James Franco answered questions at Lincoln Center in New York during Film Comment Selects – Film Comment magazine’s festival of films held February 17-March 1, 2012. The Q&A was held after a screening of his art film, My Own Private River, and I was happy to have a seat in the house.
I looked for signs of metal, as I’ve often wondered if Franco is man or cyborg. He has apparently worked toward more than one advanced degree at a time, writes novels and poetry, makes films, and lives an altogether super human life that is, itself, performance art. His disheveled appearance, coupled with the fact that he shyly avoided eye contact during the Q&A, convinced me he’s human. When fans rushed the stage at the end of the evening, though, he was friendly and patient with them.
Franco’s film is unusual because he didn’t shoot any of it. The movie is entirely made up of cutting room floor footage shot by filmmaker Gus Van Sant when he was making My Own Private Idaho, a 1991 movie that starred Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix as young male street prostitutes.
“I was just obsessed with the movie and asked Gus about it all the time,” Franco said. He had plenty of opportunities to ask Van Sant questions when he was cast in the 2008 film, Milk, about slain gay activist Harvey Milk – a movie that Van Sant directed and which stars Sean Penn and Franco as lovers.
“When Milk came out, we had a bunch of premieres – one in San Francisco, one in Los Angeles, and one in New York,” Franco said. “Then, Gus wanted to do a special premiere in Portland as a fundraiser for a charity for homeless youth. And I guess the other actors were burnt out on premieres at that point or something. He couldn’t get Sean out there. So, he settled for me, and he said, ‘If you come out, I’ll give you an Idaho tour, and we’ll go to all the locations where I shot.'” That was all Franco needed to hear. (A large portion of My Own Private Idaho was filmed in Portland, Oregon.)
Eventually, Van Sant pulled the more than 25 hours of unused footage and showed it to Franco. After watching it again nearly 20 years later, Van Sant had second thoughts about the way he had edited Idaho. The two then decided that Franco would take the raw material and cut a new film.
Editing the film was daunting for Franco because Idaho had been such an important film to him as a teenager. “I needed to take my ego out of the project as much as I could,” he said, “because I was given such a gift to be able to edit that material and because I do love the material so much.”
Franco didn’t feel the need to stick to a usual narrative. “I felt like I was able to make a movie that could go in unusual directions or could sit with the character in ways that you wouldn’t normally do in a commercial film,” he said. “I could tell a story that in some ways was more oblique. But anybody who knew the original film could fill in the blanks that they needed to. It didn’t need to hold together in the same way.”
Franco doesn’t believe that all films must have a clear narrative. “Sometimes, I feel like the story just kind of strangles the movie,” he said. “The pursuit of the story gets in the way of explorations of character, moments, and performances.”
The result – My Own Private River – is a compelling chronicle of an exceptionally gifted actor at his peak. Van Sant apparently gave Phoenix a lot of room to experiment in his role, and you can’t take your eyes off of him no matter what he does on screen. “I think it’s the best performance of one of my favorite actors,” Franco said, “so to be able to see all the raw material, the takes of what I consider his best performance, was incredible.” (For those who don’t know, Phoenix died tragically in 1993 at age 23 of a drug overdose – just two years after the release of My Own Private Idaho.)
There’s a comical scene, for example, where Phoenix improvises as his character in a grocery store with real shoppers and a real checker. This is one of Franco’s favorite moments and can only be seen in the new edit, which is about two hours long. Franco’s original cut, however, was a whopping 12 hours.
“The first place we showed it was an art gallery in L.A.,” Franco said. “That was important to me because I wanted to really make it clear that this was not supposed to be a commercial enterprise in a theatrical setting. It wasn’t supposed to compete with the original. This was an examination of the material.” Franco’s film also uses music by REM’s Michael Stipe, who was a friend of Phoenix.
Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin, was uncomfortable with the 12-hour version, so the two-hour cut is being shown in a few choice locations. Unfortunately, it won’t be available for most people to see because the distributor of My Own Private Idaho is not exactly keen to have a film in theaters or on DVD that would compete with sales of the original.
Along with the screening, Franco created an art installation – a first for the Film Society of Lincoln Center – that was housed in an adjacent room. This included two smaller screens with additional footage.
The last shot of My Own Private Idaho was filmed in a taxi in Italy. For a long time, Phoenix refused to say his last line. “He’s goofing off,” Franco said. “He’s doing silly Italian accents, making funny faces. And by take 7, he’s drawing all over the slate…. At first glance, it seems like River is a brat.”
Once Van Sant finally got the scene on film, a cake was brought out to commemorate the end of shooting. Phoenix smashed his face into the cake. “To me, it’s a performer at the peak of his powers not wanting to let this project go,” Franco said, “and I guess I can relate to that.”