By Peter Monaghan
As we reported a few days ago, actor/director James Franco has made a movie about the poet Hart Crane, whose troubled life ended in 1932 when he threw himself into the sea off the coast of Florida.
Franco has based his film, which has its world premiere tomorrow, April 15, at Boston College, on a biography of Crane, The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), by Paul Mariani, a Boston College poet and literary critic.
The Chronicle caught up with James Franco by phone in New Haven, Conn., where he is enrolled as a doctoral student at Yale University, and asked him what led him to choose Crane, hardly a household name, and a difficult poet, as the subject for his film.
Hart Crane seems a somewhat unlikely subject for a feature film, given how little he is known, these days. So, why him?
Yeah, he’s maybe unlikely because his work is so dense. But his life, compared to other poets’, is I think very cinematic for the simple fact that he had a very dramatic and tragic life. That balance was the thing that I worked on the most.
The film comes at the end of a group of short films I made while at NYU, all based on single poems—by Anthony Hecht (“The Feast of Stephen,” 2009), Frank Bidart (“Herbert White,” 2010), and Spencer Reece (“The Clerk’s Tale,” 2010).
Those short films—except for a tiny bit in “Clerk’s tale”—had none of the text of the poem in them. They were translations of the textual into the visual. So when I had to do a film for my thesis, I thought that Crane’s life along with the poetry would be a good development from what I’d done before.
This film depends on his life but in an unusual way—it’s told in small sections, 12 sections, so it’s episodic, and the poetry is included in a variety of ways—written out, or we have a scene where Crane reads his poetry, and he reads in voiceover in scenes that aren’t literal representations of what he is saying, although the poem may be related emotionally. At other times, what he is saying in the poem is represented; for example, we have Crane reading “The Bridge” in voice-over with images of Crane walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, or while he’s working at an advertising office.
So the poetry is included in a lot of different ways.
How did you come to know about Crane?
Yeah, I found Crane a long time ago, maybe seven years ago, when I was reading some Harold Bloom book on my own and he mentioned Hart Crane, so I got a collection of Crane’s poetry, and Bloom had written the introduction and mentioned the biography by Paul Mariani.
I found his poetry to be so difficult that I thought maybe the biography would help to clear it up, and it did, in a way.
I remember having this impulse seven years ago when I read the biography that I wanted to make it into a film, but I was at a point in my life where I hadn’t made any films, and I didn’t know how to do it, I didn’t know how to budget something like this, or to structure a film from a biography.
But it was interesting to think about because I had that same reaction when I read each of those three poems I turned into short films. It just hit me; I felt they were something I could do something with. I felt they could have a second life in film.
Then five or six years after I read the biography, I was waiting for someone to come along and help me do it. After I went through film school at NYU I was developing, and learning how to do something like this, so it just seemed like the natural thing to do.
What I saw specifically in Crane was that, although his poetry can turn people off, because it does take so much time to grasp what he is trying to do or to say, he had such a fierce dedication to his work, and he was so dedicated it really tore him up and maybe led him to the circumstances that led him to think he should commit suicide. That sort of dedication is fascinating to me. So in addition to a lot of other things about his life, that dedication appealed to me.
Do you think Crane’s life and poetry is enough to draw audiences to the film, or will you to some degree be depending on having enough exposure in film, yourself, now?
I guess if my work in the Spider-Man trilogy or whatever other movies will help shed a little light onto Hart Crane, that’s not a bad thing.
But I hope that the movie itself is interesting in its own right. I didn’t say, “Oh, I’ve made big commercial movies so now I can make a bad Hart Crane movie.” But I don’t have any illusions about the subject matter—he’s a poet, and he’s a different kind of poet and I’ve made it in a way … it’s not the most fast-paced film.
But I’ve been responsible; I haven’t spent exorbitant amounts of money on this, although I’m very, very proud of what we got for what we spent. We went to New York, and Brooklyn, and Mexico, and made it all look like the 1920s. We certainly didn’t have the kind of budget that Peter Jackson had for one of his films.
You’ve been enrolled, now, in several graduate-degree programs. Are you contemplating actually working one day in academe, or just being a very well-schooled director and actor?
I don’t think it’s one or the other. The programs I was in were M.F.A. programs—training me to write and make films—and next year I will begin teaching at NYU. Those classes will be film classes; so film is wrapped up in being a teacher, and will inform my filmmaking and vice versa.
The academic program I’m in at Yale is also starting to overlap with other things I do—I’m in the English program, but they’re allowing me to bring in a lot of the work I’ve been doing that crosses poetry and film. I’ve shown a couple of my projects here at Yale.
[Yale English professor] Langdon Hammer is one of the Hart Crane specialists, and so hopefully I’ll be able to bring my work on Crane here and do more work on him, with people like Professor Hammer.
First, though, it will be a program that will help me more and help me with my professional work as a filmmaker.
But I’m finding I can bring my experience in film and other things to academic environments and teach and give back in ways that I’m particularly suited to. I love the idea of teaching, even though I’m not dependent on it.
What will you write your dissertation on at Yale. Will it combine film and literature?
It will be in the area of not adaptation but what I’m starting to call translation, studying film as a language to translate from one form of discourse, poetry, into another language.