco’s decision to join the soap was rooted in self-aware ulterior motives.
In the tongue-in-cheek, wholly unique flick, co-directed by Franco and award-winning documentary filmmaker Ian Olds, hours’ worth of footage, captured during Franco’s final day of shooting for General Hospital (when his character dies in a typically over-the-top manner), get reworked into a clever psychological thriller in the loopy vein of David Lynch. Using riotous voiceovers, rumbling and creepy music, and various other visual tweaks, Olds freaked the otherwise mundane footage into a fictional look at Franco’s mental collapse, caused by the paranoia of finally realizing that he has no business being on a General Hospital production set.
For Olds, Francophrenia is a sharp left turn away from his more socially and politically driven previous documentaries, including 2009’s heavily praised Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi. In honor of Francophrenia’s premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival (the first of four screenings takes place tomorrow night at 5:30 p.m. EST, in NYC), Complex spoke with Olds about James Franco’s ability to lampoon his own celebrity image, the joys of poking fun at soap operas, and turning a routine TV shoot into a simultaneously funny and eerie oddity.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To find out more: Francophrenia
Whether this was your intention or not with Francophrenia, I have to say: I was laughing the entire time.
[Laughs.] That’s awesome. That’s good to hear. For me, if it’s not funny, it doesn’t work, but it’s a weird kind of humor. For instance, when we showed it at Rotterdam, the sense of humor didn’t play as well as it does in some places here, so there wasn’t as much of a reaction. But the hope is that’s both a kind of comedy and a horror show, in ways. I hope it’s really funny. People not taking it too seriously is the way to go.
For me, knowing all of the bizarre and ambitious things that James Franco has been doing recently with his celebrity status really helped me settle into the humor and find it that much more funny.
Exactly, and that was definitely the starting point: realizing that this would be a way to engage with all these questions that have been circling around, like, “What is James Franco up to? Is he for real? Is he a genius, or is he full of shit?” Engaging with all of that was definitely our starting point.
Let’s start at the beginning. How’d you first connect with him?
A few years ago, I edited a film called Saturday Night, a straight documentary that he directed about the behind-the-scenes of Saturday Night Live, when John Malkovich was hosting. That premiered at SXSW, and it got picked up for distribution—it’s still going to be distributed, but I think there’s some delay with a lot of legal stuff or something. So we met during that film, and I’d heard how he’d filmed all of this behind-the-scenes stuff for his General Hospital shoot, and I hadn’t seen it. We talked about trying to do something with that material, but he didn’t know what to do with it exactly; originally, he said, “Yeah, let’s try to make a documentary,” and I knew from the beginning that he wanted it to be a somewhat more experimental documentary.
Once I started looking at the footage, I realized that doing any sort of conventional documentary really wouldn’t be that interesting with the material that he had, and I had this idea about writing this fictional, third level of Franco. I told him about the idea and he was totally open to it, he thought it was very funny and good. And then he basically gave myself and my writing partner, Paul Felten, a lot of freedom just to play with and mess with his image, which I really appreciated.
I think the film would feel really different if you felt that James Franco was making every decision about James Franco. Instead, part of the tension is because you have this quote-unquote “real” James Franco on screen, and then you have this imagined James Franco that we’ve projected onto him, which to some degree is out of his control, and just the tension between those things is funny. He was involved, obviously, and he collaborated on it, but he definitely gave us a lot of freedom to mess with his image; he didn’t intervene to make sure his “celebrity” looked a certain way.
That way, it became a thing where he’s the creator of this whole experiment, and then he also became the subject of it, and that was important.
It’s fascinating to think that you weren’t even on the set to actually film any of the footage, because throughout Francophrenia it really seems like he’s mugging it up for the camera and totally playing into the concept. Did he ever talk to you about his initial intentions for bringing the film crew onto the set in the first place? Because it really seems like he planned for this concept all along.
Yeah, I talked to him about this exact point, actually, but more after the process than before. One thing that’s interesting, I think, that he did was he knew that this was an interesting moment where all of these layers were at play, but he didn’t know yet what exactly he wanted to do with the material. It looks like he’s mugging for the camera, but mostly it’s just the fact that there are three cameras that he and his team set up there, constantly running. So I was able to sit with the footage and find all of these weird moments, because it means that there’s almost always one camera on him, so I tried to find all of these moments where he’s sort of exposed in some way, and that were good moments to project the voiceover onto, or to find comedic or strange moments.
