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William Faulkner is notoriously hard to read, the bane of many a high school sophomore’s existence. But James Franco wasn’t one of them. “I’ve been a huge fan of Faulkner’s works since I was in high school and my dad turned me on to his books,” Franco tells EW. And many years later, he’s now turned As I Lay Dying, Faulker’s 1930 tale of a woman who dies and her body is taken to the city to be buried, into a film that uses a split-screen technique to tell the narrative from various characters’ points of view. Franco spoke with EW about his experience making the film, his choices in casting — including Eastbound & Down star Danny McBride, and how making comedies with Seth Rogen helped inform his filmmaking , even in creating a serious drama.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why Faulkner?
JAMES FRANCO: As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury were some of the first books I read when I started getting very serious about literature. So at that time it just kind of spoke to me. Even though they were characters living in the early 20th century in Mississippi, for some reason I think I emotionally identified with some of the characters at that time. The other thing I loved and still do love about Faulkner is he created this fictional county and placed most of his best books there; the books are all connected by this fictional place that he created and I love being able to enter an imaginary world that way.
What was the biggest challenge shooting such a complicated book?
It’s structurally unconventional. Each chapter is told from the first person perspective of a different character, there are inner monologues that are very dense and use a much higher level of diction than these characters would actually be able to use. So the inner monologues become something more than just an inner voice, it’s almost as if Faulkner is giving words to their feelings. These characters wouldn’t articulate in the way the monologues do, but maybe they would have feelings as complex as the inner monologues, so Faulkner is giving voice to them.
So I had all these things that would be challenging to adapt but what I like about that challenge is it pushes me to find solutions to the unusual stylistic and structural things in the book.
One of those solutions was the use of the split-screen. Did you try other techniques first? How did you decide that structure would work for this film?
It took us a while to get the rights. I had a long time to think about it and over the course of that time I had certain ideas I was thinking about that I at least wanted to try. So the split screen was one of them. The split screen came from the thing in the book where there are multiple perspectives of a single story. But I didn’t want to do it exactly like the book where one chapter goes to one character and then another chapter goes to another character; I felt like if we did it that way it would be a little clunky, a little rigid. I still wanted to get the sense of multiple perspectives, so the split screen idea was something we thought could be a solution but I didn’t know if it would work. I’d never done a movie like this before so it was something that we planned before shooting. We shot it in a way that split screen could work but it wasn’t until I saw some early edits that I really knew that it could work.
People always say the movie is never as good as the book. What do you think about adaptations in general and are there other book-to-movie adaptation that you looked at for inspiration?
I think of the other kind of saying: ‘A good book makes a bad movie and a bad book makes a good movie.’ Something like The Godfather — that’s kind of a dime-store novel turned into an American classic. Or something like Jaws or The Exorcist, these are all OK books, but the movies are great. I think that the truth to that saying comes from one of the things we love about certain great books: their complexity, the complexity of the prose, the textual complexity that is often very hard to translate into a film because a film is so visual and it can’t use ongoing inner monologues or inflected lines of prose in the same way. It needs to use its own terms. Something that can happen often is a movie will capture the narrative or the story of the book but not the style or the structure of a great book. That’s why when I chose this book. I was very clear with myself that just adapting the story would not be enough and in fact it’s a pretty simple story. But within that are many little mini-narratives with each character. So I said to myself I need some way to capture that in addition to the story, otherwise I’m not truly adapting it. And so I think we did it, I think we achieved it.
I’d never seen Danny McBride in a serious role before. He really pulls off playing it straight here — what was your thought in casting him?
There’s not a ton of levity in this movie. And even though Danny isn’t playing a comedic role in the movie, I felt like it would just help balance out the weight of the movie if I just had Danny in there. As a filmmaker, what I try to do is take challenging subjects, but I like to make them watchable. I’m not out to bore anybody. So I think having him there was a way to make the movie a tiny bit more fun, even though he’s playing a dramatic role and he’s great at it. I think it’s his first really dramatic movie.
You seem to always be working on a hundred projects at once. How do you get into the headspace to think about such a serious project versus something lighter, like your episodes on The Mindy Project?
I guess for me it’s just about engaging with the kind of project it is and gearing my headspace to that project. I’ve learned by working with some of what I consider the best comedic filmmakers around, mainly Seth Rogan and his team. And just by doing it with them I’ve gotten used to improvising and figuring out how to find the comedic angles in scenes. In both cases you’re telling a story – but in As I Lay Dying when you’re looking at a single scene, you’re looking to see how is this going to help tell the story and what is the drama that I can mine in each scene? And in a comedy basically you’re thinking, well, will this help tell the story and what is the comedy that can be mined in each scene? So they’re similar in the sense that you’re milking each scene or you’re looking at each scene for the comedy potential rather than the dramatic potential. They’re kind of similar but you’re geared in a different way.
I saw you’re working on adapting The Sound and the Fury next. Will there be more Faulkner to come?
We just shot [The Sound and the Fury] in Mississippi and now I’m working with Seth [Rogen] on The Interview. We have a movie about Charles Bukowski’s young life that we’re hoping to premiere at Sundance.