James Franco is a man with total faith in his creative muse, and that muse has led him down some strange paths, from soap opera to leather bars to backwoods necrophilia. It’s sometimes hard to tell if Franco isn’t secretly smirking about some of his seemingly random pursuits, as if his prolific output might be most indebted to Andy Kaufman. In his latest outing as director, Franco faithfully adapts Cormac McCarthy’s third novel and unflinchingly tells the story of Lester Ballard, a severely damaged Tennessee outcast with a penchant for stuffed animals and the corpses of young girls. As Lester’s violence and desperation increase, Franco never shies away from the monster, and instead looks to find humanity in a depraved and diseased mind. Scott Haze embodies Lester, with a halting gait, crazed eyes, and tortured grunt, in a performance can only be described as noble. For Lester, society has left him behind long ago, and his journey of destruction is one that Franco dares the viewer to not turn away from in disgust.
With a limited opening August 1, Child Of God has received extremely mixed reviews, from the openly hostile to those praising the film’s ambition and audacity. Franco couldn’t care less about his detractors, as he remains, in the end, at the whim of his own inspiration.
The A.V. Club: When did you first discover Cormac McCarthy?
James Franco: Good question. The first book I read was Blood Meridian, and I think it really came from Harold Bloom. He’s written quite a bit about Blood Meridian in particular, and when I had dropped out of UCLA—where I was an English major—and gone to acting school, I did a lot of reading on my own. I think a lot of it was obsessively and to compensate for having dropped out. Harold Bloom pointed me to a lot of books, and Blood Meridian was the first one. I went back to UCLA when I was 27 to finish my bachelor’s degree, and I took a class on Cormac McCarthy. I know I read No Country For Old Men because I had auditioned for the movie, for the Brolin part. I was too young, I think. I read The Road when it came out, and when I took the class we essentially read everything. I think I’ve read everything.
AVC: What specifically spoke to you in Child Of God? Why did you need to bring Ballard’s story to the screen?
JF: If I think about all of the books, the dream is to do Blood Meridian. It’s not like that would be an easy task, but I do feel like that’s McCarthy’s masterpiece. I guess I wasn’t as drawn to the Border trilogy as a lot of people are, and I think Cities Of The Plain, the last one, was started as a screenplay before he even wrote the trilogy, and I think those, in some way, were always connected to movies. But I don’t know. I feel like they just weren’t as hard-hitting as some of the other books. I certainly like The Orchard Keeper, and Suttree is amazing, but they would take some work to shape into movies. Outer Dark, I like as a book, but what you have to remember when you’re adapting a book is that certain things become more extreme when they’re on film because they become images; they become more concrete. So Outer Dark has incest—which I think I could handle—but there’s weird stuff where guys are eating babies, and it’s just really extreme. I felt like it just wasn’t really calling to me.
But I felt, strangely, with Child Of God that it actually was very cinematic. The subject matter I knew was really grisly, but I thought that underneath Lester’s murdering and necrophilia there was something really interesting that I could explore. I talked to Cormac about this briefly, and I don’t even know if he remembers the book or if he’s read it since he wrote it. [Laughs.] I said to him, “To me, it’s a portrait of a guy who wants intimacy. Who wants to love and be loved by another but he can’t find that with a living person because he’s an outcast.” The necrophilia is of course extreme and shocking, but it’s really getting at something more universal, which is intimacy and desire. That was interesting to me: that I could explore more universal human behaviors through the behavior of a monster.
The subject aside, I thought the book was written and structured so beautifully, that there was this very clear, gradual development of two things: Lester’s character, where it’s established that he’s a strange guy and can’t connect to others. He’s a peeping Tom and gets these stuffed animals from the fair. He starts to talk to them, and they almost become friends. To me, that seems like practice or a precursor to the human dead bodies. They’re one step away, and you can see how he’s practicing projecting personalities into these things outside of himself and giving them life through his imagination. The next step is he finds—he doesn’t kill—but finds dead bodies and realizes, “Oh, I can be intimate with a dead person. A dead person won’t run away from me. I not only can do that but I can take the body home and control the situation.” The final step is he loses the body in a fire so now he needs to have a “relationship” and needs to kill. That shifts the normal M.O. for being a serial killer where the thrill comes from the killing—whether it’s sexual or a feeling of power or dominance, or trying to get back at a figure in the killer’s past. Here, Lester isn’t getting much out of the actual kill. The killing is a dark necessity in order to get what he really wants, which are companions.
