Cannes 2013: James Franco on Directing

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 20:  Director James Franco attends the 'As I Lay Dying' Premiere during the 66th Annual Camnes Film Fest
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 20: Director James Franco attends the 'As I Lay Dying' Premiere during the 66th Annual Camnes Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals on May 20, 2013 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

There's a trend in actor-turned-director helmed films at Cannes this year, an impeccable direction of the people on screen. You can tell there's a sense of trust and cohesive goal to create something great. One of the clearest examples of this is James Franco's new feature film, As I Lay Dying, based on the great American classic by William Faulkner, the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her family's quest to honor her wish to be buried in the town of Jefferson.

2013-05-23-FrancoAristonAnderson.jpgPhoto: Ariston Anderson

The vivid characters have come to life on the big screen through Franco's split-screen filmmaking, led by Tim Blake Nelson as the toothless father Anse, Logan Marshall-Green as the sullen son Jewel, Ahna O'Reilly as the fearsome sister Dewey Dell, Jim Parrack as the never-complaining Cash and Franco himself as the surly Darl. It's not an easy story to watch, but its characters reveal to us a symphony of American motives and desire, as the family tries to stay afloat against every obstacle thrown their way. Faulkner claimed to write the story in six weeks without changing a word, and the film clearly shows Franco's similar drive in seeing the narrative blossom from beginning to end.

Franco has been obsessed with making the book into a film since first reading it, along with another directorial project of his, Cormac McCarthy's Child of God. Wearing a tuxedo and bamboo-detailed Gucci aviators, Franco sat down with us at the Canal Plus tent on the Croisette to share why he decided to pick up the camera in the first place, along with some of the lessons he's learned and applied to his own filmmaking from working with cinema greats over the years including Danny Boyle, Gus Van Sant, Sam Raimi, Harmony Korine, Robert Altman and Judd Apatow.

1. Create your own dream job. It's not going to be handed to you.

I've been acting in movies professionally for 16 or 17 years now. I've been a movie-lover for longer than that. And I remember when I was only acting people would ask me, "What is your dream role, what movie would you love to do if you could?" And for a long time my answer was I'd love to play a young Tennessee Williams or the poet Hart Crane.

But then it would just sit there. I would sit around and wait for some filmmaker to make those movies and ask me to be in them and nobody ever did. So then I started directing my own films.

2. If you're looking for a great story, remember the classics.

I have a literature background, and I learned that when I turn to that it did a lot of things for me. It gave me great stories. But it also gave me something else: It showed me that when I work with a source that I love, that's written by someone that I respect immensely, it makes me work even harder, because I feel a great responsibility to the source.

3. Surround yourself with people that push you to be better.

And I learned that on just doing short films at NYU. I used this poem called "Herbert White" by Frank Bidart. And Frank became a friend of mine. And the fact that he allowed me to use his poem and then that Michael Shannon acted in it, I had these two giants in my world who were doing my project. So I didn't want to let them down. And it showed me among other things that working with great people, you make better projects, and when you collaborate with great people, you make great things. But also that starting with a great source makes me better.

4. Good directing comes from a great challenge.

What I see in Danny Boyle is somebody who picks subjects that push him, technically and formally, to try new things. So if you look at his body of work, each subject in each film is different. It's made in a different way, and part of that comes from the subject. So for example, our movie, 127 Hours, how do you film a man isolated in a canyon and make that feel dynamic? He had to discover it. And a lot of it was discovered as we made it.

5. But at its core, directing is about entertaining.

But in addition to trying to be innovative and challenge himself, [Boyle] is also someone that wants to entertain. So he has those two forces in all of his movies and you can see that informing all the decisions in the movies and the subjects he chooses and the way that he makes them.

Read the rest of Franco's lessons at Filmmaker Magazine.