SXSW: Is James Franco's Art Imitating Life in 'Maladies'? (Q&A)
by Joshua Stecker
by Joshua Stecker
AUSTIN -- The SXSW film festival had James Franco starring in the top-grossing film at the box office; premiering to rave reviews as a cornrowed drug dealer in, of all things, a Harmony Korine movie; and starring in an indie art-house film.
If you've followed the Oz the Great and Powerful star's career as of late, none of this comes as a surprise. Franco has been on a tear, with no fewer than 10 other projects already finished or in postproduction, most of which will be released in one form or another this year.
This intense amount of creative productivity parallels that of Franco's character in Maladies, the indie art-house drama written and directed by multimedia artist Carter.
The film, which had its North American premiere last week at SXSW after debuting at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, takes place in the late 1960s and early '70s and chronicles the small-town life of James (Franco), a former soap opera actor suffering from an intense mental disorder who's ditched the acting life to focus on a writing career. Franco's joined by Catherine Keener, Fallon Goodson and David Strathairn, all of whom suffer from their own maladies in the film.
Maladies is Carter's second feature, after working with Franco on Erased James Franco in 2009, an artistic exploration featuring the actor re-enacting every television and film performance from his entire career, which can only be seen at galleries or museums where the director chooses to show it.
Carter spoke candidly to The Hollywood Reporter at SXSW about his feelings about Franco's intense artistic output, whether his character in the film is a reflection of the actor's real life and how the rules have changed on what is and what isn't a mental disorder.
The Hollywood Reporter: As an artist who's known more for your work in other mediums, notably sculpture, painting and photography, what inspired you to make this film?
Carter: [The inspirations] were different and came from everywhere. Catherine’s character is really interesting to me because I’ve always been interested in the space of the closet in that time period, the early ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I used to go to a gym on 14th Street in Manhattan where there were a lot of older gay men. They had this community. I went there for years but didn’t get to know any of them personally, but I would see them all the time and I would listen to them. I really empathized with people that have to live [in a closet] and make their own way … a cobbled-together life other than the straight world. And Catherine’s character obviously struggles with that in that timeframe. And David Strathairn's character is exactly like those guys from my gym.
THR: Your first film, Erased James Franco, had the actor re-enact scenes from his previous works. It was an art project that was never released commercially. You obviously have this working relationship with Franco, and the two of you are friends. Did you write the role of James in Maladies specifically for him?
Carter: Yeah. Maladies started out as a project we were doing together. It was a very, very different project at the beginning, and it slowly evolved into me just writing and directing it. So at that point, it became very personal to me. I wrote it with James in mind because he was in it from the beginning. It was going to be me and him acting, and I’m not an actor. Things sort of changed, and I realized I couldn't act in it, so I wrote and directed it. I do have a very small role in it, though.
THR: Franco's character is a former soap opera star that leaves the world of acting to become a writer. Franco's real-life career moves in recent years, including a stint on General Hospital, have been both lauded and criticized. How close is this character to Franco's real life?
Carter: That’s a hard question to answer. I mean, I think the answer to that is still evolving in more James’ life than mine. The film obviously ties into his real life with the soap opera thing. But his character in the film doesn’t want to be recognized as an actor anymore. He’s very adamant about saying that he left the soap opera. He wasn’t fired from the soap opera. That it was his decision to make a move at a young age in the film to do something else. Maladies started three years ago. There's been a significant amount of time since we finished shooting to now. So a lot has happened in everyone’s life since then.
THR: Keener plays a painter who is constantly working, while Franco's character seems to struggle as a writer. In your opinion, did his character have something specific to say as a writer, or was he writing with no particular direction? And is there something deeper to that?
Carter: I think it was more about the act of creativity and the obstacles and roadblocks you put up for yourself and that are put up for you when you’re trying to create. I think it’s more about the want and the need to be creative than it is about if he’s a writer or not, if that makes any sense. I think that people are put on the earth to produce or create things, and, unfortunately, most people consume. By create, I mean dance, paint, draw, write, garden, etc. There's a big umbrella of what creativity would be. I think people would have a more fulfilling life if they were doing something creative for other people and for themselves as opposed to just consuming. So James' character is driven by this need to create. He doesn’t quite know what it is, so the question of if he's really a writer is irrelevant. It’s more about the struggle of the day, which is similar to the real life influence you asked about earlier.
THR: The main characters also suffer from some form of extreme malady, each specific and different. What was behind that choice?
