In honor of the premiere of my film The Sound and the Fury at Venice and Toronto, here's a test for a short film that was to be based on William Faulkner’s short story "Red Leaves." It's set during the early days of his fictional county, Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, before the characters who populate his famous books took over (the Compsons, the Sutpens, the Bundrens, and the Snopeses).
The story is strange, and a bit of a fantasy: The local Native Americans have purchased African slaves from the white settlers, but the Native Americans have no purpose for the slaves. Their civilization is functional without them. But the Native Americans—and here is the fantasy—have a ritual in which, when the chief dies, they sacrifice his dog, his horse, and his head slave. This kind of ritual sounds more Ancient Egyptian than Native American, but it's a good premise for a story.
In my test, the head slave (here played by Raymond Williams, my old friend and one of my best acting teachers) knows that he is going to be killed. He escapes and is chased through Mississippi by two trackers. The story also involves the incumbent chief—played by Little Bear—who is so large and lazy he's carried on a divan.
I loved the three parallel lines of action: the escaped slave, the trackers, and the chief, and how each perspective has its own energy and shooting style. I made this test before going to film school, and it was shot by the great Doug Chamberlain. Below, check out a snippet from an interview I did with the inimitable artist Douglas Gordon during the Venice Film Festival exactly three years ago.
James Franco: Recently, a couple called Praxis asked me to be a part of a project called Invisible Museum. It was their idea. It’s kind of interesting, but I had no real investment in it. They asked if I would contribute a piece to their invisible museum—basically, describe a piece of art that is invisible as if it existed for people to bid on. Conceptually it’s kind of interesting, but I should have asked why they wanted me. I mean, I know why—because they’d get a lot of publicity.
Douglas Gordon: What did you do?
James: My invisible piece was a short film based on a William Faulkner short story called “Red Leaves.” It was a film that I had actually intended to shoot before I went to film school. We wanted to make it, but it got expensive because the Natives live in this washed-up steamboat and I felt we needed a real steamboat. People wanted to turn it into a feature so I could make my money back, but I wanted to stay loyal to the short form. The project just got too expensive to feel good about making it. That was what I did for my invisible piece—I described this unmade film.
But then there was all this bullshit about it, like Iwas trying to scam people by selling invisible art. The petty commentators didn’t understand that it wasn’t about making money—it was just a conceptual piece, and one that wasn’t even mine! They didn’t understand anything about art and were commenting from a stance of pop-culture bullshit.
That’s my point: In my life as an actor, I have this level of commentary—blogs that comment from the most base level. That is a level that I have to break through if I want to do anything outside of acting and mainstream film. It's something that I always have to face.
Douglas: It’s a really curious thing. I grew up with this idea that everyone’s equal and working class, and if you rise above the working class than you can go on and on and on. I’m super lucky that my mom and dad supported me to go to art school. But then, when you’re at art school, you see people like David Bowie—who I think is a genius—and the reception of his paintings ain’t that good. The elevation of art is so strange.
James: I actually talked to Russell Ferguson about this a lot because I studied with him at UCLA, when I was starting to make my first videos and get away from commercial cinema. Actors, especially actors in mainstream film, are going to bear a lot of criticism. I mean, I’m not asking people to feel bad for me; I’m just saying that it’s the situation I’m in—people are skeptical of celebrity.
Douglas: Which you clearly enjoy.
James: I’ve embraced it now. I actually like this superficial criticism of the work, because in a way it becomes a beautiful reflection of our culture.
Douglas: This may be a terrible question, but what is the work and what is work?
James: I think you're talking about the work as an actor for hire, which is an interpretive kind of work, and work as a director or artist, which is a generative kind of work. I think I have found a way to happily combine both worlds. Even when I need to do the obligatory work of promoting a big-budget studio film, I have found a way to make this part of my personal practice by trying to be as honest as possible.
My public persona has become part of my work, not that I am actually out trying to get tons of attention—believe me, I’d rather not do all the promotion required for a film, but if I have to, then I am going to make it worthwhile. And really, I don’t have to do too much. I think people are so used to the celebrity mask people wear to keep their private lives safe that when someone tries to take off the mask it is disconcerting. I am just trying to make all aspects of my life worthwhile and to turn the “work” into material that I can use for my work.