James Franco’s short film “The Clerk’s Tale” closed Critics’ Week at Cannes. During a conversation we had together he did a close reading on the Spencer Reece poem it is based on.
Screen Comment – “The Clerk’s Tale” has a hint of sweet hopelessness. It reminds me of Thoreau’s famous sentence “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”I found the following sentence especially striking:
Did one phrase in particular stand out?
James Franco – Yes, I think this poem has a level of quiet desperation, but it is all under the surface, that is what drew me to it. I love how understated it is. There is hardly a line that explicitly expresses the deep sadness that permeates the poem, but that pathos is there. But on the other hand there is also camaraderie between the characters in the poem. The older employee is both a terrifying example of what the speaker might become, but he is also a kind and loving friend, who provides the speaker with emotional and psychic support when everyone else in the world overlooks him.
I think I was most struck by the closing lines, which we use in the film,
“See us loosening our ties among you.
We are alone.
There is no longer any need to express ourselves.”
There is a negation of expression in these lines, but they come at the end of a beautiful poem that has just done the very thing these lines negate: expressed the deep inner pain and love of the speaker.
Is “The Clerk’s Tale” a defeatist poem? Are we isolated and lonely according to Reece?
I don’t think it’s defeatist. Spencer Reece worked for Brooks Brothers for thirteen years. I think some of that time was a dark period for him. He said his poetry was rejected over 300 times. But some of that time was also rejuvenating. Much of the power of the poem comes from the even-handed delivery. There is both quiet pain and quiet strength. Whenever I talked to Spencer about adapting the poem he would emphasize the responsibility I had of truthfully telling about these characters’ lives. I think that truth, or at least the truth of the experience described in the poem, comes from this balance of distress and poise.
Let’s talk about filmmaking. Although this is not your first short, did anything happen during the shooting of “A Clerk’s Tale” that completely took you by surprise?
Directing actors is always surprising to me. It is my new favorite thing. I love working with actors that I look up to and seeing how they interpret the characters. That is part of it for me, allowing the actors to bring the story to life. Before I went to film school I was too insecure about my directing abilities to ask actors that I admired to be in my films, but now that I have a little more confidence I have been able to work with some of my favorite actors. The actors in this film were a dream to work with.
Which part did you have a harder time casting for?
I had Charles Dance in mind from the beginning. I had just worked with him on a movie called Your Highness, and he was incredible. I have always admired him, and when I asked him he was more than willing to work with me, which was very nice. There was time when it seemed like his schedule wouldn’t allow him to do it, but we waited because I couldn’t think of anyone better for the role.
And John Kelly is an amazing actor and performance artist. At one point there was a scene in the film that wasn’t part of the poem, it was inspired by the end of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, where the character dances to “Rhythm of the Night.” The scene is full of such emotional power, it is like the character is baring his soul. We were going to do that with our character but have him sing. John Kelley is an amazing singer and he also looks a little like the poet, Spencer Reece. One of my teachers at NYU, Jay Anania said that he had seen John do a reading with Anne Carson and that there was a steely intensity to him. The combination of the intensity and the singing ability is what sold me on him. He was a total pro.
Did you have any cinematic references in mind for when you were preparing the screenplay, or even first thought of making this short film?
I think Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is the biggest influence. That film is so dependent on behavior and physicality. The poetry of behavior. I also love the Dardenne brothers. We were certainly thinking about the harsh naturalism of their films, which also achieve a kind of physical poetry.
This is a little outside your scope but in these strange times a filmmaker has direct access to distribution platforms. Yann-Arthus Bertrand broadcast “Home” (the full movie) on Youtube. As a filmmaker do you give any thoughts to this, too, or do you prefer leaving it to the pros?
This is the third short in a series of shorts adapted from poems. I think we will eventually distribute them in a single package.
What does having a short film at an international festival like Cannes represent for you? Is it a enjoyable detour in the life of your movie or an important step in helping to connect the film with the right audience?
Cannes is a huge honor. As a film student, having my short play on the closing night of Critic’s week is the best thing I could ask for. The festival has honored so many of my favorite films and so many of my heroes, it is still hard to believe I will be involved with such an amazing festival. It is so nice to be recognized as a director.
What’s on your bedside table right now?
I am in school so most of my reading is for school. Some of my recent favorites are: J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Three novels By Agota Kristof: The Notebook; The Proof; The Third Lie, The Adderoll Diaries by Stephen Elliot, The Hunter, written by Donald E. Westlake under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Poetry: Dismantling The Hills by McGriff, Michael, Atlantis and Sweet Machine by Mark Doty, Movies: The Honeymoon Killers, They Live by Night, Pickpocket, Diary of a Country Priest, The Bad and the Beautiful, Harry Langdon films, Realm of the Senses, Fat Girl, Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire.Cannot be reprinted without permission from site owner