I just loved how step by step you see the character become what he is at the end. I thought that was so beautiful. It also showed a guy who was pushed further and further out of civilized society. In the beginning, he’s kicked off his farm; he goes to live in a cabin in the woods. The cabin burns down; he goes to live in a cave. He gets caught and escapes further into the cave. He is literally in the belly of the earth by the end, so he’s literally and figuratively as far away from civilization as he can get. I thought in a lot of ways that was topical, that we have so many new ways of socializing with each other and there are people who don’t participate in that; people who don’t participate on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Not to say that they’re all necrophiliacs, but it’s another example of people on the outside of these inner circles of socializing. As technology and the organized way that we live changes, there are always people left outside the circle.
AVC: Do you see him as an innocent? Everything, including his stuffed animals and cows, becomes predatory.
JF: I think that’s how we played him in a lot of ways. I wanted his actions to be terrifying, but not his motivations. At the center of our film we have a character who normally is a villain in a film. A character like this is usually being tracked down by the detective protagonist, or he’s chasing teenagers around killing them one by one. I realized in the middle of making it that it’s going to be a tightrope act to make him both shocking and watchable. My goal wasn’t to speak up for necrophiliacs, but to have the audience go on the emotional ride with the character and not turn off emotionally or be repelled. It’s to be shocked at what he does but not be so shocked that they’re repelled and they put up a wall between their emotions and his. I think by making him more innocent than he even is in the book—there’s more murders and he’s less innocent in the book—it enables you to go on the full ride with him. It pulls the audience hopefully toward a confused emotional response where they should be disturbed by what he’s doing to the bodies, but on another level understand that he’s doing it because he wants love.
By the end, when we showed it at the premiere in New York, some people said to me, “I thought it was an actual love story up until he murders the young couple in the car.” That’s where he stops being innocent, but in contrast to that, you might think those are the only two he’s murdered. Then he takes the bodies back to the cave and it reveals there’s like 10 bodies. He’s done this like 10 times. That should be shocking, but also what’s happening is we’re not showing him murder 10 times. If we showed all those murders the audience would just say, “Oh, he’s a crazy man.” By just revealing it that way it hopefully shocks audiences but also keeps them going a little bit longer. By the end—spoiler alert—when he makes his escape, there’s mixed emotions. I can’t help but feeling, myself, relief. Then you remember who he is and what he’s done, so there’s mixed emotions there.
AVC: What kind of head space was Scott Haze in during shooting? Did he go feral on you?
JF: [Laughs.] Scott is one of the best things about the film, obviously, if not the best thing about it. He really threw himself into it. I’ve known Scott for 10 years, and he’s an actor that struggled for a long time to be an actor. He was a childhood friend of Jim Parrack, so that’s how I knew him. He was just kind of crazy when I first met him and I didn’t want much to do with him. He was just Jim’s crazy friend. Then he had this change where he changed his life and personality and became a responsible person and a gentleman. I realized that I could depend on him as an actor to be dedicated but I also thought that he could draw on the craziness of his past for the character, and that’s exactly what happened.
I also knew that if I gave him this role—at one point I thought about more established actors for the role—I thought the role would be better served by an unknown. For this movie it would be more effective if it felt like I found a crazy man in the woods and just put him in my movie instead of somebody we recognized giving a great performance. There would still be a filter between our acceptance of Lester as this maniac because we would know that it was an actor. If we didn’t know who it was, the suspension of disbelief would be that much stronger. So I thought Scott, and if I give this to him it’s like winning—some would agree and some might not—it’s like winning an acting lottery. It’s a role that you can’t go too far with.
