James Franco gives an interviewer much more material with his looks and demeanor than with his words. In a corner office of an unglamorous Manhattan business complex, the 34-year-old multi-hyphenate appears intent on expelling any notion of his established heartthrob image, stopping you in your tracks with his anti-movie-star aura. Uncombed and unshaven for what looks like many days, Franco is slumped in a chair, holding onto a coffee mug like he just stepped in from the cold. His wardrobe, appropriately, seems culled from the closets of men of many professions. On his feet, he wears the shoes of an artist—black and liberally splattered with gobs of paint. His jeans are slightly cuffed and heavily distressed, as if a construction site might be his next stop. Rumpled and shabby, the flannel shirt on his back could belong to a farmer. And his jacket, an old nylon zip-up with worn, striped trim, may well be the hand-me-down of a 1980s sports coach.
The question “Who is James Franco?” has been the angle of countless recent profiles, a response to the plethora of quirky, un-Hollywood enterprises in which he's immersed himself (the pseudo-doc Francophrenia is currently playing the Tribeca Film Festival, and check your local book store for Franco's short story collection). Even now, Franco doesn't seem so ready to provide an answer, his body language alternately reading as nonchalant and stressed over press events being par for the course. While fielding questions about The Broken Tower, his NYU thesis film and most aberrant effort yet, Franco often has a tight squint and his head tilted back, as if the words will only come when the fluorescent light hits his closed eyelids. He's demonstrative, occasionally pinching the bridge of his nose, and when he speaks, it's in that boho groove he's been projecting since he sat down. Is he jet lagged?
“Oh no, I'm used to that,” he assures.
Is he stoned? It's the question plenty of easily amused consumers would reach for, recalling burnout comedies and a rather listless Oscar gig, which should in fact be blamed on out-of-touch telecast producers. In his 30s, Franco has eased into a disposition uncluttered by the constant need to be groomed for Gucci ads, and age has naturally caused his heavy eyelids to tilt. If he's under the influence of anything, it's an apparently unquenchable drive to not be lost amid his handsome peers, and to use the platform he's forged to present the work that truly makes him tick. Whether or not everyone buys the output isn't exactly his problem.
“I just did a movie with [director] Harmony Korine,” Franco says, “and I agree with his sentiments. He says, 'When I make a movie, of course I want people to come and see it, and like it, but I also can't let that have an effect on what I make. I need to make something that I believe in.' Harmony also learned from Werner Herzog to do a lot of things, and be creative in a lot of ways. You can do ads, and you can do movies of all different types, but have one area that's pure, that's yours. I've been acting for 15 years, and I've been in movies that have broken box-office records and won Oscars. But I feel like I was helping other people achieve their visions. When I go and direct, these [films] are pure in the sense that I've chosen the subject matter. And though I know I've chosen difficult subject matter, I feel like I've been very loyal to it. I know The Broken Tower isn't going to be Spider-Man and people aren't going to rush to see it, and I know I'm gonna get some criticisms. But I feel like I've already achieved what I wanted to do: I've made a movie that I know has a lot of integrity.”
Franco's The Broken Tower takes its name from Paul Mariani's biography of Hart Crane, the controversial, presumably bisexual American poet whose tumultuous life ended in suicide at the age of 32. Turned on to the book in the early 2000s while studying Crane at UCLA, Franco has been itching to play the writer on screen for roughly a decade. His dream role never materialized, so when he headed back to college and enrolled in film school at NYU, he began taking steps to express his love of poetry through cinema, starting with short films divvied up in terms of stanzas, and often finding that the visuals had a poetry all their own. The assignments eventually led to Franco's masters thesis, which surely couldn't be anything other than Crane's story. Franco would assume the positions of writer, director, and star, and deliver something nearly as singular and impenetrable as the poet's prose.
“One of the big, guiding things for this movie,” Franco says, “was this essay Crane wrote called General Aims and Theories, where he acknowledges how difficult his poetry is, but talks about how he's looking for a different kind of reading experience. It's not about the surface level; it's about the way that the secondary meanings of the metaphors are kind of resonating with each other, as weird as that sounds. I guess it's more kind of like music, in a way. And so, that's also how I wanted to structure the film. I wanted the texture of the film to feel like the texture of his poetry, and so that's why you kind of get the movie the way it is, in these sort of episodic kind of sections, which hopefully give you information about his life, just as some of the poems do. There are autobiographical bits in the poems, but they're also kind of working off each other in certain ways, and that's where you get some of the meaning.”
For better or worse, the headline-grabber of Franco's latest bit of deviant art is its frank depiction of gay sex, which dumps gasoline on the burning fire of speculation over Franco's orientation. In The Broken Tower, Franco blatantly fellates a fleshy prosthetic while depicting an early Crane tryst, and later gets aggressively topped by Michael Shannon's love-struck sailor. Asked and asked for tabloid fodder, the question of whether or not Franco is gay is about as useless as the assumption that he's perpetually high. The whole appeal of Franco is that he's not like other stars, and the tacky impulse to box that in completely defeats the point. Even if you feel that his personal work is a gathering snowball of pretension, which sees him firing cryptic sonnets at viewers time and time again, the true item of interest is Franco's hunger for provocation, and how it speaks to the rebellion of an artist trapped in a leading man's body. Perhaps leaping to and from mediums and performing a faux amputation on screen can't provide the proper fix. And if thumbing his nose at taboos and toying with sexuality does the trick, from Milk to Howl to drag cover shoots for Candy magazine, then so be it.
As for Crane, Franco says his sexuality was integral to how he worked and lived, and thus, integral to how the film was made.
“The only people that Crane didn't want to come out to were his parents,” Franco says, “because he was afraid that he wouldn't inherit his father's money if his father knew he was gay. Otherwise, he was very comfortable with who he was from a very young age, and I thought it was important to put that kind of in-your-face attitude across. And one way of doing that, of course, was to have a couple explicit sex scenes, and I knew that those things, like the blowjob scene, would be the thing that the first reviewers would kind of use, just because it's easy to get readers that way. But I feel like, based on some of the other responses, that it all did achieve its effect. Just as Crane's friends loved him but were threatened by his outness, people who are attracted to the poetic side of Crane's work might get a little jolt if they see this other side too. Along the way in making The Broken Tower, I was told that someone said, 'Oh, what is that, the blowjob movie? I don't wanna see a movie about that.' It's not a movie about a blowjob, it's a movie about a man.”