“It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” This passage, closing out Macbeth’s final soliloquy, remains one of the most haunting of Shakespeare’s voluminous canon; a paragon of cynicism and despair, reducing life—and all its eccentricities—to a trivial endeavor devoid of meaning. The lyrical declamation has inspired luminaries ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Robert Frost. David Foster Wallace even named a chapter in his tome Brief Interviews with Hideous Men “Signifying Nothing.” Most famously, it informed the title of one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
And if you believe his legions of detractors, the lines also sum up the myriad artistic output of James Franco, the multihyphenate actor-filmmaker-soap star-selfie specialist.
The latest James Franco Joint is an adaption of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, a dense, stream of consciousness-laden chronicle of the beleaguered Compson family of Jefferson, Mississippi—a group of incest-tinged aristocrats whose lives, over the course of 30 years, devolve into tragedy. Like the Southern Gothic maestro’s As I Lay Dying, it was deemed unfilmable due to its fragmented structure and disparate, polyphonal narration; a conclusion all but proven by the awfully melodramatic 1959 bastardization, starring Yul Brynner. Nonetheless, the pop provocateur that soap fans know by the mononym “Franco” has decided to unpack it.
More on that later.
First, we shall tackle the matter of Franco’s beef with Gawker. You see, last month, Franco released his surprisingly impressive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, starring his pal of ten years, Scott Haze, as the outback necrophiliac-killer Lester Ballard. An innocuous line in a subsequent New York Times profile mentioned they were sharing an apartment in Brooklyn together while they starred in a pair of plays in New York—Franco in Of Mice and Men, and Haze in the Off Broadway production of The Long Shrift, directed by Franco. So Gawker, as is their wont, took it upon themselves to run a piece with the headline: “James Franco Is living with a man,” insinuating that because they were roommates in New York, Haze was playing the role of “live-in boyfriend.”Franco, as is his wont, responded via Instagram, branding the media site “homophobic”:
I’m seated with Franco and Haze in a lounge at The Excelsior Hotel, an opulent abode a stone’s throw from the action of the Venice Film Festival, where The Sound and the Fury made its premiere—and also where a very bald, tattooed Franco shot a film whilst being honored with the fest’s Glory to the Filmmaker Award. I bring up the Gawker fracas, and the troll-site’s suggestion that the two are a gay couple.
Haze immediately shifts in his seat, and groans. “Oh God,” he says, with a frustrated look on his face. Franco is a bit more talkative on the subject.
“Yeah, and then they got a little pissy because I said it was ‘homophobic,’ and yeah it is,” says Franco. “And then they said, ‘Oh, well a gay guy wrote it!’ I don’t care if the press is gay or straight. When did you have to face criticism for having a roommate? I don’t understand that!” He pauses. “And there were like… eight people living in that house, so to make a story about that—I don’t care, but it just shows how petty Gawker is. It’s ridiculous.”
The other big controversy of late involving Franco concerns a more nefarious opponent—North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The Interview, a film starring Franco and pal Seth Rogen, is scheduled to open later this year and involves a plot to assassinate the “Dear Leader.” The North Korean government was less than amused, issuing a stern warning: “If the U.S. administration connives at and patronizes the screening of the film, it will invite a strong and merciless countermeasure.”
When I ask Franco about the threat, he gets flustered. He is, apparently, sworn to secrecy.
“Oh, no,” he says. “I don’t want to disappoint you, but I’m not allowed to talk about that. I can’t talk about that... I can’t say anything, sorry.”
As for The Sound and the Fury, despite some recent negative reviews floating about, I found it to be further evidence (coupled with As I Lay Dying) that Franco is improving as a filmmaker. The film, like Faulkner’s novel, is divided into chapters, telling the story of each of the Compson boys—the dimwitted Benjy, the cerebral-but-depressed Quentin, and the cynical sonofabitch Jason—from their unique POVs (the book’s fourth chapter, focusing on the black family caretaker Dilsey, has been truncated). Franco adopted different looks for each section to correspond with their respective psyche.
“We tried to have different shooting styles for each, so with Benjy, there was a ton of close-camera, weird broken frames—so actors won't always even be in the frame—and using this POV idea that the actors acting with Benjy will look right into the camera,” says Franco. “With Quentin, he’s wrapped up in memory, but his memories have a strong pull on him and are a little bit incoherent, so the shooting style was more steadicam, flowing shots. And with Jason’s section, his storyline is more to the point and he’s not as caught up in the past but is more about making his money now, so the style was longer lenses on sticks, and the camera wouldn’t move unless the characters would, so plenty of pans.”
Franco plays Benjy, the mentally handicapped—and eventually, castrated—member of the Compson clan. Sporting prosthetic teeth, the role calls for no dialogue, having been replaced by constant wailing. It’s a delicate character to play since, as Robert Downey Jr.’s method-crazy character in Tropic Thunder jestingly warned, “You never go full-retard.”
“As an actor, I looked to the book,” says Franco. “I have no idea if Faulkner knew someone like this, or had any basis in the way the character is depicted, but I just thought I’d play it like he was written—he’s mute, he bellows, and he’s obsessed with certain things like light and flowers, since they remind him of his beloved sister, Caddy.”
When I mention that his younger brother, Dave, will be playing a mentally handicapped character opposite Vince Vaughn in the upcoming movie Unfinished Business, and that the two should be prepared for potential viral mash-ups, he unleashes his movie star smile.
“Wait, really?” he says, chuckling. “I don’t know anything about that! Oh gosh.”
The gang, including cameos by pals Seth Rogen and Danny McBride, started filming The Sound and the Fury just after last year’s Venice Film Festival, and Haze says he was very impressed by not only Franco’s performance, but the fact that he’d sometimes even direct scenes with the fake teeth still on.
“I personally think that his performance is unbelievable,” says Haze. “I remember being on set and thinking, ‘James is killing this role,’ and then halfway through he’d come out of it and say, ‘Let’s move the camera, and change this,’ and then go right back into Benjy again.”
“I did,” says Franco of directing with the fake teeth. “It was very fast.”
So far, Haze and Franco have collaborated on the aforementioned three films, a play, and a performance art project dubbed Brad Forever, dedicated to the memory of Brad Renfro. They met a decade ago in a parking lot through mutual friend Jim Parrack, who teaches acting classes with Franco.
“It wasn’t just a random parking lot,” says Franco, laughing, “it was behind the Stella Adler Theater in L.A. where I saw [Haze] perform. He was a childhood friend of Jim Parrack’s, so I’d gone to see Jim.” “I’d just seen James do the James Dean movie, and was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s the guy who played James Dean,” added Haze. “He’s really good.”
When I ask whether they’re going to “hook up” again in the future, they both start cracking up.
“Hey, no comment!” says Haze, bowled over in his seat. Franco pats him on the back and, barely containing his laughter, adds, “Here in Venice? Pretty damn romantic!”