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Interview: James Franco on the unusual student-made film 'The Color of Time'

The multi-hyphenate artist taught a graduate-level filmmaking course. His students task? Make a feature film together.

In addition to all the other stuff he does, James Franco found time a few years ago to teach. But he didn’t just tell the class of a graduate level filmmaking course at NYU what to do; he got them involved in a collaborative film, "The Color of Time,"with all 12 of them would each working on a section of an experimental narrative based on poems by C.K. Williams. And he didn’t stop there: He got them name actors, including Jessica Chastain, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff and himself, who plays the Williams stand-in in adulthood.

What initially motivated you to bring make this a project for students in your class?

This was a way to bridge worlds — to have students work with experienced, A-list actors and have a real filmmaking experience. I’m really about collaboration, whether it’s with people more experienced than I am or less experienced. I liked being free of the commercial concerns that are present in professional filmmaking.

What made you think C.K. Williams’ poems would lend well to film?

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His poems — or at least these poems [in the book “Tar”] — are very narrative-based. They all center on a central figure, who we interpreted as Williams looking back on moments in his life. That gave us a structure, a character at the center. What I like about these poems is they aren’t just about memory; a lot of them are universal. They’re about coming of age, being in a relationship, having jobs. But they’re seen through a poet’s eyes.

You’ve adapted difficult novels to film, like William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God.” What appeals to you about tackling poetry, which is even more difficult to film?

The narrative aspect of a poem is not the primary thing. Imagery and rhythm and sonic elements and tone sometimes become more primary. I liked using a form like that as a source of a film; we’re breaking down assumptions of what is most important about a movie or how a movie should be structured. You can see filmmaking through a fresh lens because we’re starting from an unusual place. It takes us into unusual and unknown territory.

How did the students react to suddenly having to direct A-list actors?

One thing I saw happening in some student films was a lack of sense of how much they needed to direct actors. They work with young actors of inexperienced actors, so they have to direct them more than usual. When you work with experienced actors you don’t have to do that much. They know what they’re doing. For the experienced actors, it was great to go back to a film set where people were still doing it from a very pure place. They were so in love and so in awe of just making a movie that the experienced actors could just go on set and not have to worry about anything but doing their art. No agents, no money deals — just this. They all said it was great.

You’re constantly jumping back and forth between big films and your own sometimes experimental projects.

This project was shot at the same time as “Oz the Great and Powerful” — one of the most expensive movies ever made. When you’re spending that much money you don’t want to experiment too much with form or get too artistic in a daring way. With “The Color of Time” we didn’t have huge budgets. We had the freedom to try new things, like getting a bunch of directors to make a unified movie. Whatever movie you’re doing you have to see if you’re being responsible with the budget.

What one of Franco’s students says:

One of the 12 students who wrote and directed “The Color of Time” was Bruce Thierry Cheung, who impressed Franco so much that he’s co-directing the film “Zeroland” with him. A dozen directors working on a single film can seem like too many cooks, but they all worked together. “We wanted it to feel like one film blended together,” Cheung tells us. “We fought hard to find visual rhymes and tell the story with a similar palette and shooting style so it all flowed together.” Franco, he says, also instructed them to shoot more than what was on the page, to always be filming. “We were able to explore the margins. We wanted to make a movie that really hasn’t been done before.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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