Exploring The High Concept World Of James Franco, Director

Getty Image

Artistically, James Franco favors breadth over depth. His detractors accuse him of dilettantism, opting to half-ass many things instead of whole-assing one thing. A cursory scan of critical bodies seems to confirm this as consensus, with the odd outlier praising the polymath’s diverse tastes and eagerness to take on new challenges. But yeah, for the most part, Franco’s a dabbler. Not content to restrict himself to acting or even just working on the other side of the camera, he’s loped into the worlds of fiction writing, academia, multimedia art, and film criticism. And that same eclecticism extends to his filmography as well: While keeping up a robust acting career, Franco has found time to tackle documentaries, weighty literary adaptations, biopics, and an experimental remix of a forgotten provocation.

The common theme is the densely intellectual nature of Franco’s chosen projects, all united by complex premises or weighty source material. The man gravitates toward nifty ideas regardless of how they play in practice, pursuing lofty theoretical notions down whatever rabbit holes they may lead to. Yes, he can come off as full of himself in interviews, yes, it sometimes feels as if the films he makes are unsuited for viewing by anyone except himself, and yes, he seems to be working through some personal issues of sexual identity with these public works. But here’s what you can’t deny: It’s impossible to guess what he’s going to do next. Scroll on for the definitive ranking of les films de Franco from lowest-concept to highest-concept, tracking the fledgling auteur from his relatively straightforward works to his dizzyingly experimental flights of fancy. Then think back on your own grad school thesis, and wonder why you weren’t able to spin it into a prolific career in the entertainment industry.

15. Child Of God (2013)
Every James Franco joint is about James Franco to some extent, and Child Of God lands at the bottom of this list for being the least so. Those so inclined could certainly read an autobiographical subtext into this relation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a man living on the fringes of society — is this not exactly what Franco has done, exile himself to the periphery of Hollywood? — but it feels like Franco was just looking for an excuse to shoot a sequence in which a man does sex to a corpse. Weird? Sure. Bad? Mostly, yeah. High concept? If Franco’s ever directed a conceptually straightforward film, it’s this one.

14. In Dubious Battle (in development)
Modeled after John Steinbeck’s novel about a fruit picker who rallies his fellow laborers to rebel against their corporate oppressors, this project boasts a more high-profile cast than most of Franco’s pictures, with Nat Wolff and Josh Hutcherson in the mix, among others. Still in early pre-production, little is known about this gestating film. But hey, it’s a Steinbeck adaptation starring Selena Gomez, so that has to place it above the bottom spot at the very least.

13. Good Time Max (2007)
Franco dedicated this feature to his brother Dave, now a star in his own right, but one would hope that the Franco boys have a slightly stabler relationship that Max and Adam, the central pair of this oddly mannered, off-putting film. A self-proclaimed “genius,” Max spends his days dreaming up new ways to inconvenience those around him and dealing the occasional drug. Adam keeps up a respectable career as a doctor, but Max’s hard-partying ways inexorably corrupt him and ruin his life. Though Franco whips out every visual trick in the book — mixing digital and analog photography, split screen, slow- and fast-motion — the film is a relatively unadorned dual character study at heart. Maybe James and Dave ought to sit down with a family counselor, though.

12. The Long Home (in development)
The cast list for this as-of-yet unproduced adaptation of William Gay’s novel adheres to some sort of insane pattern that only Franco is capable of understanding. With this film and In Dubious Battle both on the docket, Josh Hutcherson has become an unlikely muse for Franco. But then, how do you account for Ashton Kutcher, or Courtney Love, or Giancarlo Esposito? What could they have possibly talked about between takes?

11. The Broken Tower (2011)
Also known as “the one where James Franco has sex with Michael Shannon,” this experimental biopic of modernist poet Hart Crane plays out over the course of several interconnected vignettes referred to as “voyages.” Most of them center on Crane’s various affairs with men, or his alcoholism, or the depression that would eventually culminate in his suicide at age 32. Franco was 32 when he directed and starred in this black-and-white DIY project as his NYU master’s thesis. Coincidence? I think not. #Illuminati #Semaj

10. Bukowski (in development)
Franco will stay behind the camera and cede the spotlight to Nickelodeon alum Josh Peck for this biopic chronicling the life and times of poet Charles Bukowski. But the choice for the vocally literate Franco to go after Chuck Buk as a subject is such a big fat grad-school cliché that this project might just qualify as a parody of the usual James Franco film, which is like a screenshot of a screenshot of a screenshot that distorts the pixels of the image. If this ever sees the light of day, it could be Franco’s Schizopolis.


New Films International

9. The Sound And The Fury (2014) 

Parsing out the meaning behind William Faulkner’s daunting stream-of-consciousness writing is a Herculean task unto itself, but Franco also pulled double duty as simple-minded Benjy Compson, the youngest of the four siblings at the heart of this southern Gothic classic. Viewers gaping in awe at this colossally miscalculated performance above will inevitably flash back to Tropic Thunder and Robert Downey Jr.’s immortal monologue about the dangers of going “full retard.” Armed with buck teeth and a plague of vocal and physical tics, Franco makes a pillar of American literature into a twisted, incompetent daytime soap.

