James Franco On Shocking But Not Repelling The Audience In ‘Child of God’
Entering a stage of his career where he wields more freedom to pursue his interests than ever before, James Franco shows no hesitation in tackling challenging material. In just the last year he’s served a writer, director or both on projects tackling student-teacher relationships, gay S&M, and William Faulkner. In Franco’s latest adaptation of an author he openly reveres, the filmmaker tackles the challenging prose and subject matter of 1973 novel “Child of God.” The movie Child of God (read our review) tracks Lester Ballard (Scott Haze), a young, violent outcast from society. As Ballard descends further into madness, he resorts cave dwelling and necrophilia, amongst a slew of other despicable acts, to combat his loneliness in isolation.
Speaking about the film ahead of its upcoming August 1st video-on-Demand release, James Franco and Child of God’s lead actor Scott Haze had a roundtable chat about their mindsets when dealing with difficult subject material, filming in the wilderness, and if the film has made it’s way to Cormac McCarthy.
On adapting Cormac McCarthy’s prose and shocking the audience
James Franco: The book is in three sections. And what was really interesting is that in each section, Lester’s behavior kind of progresses, but they’re also told in different ways. There’s a shifting distance between the reader and Lester in each section. So in the first section of the book, there are these voices and these interstitial chapters that… they never really tell you where they’re taking place but it’s as if a group of guys are sitting in a bar, telling stories. And some of the stories are about Lester. And some of the stories aren’t. There’s a story about a guy boxing a gorilla at a state fair or something.
And so, in that section, it’s as if Lester is almost a legend. It’s almost the legend of Lester. And you’re close with him sometimes, but you’re then pulled back by these interstitial chapters. The second section, you’re very close to Lester. It’s the section where Lester discovers the teenagers in the back of the car, it’s where Lester makes his huge transformation into the wild, crazy man in the woods. But also, where he makes his kind of personal discovery of how to find intimacy. I really feel like, at least the way I directed the movie and I think [the way] Scott played it, you can read it as a guy seeking intimacy or a guy seeking love.
Those other voices disappear in the second section so you’re very close to Lester in the second section. And then by the third section, it kind of pulls back again. Lester is now a full-on murderer, but you’re not as close with him anymore so you don’t know how much he’s murdering until there’s this big reveal, of like, ‘Oh, he’s got a cavern full of bodies,’ but you don’t see him doing all that killing. I loved that shifting distance in the book and I tried to do a little bit of that in the movie. I didn’t do so much of the interstitial chapters but I did have voiceover early on in the movie to kind of give a sense that people are talking about Lester, the legend of Lester, and then you get close with them.
Even though Lester is so extreme and so horrible, I didn’t want to repel the audience. I wanted to shock the audience some times, but I didn’t want it to be a trasher or slasher film, where we’re banking on the murders. I didn’t want it to be a horror movie or anything like that, I wanted people to engage with Lester as a character. By being able to pull back and not see every single murder, it actually made him a more watchable character. Not necessarily sympathetic, but more watchable.
Explaining how the film received funding
Franco: We didn’t really pitch it around. Vince, my producing partner, deals with that [financial] stuff. I didn’t have to [laughs] go to anybody and say the world needs this necrophilia story… When I went to film school, I had been working in film as an actor for 12 or so years and I realized, ‘This is now the moment where I get to say, I’m going to make the movies I want to make.’
As an actor, I’ve been in the biggest blockbusters, I’ve been in critically acclaimed Oscar-nominated, Oscar-winning movies. I understand what that whole world is. I don’t need to make a movie to aim for commercial success, or even critical success, I can just make the movies that I want to make just for the sake of loving those projects. Because of that, I’ve learned to balance certain things.