It’s important that it’s all funny, because if it’s not then it’s all boring and it doesn’t work. But at the same time, it could just be this kind of gimmick if there isn’t something more going on, so I also like the kind of unsettling and creepy elements, for lack of a better word. [Laughs.] Where it’s both using the documentary footage to tell this fictional, loose story, and at the same time using the artifice of that story to reframe the documentary footage to help you see it with fresh eyes. This is real footage of real people doing their jobs, and it is pretty surreal, all of the energy that’s getting put into this insane soap opera. So I think it’s funny but also sometimes disturbing.
It was interesting. Whenever I edit something, the first thing I do is watch every single frame of footage from beginning to end. There was something interesting about this footage—for some reason, when I first got it, it was all out of sequence. So I was looking at footage without the logic of the day, and I had never been there, so I didn’t know what it was like. I was watching this footage raw, and that helped me to see how surreal it was. I was seeing things from various points-of-view that weren’t connected.
One of the earliest things I saw was that footage of James falling off the building and saying, “Don’t kill me, I know where the baby is!” [Laughs.] After I saw that, I had this idea, after I’d spent several days going through the footage—it probably took me three weeks to sift through it all and organize and think about it.
After a week or so, and seeing that footage, it clicked that this could be the strange entry point into the whole thing, and I never knew if it would work. It’s definitely weird experiment, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this film, so I didn’t really have a totem model. But at the same time, it had some David Lynch-like reference stuff, in terms of the heavy sound design and surreal quality.
Was the footage just of that final day of shooting, when his character dies, or did he document his entire time on General Hospital?
They shot more of it, but the footage that I got was just of that one day. Originally, I had thought about seeing if there was any more material outside of that that we could use, when I was still trying to decide if this would be enough for a film. But then I started thinking that there was something interesting about staying in this one place and also using the soap opera scenes themselves, and keep it really contained. The other layer would be provided by, one, this voiceover, and, two, the tension between this artifice we were creating and the weird quality of that documentary footage.
One of the funniest aspects of Francophrenia, for me, was how it pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the soap opera itself. There’s that great voiceover where the voice in James Franco’s head says, about the soap’s plot, “This doesn’t make any sense.” Going into the project, were you familiar with soap operas?
Well, to a degree, yeah, but mostly with that knowledge that most people who don’t know soap operas have: I’ve seen some, especially when I was younger, at my grandmother’s house, but I’ve never really watched them like that. One thing that James said, which I think is true, is that when he was going to do this project, part of his realization was that in some ways soap operas and conventional Hollywood films aren’t that different. Often, there’s this melodramatic storyline, but they’re more polished in big studio films.
And there was something about thisplace that allows you to see these weird mechanics of storytelling, what I think of as “industrial image production.” In a soap opera, it’s easier to see how ridiculous it is, but there are also these other parallels to moviemaking, when you just see all of this incredible amount of energy going into something that’s often times ridiculous. [Laughs.] I don’t want to be too mean, because I know a lot of people love soap operas.
The thing is, though, that I’m sure a lot of people enjoy watching soap operas for that exact reason: It’s a lot of fun to watch ridiculous storytelling told and presented with straight faces.
Yeah, exactly. The melodrama, that over-the-top-ness—that’s what I think is fun about them.
Francophrenia is definitely a change of pace for you, being that your previous documentaries have covered worldlier and heavier subjects. Was that one of the project’s biggest hooks for you?
Yeah, definitely. The funny thing is that, unlike many documentary people, when I first started making films, I thought I was going to be doing fiction films—I’d went to graduate school for that. But in the meantime, I was editing docs and started making documentaries, and then all of the sudden I had a career as a documentary filmmaker. I made a film in Iraq and a film in Afghanistan, and I became very conscious of that.
Fixer is a film that I’m very proud of, but I also realized that I didn’t want to keep going back to war zones, and I didn’t want to necessarily be pigeonholed as the guy who makes these war films or political films. For me, this was a great chance to go in a completely different direction. And it’s also geared directly toward my personal interests; I’ve always been interested in performance and experimental theatre.
