Capone talks to directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman about their Allen Ginsberg docudrama HOWL, starring James Franco!!!
Published at: Oct. 10, 2010, 11:57 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Sorry for being a little late with this one, since the film has opened in a few markets already, but Fantastic Fest pretty much put everything on the back burner in terms of my workload. But I certainly didn't want you to ignore the fascinating film HOWL from co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, concerning the early life and times of beat poet Allen Ginsberg (portrayed with startling authenticity by James Franco).
I had a chance to sit down with Epstein and Friedman, who separately and together, have done some extraordinary documentary work, including THE CELLULOID CLOSET, THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, and COMMON THREADS. We also talk a little bit about their feature film on the troubled life of DEEP THROAT star Linda Lovelace (not the one that may star Lindsey Lohan, thank Christ). Please enjoy my detailed and fun talk with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman…
Capone: I thought you had your next thing kind of lined up at this point.
Rob Epstein: We do, but it’s a fickle business. You never know.
Jeffrey Friedman: Yeah, you are always looking for a job in this business.
Capone: Two SXSW Film Festivals ago I interviewed Anna Faris, and we talked about this Linda Lovelace movie, because at some point she was attached to it.
RE: There are two Linda Lovelace movies.
Capone: Oh, is this a different one?
RE: Yeah, that’s the other one.
Capone: Okay, but she had already pulled out of it and I was actually trying to say “That would actually be perfect for you, you should stay.” But yours isn’t just a documentary, right?
RE: No, it’s a narrative.
Capone: That’s what I thought. So that hasn’t really progressed as far as you would like?
RE: Well it’s progressing internally. The script is progressing.
Capone: Okay, so no casting or anything like that?
RE: No, not for a while.
Capone: I’m aware of the background of the animation sections of HOWL, but just for the record, because I think some people who aren’t familiar with what that is may feel a little strange about seeing something that is clearly supposed to be read or spoken out loud having a visual representation. Can you talk about the decision to include that in your film? It’s not that different than turning a book into a movie--people form their own ideas in their heads of what the characters look like.
RE: Well, I guess the first thing to say is what you just said, that it’s not unlike turning a novel into a movie that ultimately it’s going to be a particular specific interpretation of that novel. So we certainly went along with that premise. We also wanted to do something that was formally different and interesting and challenging, so that led us to he idea of working with different story elements and different ways in which to tell the story, and one of them was wanting to find a way to visualize the poem, so that there would be several experiences of the piem within the movie. There’s the performative experience of it as preformed by James Franco in the dramatic performance, and then there’s the trial, the construction of the language, and then there’s the whole visual journey that you go on through the animation, so we wanted that to be its own journey within the film, so that the poem in effect would live in the film as it’s own journey. Then, in terms of the creation of it, we hooked up with Eric Drooker, which happened very organically by discovering that he and Allen had worked earlier on an idea based on Allen’s texts.
Capone: Hadn’t they also discussed doing this as well?
RE: Allen said to Eric “You should do something with HOWL. You should do something with Moloch,” and they went as far as that one book, but we took it further.
Capone: People sometimes forget that it was actually Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his book store and publishing company that were on trial and not Ginsberg. I know you did the film about the AIDS quilt, and what this film is essentially is a quilt, with individual pieces of this man’s life forming a very complete picture. Each piece is interesting on it’s own, but when you pull them all together it’s a really solid look at his early life. Can you talk about approaching it in segments rather that in linear fashion?
JF: We approached the subject from different angles as we were developing it. We wanted to understand what went into the making of the poem, and what was Allen’s creative and emotional process in getting to the point where he could produce this poem that made him famous. So, we wanted to understand that, and that required one specific way of telling that story, and we decided to tell that story using Allen’s own words. We took text from interviews that Allen gave over the course of his life, and we reconstructed or we imagined this Time magazine interview that Allen gave that was never published and never discovered.
Capone: I was going to ask you if that was a legitimate interview or something “Frankensteined” from different interviews.
JF: Both, and we wanted to understand the poem itself. We wanted the poem to live on it’s own in the film, which is does in different ways. And then we wanted to understand how the poem was received in the world, and that’s what the courtroom trial does for us. It shows how society responded to the poem, tried to understand the poem, and tried to suppress it.
Capone: At the beginning of the film, I remember closing my eyes and just listening to James Franco talk. He absolutely nails the voice. I know Allen Ginsberg’s voice, and that is the voice. He does bare some resemblance to him when he was younger, but more importantly, that voice is kind of unique.
RE: You know it was important, but I can’t say that it was the most important thing or the first most important thing. Really for us the most important thing was for James to understand what was going on for Allen internally, so that he could act and perform from a place of truth, and that really required going through Allen’s experience and talking about what was going on for Allen at each of those points in the story that he’s reciting what was going on for him. The physicalization, that was more the external, that James is able to layer on later, once we did kind of that deeper internal work. He did that by listening to a lot of audio tapes of Allen, in particular a Studs Turkel interview that Allen did that was exactly from that period and some video, some film that existed from that period, which there was very little, but there were some.
