People often resort to taking drastic measures to make themselves happy and fulfill their dreams after being alienated and isolated from the norms of society. Whether a mentally ill man, much like the main character, Lester Ballard, in the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel, Child of God, is striving to protect his home from his community, or a director is fearlessly tackling a serious book that features commentary on taboo subjects, such as James Franco and his adaptation of the author’s story, people of all positions want their voices heard. The character-driven drama of the same name not only showcases McCarthy’s explorations of the lengths people will go to in order to protect their livelihood and reputation, but also Franco’s ease of exploring people’s strong motivations and convictions, no matter how drastic they seem.
‘Child of God,’ which is set in rural Tennessee in the early 1960s, follows Lester (Scott Haze), an unstable, childlike man, as he’s evicted from his farm. He retreats with his rifle into the backwoods, sets up a makeshift home in an abandoned cabin and roves the landscape, wreaking havoc and upsetting and intimidating almost everyone in his path. Lester is identified as a local menace by County Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) and Deputy Cotton (Jim Parrack). As his antisocial behavior veers in increasingly unnatural directions, Lester withdraws into a subterranean existence, regressing to an almost animal-like state.
Franco generously took the time to talk about filming ‘Child of God’ recently during a press conference following the Press and Industry screening of the drama during the 51st New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how after discovering the novel during a class he was took at UCLA, he decided to adapt it into a movie that is both unique and relatable among audiences; how he wanted to honor McCarthy’s book as much as he could, but slightly altered the ending to give Lester a more poetic conclusion; and while he initially felt that Haze was wild when he met him 10 years ago, he knew the actor could be professional, and draw on his personal experiences for the role.
Question (Q): How did you discover Child of God, and what was your motivation in directing a film based on the book?
James Franco (JF): I first read the book about seven years ago in a class at UCLA. I’ve heard people like (Steven) Spielberg say that when you come across something that interests you, even if you don’t know all the reasons why you want to make it, you don’t really need to know. You can explore it through the creative process.
I had the hairs tingling on the back of my neck moment, where I knew it was very dark, but there was something in there. After thinking about it, what it really is, besides being an unusual character portrait, is that it’s a way to talk about things that I think are universal. It’s a need to connect to someone outside of ourselves. It’s a need to love and be loved. It’s in an extreme an unusual way, which is through necrophilia. As a filmmaker, I wanted to make something new, but something that people could relate to.
Q: How loyal did you remain to the novel, Child of God, as you were adapting it into the film?
JF: There’s always a question of how loyal you’re willing to be to the source. We wanted to honor the source as much as we can. Almost every scene in the movie, you can find in the book, except for the scene where Lester shoots the stuffed animals.
There’s also more at the end of the book that talked about Lester’s fate. But essentially, it seemed to me that the epilogue was relating one of Cormac McCarthy’s main themes, which is the reoccurrence of violence. I thought it was a cleaner and more poetic ending to have Lester disappear into the wilderness. The idea is that he’s gone through all of this, and his spirit is still out there.
Q: What was the process of casting Scott Haze as the animalistic Lester Ballard?
JF: I’ve known Scott for over ten years, during which I saw Scott go through very dark personal things in his life. He was kind of the friend that I didn’t really want to spend much time with for a long time, because he was kind of crazy. Then he kind of came through all of that and became a better man on the other side. I thought I can have the best of both worlds, because he can draw on his personal experiences as an actor, and as a director I could depend on him to be a professional.
You see this in a lot of actors where there’s one role, and they just go for it. I knew Scott was ready to do that. As soon as I cast him he went to Tennessee, where McCarthy lived, and isolated himself for three months before we shot. He met the locals and the moonshiners, and really worked on the accent. He stayed overnight in actual caves on his own.
When I got to West Virginia, where we ultimately shot, Scott was fully in character. I walked into the hotel room and it was like Lester was born. As a director, I didn’t want to tamper with the performance. If it’s working, just step back and let it be.
Q: The story deals with necrophilia, which you have also explored in your previous films. Why is that a subject you are compelled to explore in your movies?
JF: It’s true, there is a weird pattern. Early in my writing life, at NYU, I wrote a strange script about a man that works in a morgue and has relationships with all the bodies that come in. It’s not necrophilia but it’s convening with the dead. (laughs)
In my personal life, I’m absolutely not attracted to dead people or anything like that. I deal with characters that are either isolated, or have a very rich imaginative life. I’m not condoning necrophilia. Lester is a stand in for someone who is unable to fit into civilized society, but he wants is a connection with another so badly. When he stumbles upon this opportunity, he figures out that he can have a relationship, if he animates it with his imagination. For me necrophilia is an extreme way to talk about things that we all want; a connection with another. It’s about making the familiar unfamiliar.
Q: You have made both mainstream and fringe films throughout your career. Why is it important to you to both types of movies?
JF: I found that I’m in an unusual position. I’m in this very commercial film world and the pop cultural world as a performer. But I also have these interests that are kind of tangents to that world, but don’t lie in that world. Where I can generate a lot of energy, is to bring those two worlds together.
Some of the things are things that’s been done before, but maybe they’ve been relegated to a more fringe outlet. Maybe it’s my place to bring some of these ideas to a mainstream outlet. Making things homogenized is dangerous. I’m not about anarchy, but we always need to question who we are, and why we are, and how we view ourselves and interact with each other. I think that’s one of the things that I try to do.
To watch the full interview with Franco on ‘Child of God’ at the 51st New York Film Festival, please watch the Part I and Part II videos on YouTube.