What’s Up, Doc?: Franco and Olds on Francophrenia

Published April 18, 2012

ABOVE: JAMES FRANCO IN FRANCOPHRENIA. IMAGE COURTESY OF JAMES FRANCO AND IAN OLDS

Like a typical grad student enthusiastically unpacking his latest project, James Franco has a lot to say about the many “layers” of his new movie—cheekily named Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where The Baby Is). The film is an offspring of his highly scrutinized, three-year stint playing a serial killer artist (also named Franco) on General Hospital. After bringing his own camera crew to record his behind-the-scenes antics while on set for the final episode, Franco surprised everyone by repurposing the documentary footage into an entirely different movie.

Using some clever editing and a dubbed voiceover, the “James Franco” in Francophrenia morphs into a schizophrenic struggling to remember what he’s doing on set to begin with. He loses his grip on reality, and starts to adopt his television character’s paranoia and madness—while cheerily taking photos with the rabid fans swarming the set.

Yes, James Franco’s movie is so “meta” it’ll make your head spin. But transcending the movie’s many mirrors is a smart, powerful and earnest effort to examine the nature of celebrity—and expose its illusionary constructs. We sat down with Franco and his co-director, Ian Olds, to analyze their pop-culture experiment—and wound up also talking about bondage porn, Joaquin Phoenix’s rap album, and the similarities between Marina AbramoviÄ? and General Hospital.

MICHELLE LHOOQ: James, I remember seeing you around Columbia’s Butler library a lot last year. It was always this crazy mob.

JAMES FRANCO: I got run out of there. A couple girls. . . they’d leave me their numbers. I went to the bathroom, and some guy was like, “That’s my girlfriend. Why you come in here and hit on all the girls?” After that, I didn’t go back.

LHOOQ: That’s lame. I hope NYU treated you a little better. But let’s talk about this movie . . . how’d it come about? Did you decide to rework the footage before, during or after filming General Hospital?

FRANCO: I was doing this movie called Maladies with the artist Carter, and in it I was going to play a character on a soap opera who loses his mind. Carter and I had a casual conversation walking down the street in New York, thinking, “Hey, what if I really went on a soap opera? I might as well try it.” My manager represents one of the actors on General Hospital, Steve Burton, so he called him up . . .

LHOOQ: I’m sure they were super psyched. Did you reveal to them that you had plans to make a faux documentary?

FRANCO: At this point it was still just an idea. Yeah, they said, “Of course, he can write, he can do whatever!” I said, “No, I want to be in your hands. I want the full soap-opera experience. The only thing I ask is that you make the character an artist and you make him crazy.” They gave me their soap-opera version of an artist—graffiti and murder. 

But it was perfect, because the soap opera foregrounded the absurdity. By admitting it, they could talk about it in a real way—like The Simpsons or something. People were like, “What is James doing on this soap opera? His name is Franco?!” It was like I was an imposter. People are already talking about it like it’s on a different level: “It’s like he’s popping out of the soap. Coming out of the seams or something.”

That got me thinking if there’s a way for me to take more ownership or frame it in one more way. So we started filming the scenes on set ourselves, without a narrative arc, just all the footage together. That led to a discussion with Jeffrey Deitch, the gallery owner, about doing an art show with art by Franco, and we’d go film an episode there. It’s adding these additional frames.

LHOOQ: Good god.

FRANCO: [laughs] Exactly.

LHOOQ: Did you actually make your character’s artwork?

FRANCO: Well, there’s art on the show that’s really bad—these cliché Abstract Expressionist gestural things. It’s almost like extensions of my performance, because in the scene I’m really mad like, [mimes stabbing] “I’m going to kill him!” Really bad, but in a sense, almost like a comment on De Kooning or Pollock or something.

So now, there are all these frames that you can’t really separate from each other. Sets that Franco ostensibly built, sets for the episode, and on top of that, I brought my own camera crew, thinking, “All right, I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to do with this later, but I know that this needs to continue.” An actual episode would air on ABC, but in addition we’d also have a fucked-up episode from our film.

Ian and I had worked together on another documentary about Saturday Night Live, and he came to me and was like “I heard about this footage you’ve got and it sounds like material I’d like to work with.”

OLDS: Initially, we wanted to make an experimental documentary. But there’s so much stuff about, “Who’s James Franco now? What is he doing? What the fuck is he about?” It became clear that I couldn’t figure out a way to make it straight. There’s a weird moment in the film where all the sound is knocked out and it started looking surreal. I flashed to this film I saw called Confessions, about the Russian navy, but there’s a voiceover narration from this captain who you never see.

We started to play with that idea—another version of James. It was cool how James gave me and Paul [Felton, the other writer] freedom to fuck with his image. That was important because he was a creator, but also allowed himself to be a subject, which gave us a distance that is useful and powerful. If you saw this film as if every decision was made by James, it would be weird. But you realize there’s the real James Franco interacting with this tension with a fictional James Franco, who is out of his control.