Carter: Catherine's character, as a closeted gay person, isn’t, in my book, a malady. But what’s interesting to me is that in the early ‘60s, it technically was one, which is a fact in the movie but not in real life. And I love that. I love weird facts like that. It’s the same thing with James’ character suffering from an unknown mental illness. I studied The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the book that they republish every 10 years that lists all of the ailments that a person could have. It’s just for doctors. So I went through all of those and I wanted James' character to have every ailment in it, which is absurd, I know. That’s what he was suffering from, the unknown to everything at once. That’s what it looked like in the character. And Catherine’s character actually doesn’t have a malady, but at the time, statistically, according to that manual, she would have been, which I think is great. Someone who was gay was listed as having a mental disorder until 1973.
THR: The use of voice-over in the film was an interesting choice and lends itself to different interpretations. Why did you employ that device?
Carter: That was a mixture of a few different things, and it ties into work I had done years ago in my studio that included video and Super 8 stuff where I would use a mannequin. I would write these narratives and voice-overs that I’d put over the image of the mannequin doing certain things. So it’s a throwback to work I had done previously, but now I just used it in real life versus a dummy. I was also really influenced in Maladies by films from the ‘50s or instructional films, where there was a lot of narration. That authoritarian, very beautiful '50s voice. At the very beginning of the film, when James is at the beach and you can’t quite tell whose voice it is or if it’s his voice or a mixture, that comes from a mixture of a lot of films put together. In the beginning of the film, that voiceover is from a movie called The Snake Pit with Olivia de Havilland. It’s from the early ’50s, and de Havilland plays a woman who has a mental disorder, and she’s in an insane asylum and has this voice talking to her outside. The beginning of the film is almost exactly like that picture. It’s fun to not only have the actors speak, but have their voice speak and then have a narrator speak and play with all those voices.
THR: What influences you the most in your artistic work?
Carter: Movies, mostly. That’s the quick answer. I’m always thinking of certain scenes from movies. There’s a long list that goes even into Maladies. If I could, I'd show you the stack of notes it took to make this movie. Literally, it's lines, scenes or sometimes an actor just walking across the room. Some things you'd never know unless I point it out to you. It’s hard to talk about the connection between visual art and film sometimes because they have very different outcomes, but I’m very influenced by film.
THR: You've created multiple works of art in various media, but this film was your first screenplay. How difficult was it to write the script?
Carter: I didn’t write the film in a traditional way that a film would have been written. One of the simple reasons is because I had never written a narrative film, so I was totally in the dark. Like something as simple as Final Draft, the screenwriting software. I didn’t know what that was. Then once I found out, I was like, why didn’t someone tell me [this existed] three years ago? Here I am with like a bunch of Post-it notes, pictures and videotapes, and I could have just started writing it. But I’m glad I didn’t know, because it became much more of a really rich, dense collage of a script instead of something linear, which would have happened if I was writing it pencil to paper the whole time. It took me two years to finish it.
THR: After you finished it, when did you decide it was time to actually film it?
Carter: Well, that’s when everything changes. That’s when the shit hits the fan. Your kid has to grow up. You have to figure out scenes and how you’re going to shoot them, block them, light them and cut them, and all that stuff is not very conducive to creativity. It’s a job. You have to employ the cinematographer and everyone else has to know what they’re going to do to make this happen. So you have to formulate everything that you have in this pile [of notes] into something that can be made. It was fun to try to figure that out, but also very painful because poetry has to then become reduced to film.
THR: How were you able to put together such an A-list cast?
Carter: Catherine came from James. Even early on, as I was writing that character, I think that was when she came on. James asked me if I was interested in Catherine. That’s like a no-brainer, of course. So she was on from the beginning. When I met her, it was love at first sight. I remember speaking to David Strathairn on the phone about the role and describing to him what I described to you earlier about these middle-aged gay men at the gym. And Alan Cumming [who has a memorable cameo] I met at a party and asked him if he would be in my movie.
THR: As a successful artist with limited film experience, what was the biggest challenge in putting this film together?
Carter: I worked with really talented people and learned a lot from them. I mean, from the cinematographer to first AD to Catherine to James to Curtiss Clayton editing, I fought with all these people and learned a lot from them, too. This is my first go-around into something really narrative. But I think making such a unique picture that this is, it turned out pretty good considering all the cooks in the kitchen.
THR: Did the experience make you want to pursue another film in the future?
Carter: I certainly want to make another film, and I’ve already written most of another script for another one. I learned a lot from this experience and certainly want to parlay it into another film. It’s really difficult to get anything like this off the ground. Actually, it’s a minor miracle that any film gets made.
Watch the trailer for Maladies below.