JF: PULL MY DAISY, a Robert Frank film from the late '50’s, Kerouac is in it, Ginsberg is in it. You don’t hear him talking, but you can see how he moves.
Capone: So you went with Franco and not David Cross [who played Ginsberg in I'M NOT THERE] on this.
RE: [laughs] Well it’s a younger Ginsberg.
Capone: I know, but I was thinking about David Cross without the beard and whether he would he still look like Ginsberg. He could pull it off. Since the audience tomorrow will be almost entirely our readers, I have a weird feeling someone might bring it up, so I’m just warning you.
RE: How do they come? How does the audience get to go tomorrow?
Capone: We did a contest on our site last week. The response was so incredible; they had originally given me about 100 seats, and the response was so overwhelming of people that wanted to come that they just said, “Well just take the theater then, it’s yours.” I was really excited about that actually.
In terms of the voice, I would have presumed that since a reading of the poem is a big part of this film--to me that’s really the version that I was drawn to the most--I would have thought it was important to try to get it in the voice.
RE: I don’t mean to minimize that, but there’s also so much that’s going on that we know and that James knows dramatically in that reading. For example when he’s doing the whole Carl Solomon section, James has to deeply understand what Carl Solomon meant to Allen, “What was that relationship like?” “What was their time in the mental institution together like?” “What was Allen’s relationship to his mother before he got to the mental institution?” So all of that is going on for James in that moment. He is performing all of that in his "Howl," so that’s what I was referring to as in parallel to getting the voice down with the vocalization.
Capone: I understand that there is not a recording of the first reading. How did you decide, or how did James decide, how much he should perform and deal with the audience reaction, which was pretty vocal. Was that educated guessing?
JF: It was a conscious decision.
RE: You know it’s all in the script, so when you break it down to how you are shooting it. Literally one day we are just shooting the audience and James is here performing for the audience, and we are just there shooting the audience, then the next day you are just shooting James without anyone else there and that’s the magic of movies. You cut them together and you create movie magic. [laughs]
JF: But we wanted each of those to have its own arc, so we wanted the performance to have some development, so we worked on that. We wanted the audience’s reaction to have a development. It couldn’t be the same at the beginning as it was at the end, because that’s not a good movie. How close is it to the original reading in the Six Gallery? You know, parts of it are close I think maybe, but who knows?
RE: And also Allen performed the poem very differently during the course of his lifetime. If you listen to early recordings, they are very mono-tonal; they are very flat. In his later years, he got very flamboyant in his performance, very much bigger. So, we tried to find a happy medium in how we characterized it in that moment.
Capone: In terms of the archival footage that you use, you went with the actual archival footage and photos, rather than recreate them with James inserted into it. Can you talk about your decision to do it that way?
JF: Well we didn’t use photos of Allen.
RE: We do in the credit sequence, there are photos.
JF: In the end credits.
RE: No, in the opening credits. We wanted to have these elements as part of our pallette and figure out when we could use them. We were excited about that just from the filmmaking sensibility of “How far can we push this?” “How far can we push this interplay of dramatic and documentary?” So on the set, there were photographs of Allen’s real parents that we use, the real Carl Solomon, and then there are a couple of shots that you mentioned, so that was in the script. That was in the screenplay, and we hoped that it would work.
Capone: It’s actually a great idea to see some of those people really look like earlier in the movie, because a lot of times with something like this they will show what the real person looked in the end credits, where maybe you'll get a photo.
RE: Yeah and people may not get it, but maybe on second viewing people will go “Oh, there’s the real Allen Ginsberg and he does look a lot like James Franco playing Allen Ginsberg."
JF: And there's Jake Ehrlich, and he doesn’t look anything like Jon Hamm”
RE: Did we have Ehrlich?
JF: In the newspaper.
Capone: So does there exist a full reading--maybe something for the DVD--of Franco performing "Howl"?
JF: On the DVD, yeah, there’s an audio reading.
Capone: Even better. That would be worth getting it for, I think. How did you come together with James Franco?
JF: [To Rob] Well you met him first.
RE: Right, I first met James at a dinner when he was there doing MILK, and there was a dinner for people who knew Harvey with Sean Penn and James, and I met James there and he asked if I had any material on his character, Scott Smith. And in fact I had done a research interview with Scott, so I was able to give that to James, which he was very appreciative of, and then soon thereafter I guess Gus Van Sant read our screenplay and liked it and suggested we meet with James about it and consider him for the part and the rest is history.
Capone: I saw that Gus was an executive producer on the film and I had wondered if there was a MILK connection somewhere in there.
RE: Yeah, I was kind of just his confluence of a moment.
Capone: It’s interesting, in terms of the rest of your cast you have quite a parade of famous faces, mostly in the courtroom stuff, but in terms of casting Keroauc and Neal Cassady and Peter Orlovsky, you have actors that I’ve never seen before.
