Goat Boy is the cobbled-together remains of a student film I made based on Frank Bidart's poem, “Herbert White”. These are the bits that were taken out of my adaptation because we didn't need backstory for the title character, played by the great and strange Michael Shannon of Boardwalk Empire.
This short is the backstory Frank provided to us to fill out Herbert. The funny thing is that Herbert is a killer and a necrophiliac, but Frank gives him some of his own life experience as context. The part about the father – that’s Frank's life. His father is a ghost who haunts his poetry. The part about the goat – that’s Herbert’s. Frank read something or other about fucking goats in a book called 21 Abnormal Sex Cases.
All those little goats are cute, eh? We shot them running around their pen the morning after the wrap party in Suffolk, Virginia. The focus puller, Chris, was hungover. We chased them around the little pen in a farm full of animals. When I went to piss, I passed a kennel full of dogs. The loudest and biggest was an overgrown hound dog, as big as a horse, with red-veined eyes and a speckled, pink and black mouth. He was barking incessantly, an evil booming echo, again and again like the hound of hell.
These actors are all Virginians, found locally at a casting call. Hundreds lined up to be in the film: children, teens, parents. Some shy, some drunk. These were the ones we chose. The father, played by Cody from Richmond, was in a band with Allen Ginsberg called the Fugs. He also plays a hunter in my film Child of God.
The line from Frank's poem, "Man’s spunk is the salt of the earth and it makes things grow," is true enough. But how should I make sense of it? In a poem it’s one thing – in a movie it’s another.
In the poem, the boy fucks a goat that gets strangled on its rope before he jerks off on the animal to bring it back to life. In the film, we didn’t have the actor fuck the goat, because it would then be anti-climactic to have him jerk off on the thing. We had him kill the goat out of anger, and then jerk off on it to bring it back to life. After all, man’s spunk is the salt of the earth and it makes things grow.
We didn’t really kill the goat – we had a vet on hand who put it under for ten minutes so it would look dead. That's the magic of movies.
Near where we shot the goat was a turkey that was so fat it couldn’t stand. Its disgusting red and blue head, dripping with excess skin, sprouted from a blob covered in molten feathers. It made me swear off turkey sandwiches for six months.
I took the clips that were left over from Herbert White, put them together and then zoomed in, so everything is super-close and fucked up.
More from James Franco: