Howl: James Franco Howls

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James Franco stars as Allen Ginsberg in “Howl,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman. The film, which is based on the poet’s life, is being released by Oscilloscope Pictures on September 24.

From the moment they made the decision to have an actor portray Allen Ginsberg, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman knew they were taking a considerable risk.  With his thick New York accent and utterly specific manner of speech – at once fast-paced and gentle, playful and full of intellectual force  – Ginsberg was not easy to embody.  Then, there was also the fact that the Ginsberg in HOWL is the largely unknown, young Allen Ginsberg, not the broad, balding, sage-like man seen in popular culture.  “This isn’t the version of Allen Ginsberg that people came to know later,” notes Epstein.  “Looking back at photos, we wanted to capture a time when he came off as youthful and quite attractive.”

Still, James Franco might have seemed an unlikely match for the role.  Best known for his roles as Spider Man’s sidekick, as James Dean in an acclaimed telefilm and as Harvey Milk’s lover in the award-winning MILK, Franco is at once one of today’s up-and-coming leading men and heartthrobs.  Yet, he also leads a life of the mind, recently returning to graduate school to study literature and film.  

Crazy idea

“The idea might have sounded a little crazy at first, but when we met with James we were really impressed with his seriousness, his sensitivity and commitment, and with the fact that he’s an artist and writer himself,” recalls Freidman.  “He spoke knowledgeably about Ginsberg as someone who was very important to him.  It was a leap of faith to a certain degree, but it paid off.  Even before we began filming, James came to San Francisco and New York to do readings and we watched in awe as he began to absorb all of Allen’s character, his mannerisms and his spirit.”  

Franco even nailed Ginsberg’s distinctive cadence in reading HOWL.  Recalls Epstein:  “When we did a test shoot of James reading the poem, it just blew us away.  From that moment, we knew he was going to be terrific, and things only got better.”  

Personal meaning 

For Franco, the role was full of personal meaning.  He’d been intrigued by Ginsberg since his he was a teenager living near San Francisco.  “I started reading the Beats with my friends when I was around 14 and we were all so taken with that whole idea of ‘live, live, live.’  We were into HOWL “On The Road,’ “Naked Lunch,” and we would go up to City Lights to see where it all started,” he recalls.  

He continues:  “What’s fascinating about Ginsberg is that he has been a part of youth culture through multiple generations, from the Hippies to the Punks, and so much of what he wrote in HOWL has been sucked up into the culture and redistributed in new ways.  He was always current and at the center of things and there’s still that feeling that HOWL speaks both to his time and our time.”  

Although Franco had for years hoped to do a project involving the Beats, it was Epstein and Friedman’s approach that gave him the courage to tackle Ginsberg, he says.  “In a movie like this, the main question is can you capture the person or not?  But a lot of that depends on the hands that you’re in.  In this case, I came in knowing that Rob and Jeffrey were amazing documentary filmmakers.  And I thought this was a fantastic jump for them – a dramatic movie that has the soul of a documentary.”

Franco goes on:  “For me, the most important thing was if the film could capture the poem the way it was in 1955 – so incredibly raw and new.  And I felt Rob and Jeffrey could do that.  They weren’t setting out to make a straight-on biopic.  They’d figured out a great three-part structure with the trial, the interview, the animation, and then the flashbacks that provide these brief punctuations that bring you back in time.  If this had just been a straight, linear story of the young Ginsberg coming to terms with his history, his emotions and sexuality, it wouldn’t have been as interesting or feel as genuine, I think.”  

Lengthy preparation

Preparing for the role was an adventure in itself.  Franco read all the requisite biographies, watched reams of footage, and spoke to people who knew Ginsberg – who turned up everywhere.  “Ginsberg is one of those people that nearly everyone met once,” he laughs.  “As soon as I took the part, it seemed people were coming up to me to say ‘Oh yeah, I knew Ginsberg.’  I did talk to a lot of people, but that was hard, because everyone had their own take on him and no two were the same.”  

What struck Franco most was that this period in the late 50s was a breakthrough moment in Ginsberg’s life – just as he was transforming into the person he’d always wanted to be, and confronting the demons that had kept him struggling.   “This was time of sharp transition,” Franco observes. “He was discovering himself as a poet and becoming comfortable with himself as a gay man, and he was experiencing these very intense, inspirational relationships.  And all of that came together in HOWL.”  

Shooting the interview sequence was especially challenging.  “It was like doing a series of incredibly long monologues,” he notes.  “I think I spoke more words in those scenes than I have in all of my movie roles combined.  I felt like I needed to study all of Ginsberg’s ideas and opinions so that I could really express what he was talking about.  To keep him fresh in my mind, we would shoot and then I would go in my trailer and watch clips of him.”  

Another daunting task lay in re-creating Ginsberg’s first public reading of HOWL at the Six Gallery, an event for which no recordings exist.  “There were some other early recordings that I listened to,” he says, “and his readings were very serious, completely different from his more modulated later readings.  I wanted to get to the excitement of this being the first reading while reflecting his style.”