FRANCO: On one level, it feels very self-centered. But it’s not as if I’m saying, “Everyone needs to know about me! I find myself so interesting!” It’s more about how that image is manipulated by all these other things. Ian’s editing and the voiceover that he added are just stand-ins for manifestations of what happens all the time. Even this interview… it’s going through you, and will turn out different from if Ian and I just sat down to write our thoughts. It’s what happens no matter how the image, persona, personality, or art is distributed.

LHOOQ: I had no idea that was actually Ian acting as your voiceover. Throughout the film, I thought you were being very self-aware. Like you weren’t reveling in your celebrity. You were spoofing it.

FRANCO: I’m aware that I’m doing something there. But the shaping of that is Ian’s contribution.

OLDS: What’s powerful to me is the artifice playing against the actual raw power of the documentary footage. That tension was fucking weird and something to exploit.

LHOOQ: Have you seen Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? The tension between what you’re seeing and hearing in that movie is similar to what you guys were doing.

OLDS: There’s also been comparisons to Mystery Science Theater 3000. I hope there’s something more though, because that’s all just about spoof. But our film is more uncomfortable, we’re trying to pay attention to the other side of it so you’ll be like, “Is this just for fun? There’s something weird about this process, something unsettling.”

FRANCO: That’s what I was going to say. What sticks with me the most are the long shots of silence. They make you aware of how weird it is: shaving and getting this weird hair….

OLDS: It’s a portrait of labor in the Dream Factory. But not taking itself too seriously. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t funny.

LHOOQ: People might say that you’re pulling a Joaquin Phoenix with this, except Joaquin took his performative madness even further by bringing it on Letterman. Did you ever think about extending your act beyond General Hospital?

OLDS: The first thing is, I never wanted it to be a mockumentary. That form isn’t that interesting. The artifice is too strong here to pretend this is real. Francophrenia‘s not pretending to be a documentary in a way I’m Still Here did.

FRANCO: I think the impulses that have pushed me to do the projects I’ve done for the last five years are maybe similar to what inspired Joaquin to make that mockumentary.  In the early part of that movie, he has this little speech, “I hate being an actor, they dress you and put on your makeup and you just feel like a little baby.” And I think that’s something a lot of actors feel. You work really hard to make it, and maybe you get some acclaim, but then you realize there are certain limitations as an actor. Generally you don’t initiate the projects—they’re designed and you’re inserted. Your material is edited by somebody. You feel a lack of power over your work.

I feel like he should have made a rap album. He’s a decent enough rapper, he could have sold a fair amount of… you know what I mean? And at that point you could say, is it a joke or not? You can always say it’s just a spoof, but it’s getting to that gray area that is more powerful and interesting because it speaks about what our pop entertainers consist of. That’s what I would have done. I would have put a rap album out.

LHOOQ: It’s not too late. You should make a rap album about making a rap album. But I guess another difference is that your “insanity” was superimposed after-the-fact.

FRANCO: We had a different fame. We went straight to a soap opera, but framed it by a museum. It already has a silly façade, but the underside is very real.

LHOOQ: I’m super interested in how you called your General Hospital stint “performance art” in a Wall Street Journal article from 2009. In it, you talk a lot about Marina AbramoviÄ?. Were you actively thinking about her work when filming General Hospital?

FRANCO: Marina is a big influence. The thing she always says is that in performance art, the knife is real and you really bleed. In theatrical performances it’s fake and you bleed fake blood. You could say The Artist Is Present is somewhat minimal and “real.” But you also have her theatrical play, The Life Of Marina AbramoviÄ?. She has embraced both sides. Those two poles are things I’m very interested in.

As an actor in commercial films, I’m usually dealing with fake knives and fake blood. But by doing what I think of as just a slightly difference stance in regards to that material, you can start to look at what’s real there. The next project Ian and I are working is about this porn studio in San Francisco where they do a lot of bondage. No one watches porn for its performances. The lines are so stupid, like “Hey honey, let’s look at this bedroom I just redesigned!” But in the bondage community, they’re hyper-critical if someone’s really feeling pain or not. If somebody seems like they’re faking the pain, the audience becomes very critical. Real pain is being performed for people’s entertainment.

When I was doing 127 Hours, we’d do these long takes where Danny Boyle would say, “All right, you’re trapped, try to get out, bash yourself against the rock, do whatever you can to get out.” And I was like, “Uh, okay, but I’m going to get bruised.” And he was like “Yeah, you are. But don’t stop until I say cut.” And he said cut maybe 25 minutes later. By the end of it, I was really exhausted and bruised, and it’s like this weird crossover into Marina’s world. So in that sense, yeah, Marina’s work has been an influence.

LHOOQ: David Foster Wallace wrote a great essay about porn stars, have you read it? He says this one line where it’s like, the best actresses are the ones where they drop the façade and for a few seconds you can see that they’re really enjoying themselves.

FRANCO: [laughs] I’m going to read that.

FRANCOPHRENIA DEBUTS THIS SUNDAY AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL, AND RUNS THROUGH THE WEEK.