8. Sal (2011)
On February 12, 1976, actor Sal Mineo was stabbed to death in the alley behind his New York apartment on his way home from rehearsal. Franco’s film tracks the last 24 hours in the openly bisexual Academy Award nominee’s life, during which he works out, goes to the doctor, pays some bills, and does some other torturously banal stuff before marching off into oblivion. What Franco’s trying to prove (apart from a clear and yet never explicitly confirmed sexual connection between the director and his subject) is unclear, unless the point he’s trying to make is that sometimes, extremely interesting people have boring days.

7. As I Lay Dying (2013)
A novel from over 15 different points of view, many believed William Faulkner’s classic to be unfilmable. But James Franco isn’t “many.” He devised a workaround by shooting almost the entire film in split screen and showing each scene from multiple points of view simultaneously, occasionally using footage from different takes to create a disorienting effect. Sometimes, one of the characters will leave the scene but the other will take a moment to realize this. In case viewers thought they might be able to cinch their saddle up on the material anyway, Franco also piles on voiceover narration from a rotation of characters that make keeping track of everything nigh-on impossible. Must-see viewing for devotees of Franco, must-avoid viewing for devotees of Faulkner.

James Franco
Getty Image

6. Zeroville (forthcoming)
This one’s supposed to be out before the year is up, and the Steve Erickson novel upon which it’s based is a doozy. Franco headlines as Ike Jerome, an architecture student in the original text but a seminarian in this take, who heads to Hollywood to worship at the celluloid altar. Of course, the city devours him whole and spits him out partially digested. Franco had adopted Ike’s signature shaved-head look for the role, and you can see his tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor in A Place In The Sun if you click here. From the sound of it, auto-critical Franco will come out to play, celebrating and self-flagellating over his own place in the Hollywood machinery.

5. My Own Private River (2012)
Franco spliced this hundred-minute film together from unused dailies footage of My Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s 1991 drama starring a young Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix. Franco’s professed idolization of the fallen star Phoenix drove him to create this mashup, which has never seen a wide release, only playing sporadically at Los Angeles galleries. He reanimated his deceased icon as a vague commentary on all the usual things — celebrity, media, the boundaries of art — but the technical scope of this project puts it near the top of this list.

4. Untitled Zola & Jess Project (in development)
Just a few weeks ago, Franco laid claim to the rights to the gripping saga of Twitter user @_zolarmoon, aka Zola, aka Azia Wells. Technically, the film will adapt David Kushner’s Rolling Stone report on the astonishing story that Zola relayed over a hundred-plus tweets, but even so, adapting a tweet-storm poses the question of what is beyond the limits of adaptability to Franco. It’s as if he looks at the world and sees nothing but adaptable material challenging him to bring it to life. That flyer for a band in need of a bassist. That meme comparing Ted Cruz’s face to Kevin from The Office. The menu at this Thai fusion restaurant. Inspiration is everywhere.

3. The Ape (2005)
One of the most aggressively avant-garde entries in Franco’s postmodern canon began Franco’s career in the director’s chair. Franco stars as a man dead-set on writing the Great American Novel, as is Franco’s wont, who leases a new apartment to get some peace and quiet. For what we can only assume are symbolic reasons, this apartment acquaints the guy with an invective-spewing, Hawaiian-shirted, cheap ape costume-wearing imaginary friend. In between feces-throwing and decidedly un-PC opinions about, well, everything, the ape and Franco have a series of digressive conversations about life, love, and art. Despite sounding like something someone would come up with mocking Franco, this is a very real movie, and there’s even a trailer to prove it.

2. The Disaster Artist (forthcoming)
When Tommy Wiseau’s inscrutable soap opera by-way-of-Adult Swim The Room began to amass a cult following, he backpedaled and claimed he had always imagined it as a masterpiece of anti-comedy, and had never intended it to be taken seriously. Franco is nothing if not the American Tommy Wiseau, and so he was perfectly suited to adapt star Greg Sestero’s strange account of The Room‘s production process. Things were already plenty layered with the movie-about-making-a-movie angle, but Franco never met a metatextualtouch he didn’t like, so he tapped brother Dave Franco to portray Sestero while James is set to play Wiseau himself. Considering how much of the memoir is about the discomfiting one-way sexual tension from Tommy to Greg, that’s a profoundly weird casting choice.

1. Interior. Leather Bar. (2013)
James Franco has made plenty of movies about people making movies. But James Franco has only made one movie about James Franco making a movie about people making movies. (On his deathbed, Charlie Kaufman’s going to pen the Being John Malkovich sequel about Franco and it’s going to be either unwatchable, the greatest work of fiction of this century, or both.) This docufiction hybrid features James and indie filmmaker Travis Matthews as themselves in the process of shooting a recreation of approximately 40 minutes of footage deemed too graphic for inclusion in William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising. Franco insisted that it was not a flimsy excuse for him to kinda-not-really make gay porn, and held fast to his position that the film provided a commentary on censorship and art. Perhaps future generations will look upon Franco as some restlessly experimental trickster god of Hollywood, and perhaps future generations of film students will draw up theses on Interior. Leather Bar. and begin the navel-gazing academia cycle anew. And perhaps posterity will winnow these away as an eccentric’s side projects and shift focus to Franco’s film roles, many of which are solidly entertaining. But for now, all we can do is bow our heads and pray that this conceptual bastard doesn’t foul up the Adventures of Jess and Zola, which could very well be our generation’s Vertigo if handled correctly.