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James Franco on Adapting ‘The Sound and the Fury’: ‘I Enjoy Unusual Storytelling’

Ultimate multi-hyphenate James Franco has tackled seemingly everything from “Spider-Man” to Steinbeck, and he shows few signs of slowing down. Franco’s latest endeavor finds him directing and starring in an adaptation of William Faulkner’s notoriously tricky “The Sound and the Fury,” which bowed at the Venice Film Festival last year and hits theaters and on-demand services on Friday.

Calling in from the set of HBO’s “The Deuce” (“I’ve got my producer’s hat on today,” he said), Franco spoke to Variety about the experience of adapting American literary classics for the big screen — living up to his scholarly reputation in the process.

What made you decide to direct “The Sound and the Fury”?

There were a lot of reasons. I’ve loved Faulkner since I was a teenager. I had done a Faulkner adaptation before this, “As I Lay Dying,” and I knew from that experience that Faulkner’s books are written in very unconventional ways and structured in nonlinear ways, or experimental kind of ways. In trying to adapt that for the screen, I was pushed in directions that I wouldn’t have gone in as a filmmaker otherwise.

I really enjoyed that. I really enjoy unusual storytelling. It had everything I wanted: great characters, good drama and a very unusual approach.

What can you say about the experience of playing Benjy? Your performance looks so physically demanding.

Benjy is one of the most famous characters in American literature. For my performance, my only source was the book. I wanted to just play him as he was described in the book: he doesn’t speak, he can’t articulate words, he only makes noises. But then on the other hand, the whole first section of the book is told from his perspective. So he somehow has an inner voice, he just can’t speak to other people. 

What I found is that this performance was all behavior. When I was in acting school, my teacher would always say, “The behavior is the most important, and the words are secondary. Get the behavior down, and the words will float on top of the behavior.” And so it was kind of great to play a character that was all behavior. I had to communicate everything through behavior. But I’ve also learned that as an actor — even though I was also directing this — I’ve learned that as an actor that you depend on the context of scenes, the wardrobe department, the other actors — everyone else around you helps reveal characters.

You’ve also been involved with a few Steinbeck adaptations. Would you say you’re particularly drawn to that era of American literature?

Yeah, I am. When I was in high school, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Melville were my guys. I’ve liked them ever since then. Last year I did “Of Mice and Men” on Broadway, and that really rebooted my Steinbeck interest. So I was thinking about, “Well, what would make a good movie?” “Of Mice and Men” was a good book, and there are already two movie adaptations. And I thought, actually, “Of Mice and Men” as a play was its best form, because the experience of the characters embodied by actors, get the the characters live, you get to make that emotional connection that you can make with an actor that’s different than the emotional connection you make with a book. If you look at “Of Mice and Men,” the way the action is staged is very small, very insulated… And so a single stage is actually the best frame for that story.

I didn’t want to do “Of Mice and Men” as a movie, and so I looked and I thought, oh, there are informally called “The Dustbowl Trilogy”: “Of Mice and Men,” “Grapes of Wrath,” and then the lesser-known one is “In Dubious Battle,” which is about an apple pickers’ strike. And I just thought, it’s the lesser of the three books, just because Steinbeck was still sort of figuring things out. I think it was the first one he wrote of the three. But I thought as a movie, it will actually work better than “Of Mice and Men.” It has this sort of rising tension. The tension keeps building. It’s these migrant apple pickers versus the landowners. And they go on strike and tension builds and builds and builds. One side attacks the other, the other side retaliates, and vice versa. It sort of explodes at the end. I just thought that on screen, that would require more scope, it has many more characters, and it would just be much more cinematic.

After you’ve been involved with so many adaptations, when you read a book for the first time now, do you find yourself having immediate thoughts about casting and staging?

Yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah, I just do it automatically. I don’t rule out any book as an adaptation after doing “The Sound and the Fury” and “As I Lay Dying.” There are some books where I think it’s just an awesome book but I don’t know how I would ever adapt it — but not many! I kind of think about most books as somehow adaptable.

And then there’s one that I’ll read and I get that tingle. It’s like, “Oh, I want to do something more with this. I want to have a conversation with this book. I want to pay homage to this book by making a movie out of it.” And it doesn’t happen with every book, and it’s not even every book that I love. But there’s some, and you just get that feeling like, “Yeah, I’ve got to try to do this.”

Did having your book “Palo Alto” adapted for the screen by someone else affect the way that you approach adaptations?

Actually, yeah, I think so. I wrote that book when I was in writing school. I was amongst writers and I was writing it just to write a book. I wasn’t thinking about a movie. But as soon as it was done, I had been in movies for a decade and a half at that point, and I thought, “All right, we could do a movie out of this!” I immediately knew that I didn’t want to do it myself. If I did, it would just be one more iteration of my version of things. I wanted somebody else to do their take on it. Gia (Coppola) was a recently graduated photography student at that time, and I saw her photos and the videos she’d made and I just thought she had the perfect sensibility for it. She hadn’t made a movie, but I thought if anybody has moviemaking in her blood, it’s her. I sort of took a chance on her and it paid off.

What I’ve found is if I had adapted it, I probably would have just — it’s a collection of interconnected short stories, so I probably would have just kept it as different episodes, as it is in the book. What she did is she took the different stories and wove them together and combined them. I thought that was awesome. It gave the whole movie a coherent arc. It gave the characters more dimension, and I don’t think I would have done that if I had done it myself. She really teased out a lot of the throughline.

I think it’s had a huge influence on me. I teach filmmaking at USC and UCLA, and every class I teach is production-based, so the class will collaborate on a feature film project, but I have to break it down into different sections because I’ll have four directors and four writers, or sometimes even more. Because of the way that Gia wove the stories in my book together, instead of making four short films, I’ll have the class weave them together so it becomes a unified feature film. I would attribute a lot of that to the way Gia did “Palo Alto.”

Why is now the right time for audiences to be experiencing Faulkner again?

[Laughs.] Well, I think any time is great to be interested in Faulkner. For me, it was interesting to do this at this time because the books “The Sound and the Fury” and “As I Lay Dying” were written over 80 years ago, and if they were made in that time, it would be very different because people made movies differently then. Nowadays movie audiences are pretty sophisticated. Music videos, reality TV, reality TV confessionals — all of these weird techniques have accustomed audiences to read film and video in new ways.

I thought, “Faulkner’s books are so experimental, I can apply a lot of these contemporary approaches and techniques to Faulkner and actually achieve a closer stylistic adaptation of the novels by using these contemporary techniques.”

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