For instance, stylistically in Fixer you would never use such overwrought and visual sound designs—it just wouldn’t be appropriate. But because this film is in some ways mirroring the over-the-top nature of soap operas, it gave me permission to go very big with the sound design and the visual stuff. So it was a lot of fun.
You also have a co-writing credit, yet Francophrenia didn’t immediately strike me as a film that’d require a traditional screenplay. What was the writing process like for a project as bizarre as this?
That’s true. It’s interesting because on this project, the writing credit means a different thing than you’re used to. In this case, it was a couple of things. First, it was about the experimentation and improvising off of it, and sometimes Pete and I would both improvise. It’s a very abstract story, of course, and it’s clearly not trying to tell a story in some sort of straight narrative way, but it was very delicate to try and build the structure of James’ escalating delusions, so to speak. So the writing came in on that level quite a bit, and Paul [his co-writer] was very helpful with that.
As you can imagine with something like this, it either works or it doesn’t. It walks a fine line, and for some people it still may not work for them. So it was very important to have this strange and delicate coherence that you can always feel but not always see, and the writing was key on that, although it was very experimental. It was improvisation, structural thinking, and writing in screenplay form, but definitely unlike a screenplay that would be conventionally written.
There must have been a nice degree of comfort in the writing room, too, because you had all of the finished footage right there to watch and use to make script changes.
Exactly, and that’s a really good point. The voiceover, as is, was recorded by myself, but originally James was going to do it—he had wanted to do it, and I wanted him to do it. And then, because of this process was Paul and I were rewriting and re-recording, my voiceover got some embedded in the pace of the thing, that it was almost impossible to just re-record it all with someone else’s voiceover; it would have taken so long to rebuild everything. He would’ve had to re-improvise everything, so we ended up just keeping it with my voice.
At first, I was worried about that, because I felt that it could somehow ruin the effect, but I realized that, if anything… For one, if people take it for granted that it’s not his voice, that helps you believe that it’s coming from his head, and, two, it adds an extra level of strangeness, where it’s someone else projecting this imagined inner monologue onto him. So I think it worked out, but it was not the original intention.
Yeah, it was. It’s funny, because it probably came to me within the first ten days of looking at all of the footage. I was looking at the footage and the first realization I had was, Shit, I don’t see how we can make this interesting enough as a straight doc. And once I realized that, I said, “OK, so what can we do?” I remember this sort of strange moment, and I don’t know how this happened, actually, where the sound cut out for some reason—I think there was a glitch in the camera. The sound cut out and I flashed through my mind back to this weird, strange Russian film called Confession, by [Aleksandr] Sokurov. It’s a documentary film about the Russian navy, but it uses this fictional voiceover of a captain who you never see, but you hear his meditative voiceover over the film.
I went back to that movie in my head, and I thought, Whoa, what if you do something like that here, but the fictional voiceover was this other level of James? So it came to me as a sort of fully-formed thought, and I immediately thought it was a strange idea, but I also felt that it was the key to making this film. I thought about it for another day, and then I wrote to Paul and James to get their feedback, and they were both into it. It’s one of those weird strokes of, I don’t know, luck or inspiration, I guess.
You said that James Franco stayed pretty hands-off throughout your creative process, right?
Yeah, but I think it was intentionally so. I was showing him edits as I went, but he wasn’t saying, “Talk to this out,” or, “Don’t do this.” He recognized that there was some value in having someone else manipulate his image, because, as I said before, in some ways it feels like that’s what’s happening often in the real world, anyway. People are projecting all of this stuff onto him, so he saw that the film would be interesting because he was, essentially, giving his image over to us, and then allowed us the freedom to play with it.
When I first showed him cuts, I was wondering what he’d think, because it’s not always the most flattering thoughts. We’re making fun on him, in ways—good-naturedly, I think. But he was immediately into it and thought it was funny and great.
There are a ton of great voiceover lines that poke fun at him. One that stood out to me was, when he’s growing angrier and angrier toward the people on set and the episode’s storyline, “I went to graduate school for a reason, people.”
[Laughs.] That was actually a late edition to the film, but when we came up with that line, I was really happy. I think it’s really funny, and so did James.
There’s also a nice amount of voiceover that’s not projected onto James Franco, but, rather, the door symbols on the men’s bathroom: the one of the “man” and the handicap symbol. The first time that happens, it’s really surreal because you can’t immediately discern that it’s not his inner monologue anymore, and the last thing I thought it’d be was the bathroom door’s symbols. Where’d the idea to do that originate from?