JF: Those were the only auditions we did were for those three parts and Bernie Telsey, this great casting agent who helped us get all of those other actors, we did a couple of days of auditions, and because there’s no dialogue to those parts, we really had to find actors that could capture something essential about each of those iconic guys in their prime. So we did improvisation with different combinations of actors that we were auditioning, and slowly they kind of made themselves apparent.
Capone: Did you deliberately not cast better-known people in those roles, so that the real people didn’t get lost in there, and the audience didn't get distracted from the story?
Capone: I thought I read somewhere this was originally conceived as a documentary.
JF: I would say we even got to the point of conception, but our instincts were initially to approach it as a documentary, but quickly we came to see that there wasn’t much material. There was no footage from Allen from that time, so we would have to recreate it anyways. But I think more meaningfully to us, we didn’t want it to be a film about older people looking back on their younger selves. We really wanted it to be about younger people in the moment of their vibrancy and for the story to live in the present tense, so that mandated that we come up with another approach.
Capone: Yeah. So instead it went in the slightly older version of the more vibrant slightly younger person Ginsberg, because that interview is supposed to take place…
RE: …two years later.
JF: When he starts to have some perspective and also start to suggest the older Ginsberg that he would become, the '60s Ginsberg that he would become.
RE: But when we shot the film, James was, I think, exactly the age that Allen was when he wrote the poem--maybe a year older.
Capone: I’ve certainly seen a few representations of late-'50s through the '60s courtroom circuses around these sort of cases, like the “Chicago Seven” trial, which Ginsberg was a part of. That idea of the courtroom as this political circus, was that something you had fun with?
JF: Well the text, we certainly had fun with the text. Just reading the trial transcript was kind of delicious.
RE: It’s theater of the absurd. Ready-made theater of the absurd.
Capone: There you go.
RE: Here’s a serious courtroom situation where somebody could go to jail, where literary experts are being cross-examined about the meaning of lines of poetry. I mean, it’s crazy. How does that happen?
Capone: And when you hear the lines in their proper context and contrast that with somebody who is saying the words like they are vomiting them out of their mouth in disgust, it’s a huge difference. David Strathairn [who plays prosecutor Ralph McIntosh] does a lot of either documentaries or other films that reflect his socially conscious real life, but I love that he’s playing this man on the attack.
RE: You know it’s really important to us that that character specifically have some kind of emotional depth and reality, because it would be so easy just to make a cartoon out of them, kind of a bigot who wanted to just repress everything. He was coming from a sincere place of bewilderment and being offended and we really wanted an actor who could express that. He does it beautifully.
Capone: This film has been developing for a while; I remember hearing a couple other actors’ names associated with it. I remember Alan Alda and Paul Rudd.
RE: Wow, you have been tracking this forever.
Capone: I’ll tell you what, the first time I interviewed Paul Rudd, we talked about him being in that cast, and he mentioned that it was a small role.
JF: Yeah, Paul really wanted to do it, but them when it came time to actually shoot, they just both had schedule conflicts.
Capone: Who was he going to play?
JF: He was going to play the part that Alessandro Nivola played, Luther Nichols, and Alan Alda was going to be the judge.
Capone: But I like Bob Balaban in that part.
JF: Bob is great.
Capone: Was there some specific reason that the Ginsberg estate approached you about this film now?
JF: Well for the 50th anniversary.
Capone: So, you missed that by a couple of years, but okay.
JF: We were a little late, but better late then never.
RE: We made the 55th!
JF: It’s interesting, because now they are releasing it as something in the zeitgeist about Ginsberg. There’s just so much. There seems to be a lot going on with Ginsberg, but yeah initially they had imagined something for the 50th anniversary.
Capone: Do you get a sense that the general potential audience really understands the importance both--in terms of free speech and of artistic integrity and gay culture--do they get the importance of this poem in that context and how it opened up a lot of these areas?
JF: I hope the film will help them to get it. I think it’s something that we came to understand. I don’t think it’s anything either of us got until we really got into it.
Capone: That was my next question: “Did you understand it before you really dug in?”
JF: No. So many things I didn’t understand about it. I didn’t understand that it was a queer manifesto. I didn’t understand what it had to say about consumerist culture and militarism. I had notions, but I didn’t really grasp the depth of those themes, and also how deeply personal that is--what it has to say about the human condition, about longing, and loneliness and unrequited love. Those are deeply held personal themes.
Capone: Yeah, I think I was naïve enough when I first--I don’t know if I heard it first or read it first--that I mainly got that it was this snapshot of his view of New York.
JF: Angel-headed hipsters?
Capone: Exactly, that’s kind of what I remember of that. I was probably just a teenager when I first came into contact with it, but seeing it in the context of this film and seeing how you in the interview were learning about his childhood and about his relationships and then hearing those passages in the poem, you kind of juxtapose them in a really nice way that it does breath a little life and put a little context into the poem. It’s really beautiful. I think those are all of the questions I came with. Thank you so much, and we should have a good crowd assembled for tomorrow night.
RE: Looking forward to it. Thanks.
Follow Me On Twitter