This isn’t one of the main reasons I did Child of God, but certainly in the back of my mind I can look at Child of God, and say, ‘Ok, it’s a very tough subject. It’s night. It’s a period piece. It’s the 1950s. But, a lot of this takes place in the woods. And there’s not a ton of actors in this, so if we’re smart we can actually manage this, manage a great and dark piece of material like this, and it doesn’t have to cost what recreating Boardwalk Empire costs, or whatever. Because we’re just out in the woods and the trees look the same in the ‘50s as they do now.
To Scott Haze, on trepidations of playing a detestable character early in his career
Scott Haze: The way I look at this situation is a guy whose father commits suicide, whose land is taken from him, nobody’s showing him love, and he’s forced to live in the woods and find shelter. I don’t know, there’s times in my life where I felt lonely. In high school, I felt like I didn’t fit in… or I think this girl didn’t like me, there were times in my life where I felt like I didn’t fit in and I felt lonely and I think we’ve all felt those times in our lives where we felt lonely and this was the ultimate example of somebody [lonely]. Back in the ‘50s, you couldn’t hop on the Internet and find another person who likes…
A reporter chimes in “Necrophilia?”
Scott Haze: Necrophilia! [laughs] Or I like to live in caves, and hunt. I think there’s an obsessive thing that happens when Lester finds love, and then love’s taken from him when the cabin burns down. And he wants that feeling again by any means necessary, it’s like he can go out and just get another girlfriend. So I think it really plays on the idea of being loved and lonely, and what that kind of isolation can do to the heart. That’s what I connected to a lot, that’s what I tried to get across.
On the omission of a controversial scene from the book involving a mentally challenged child
Franco: I had it in the first draft, and I know myself. When I adapt these books that I love, I want to put everything in it, and inevitably what happens is… like, I did the first edit of the movie and it was way too long. And then Curtis Clayton helped me bring it down because it’s so hard for me to bring these down. It was so hard for me to cut that scene out of the script, partly it was budgetary, but what the budgetary restrictions sometimes make you realize is, ‘Well, do we need another murder? And if we have this additional murder of a woman and a child burned in a house will that serve the story that we’re telling?’
It’s one thing to put it in a book, it’s another thing to watch it in a movie. And in fact I thought, it’s fascinating in sort of a dark way this kind of scene, but I think ultimately the main thing that it would be doing is it would just be turning Lester into more of a monster, when I’m trying to put up a sort of a smokescreen so that people can emotionally connect to him while he’s still doing all these bad things. And if we put in such an explicit kind of explicitly horrible act, it’d be harder to keep people watching Lester as anything but just a complete monster.
Haze: That scene might have pushed it too far where you lose the audience.
Watching the book come to life during production
Franco: I had a really great production designer Kristen Adams who I work with and they went out and they built that little cabin for us to burn down, and when I saw it I was like, ‘that’s the cabin!’ And then they went and found these actual caves and it’s like, ‘I mean, this is it! This is Lester’s home!’ Even though we weren’t in Tennessee, we were in West Virginia, it was like, ‘This is it!’
The first time I saw Scott, I was like, ‘I’ll never see Lester another way.’ He just went off in that four-month kind of cocoon he was in and he got out of it and was like, basically the character I saw when I read the books. I think all along the way, for me it was a very blessed experience, seeing this whole thing come to life in front of my eyes.
To Haze, on preparing for the physicality of the role
Haze: Everything in the novel I worked on, whether it was chopping wood or crawling around caves, you know, everything. So I was completely prepared to do it. We filmed a lot of dangerous stuff, and it was an adventure being on the set of a mountain. There’s that one scene that actually made the movie where I slide down the mountain. It doesn’t look as steep when you watch the film, but I remember standing there thinking, ‘I’m going to get hurt? This time.’
I was pretty ready when we went there. There were a lot of times with sprinting all day where I was sore at night.
Franco: I’ll say this, Scott was almost always in character. I remember there was this one lunch maybe the second to last day where Scott would like, come into the catering tent and it was like, ‘Oh, there’s Scott!’ I hadn’t really seen much of Scott because he kept to himself, kept the accent going and everything. He was so in character that I sometimes felt like I had to protect him.