[Laughs.] It’s funny, there are two things in this film that I think are really moments of strange inspiration, whether people like the moments or not. The first one is what I said about how the voiceover came to me from thinking about that film Confession, and the second one was… Because you have to just watch the footage before you edit, I was watching the footage and there was this shot held forever on this bathroom door, and I said to myself, “Why am I looking at this image for so long?” It wasn’t on the tripod, either; it was handheld, where someone was trying to focus on this door. Only later did I realize that they were just waiting for James to come out the door.
It was maybe a week earlier when I’d come up with the idea of the voiceover, and then I started looking at every image and asking, “OK, so how can use voiceover here?” There, it occurred to me that the symbols could be talking to each other. [Laughs.] It seemed totally ridiculous, but once we tried it, it kind of worked, and it became strangely important structurally. I don’t know if they’re James’ imagination or whatever, but they’re the only voices that are outside of him, so they allow a push-and-pull between him and help fuel his delusion. It was a very strange idea that ended up serving a real structural purpose.
It’s so damn bizarre. I’m telling you, when it first starts, I didn’t know who the hell was talking, but you hold on the door long enough for it to finally click, and it was that much funnier once I realized who was supposed to be talking.
[Laughs.] It’s such a weird film that I never how it’s going to play, so I’m glad that it worked for you.
I want to go back to what you call “industrial image production.” How much did the actual General Hospital side of it all, the episode’s production, play into your approach to the project?
For me, it was a thing where, you spend so much time with something that there comes a point where you’re trying to find something deeper in it, to make it resonate on multiple levels. I never wanted this to be a gimmick, and the thing that the footage started showing to me, in a way, was that this is in some ways about labor. It’s the element of the “dream factor”; it’s this weird access point to this kind of work. You’re seeing it on all of these levels, and you’re seeing all of the energy that toils into making these kinds of fantasies. It’s the crew, it’s the actors, and then this celebrity who in some ways is obviously glorified but is also consumed and eaten by this process.
That became important to me while thinking about the film, to give it more of a resonance. I left some of those longer shots where you’re seeing this place and these people, in this kind of surreal landscape. Because it’s this funny and strange story, the longer shots allow you to slow down and really look at what they’re doing, and you can say to yourself, “Wow, look at all of the expertise and labor that goes into making these kinds of strange fantasies.”
For me, it’s all about that tension between not being afraid to be irreverent and ridiculous and also stopping to say, “Hey, there’s something going on here that is maybe a little disturbing, too.” [Laughs.]
Near the beginning of the film, you hold extremely long on this shot of James Franco walking down a line of rabid fans and signing autographs and taking pictures with them. The longer the scene goes on, the more surreal and subtly disturbing it becomes—you don’t know whether he’s going to remain happy or just lose his shit.
[Laughs.] That was a really interesting moment. I realized that we’ve all seen that image over and over again, of a celebrity being greeted by his fans, but the most interesting thing to do for that scene was to let it continue on for so long. It’s not a manipulation, really. It starts to take on other layers, once you start to see the hunger of the fans, and then you start to think, Hey, why amI watching this for so long? And what are these people are doing?
I think that allows a different kind of access to the material. You couldn’t get away with that in a conventional film or a conventional doc, but because this really was a kind of experiment, we felt freer to experiment in that way and see what it would do to an audience to have to look at that image for so long.
With all of the projects that James Franco is working on these days, and all of the strange meta-performance-art moves he’s been making lately, Francophrenia feels like the best encapsulation of all of that, but, most importantly, it really put his own intentions into perspective. In your mind, what do you make of how James Franco’s been playing around with the idea of “celebrity”?
First off, I really appreciate that, because in some ways that was our intention: to sort of crystallize all of these things that have been floating around, and that he’s been doing. So I like your reading of it. For me, I respect him tremendously, because I think he is very genuine in his pursuits. If he wanted to do, he could just hide behind his celebrity, make the money from acting, and not take any risks, but he’s pursuing various art-forms that interest him. Some people like the work and some people don’t, and that’s up to them. But I think he’s being totally genuine. I have a tremendous respect for that.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To find out more: Francophrenia