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.