No one has a career quite like James Franco. There are his big screen star turns in films like Milk, Howl or 127 Hours, but he’s just as likely to pop up on television in everything from The Mindy Project to General Hospital. Then there’s his own writing and directing projects such as Interior. Leather Bar. Franco always manages to compel us and keep us interested in what he’s up to, including his latest project.
He may have directed the film Sal a few years ago but it’s only been his busy schedule that has kept it from reaching theaters (and VOD) until now. The film, written by Stacey Miller, chronicles the final day in the life of Sal Mineo, the twice-Academy Award-nominated actor (for Rebel Without A Cause and Exodus) who came out in the 1960s and, either due to publicly avoiding the closet or because of his growing out of the teen roles he was best known for, saw his career sputter and never regain its glory.
Sal Mineo, played in the film by Val Lauren, was stabbed outside his West Hollywood apartment in 1976 and died shortly thereafter. But Franco’s vision, based in part on Michael Gregg Michaud’s biography, Sal Mineo: A Biography, provides a window into who the man was in his final hours.
We talked to Franco about Sal Mineo as a film subject, some of the choices he made as a director and how just how closely he sees acting, writing and directing.
TheBacklot: Congratulations on the film. Talk to me about some of the directing choices you made such as the tight shots and also a lot of quiet moments.
James Franco: I think a lot of it is inspired by some of Gus Van Sant’s later movies like Gerry, and Elephant, and Last Days, and Paranoid Park, where you can see that there are a lot of quiet moments in those films. Just following the character very closely, especially in something like Last Days, and a lot of the story’s told through behavior. But one of the ways that that kind of quieter approach can be vitalized is by creating tension, by giving the audience the foreknowledge of a tragedy, an imminent tragedy.
So the movie explains it’s the last scene of his life. You know that he is going to die. With that knowledge, I thought that if I set it up that way it will amplify everything in the movie, because it will be his last rehearsal, his last supper, the last time he’ll talk to his boyfriend.
You know what I mean? So I thought if I did it that way, I could find myself the time and patience that I wanted so that I could really just be with the character. It’s a way of getting to know the character, almost through osmosis or something. He does some telling about how he’s feeling and who he is, but a lot of it is he is putting the audience in a very close space with the character so you get to know him like you get to know people around you, just by being with them and getting their energy.
TBL: Why did you choose just to do the one day, the last day of his life, as opposed to a more traditional bio pic?
JF: Yeah. I mean, I came to it from two directions, but once I started thinking about a movie about Sal, after I read the recent biography, I started thinking, ‘Well, how can I do this? How can I talk about Sal?’ There’s specific things that I want to say about him, that he was a very passionate artist, and then I saw him in this light as kind of a tragedy because he was a very passionate artist but couldn’t practice his art in ways that he wanted to, which I think is a tragedy.
So I wanted to say those things and then I thought, ‘Well, how can I do it in an unconventional way so it doesn’t even feel like a typical bio pic?’ I guess after learning about his last day, I realized that everything’s there. I can say absolutely everything about his life. You get to learn about his family a little bit, you hear about his mother, and you get to learn about his boyfriend because he has a conversation with him on the phone, and you get to see him rehearse…he rehearsed this play on his last day alive and you get to see how passionate each story is about acting and filmmaking. So I thought everything is there, and if I do it in this way hopefully I can create that tension I was talking about that you just say, ‘All right. There is a time limit and this is the end and everybody knows it.’ So it’ll be a way of just focusing in and raising the intensity of everything by putting a time limit on it.
TBL: In the scene last in the film Sal is having his last dinner and he’s in the theater by himself. I felt like that’s almost like his best friend, the theatre and his craft. Is that what you were trying to get across with that scene?
JF: I think, yeah. Probably, yeah. A lot of the scenes were meant to show that he was an artist and that he was probably most happy when he was getting to practice his art. That was in the 70’s when it was harder to make smaller independent films, just because it was harder to get your hands on equipment, and all of that. If he was alive today, even though he was in the same situation, he would probably be able to get some projects going, but in that day he couldn’t. So I really wanted to look at tragedy that, the tragedy of the creative person who can’t create like he wants to, and has all of the passion and the will to do it, and the circumstances are preventing that.
TBL: You’re also an actor and a writer so how does that influence your directing?
JF: I like the way that all of those different things inform each other. Well, you’re talking about film making, and directing films, and writing for film, and acting for film, I see them as all positions that are pointing the same direction, they are all helping to make a film. It’s just that when I do one or another of those things I just have different responsibilities.
When I’m directing, I want to be sure that I am the conduit for all the creative people around me. That I am successfully bringing all of the different kind of creative spikes that work on a movie together in a fluid way, and a way that I’m making a coherent work.
As a writer I guess, a writer usually is one of the first people to conceptualize a project and to work on the material for the project. So I guess as a writer, I am looking to give a structure to the project, to create an approach for the project. You know, what are we going to focus on about this subject? What is our approach? What will the structure be?
So those different things inform each other. I have directed a bunch of films now [and] I guess I understand what it’s like on all sides of a movie. So whatever side I’m on I just try to help ensure that I’m helping the other side with whatever they need.
Sal opens in Los Angeles on November 1st with Franco and Lauren present for Q&As after the 7:30pm show and before the 10pm show on both November 1st and 2nd at the Sundance Sunset Cinema.
The film opens in Palm Desert and New Orleans on November 8th. The film is also available now on VOD. For more information on seeing the film, visit the Tribeca Film site.