James Franco‘s Sal follows actor Sal Mineo’s final hours with a fly-on-the-wall approach. In the film we see the bright young actor, played by Val Lauren, prepping a directorial feature he won’t make any compromises on. After seeing Sal, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Franco and Mineo in that regard. Franco has spent the last few years directing personal projects that are nothing if not uncompromising.
Behind the camera, he’s taken on norm-defying adaptations like As I Lay Dying, the experimental recreation of lost scenes from Cruising and a documentary focused on his guest starring appearances on soap opera General Hospital. Those projects, along with Sal, aren’t overtly commercial endeavors (as you may have noticed), but Franco’s directorial features have certainly found their audience. He works fast, and, as Franco tells us, that work ethic isn’t a matter of simply rushing through project after project.
Despite being insanely busy, he sat down with me to discuss that work ethic and the prospect of making even more movies.
Tim Blake Nelson recently told us that you can’t settle for one project at a time. Why is that?
Tim has become one of my closest friends and collaborators. I get asked about giving things their due time, but I do. I feel as if things have a cutoff point from the amount of attention they will benefit from. If something gets reworked too much or too much attention at the wrong time it can lose some vitality.
I think I’m restless because I have a lot of things I’m interested in. [Laughs] I want to get them done. I hate preparation that leads nowhere, so I am about getting things done and making them. Also, I have designed my schedule so I can go and work on something else. For example, I’m working on this movie with Seth Rogen right now, The Interview, and my job there is to put in my time developing my character, acting, and working with them, but they don’t need me to design the film or any of that. Once my acting duties are finished I have time to do other things. By doing other things it keeps me from sneaking my nose into aspects of that movie that’s not for me.
So, do projects like Sal gives you a level of creative freedom that you can’t get from acting?
Yes and no. I think what is most liberating is the combination of acting and directing, because variety allows me to shift gears and appreciate what my job is on each project. Because I can go direct the movies I want to direct that means when I’m hired to act I won’t feel the need to exert directorial control over that project. I can say to myself, “Look, I’m an actor on this project and they can figure out that directorial stuff. All I need to do is my job as an actor.” That comes from knowing I’ll be in control on those things on my own projects.
When you make films like Sal and As I Lay Dying, you’re clearly not making them for monetary gain. Do you consider an audience or box office for these projects?
Yeah, it’s a tricky thing. If you look at the choices, it’s obvious I’m not going after the most commercial subject matter. What’s behind those choices is subjects that grab me, potential to challenge myself as a filmmaker, and try new things because the source justifies it. Knowing that, I try to make them in responsible ways. I want the movies to look good and be entertaining. I did a movie called The Broken Tower, which some people liked, but I made it knowing that it was going to be a pretty opaque movie. All the way through developing that at school I got notes like, “Well…” [Laughs] On that project the one thing I needed to be loyal to was the spirit of Hart Crane. He was a difficult poet, and he knew it. I think he said, “I would rather have six good readers than hundreds of readers who want to see the work I’m not interested in,” so I made the movie in that spirit.
I do try to make them accessible, but I make them on their own terms. I make them on budgets that can be recouped, so I can continue to make these movies I care about. So far I think we have a pretty good record: As I Lay Dying was financed by Millenium and it’s made its money back; we sold Child of God, which is a difficult subject but I think we’ll make money on that; and Sal wasn’t made for that much and has a great performance. I do have an audience in mind, but I’m making choices that are challenging that need to be handled in specific ways.
Coming from acting, where a performance can be shaped into something you didn’t intend for, do you appreciate the idea that your directorial projects, whether they’re liked or not, you’re responsible for the choices that were made?
Yes. When I act I do all kinds of films. I’ve done huge commercial films and wild indies. There was a period this year when both Oz and Spring Breakers were out at the same time, and they’re different kinds of movies I can act in. When I act in a movie like Oz I want it to do well, because they spent a lot of money. That’s a movie designed to be a big commercial movie. If it hadn’t been so successful, then I would’ve considered it a failure. The criteria is just to entertain a large number of people, because of how much it made, what it cost, and what it’s aiming to do.
One of its reasons for being is to entertain masses. When you make a smaller movie there’s less pressure to do that, because you don’t need to make that much money back. You can make bolder choices and maybe put more of a signature on them…Well, I don’t know about that last statement, but you can definitely make bolder choices.
Something Tim Blake Nelson also said was how much he’s learned about himself as an actor from directing and editing. Have you had the same experience?
Directing, editing, and everything about filmmaking has definitely changed me as an actor. I view filmmaking as a director’s medium. Well, at least it works best when it’s a director’s medium. I see my role as an actor as someone who helps the director fulfill their vision. When I sign on for a project I’m there to give the director all the material he or she might need to tell their story, and that’s the number one priority.
For me, it’s great, because it relieves me of this self-serving approach to acting, thinking, “I have to give the best performance for me.” I need to give the best performance for the project. I’ve found that attitude makes me a better actor and my characters lineup with a film better, and I think a lot of that outlook from the other side when you’re trying to put a movie together. When you’re a director you want a group of people in line with you [Laughs], from the DP to the editor to the costume department to the actors. You want everyone there to help tell the same story. Now when I’m just acting I just want to be there as a supportive force.
One director who seems to have had a big influence on you is Gus Van Sant. He’s known for doing silent takes of each scene, and there’s a scene in Sal where Sal writes, “Too wordy. Show it.”
Yeah, you’re right. Gus is one of my favorite directors. He had a huge influence on me. That particular idea of showing through behavior rather than telling through dialogue, I suppose, partly comes from Gus. I think that also comes from my acting training, because that was something always pounded into me as an actor. I’ve tried to develop as a director that behavior is the domain of an actor. A writer will write the dialogue, and if it’s good dialogue, then it’s going to tell the story. Well, it’s different on every project, but you have to get the behavior down. Maybe it’s the opposite of David Mamet: just say the words and it’ll happen. His other belief is get the behavior down, and the words will lay on top of it.
All movies are different, though. The Interview relies a lot on improvisation. I would argue, even though a lot of it is about the dialogue and coming up with funny lines is a big part of what we’re doing, if you really examine what’s happening with the improvisation, a lot of it comes from behavior. The improvisations are extensions of character behavior. I think that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from.
As far as the movies of Gus’s that have influenced me, it’s Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, and Paranoid Park. I’m sure also working with him on Milk had an effect [Laughs].
[Laughs] That makes sense. Before you go, any chance we’ll see your 2010 SNL documentary soon?
I think all the Ts have been crossed and all the Is have been dotted. It was a difficult thing to put out because we were documenting the process of a network show, so we had to have a lot of people sign off before putting it out there. [Laughs] I think it’ll finally come out after four years or something. I can’t wait to put it out there.
Sal is now on VOD and iTunes and opens on limited release on November 1st.