Have you ever stared at a disheveled, smelly, fierce-eyed derelict, talking to himself on a street corner, and wondered what it would be like to spend around two hours in his company? Have you ever wondered if compulsive necrophiliacs are humane deep down? Do you have a knack for deciphering nearly-inaudible dialogue spoken by people missing teeth and brain cells?
Is that a yes? Thought so. Then look no further than “Child of God,” James Franco’s new drama—adapted by him and his producing partner Vince Jolivette from Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel of the same name—about a backwoods loner (Scott Haze) who finds himself homeless, friendless and resorting to violence and corpse-defiling to pass the time.
Franco did not collaborate with McCarthy on the adaptation but was generally loyal enough to the text—there are monologues and even chapter headings lifted verbatim—that the story remains as timeless as it was forty years ago. It’s mainly a one-man show as Haze’s character, Lester Ballard, drools, pukes, masturbates, howls at enemies both real and imagined and gets into scrapes with the sheriff (Tim Blake Nelson).
“Even though Lester’s actions are so atrocious and disgusting and wrong, they’re coming from a place that’s very human,” Franco explained at a New York City press conference Wednesday morning. “I don’t even know if Cormac agreed with me. I brought this idea up to him, that here is a guy thrust out of civil society. He wants what we all want. He wants to connect to another person, but he can’t. So he resorts to extreme means to do that.”
“None of us would condone what Lester does, if he was real,” he continued. “But within a fictional framework, he’s a monster through which hopefully we can see something of ourselves.”
Adapting is Franco’s preferred method of filmmaking, having pulled off two William Faulkner efforts (no easy feat): last year’s “As I Lay Dying” and the upcoming “The Sound and the Fury,” now in post-production. He got his feet wet in this medium while studying film at NYU, where he adapted poems by Frank Bidart and Spencer Reese into short films (the former, titled “Herbert White” and starring Michael Shannon, also centers on a necrophiliac.)
“Before film school, I had co-written original screenplays, and I just found that I wasn’t quite pushing myself as far as I could,” Franco admitted. “When you’re [adapting a book], it’s really an act of translation. So you really have to say, ‘What does [the author] mean here? Do I need that in the movie? Am I in line with him here? Do I want to be in line with him here?’”
To prepare for the role of Lester, Scott Haze——who has appeared in “As I Lay Dying”——not only studied the book ferociously, but relocated from Los Angeles to Sevier County, Tennessee (where the novel is set), and isolated himself for months. He also stuck to a torturous diet—according to the press notes—of “apples and fish,” to shed his muscular physique, and grew his hair out to nearly feral length.
“When I showed up to Scott’s hotel room [shortly before shooting], he had fake teeth, he was scraggly, he was like a creature in the dark. From that point on, I just had to put the camera in the right place.”
“This is the first collaboration James and I had on this level, where I didn’t know how much freedom I would have,” Haze recalled. “When you’re an actor, you want a director to understand the actor’s situation. James has been through the rounds, and he’s one of the greatest actors of my generation, so there was immediate trust.”
Haze and Franco have but one regret: cutting the scene that was, for Haze, the most difficult to shoot.
“There were these two dogs,” Haze began.
“Not two dogs! There were like six dogs!” Franco cut in. “But two were military dogs.”
“These dogs had just gotten back from Iraq,” Haze explained. “The dog trainer came up to me and said, ‘Do not look this one dog in the eye.’ I had a rifle and a beard that looked Taliban. It was very long and I looked crazy. And my job is to tell these dogs to get out of the cabin and wield a rifle at them. I just remember screaming at James, ‘This dog is gonna kill me!’ It was the only time I was genuinely terrified.”
Asked if he might include this and other discarded scenes in the film’s DVD extras, Franco replied, “I might just teach an editing class at AFI, where the students make a new version of the movie.”
The film opens August 1.