Once upon a time, in order to cross a bridge, James Franco promised a bridge troll that he would make a movie every month for the rest of his life. Just kidding. That isn’t true. But it seems like it could be, doesn’t it? The 37-year-old filmmaker’s IMDb page is about as long as the books he also writes, and the number of unreleased projects he’s juggling has reached well into the double digits. Vulture caught up with Franco to talk about his latest — an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that he wrote, directed, and stars in — as well as playing a character who doesn’t speak and his upcoming gay-porn murder drama.
Sound and the Fury is generally thought of as one of the hardest books to adapt into a movie. How did you approach it?
When I told Harmony Korine that I was going to do The Sound and the Fury, he was like, “Why do you make things so difficult on yourself?” But one of the reasons I wanted to do it was because of the way the book was written. If you look at the story, it’s not much — it’s just about a southern family falling apart, a young woman who has a premarital affair, gets pregnant, and then has to marry another guy to save the family name, and then all the brothers' different reactions. The story’s not much, but the way it’s told is the thing. I thought, Well, if I adapt this and I try to not only adapt the story but adapt the style, I thought, it would make a very unique kind of movie. It would pull me in directions that I wouldn’t go otherwise as a director, because you’re forced to solve storytelling problems in new ways.
How did you go about doing that?
We decided to take on the structure and the style of the novel. There are four sections in the book, four sections in our movie. The first three sections are told from the first-person perspective of each of the brothers. The opening section is the most notorious because it’s told by Benji, who’s a mentally challenged character, and he jumps around in time and in his thoughts. The reader is pulled into those different times without warning, very quickly, and in the book you’re not told what time period he’s jumping to, it just jumps, and you have to sort of make sense of it. We thought, Well, our movie will also jump around in time.
But when reading a difficult book like this, you can take your time, say, “Where am I?” maybe check the Cliffs Notes, go online, and be like, “Okay, what’s going on here?” [Laughs.] In a movie, you’re not doing that, you’re just watching it. You’ve got an hour and a half, two hours, and if the audience is lost, they’re probably not going to stay with it. So we had to figure out a way to make that jumping around, that nonlinear approach, still resonate with an audience, and find different through lines: not just narrative through lines, but emotional through lines that would help pull the audience through all of the jumping around. Benji, his main obsession is his sister — his sister Caddy was the only one who was really nice to him, and so all day he just thinks about his sister at different ages, when she was a girl, when she was a young woman, and his love for her is revealed through different scenes with her. That’s what pulls you through that first section.
Speaking of Benji, your role in the movie is pre-verbal. What was it like to inhabit that persona, where you’re communicating without words?
It’s weird. In the book, Benji is a weird character, and telling the story from his perspective is a strange device because Benji can’t speak, according to Faulkner. On the other hand, he’s like, telling that story, right? [Laughs.] Faulkner’s putting things into words for him even though he can’t actually articulate words. In our movie, Benji won’t speak to the other characters, he just moans and cries and makes noises. But we do give him an inner voice, and we use the voice of the young Benji. There’s two Benjis, right, I play the older one, and there’s the child Benji. So we had the child Benji actually do the inner voice, because Benji, as even some of the characters say, is 33 years old, but he’s maybe been 3 for 30 years.
How did you set out to convey that?
It was almost like playing a child in an adult’s body — I took that approach straight from the book. For this character, I thought, I’m not going to go and study anybody or any subjects or behavior, I’m just going to go by the descriptions in the book. It was interesting as an actor because I started to really rely on the context and the other characters and the inner voice to help tell the story, and I was just acting strictly with behavior. Which is kind of cool: It’s almost the way I was taught. At acting school, I remember my teacher was always like, “Behavior is everything! Let the words ride on top of the behavior! The words are the canoe in the river of behavior!” I don’t know if I completely believe that 100 percent now, but I do put a lot of stock in the behavior.
With the movies you’re directing and writing, you’ve assembled a repertory of collaborators. When you set out to be a filmmaker, were you aiming to do that?
That idea was always appealing to me. The legends of sort of [Martin] Scorsese and [Robert] De Niro starting out together and making all those great movies together, that was always appealing, that model. Or [John] Cassavetes working with his wife and [Ben] Gazzara and Seymour Cassel, he was in a bunch of them. So that was always appealing, and now that I do have that sort of acting troupe or acting company, there are great things about it. Actors have a way of working, directors have a way of working, and once you do a movie with somebody, your different approaches find a common ground, and it either works or it doesn’t. With these people, it definitely works. I know what the actors need, and they know what I’m expecting. It’s great for that reason, but also, these movies are made in a particular way. They’re artistic ventures, they’re not superhero movies. We don’t have tons of money because we’re trying to do (a) Faulkner adaptations, and (b) very stylistic movies that are very unconventional. Since we don’t have that much money we have to go very fast, so I need people who can do that, and I know that these people can and can do good work despite those conditions.
You have a million things going on right now, and one that project I heard about was a movie about a gay-porn murder?
Yeah, that’s King Cobra. I’m producing that. It’s being directed by Justin Kelly, who directed I Am Michael. He wrote it, Christian Slater is starring. That’s Justin Kelly’s baby. He and I have a couple projects going, but the other one that he wants to do, this JT LeRoy project, is taking longer than we expected. So I was like, "You should just do something now, what’s another thing that you wanted to do?" And we made it happen.