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