It’s the same with my role in Spring Breakers in that I could not go too far. I could not go over the top in that role. This was like that, so Scott, without my asking, went off for four months to Tennessee where the story takes place, met locals, and slept in caves, supposedly. [Laughs.] From the time I’d given him the book to the day before we shot the first scene he had made a full transformation. He gets all the credit for that. I get credit for choosing him, and then he just completely transformed himself. Part of it was also just isolating himself out there in Tennessee to help get over his inhibitions about playing this role and to separate himself from people that knew him as Scott so that he could take on this other personality. He pretty much stayed in character and stayed to himself. He was a dedicated actor at that point so I could certainly have conversations with him, but I didn’t need to talk to him that much. He was so in character and knew the book and the scenes so well that it was really like, “Okay, we’re doing this scene today.” Then I would just point him in the right direction. For the most part, 90 percent of it would be there in the first take.
AVC: In his Child Of God review, Rex Reed wrote, “What did we do to deserve James Franco?” Then he goes on to call out your multi-hyphenates. The review is so negative it sounds like a spurned lover and a personal attack on you.
JF: I didn’t read it. I don’t read his stuff. I think he doesn’t like me. There are certain critics that just don’t like me. If he’s bringing up all my other stuff obviously it’s more than just the movie. So fuck him. What am I going to do? [Laughs.] I know it’s a good movie, and obviously he has a problem with me doing a lot of things. I can only imagine that people having a problem with me doing that is that it’s personal. That I’m treading on their ground in some way or another. If it was just truly bad, then why would he bother to write all this shit? If he hates me that much and thinks everything I do is bad, then just ignore me. If it’s true Franco fatigue then just don’t bother with me. Stop writing about me. I don’t care!
AVC: By taking on these “unfilmable” literary properties and, gasp, writing poetry as an actor, is there a part of you that enjoys playing the role of provocateur?
JF: It’s not why I do it, but I’ve gone to more school than Rex Reed. I went to school for poetry and I went to school for film and I’ve put in my time. I also know that I came into the professional world as an actor, and that there’s a lot of skepticism about actors doing things like writing poetry or adapting American classics. At first my impulse was to run from my acting persona when I did these other things, to not bridge these worlds, in the hopes that I would be seen as a serious writer or serious director. I realized that to do anything in order to get a hoped-for reaction is just a waste of time. I cannot control everyone’s reaction. All I can do is choose what I work on and how hard I work on it.
Child Of God is a project based on a book that I love, and the aim is to be as loyal to the spirit and character in that book as possible. That’s it. Yes, I knew the subject matter would be provocative, but I also am making it in such a way that it’s hopefully palatable. It could be a lot worse. If it really wanted to run with necrophilia I could have gone a lot further. [Laughs.] I guess in that sense I knew I was being a little provocative, but it was not for the sake of being provocative. Here it was to shock audiences out of normal expectations of a film and to be able to talk about universal things like love, attraction, and intimacy but in a new, hopefully fresh way.
The poetry is a project where I bring one sphere of my life into another. A lot of those poems are about film. The title of the book is called Directing Herbert White,
which is referencing a short film I made based on a poem by Frank Bidart. That’s a case of me embracing the film side of my life with the poetry side. Partly it’s using film as a metaphor for celebrity and the performance as metaphors and subjects. Another side of it is acknowledging that I know people are only going to see this through my persona as an actor and only see it as a book of poetry written by an actor. So I’m just going to embrace it.
I find when I do that in some projects—bringing the different spheres together—that great energy is created, and it becomes more unique in some ways because a lot of poets have written about Hollywood. A lot of writers have written about Hollywood. A lot of artists have used film as references in their work. But they’re not on the inside of it like I am. That is my unique place. I am both on the inside of Hollywood but I also have one foot on the outside. I can work within Hollywood and also take a step to the side and reflect on Hollywood. That’s my unique spot.