Spring Breakers: interview with James Franco
The forthcoming release of Spring Breakers is causing scandal between the young fans of teenage idols Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez. Here is what James Franco has said about acting on Harmony Korine’s movie and working with these young stars.
Well, I have always loved his movies. I remember way before I met him and I was in high school, Kids came out, and that was such a big, important movie for me and my friends. It felt like there was this really interesting, really new voice, and everyone was fascinated by Kids. And I just followed his movies ever since then. But I didn’t meet him for a long time. You know we had similar friends, but I never met him until he contacted me about a project that we could maybe do together as we knew we wanted to do a movie together but didn’t know which one it was yet. There was an idea to do one about glue sniffers, people that are addicted to glue. But in the middle of all that I started working on this big collaborative art project called Rebel that involved a bunch of different artists doing work inspired by the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause. I initiated that project but then the way it worked was that I would go to different artists and they would design a specific section. So I had all the artists except for this one section that was sort of like a remake of the switchblade fight in Rebel Without a Cause for which I brought Harmony along. And we went and shot that in a day. It was great. I mean, I already got along with him, but I think we realised that we worked really well together on set too, so that was really cool, and he is so relaxed. And then somehow we got away from this glue sniffer idea. I don’t know if he had been saving up the Spring Breakers idea, I really don’t know where it came from, but I just remember one day he said, “I know what we’re going to do, Spring Breakers. I’m going to go and write it and I’ll be back.”
What happened then?
He took a trip down to Florida, to Daytona, I think, during spring break last year. So he was going to look where all the spring breakers went to get inspiration for the movie while he was writing it. But when he arrived nobody was there, and I guess the woman at the hotel was like this body builder and she was like, “No, they don’t come to Daytona anymore, they ain’t come for fifteen years.” I guess there was just a bunch of bikers around or something. She told him to go somewhere else. He did and hung out with the spring breakers for a while and then they drove him crazy because he was trying to write and they were pumping all the Beyoncé songs, going crazy all night and he couldn’t write. So he left and he went to a hotel next to a golf course to write and I guess there was like a “Small Person Wrestling Convention”, like Hulk Hogan was there or something, but he wrote it in a week and sent me the script and it was great, and I was like, “All right, I’m down.”
How did you prepare to play Alien? In the film he’s the type of person that you don’t want to be involved with, he’s trouble.
Harmony sent me tons of videos and tons of inspiration, and said, “Look at this guy, but he plays it a little goofy, a little over the top. If it wasn’t so goofy then that would be good.” And then he would send me clips for the voice, because he wanted this weird southern kind of thing, and certainly Gucci Mane. Harmony sent me all these clips that he shot of him, and Lil Wayne. It was that kind of vibe, the certain things about Lil Wayne like the drink he drinks, like a mix of cough syrup and stuff. So it was just kind of a mix of all that, but when Harmony came down here to Florida the last piece of inspiration was this guy, Dangerous, who is now also playing in the movie.
How did he find him?
Dangerous came in for an open casting call. Harmony has a real talent for finding very interesting, odd and unusual people, so of course he locked onto Dangerous as the kind of real-life version of this character. He started sending me Dangerous’ songs and as soon as I got here, I went over to Dangerous’ place and met him and we talked about his music, his life and how he is trying to make it into the music business and all that.
So you took your inspiration from different real people?
The last key is that this character is like all those guys, but he is also something else. I think the key is not making a character like something you have seen before. He’s got this other side, his name’s Alien, so whether he really believes he is an Alien or not, he has this other side, this kind of quasi-trashy mystique that gives another level to it. Harmony is consciously making it very flashy on the surface. The way he described it early on was a Britney Spears video meets Gaspar Noé. My character also has this weird kind of knit, where he has got that gangster side on the surface, but he has also got this weird mystical beach-bum element to him that makes him a little more mysterious.
Did you stay in character during the shoot?
No. It’s not like I need people to call me Alien or anything, but I have these cornrows in my hair… I mean, I couldn’t get out of character really. I went to the hotel and I waved at people, and they looked at me like they were scared or whatever. Sometimes I forgot what I looked like. So, in a way I was always in character, I couldn’t get out of it. When I do a film, I do research beforehand and then you get to a point where it’s like, “Okay”. You feel like you have enough and something has clicked and you understand your character. And the next step, because I truly believe that half of the work is done by the context, director, production design, wardrobe department and make-up department. All of these elements are doing half of the work, and if I do more than what is asked of me, then it becomes over-acting. So I just need to understand how I can make the character real and grounded. And so much work is going to be done with the look and everything else, that the key for me as an actor is to be able to be relaxed so that nothing is forced. When I know all of this stuff is doing the work, I can relax and ‘be’. The thing with this character is that it is all about having fun. If I think too much about it, it will become something stiff, but if I’m having fun and I’m relaxed, the character will come alive.
