James Franco’s latest highbrow collaborative art project, directed by Ian Olds (Fixer), is an experimental meta-thriller-doc called Francophrenia, which layers increasingly paranoid stream-of-consciousness narration over footage shot by James’s personal film crew during one of his General Hospital shoots. The particular episode featured in Francophrenia, which was filmed at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, never aired, but the film that captured it is screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Fest. First the Selena Gomez lip-synching, now this? We sat down with Franco and Olds to talk about the inspiration for the project, how they think it will be received, and whether it’s hard for Franco to be taken seriously as an artist when the blogosphere is “sniffing each and every one of his farts,” as one commenter so boldly put it.
James, why did you bring your own film crew to the General Hospital shoot?
Franco: There was a big response to me being on a soap opera, and at a gala for MOCA right after I started on General Hospital, these artists were coming up to me saying, “Oh, I wish I had a forum like that. I wish I could be on network television doing weird stuff.” It made me think about having a little more ownership over this weird insertion of myself into this soap opera. So I got permission to bring my own film crew.
The footage from Francophrenia was all shot during the filming of the General Hospital episode that takes place at MOCA. Could you tell me a little more about that?
Franco: My character is an artist on the show: He’s a wacky, strange artist that kind of embodies every cliché of an artist, but it’s okay because he’s on a soap opera. That led to the idea of doing a special episode about that character’s art. Then I thought there should be one more level: They should have the official network episode, and then there should also be a fucked-up episode. The original plan was to bring the material from my film crew’s shoot back to MOCA and do a screening there, which we still might do. But after the shoot, I had a lot of other stuff going on. I had all the material sitting there. Then Ian called. Not only did I like Ian’s work, I thought, Yes, this is perfect, because one of the ideas behind going on General Hospital was to surrender, and let the context around me and the people around me control my image and do what they will.
Ian, how did you get involved in the project?
Olds: I edited a documentary for James a couple years ago called Saturday Night, about behind the scenes of Saturday Night Live, and I was aware of this project. I hadn’t seen any footage, but I said I’d be interested in looking at it. We always knew it would be an experimental documentary based on what was interesting to James about the process, but we didn’t know what kind. At first it was just about digesting the material, looking at every single frame and trying to keep an open mind on what’s compelling. You could see a weird tension between the crazy amounts of work and expertise that goes into the production of a soap opera, and the kind of strange empty fantasy that was being created.
Francophrenia is a relatively highbrow endeavor, James, and you have a lot of those — projects with Kalup Linzy and Laurel Nakadate, for example. But everything you do attracts so much attention. Does that undermine your more serious work? Like when you sang the Selena Gomez song in the car — as one Vulture commenter said, “Must we sniff each and every one of this guy’s farts?”
Franco: Ha! I’ve learned to embrace that side of it, and it really becomes part of the project — especially with a project like this. I love collaboration. I get to collaborate with all kinds of people: my heroes, Paul McCarthy, Douglas Gordon, Gus van Sant; my peers, like Ian; people with less experience than I have. But sometimes I feel bad — I feel some of the collaborators get anxious because the blogs will focus on me, and in a very superficial way. But there’s nothing I can do about that. When it’s a project like this, something based in the art world, or writing or something like that, I’ll just embrace my position as a public persona and make that part of it. I am subject to comments by the most superficial kind of bloggers, and I bring all those commenters to any project I do. The problem is that those bloggers are used to commenting about, you know, pop celebrity and movies. So when I do something else, their comments are just completely uninformed and stupid. But it doesn’t bother me; in fact I’ve come to accept it, and almost like it! That level of commentary, I think, is part of what I do now. It’s certainly part of a project like this.
Can you tell me a little more about the recent lip-synching videos?
Franco: The first one was Selena Gomez. And we did a Rihanna one. The latest is Bieber, and I’m sure people will be writing about that. But we have a whole channel of videos that we produce: We have a show about art openings, we have an online soap opera that Kalup Linzy produced and directed, we have a show about undergrad college students. All this stuff takes a lot of time to put together. And we do get a lot of viewers for those shows. But then when I do something so stupid and simple as singing, like, one and a half verses of Selena Gomez’s song with cornrows in my hair, it blows up on the blogosphere and we get, like, all these viewers. Part of it is, “Wow, I guess I just tapped into what they want!” You know, this pop, surface-level kind of thing, but done in a way where you feel like something else is going on. Or the fact that it’s me doing it is like … fascinating to people, I guess. Maybe it’s more interesting than the shows we put a lot of time into.
Even the most prominent artists can’t attract that kind of widespread, rabid blog attention. That really distinguishes you.
Franco: I try to get a lot of attention, but I try to spread the attention around, to get people interested in the things I’m interested in — like the show about art openings. But I agree. One thing that made the MOCA project most interesting is that I was on the inside: I could get ABC and MOCA and General Hospital together to do a project like this, whereas Andy Warhol could only get one episode of The Love Boat, and Chris Burden could only buy eight seconds of a local station for his piece. In whatever field I’m working in, I look for what I can contribute that’s unique — and sometimes that’s just my position as a public persona or someone inside the film business.
Ian, how did you come up with the idea to do an inner monologue for James?
Olds: I had this strange moment of inspiration. The sound cut out of some footage — I think it was footage of James shaving in the bathroom — I flashed back to that Sokurov movie Confession, about the Russian navy, where the captain speaks this fictional voice-over. And it occurred to me: “What if you transplanted that idea to this? What would happen if you wrote a third level of ‘Franco’?”
And you narrated the film as James. Why didn’t you have James narrate it?
Olds: The original intention was that I would write the voice-over with my writing partner Paul Felten, and James would eventually record it. Then we realized it made a lot of sense for me to do it: James is a person who’s a vessel, who people are constantly projecting their own ideas onto. And this became about someone else projecting an internal life for this fictional “Franco.”
Do you feel that any of it was about making a mockery of “celebrity”?
Franco: It’s mocking, but I wouldn’t say it’s solely a mocking tone. It’s a real examination.
Olds: It’s a fine line. I know that with some critics in that blogosphere land, it can be easily dismissed as purely a gimmick: “Oh, it’s just mocking him and having this voice-over. It’s like Mystery Science Theater or whatever.” We’re trying to tell the unhinged story of a celebrity, James, who’s consumed by this work, and all the questions circling his celebrity. But it’s not just about James; we also wanted to give a deranged glimpse into production in the dream factory. If everyone’s responding to it simply as, like, “What does this mean about James?” — that misses a large part of the point.
How do you think people will receive this film?
Olds: It’s tricky, because the fact that there’s a huge red-carpet event for a very strange experimental film seems both totally wrong for the nature of the piece, and also perfectly right for its subject. You are drawing in audiences that perhaps aren’t the most prepared to enjoy the film. People are going to hate it. But that’s okay.
Franco: When we were actually filming the General Hospital thing at MOCA, we invited people to watch — members of the museum, and also soap opera fans — and that night alone, people were seeing the same thing but perceiving it in very different ways. And my guess is you’ll get that with this film too. We don’t have the pressure to have everybody like it. It doesn’t need to be a generalized thing, or something that’s watered down, because we didn’t spend 100 million dollars on it. We can really make the movie that says things that maybe you normally can’t say.
One last question: What do you think will be the Song of the Summer? Do you know what that means?
Song of the Summer? The song that’s most ubiquitous all summer long?
Franco: Oh, the top song that, like, characterizes the summer.
Olds: I got nothing on this one.
Franco: Oh! I guess that Gotye song. [Someone in the room plays “Somebody That I Used to Know.”] Did I say his name wrong? I think he’s from Brooklyn.