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6 Filmmaking Tips From James Franco

The director of ‘The Disaster Artist’ on how not to have a disastrous filmmaking career.
James Franco Directing Child Of God
By  · Published on November 30th, 2017

The director of ‘The Disaster Artist’ on how not to have a disastrous filmmaking career.

Actor-turned-filmmaker James Franco is such a busy, multitasking multi-hyphenate that we like to joke about him having clones. As far as we know, he does not, and it truly is possible for one person to do all that he accomplishes on camera, behind the camera, on the page, in the classroom, and everywhere else his interests take him. Below are six tips for at least one of those jobs he’s mastered.

Go to Film School

A lot of filmmakers these days recommend skipping film school. You can just go out and make something and learn by doing, they believe. The resources are cheaper and more accessible than ever, after all. But Franco sees benefits in film school, which he attended later in life after making a name as an actor. Now he pays it forward by teaching filmmaking to others.

One important part of the film school process, he says, is showing your work to others and having it evaluated. Here’s a video from 2011 of Franco talking to poet Frank Bidart about why he disagrees that film school has become obsolete:

Create Your Own Dream Project

Once you’ve gone to film school and know what you’re doing, you don’t want to waste your time working on things that aren’t important to you. James Franco went through that as an actor. As a filmmaker, he’s been more choosy and it’s been very satisfying. Here’s the first piece of advice he gives in a 2013 list of lessons for filmmakers shared via Filmmaker magazine:

“Create your own dream job. It’s not going to be handed to you: I’ve been acting in movies professionally for 16 or 17 years now. I’ve been a movie-lover for longer than that. And I remember when I was only acting people would ask me, ‘What is your dream role, what movie would you love to do if you could?’ And for a long time my answer was I’d love to play a young Tennessee Williams or the poet Hart Crane. But then it would just sit there. I would sit around and wait for some filmmaker to make those movies and ask me to be in them and nobody ever did. So then I started directing my own films.”

One year later, he shared this career tip via Forbes that almost seems like a contradiction to his film school recommendation but has more to do with this lesson on doing your own thing (and fits very well with the subject of his new movie, The Disaster Artist):

“Don’t wait for the gatekeepers to accept you, go out and make your own stuff, now. Technology has advanced enough so that it is very available. You can make movies on your phone nowadays, so there is no reason not to be making your own work.”

Emulate Your Heroes

Franco acted for many years before he was ready to take the helm of his own movie, and the diversely influential directors he’s worked with include Sam Raimi, Harmony Korine, Robert Altman, Judd Apatow, and Gus Van Sant. He shares some of what he learned from them in the Filmmaker article. And in another list of tips for film students he shared via London’s Met Film School in 2015, he acknowledged one of those directors as a major influence:

“Take inspiration from those you admire. An example for me is Gus van Saint.  He’ll create a harmony and an atmosphere, allowing all of the creative components to come together in their own way.”

In the below video, Franco talks about what he learned from working with Altman on The Company that he applies to his own directing:

Challenge Yourself

One of the filmmakers Franco has worked with and been inspired by is Danny Boyle, whose diverse filmography is the basis for this other lesson from the Filmmaker list:

“Good directing comes from a great challenge. What I see in Danny Boyle is somebody who picks subjects that push him, technically and formally, to try new things. So if you look at his body of work, each subject in each film is different. It’s made in a different way, and part of that comes from the subject. So for example, our movie, ‘127 Hours,’ how do you film a man isolated in a canyon and make that feel dynamic? He had to discover it. And a lot of it was discovered as we made it.”

Surround Yourself With Great Collaborators

More than any other area for advice, Franco focuses most on the importance of collaboration. When recommending film school, it’s partly so you can find your gang of future collaborators. When addressing his needs as a director, especially when he’s also acting in the project, he stresses having people he likes and can trust on both sides of the camera. You can’t have an ego or block out constructive suggestions or feedback or act like a tyrant.

In the video below of a recent Q&A following a screening of The Disaster Artist, he says:

“When you act and direct yourself — and I have a show on HBO now too, ‘The Deuce,’ where I play two characters, twins, and direct — you need great producers and collaborators around you. Otherwise, you’re just stuck in that mode of like acting and then running to the monitor and watching… It’s just like, if you have the people around you that you’ve worked with and you trust and everybody’s in sync, that you can all just depend on each other and you could just sort of go play musical chairs and it’s very fluid.”

Watch In the Shadow of Women

Lastly, here’s an easy tip that simply requires watching a movie. Franco used to write a movie column for IndieWire (in collaboration with himself, in the form of someone called “Semaj”), and early last year he recommended Philippe Garrel’s 2015 romantic drama In the Shadow of Women, particularly to anyone becoming a filmmaker:

“I t’s not just the story that is cut down to the essence — it’s the way it’s shot, the dialogue, the acting style, everything is minimalist…Every aspiring filmmaker should watch this film to see how much bang they get out of an economic approach. You don’t need tons of coverage, explosions, guns, or even complicated backstory to make a compelling movie…I’m going to recommend this movie to all my graduate film students. They should all aspire to making a first feature as concise and as powerful as this one.”

What We Learned

If you see The Disaster Artist, you’ll notice that Franco is working with many people he’s worked with time and again over decades. He can not stress enough his reliance on having a comfortable set with friends and trusted collaborators. But he also stresses the importance of working hard, so collaboration isn’t something necessarily to lean on. You have to do this out of a love for the craft and the challenge.

Of course, it also probably doesn’t hurt to be handsome enough to get your foot in the door as a movie star and be inherently organized enough to multitask so much to get everything done you want to do.

Additional research and reporting by Natalie Mokry.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.