As a director, Harmony started out working with non-actors, and now he is combining his independent film-making with a mainstream cast, especially on the girls’ side. On set, do you get a sense of his background of directing non-actors?
We work really well together. I think I understand him. I have directed a few films and I also like to mix-up trained actors with non-actors. I think what you do is put them in parts that they are right for and also you don’t make them say dialogue precisely, if you don’t have a trained actor. I think that is one of the hardest things, having them recite dialogue in a natural way. That is what a trained actor can do better than a non-trained actor. But if you have someone playing a part that is close to them and you get them to relax and speak in their own words, then you can get great things and maybe even better things than you would have with an actor in that role. With me, Harmony has just been letting me flow. It seems like we always start off with the script and he just kind of pushes me in little directions like, “Oh yeah, more of that.” By the end of the scene, we have found something new, just by him telling me which direction he likes and from letting me flow into weird places.
Some of your female co-stars have been icons of contemporary pop culture from a very early age. What’s it like working together?
It’s been great. Like I said, I was a part of this project before there was even a script. When Harmony told me how he wanted to cast it, I thought it was perfect because it really gives it that great mix of pop culture and independent film-making. The actresses are not like their characters but I think they understand their characters really well and so they are able to relax and be natural. I’m having a blast working with them. I think they were just so hungry to do a project like this that they are so into it. Harmony will just go into these environments and find the most interesting thing there. He has taken us on some of these adventures, like going into some crazy pool hall and using all the real people, or putting me up on stage in this MTV style beach rap show. I think back and it seems crazy, but he takes you on this adventure, and the girls are really excited to be a part of it, so they are giving it their all and it is working perfectly.
Do those adventures still challenge you? Today, for example, rapping in front of a huge spring break crowd?
I’m not a rapper and I have never really done anything like that before, certainly not in front of that many people. But I guess I know when I’m on a movie where I am supported. I know Harmony is going to capture that in the best way. Yes, I was up there rapping in front of people and I had an audience, but even if I’m not 50 Cent, Harmony is going to put it together in such a way that I look as good as possible. So it gives me faith. Ultimately, it’s going to be part of a film that’s cut together, so what I’m saying is that it is about having faith in your director. When I know I have a good director, I don’t have as much fear about what I’m doing. I can go into an environment like that, and there may be some embarrassing parts, but I know Harmony is going to make something good out of it.
What was your perception of real spring breakers and how do you relate your impression of that very specific and accentuated American culture to Harmony’s idea?
It’s funny, I’ve been a professional actor for over fifteen years and there were certain things in American culture that I never experienced for real, but I experienced them in movies. I never went to my Prom in high school, but then I did movies where I went to Proms. When I went to college, I left after a year and went to acting school, so I never went to any spring break locations when I was actually in college. I don’t know anything about it other than what I have seen on MTV over the years. This is my first spring break, I guess.
In what way is Harmony transforming the idea of what spring break means to American culture into his own personal vision?
On one level the movie embraces pop culture and consumer culture and this very “poppy” side of today’s youth, but I suppose what the movie also reveals is how deadening that can be, or how popular media can dull your humanity so that your empathy for other people is nullified and one’s actions almost don’t seem real or don’t seem to have consequences, even though there are warning signs for these characters. Not all the characters go along with it and some of them get hurt, and there is something that has been shut off in some of the other characters, so they go to these insane places because it’s almost like they don’t understand the magnitude of what they are doing. I would say, because of the way the movie is structured, that Harmony’s underlying belief is that pop culture is somehow doing some of this damage. But I don’t think that he completely hates it either. I think he finds this weird beauty in the darkness of that idea.
Harmony Korine is probably the director who is the best at portraying “white trash” culture in a very understanding way, he embraces it and that’s what makes him so good. Do you agree?
Of course. He is interested in people and art and forms of expression that are way outside of the mainstream. He is also very interested in pop culture, but a version of pop culture that is pushed to the extreme so that it becomes something that is not only flashy and attractive but also distorted and very ugly. He doesn’t judge his characters, but he is certainly about exposing all of the darkness in his characters, all the strangeness. Anything that is unexpected about a person, or something that people may want to keep secret, Harmony wants to show.
Harmony once said, “I never cared so much about making perfect sense, I wanted to make perfect nonsense.” Is Spring Breakers going to be perfect nonsense or will it make sense for you?
On the surface, yes, there will be a lot of unusual stylistic touches, or the way it is put together will probably be very unusual, but at the center it does make a lot of sense. We did a little bit of work on the script when I came out here for pre-production and I think the characters and the arc at the center of it make a lot of sense, but it will be framed with this very unusual style and structure.
The editorial unit
Check out our review of Spring Breakers here.