Film Comment Selects Q&A: James Franco
rolls on with a special in-person presentation Sunday night by James Franco: My Own Private River, a re-working of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, featuring the performance that proved to be River Phoenix’s apotheosis, as the Seattle hustler who loves and then loses slumming rich kid Scott (Keanu Reeves). After watching the film’s dailies and outtakes with Van Sant, Franco edited together a new version combining footage from the original film and its unused residue. Film Comment spoke with James Franco about making the dreamlike portrait of Phoenix and the character he incarnated.
What drew you to My Own Private Idaho, and in particular River Phoenix's performance?
The movie was such a big part of my teenage years, and helped me find my identity in some ways. For instance, when I was younger, I tried to dress like River’s character. There is something about the sensitivity, the sadness mixed with quirkiness, the tragic situation that also had a comedic flair to it. His performance almost feels like a cross between James Dean and Charlie Chaplin. In addition to River’s performance, I am just drawn to the movie itself and its direction. It’s very much a collage of different styles, different stories. It has aspects of Henry IV in there, but then these very realistic portrayals of street kids and prostitutes. It has trained actors and non actors. It’s a road movie, it has aspects of Western films. Everything.
How did My Own Private River come about?
We did a lot of premieres when we were promoting Milk––in San Francisco, New York, L.A. Gus [Van Sant] also wanted to do a special premiere in Portland as a fundraiser for an organization for homeless youth that he works with. I guess by that point all the other actors got busy or were burned out on premieres, so nobody was going to go. I would've gone anyway, but he sweetened the deal by promising to give me a tour of all the locations they used for My Own Private Idaho. And after spending a whole day seeing them, he said in a very causal way, “Oh you know I have all the editor's reels of My Own Private Idaho.” For me, that was like he just told me that he had buried treasure! So two months later I went back to Portland and we spent a few days watching as many of those reels as we could.
At one point he said, “You know, its really weird. This is the process I go through when I'm getting ready to edit, and it's making me want to re-cut this.” In the back of my mind I’m dying thinking “Yes! That would be amazing!” But then he explained how expensive it would be to properly digitize the film, and how he didn't have the money to do that. So afterwards, I proposed it as a project for the Gagosian Gallery in L.A. and got Gucci to fund the digitizing. Then came the big moment where I humbly asked Gus if I could edit my own version. The original plan was that he would edit one version, and that I would edit another. His only condition was that if he didn’t like what I did, I couldn't show it to anybody, and I agreed. I think he probably thought he really was going to say that, and that it would never see the light of day.
So with that hanging over your head and hundreds of hours of footage to go through, what was the editing process like?
I spent an entire summer on it, while I was in Vancouver shooting Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That first moment of seeing all the footage in my computer on Final Cut was just mind-blowing, because it’s such an important movie for me. To have the raw material there that I could manipulate was just—I don’t know, it was like seeing the raw material of your dreams or something. It was incredible. But at first I was a little hesitant because of the amount of respect that I have for everyone involved with the original. For this project, I had to be an actor editing another actor’s work. I thought, “Gosh, maybe this isn’t my place to edit this material. Who do I think I am?”
To justify it to myself, I went back to those conversations Gus and I had, and thinking about what if he was editing this movie now. In a way it was like I was playing Gus—it wasn't James trying to impose his ideas. This really helped to guide the editing process. As you’ll see, there are very few cuts or shot/reverse shot patterns in the movie. Another thing that guided this project was how the original My Own Private Idaho script came together. It actually was a compilation of three previously written scripts: one used the Henry IV Hal/Falstaff characters more prominently and was about updating Shakespeare; another was called In a Blue Funk about two kids looking for their parents; and the last one was about street kids in Portland. So when I cut My Own Private River, I decided that I would cut out the Shakespeare sections and give it a more documentary kind of feel. Because those were a lot of Gus’s early ideas––even up until the last minute he had even intended to use non-actors in River's and Keanu’s roles.
After watching the raw footage, did you gain a better sense of who River Phoenix was as both an actor and as a person you idolized growing up?
You know, there’s that murky area where you say, “Is that River, is that the character?” I’m sure people close to River would say that it’s a character. But I’ve also heard stories that Gus gave River a ton of freedom, and I can see it in all the takes. You can see that he was doing each one slightly differently, and had a lot of freedom to create that role. So maybe it’s not necessarily River if you ever met him in a casual situation, but you could see what his artistic input was, what types of input he gave. So whatever that is, I'm drawn to it. I was drawn to it when I was younger, and I’m drawn to it now.
You mentioned Charlie Chaplin and James Dean. Could you talk about Phoenix’s performance in terms of that physicality?
Gus says that River hated the comparisons to James Dean, and, at least while they were shooting the movie, claimed that he had never seen any of James Dean's films. But there’s a connection that is undeniable, whether he came up to it in a roundabout way or actually had seen Dean's work. The quirkiness is also part of that, because James Dean actually did have a really quirky side, and I think that’s one of the secrets to the performance that River brought to the role. You might look at this role on paper and think, “All right, it’s a guy who lives on the streets who has sex for money. He doesn’t know where his parents are, and he’s emotionally isolated. Wow, that’s really depressing!” But because River brought the quirkiness, it has this whole other life to it. It embraces the subject matter, but has another level to it.
A lot of your work deals with masculinity, be it performances you’ve done or some of the shorts that you’ve shot. What draws you to that subject and how do you feel that interest has informed this project?
Masculinity informs this project mainly because it seems like it’s a subject Gus deals with a lot as well. Forming identities and certainly forming identities at specific ages. A lot of Gus’s work focuses on people in their teenage years because it is a time of great change, a time of discovery, a time of forming one’s own identity. So when you say masculinity, that is a kind of identity. In the original film there’s the famous scene that Gus says River wrote, where the Keanu and River characters are at the campfire. River’s character professes his love to Keanu’s character and then they sort of come together but not really. Keanu’s characters says he only has sex with men for money, and I don’t know if that has to do with masculinity as much as with straight or gay or whatever, but those kind of identity issues are built into the material.