James Franco drew a line when he appeared at the Strand last week and is making headlines on Gawker today, but only a few dozen people filed into Village East Cinema last night for an under-the-radar q&a following a screening of his new film The Color of Time.
The work, starring Franco as poet C.K. Williams, was produced by Franco in collaboration with his students at NYU film school (Fort Tilden filmmaker Sarah-Violet Bliss was among the dozen writer-directors). The dreamy mélange of episodes from Williams’s life as represented in his 1983 book, Tar (recommended to Franco by his professor at Warren Wilson College, Tony Hoagland) doesn’t quite comprise a conventional narrative. But the work feels considerably more polished than your typical experimental student film, perhaps because it stars A-listers like Mila Kunis (as the poet’s wife), Jessica Chastain (his mom), and Zach Braff (his dying friend).
Still, as Franco made clear during his q&a, the making of the film (shot partly in Detroit while Franco was working on Oz the Great and Powerful) came with its challenges – not the least of which were the fellow faculty members who were “shitheads” during his first year as a film teacher.
Franco, sporting a jolly red cap that he’s worn quite a bit lately, explained that during his time as a film student at NYU, he made a trio of short films (“The Feast of Stephen,” “Herbert White,” and “The Clerk’s Tale”) based on poems he’d discovered as an English major during his undergraduate years. “After I graduated [from film school] I went back and taught the next year and some of the people that had been in class with me were now my students,” he said. “Which was a little weird.”
“It was just a little weird going back to teaching the next year, politically, because some of the other teachers were [cough] shitheads… shitheads about it,” he explained, perhaps referring to the former professor who sued him and NYU. As the crowd laughed, he said, “But that’s, whatever, that’s another story. I no longer teach at NYU, I teach in LA.”
Franco said it actually wasn’t that weird to teach former students, since “the way I taught my class was more like producing a movie as much as it was teaching a class.”
Narrative poems proved to be a useful vehicle for creative cinema, since — as he discovered with his student films — “what the poems pushed me to do was look at things like imagery and tone and rhythm as the primary things rather than narrative and structure.”
Now in his fifth year of teaching (at “some of the best film schools in the world” as well as his own Studio 4), Franco is a big believer in collaboration: “Danny Boyle said to me one time that as a director if you insist too strongly on what you want, you might just get it and nothing more,” he said. “Meaning you’re cutting off the collaboration. But if you’re a director who hopefully works with really good people and you’re open to their contributions, then you potentially get so much more than you could think of on your own.”
That collaborative spirit is more useful in MFA programs than the traditional workshop model, Franco insisted. “What I found going through these different programs was even when the comments were helpful – and they weren’t always helpful,” he said, laughing, “but even in the best cases when they were helpful the other students weren’t invested in each other’s work in the same way they would be if they were working on that project with that person.”
Compare that to the process he adopted for The Color of Time, and has used in all of his teaching since: “Now you’re getting everybody’s comments, but they’re comments coming from a collaborator who’s invested in your piece and trying to make your piece better so that the whole piece is better, rather than [in bored voice] ‘I’m making some comments that you can take or leave because I’m in this program with you and I have to make these comments to get a grade, so maybe you could make that faster or whatever. I wasn’t really scared at that point but do what you want.’”
Of course, if you’re going to motivate students via collaboration, it helps if you’re James Franco and can help get them a film deal.
“Everybody in the class has the idea that we’re aiming for something that’s going to be unified,” said Franco, “and if we actually accomplish that – not going in with the attitude ‘mine’s going to be the best in the class,’ but instead ‘let’s make everybody’s the best in the class so we can make something like this, hopefully get great actors,’ – and if we can then all pull it off together, we can actually have a theatrical release or take it places.”
The result, said Franco, was “a really cool movie, I think.” You can decide for yourself by catching it at Village East Cinema through Thursday.
Update: a reader points out that, in plugging the movie on Instagram three weeks ago, Franco wrote, “It’s a great movie despite obstacles from the short sighted Nyu film program, and dean [Mary Schmidt] Campbell. If you want to go to film school, go to THE WEST COAST!”