When James Franco first came up with the idea to make a movie about the life of American poet Hart Crane, he had no idea he would wind up writing, directing, producing and starring in it, as he eventually did in "The Broken Tower," which is getting a theatrical release Friday. He thought he'd just want to act. He was fascinated by Crane's legendarily difficult, brilliant poetry, as well as his personal demons, which led him to alcohol and eventually suicide at age 32.
"At that point, I was only an actor; I'd never directed a movie before," Franco told The Huffington Post. "So I thought, 'I sorta look like him and he has such an interesting, dramatic story.' So I'd go around and say, 'I want to play Hart Crane,' hoping that someone would be willing to work with me and do a Crane project. But nobody was interested."
And no wonder: Crane's life, as it's depicted in Paul Mariani's 1999 biography "The Broken Tower," upon which Franco's movie is based, isn't exactly as Hollywood-friendly as "The Avengers." Harold Bloom, perhaps the most famous literary critic alive, has called Crane one of the three or four best poets of the 20th century. But Crane's work is less well-known than that of his contemporaries like William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost.
Yet Franco kept thinking about making a Crane movie. He'd encountered Crane's name soon after dropping out of UCLA, while reading one of Bloom's books. He bought "The Complete Poems of Hart Crane," but couldn't make sense of it. Then he followed the advice of Bloom's introduction to the edition and read "The Broken Tower" to understand the context of the poems.
"It was really the biography that made me think I should make a movie," he said.
He got his chance several years later, when he was brainstorming ideas for his thesis at NYU Film School. Since he said it was clear no one else wanted to write or direct a movie on the poet, he decided to do it himself. He bought the rights to Mariani's book, wrote a screenplay and set to work finding a star.
He offered the role to Paul Dano, who said he was busy. Then he pitched it to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who according to Franco was worried about the difficulty of getting into the mindset of the character as he's depicted in the script.
A hectic schedule also meant it would be difficult for Franco to coordinate with another leading man. So he decided to cast himself in the starring role -- but only with great reluctance.
"There's a tendency, when you're directing yourself, not to give the performance as much care, because you feel like there's too much focus on yourself, or that all these people are just standing around setting everything up, waiting for you," he explained. "I had to get around that. Because the only reason that I really made this movie is that I wanted to honor Crane and tell his story."
For John Irwin, an English professor at Johns Hopkins, the timing of the movie couldn't be better. Irwin is the author of "Hart Crane's Poetry," which became the first major study on Crane's work in a quarter-century when it was released in December. According to Johns Hopkins Press, the imminent release of "The Broken Tower" has lifted sales of the book.
And it has also, according to Irwin, boosted his students' interest in Crane.
"Among modern poets, Crane is clearly the most difficult. It's good for students to see that somebody like James Franco is interested in Hart Crane's poetry," Irwin said.
Still, Franco's version of "The Broken Tower" isn't necessarily a perfect introduction to Crane. It's filmed in black and white, its plot can be hard to follow and its pacing is much slower than most Hollywood movies. There are many seemingly aimless silent scenes that follow the back of Franco's head while he stalks around various streetscapes. Some film critics have called these qualities flaws. Irwin, though, said he sees them as a reflection of Franco's desire to be faithful to Crane.
"He's trying to find a filmic equivalent to the method of Crane's poetry," Irwin said. "I've seen it twice, and I can say quite frankly that it grows with each seeing. And it grows on you. That's also true of Crane's poetry."
Franco seemed gratified to hear Irwin's reaction. "Making the texture of the movie parallel to his poems was exactly what I was trying to do," he said.
He admitted that this technique makes for what he called "a less accessible movie." But this, too, has a way of affirming Crane's mission.
"There is a long literary and artistic tradition in which Crane figures as a character or muse standing for a certain kind of uncompromising visionary artist ready to sacrifice everything for poetry," said Langdon Hammer, a Hart Crane scholar at Yale who also provides commentary on the DVD of "The Broken Tower."
Indeed, Franco said he identified most with Crane's commitment to the pursuit of artistic satisfaction at the expense of societal acceptance.
"Crane was also a very big drinker and had the reputation of being a wild man," Franco added. "Those sides of Crane are very interesting, but I don't identify with them."
Franco said that although he didn't identify with Crane's sexuality either -- Crane was openly gay -- he chose to depict that aspect of Crane's life rather explicitly, much to the delight of writers looking for an excuse to combine "sex" and "Franco" in a headline. Some may argue the attention given to these scenes has overshadowed the attention given to Hart Crane as a poet. So why did Franco choose to go this route?
"Crane was very comfortable with his sexuality, to the point that it intimidated, even scared, a lot of his friends in the poetry world," Franco said. "I wanted these scenes to have something of that same in-your-face quality."