Stuck on James Franco's 'Tar'

Franco discusses students, learning, the creative process, and more

James Franco at the Ritz, March 6
James Franco at the Ritz, March 6
Photo by Gary Miller

Last night at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz, to an audience of film enthusiasts and lovestruck women of various ages, James Franco screened his NYU grad school class's film, Tar.

Produced by Franco and made up of individual student-made segments edited together as one, Tar is a visual imagining of selected C.K. Williams poems from the book by the same name. Though conceived and shot by graduate students, the film features big names, including Jessica Chastain, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff, Bruce Campbell, and, of course, Franco himself. His New York University graduate students each adapted a different poem, creating individual short films that they, as a group, figured out how to fit into one overarching piece.

After the dreamy, heavily Malick-influenced film concluded, Franco took to the stage for a Q&A, answering questions articulately with his signature rasp. He kicked things off by talking about his experiences in undergraduate and graduate film classes learning to adapt poems into films – Anthony Hecht’s “Feast of Stephen,” Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White,” Spencer Reese’s “The Clerk’s Tale” and then his feature-length film Broken Tower, about poet Hart Crane. Franco discussed playing with different kinds of poem-to-film translations, experimenting with different ratios of dialogue, voiceover, and standalone visuals to represent poetic images.

Franco is doing these kinds of grad school classes that culminate in patchwork-style features in several schools: He's adapting Jorge Luis Borges stories at the University of Southern California, unmade Harmony Korine scripts at NYU, and Robert Boswell poems at UCLA with big-name actors like Natalie Portman, Jimmy Kimmel, and Kristen Wiig attached. Franco described the combination of working with established actors and his students as “trippy,” and he admitted he found it bizarre to see the collision of such different worlds. But these projects, he said, keep him excited about film through seeing others get excited, preventing him from being stuck in a “stupid, rarified place.”

Fielding questions from the audience, Franco discussed the creative process behind Tar. Students first shot everything on cheap video after picking which poem they wanted to adapt and working on a treatment. This gave students an opportunity to work initially without the pressure of big-name actors on set. Franco said he doesn’t like to “belabor scripts,” preferring to “put things on their feet” to see how they work on screen. Everything then went into a test edit that class discussed and reshaped from its unedited three-hour form to the 72-minute version that screened last night at the Drafthouse. (Though clearly not the main motivation, the class will try to sell the project, at the very least to make back the small amount of money that they spent putting it together, in order to hopefully make another one.)

Franco, known for his postgrad endeavors in poetry, fiction, and filmmaking, also discussed what education means to him on a personal level, sharing his love of school and the ways in which teaching keeps him engaged with “people making films for the right reasons,” without being corrupted by the business side of Hollywood. He went on to share this advice he once received from Sean Penn: As long as you choose to do a movie for the right reasons, you can’t worry too much about the outcome.

Oz the Great and Powerful, starring Franco as the titular wizard, opens tomorrow in Austin. Two of Franco's other projects, Spring Breakers and Maladies will have their U.S. and North American premieres, respectively, at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival next week. See the Chronicle's SXSW Film coverage for more.

Update: The Alamo Drafthouse has just announced a screening of Interior. Leather Bar., which Franco co-directed with Travis Mathews, at 1:45am on March 10. Visit www.drafthouse.com for ticketing information.

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