James Franco isn’t known for his love of downtime. Along with starring in Hulu’s recently premiered JFK assassination series 11.22.63, the actor also has the HBO porn series The Deuce on the horizon, a film based on Tommy Wisseau’s cult classic The Room (dubbed The Disaster Artist), and is currently shooting the Christmas comedy Why Him?, which co-stars Bryan Cranston.
In addition to his on-screen work, Franco is also occupying whatever free time he has left with art projects. His latest is as one half of the music duo Daddy, which places him alongside Brooklyn-based artist and composer Tim O’Keefe, who created music for Franco’s two Faulkner adaptations As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. It’s a high school-themed project that encompasses both music and film based on a series of poems Franco wrote, which were based on songs by The Smiths. The end result is the album Let Me Get What I Want (featuring music from Smiths bassist Andy Rourke), as well as a short film and upcoming series of exhibits. Here, Franco and O’Keefe discuss their unique project, creative process and Franco’s perception as some sort of enigma.
How did your collaboration come about?
I know you two met at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
James Franco: We both were at RISD doing the graduate digital media studies program. I love adaptation and the idea that people would use paintings as inspiration for poems. I like that idea that you can do that with all mediums – using one to inspire another. And so I used the Smiths songs as a structuring and inspirational device for this 10-poem series. I thought the way the Smiths songs had this great irony and earnestness at the same time was exactly how high school felt. Everything was kind of so big and important, and yet so stupid at the same time. So exciting, yet also so boring. I thought the emotional tone of the Smiths songs would be perfect for this series of poems about teenagers I wanted to write. After I had those, at some point I gave them to Tim with the idea that we would turn all of them into this album.
Tim O’Keefe: We were in printmaking class talking about making a full-length album. I remember we were listening to The Smiths when we were working on something and James told me about that series of poems. The strange thing that happened was afterwards my manager was at South by Southwest and happened to meet Andy Rourke. We said, “Do you think he’d be interested in this project?” So she reached out to his manager and within an hour they were like, “Yeah, he’s definitely into the idea.”
The project now exists as an album, film and exhibit. Was that the plan all along?
TO: We knew right off the bat, that’s how we approached it from the beginning for sure. The first one was more focused on Motown and we knew we wanted to take a different approach, less of a typical band and more of an art project that worked in multiple mediums. We were thinking of the film component, album component, and poem component together, because they all come from James’s poems.
James, there’s a preoccupation with high school themes in much of your work. Why do you find high school so fascinating?
JF: I guess it’s a place and a time for me when everything is heightened. A lot of things are new. It’s when you’re first entering the adult world and doing adult things for the first time. That time is the most exciting. People are not fully formed yet. When you’re an adult you’re going down a path of whoever you’re going to be for the rest of your life. When you’re in high school, a lot of that is still up in the air. To create work around that is very fruitful because you have these characters or emotions or experiences that feel so much bigger and more important than they do when you get older. I see it as a metaphor. I had a hard time in high school but I’m not working out anything that troubled me back then, as much as I find the struggles of people that age to serve as a device for me to say everything I want to say creatively. I’ve just found that’s one of my main topics and the best vehicle for me to say the things I want to say.
Tell me about the film component of the project. I understand it stars actual high school kids?
JF: I had the idea to give the poems to a film-making class my mother was teaching in Palo Alto. I’ve been teaching graduate film-making for six years now and in all of my classes they adapt some sort of source material into films. So I gave that structure to my mother and gave the high school students funding to adapt my poems into 10 short films. They gave me updates each step of the way but they had free reign to make what they wanted to. Then we took the material they shot and made them into our films which are more connected to the music. It became about students in Palo Alto working on films based on former students.
Tim, how does it feel that everything is out there? How are people reacting to it?
TO: I’m really happy with the way the final product has come out, from the songs to the feel of the film itself. We worked on it for a long time. With James’s involvement, it gets a certain amount of attention and there’s a side to where people who are not necessarily fans of James would already dismiss it without knowing what it is. Some people will get it and some people won’t, and you just have to accept that.
James, your recent cover of Rolling Stone had the headline The Mystery of James Franco. Why do you think people are so perplexed?
JF: Well. I do do a lot. (Laughs.) When it comes to Daddy, I didn’t train as a musician or make songs my entire life like Tim. I’ve been a big music fan, but I just haven’t been doing that. So when I approach something like this I want to give it the respect that it deserves. I want to be sure I work with great people who know what they’re doing like Tim or Andy. I do know that it will get attention because of who I am, but on the other hand I am a sort of earnest amateur. I’m not coming to this trying to take over the music biz. For me, it’s a cool project. So I’m going to enter it at a certain level and to me that’s okay because I don’t think our end goal depends on me being Beyonce. It’s an art project and it’s about persona as much as it is making songs that are great to listen to.
Do you know how to relax? Have you ever been on a vacation where you just did nothing?
JF: (Laughs.) Yeah, but then I think of all those things I still want to do and I’m like, I can’t. I do have that me time, it’s just that I’m in a fortunate position that I make a living doing what I love. When I’m working it doesn’t look a lot different from when I’m not working because I love it.