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.