I pushed against my AD a couple times. We cut it out but there was this amazing rock quarry that we wanted to scramble through. My good friend [first assistant director] Caroline was yelling at Scott & I. So I did it first to show here I didn’t get hurt, and Scott did it. But then there was this opening of the cave, when he first goes to the cave… and he’s got the animals on his back, there’s a river that goes into the mouth of the cave that’s so gorgeous. That was my favorite day of filming and we didn’t use tons of it but it was all these scenes around the mouth of the cave.
It was winter, it was January, and Scott already was running around in that skimpy outfit. And I had to keep telling him, I was like, ‘Scott if you go in that water,’ I don’t know what I said. I said, ‘I’m not going to shoot you anymore today,’ or something like that, because he was going to go. Lester was going to just charge through the water, and it was so cold he was going to get sick. So I was like, ‘You are not allowed.’ I had to say stuff like that, I knew that he was so in character that he would just like, do it.
Describing trepidations in adapting the more shocking scenes
Franco: We shot what was my favorite scene from the book. Sometimes as a director you have like a scene, or a moment, or something in your head that is the kernel or the thing that just excites you about the project. For me, it was that scene where he discovers the teenagers. Not because I’m into necrophilia but because it was such a beautifully sculpted scene that showed character development through behavior, and I really love that as a director and an actor. And writer.
We shot that first. So the first day Scott did that scene where he discovered the bodies and did all that stuff. You tell your experience, Scott, but for me when you have people around you that you trust and you know on a certain level this is make believe. We’re not really harming anymore, we’re all friends together. I’ve also learned if I believe in something I have no inhibitions. I’ve done art projects with Paul McCarthy where his dirty ass in like, in my face, and like, it’s like, ‘Okay.’
I kind of feel like if I believe in something I’ll do anything, and so it didn’t feel hard to me at all.
Haze: I wrapped my head around [becoming the character] so much so where I would talk to people about the film, even after we got done filming and they would say, ‘Oh you raped those girls,’ [I would respond], ‘No, this is his girlfriend.’
So I had worked the whole situation out where a lot of the stuff people think is shocking, ‘Oh a guy lives in a cave,’ well, in times of war, that’s where people live. It’s not like he wants to live in a cave because he wants to be Batman. You know, that’s where you go for protection and safety.
If I was trapped in the woods for a long time and nobody was talking to me and I came across a beautiful girl who had just died, I don’t know [laughs]. I’m just saying I had worked it out all in my head where nothing was too shocking.
There’s that scene obviously where he goes into the bathroom in the woods. I was like, ‘Oh, he used a stick to wipe his ass.’
Franco: [laughs] That’s from the book.
Haze: That’s from the book, but it wasn’t too shocking for me… Here’s the thing, it was [shocking] when I first read the novel and that’s when I said I have to go to Tennessee, ‘cause I have no idea what these guys are like.
I guess my perspective changed after meeting these people who were living in that time and the elders who had that accent, and getting to experience, ‘That’s why you live in a cave. That’s why you would do these things.’ I guess it changed as I got deeper.
On whether or not Cormac McCarthy has seen the movie
Haze: He did see it.
Franco: Oh, he did? I don’t know.
Haze: He did see it, he didn’t have a DVD player. Cormac McCarthy didn’t have a DVD player so we had to send him a DVD player but he watched it.
Explaining the significance of the title Child of God
Haze: I think, “Child of God, much like yourself perhaps,” applies to a person who has not been shown love and has been banished from society, and is trying to connect to anything he can. Whether it’s his stuffed animals, or it’s the person he comes across who isn’t breathing anymore. When you’re sitting alone for a long time, you make up imaginary stories or you talk to yourself. That happened to me when I was isolated for that long.
And here is this beautiful girl and he’s always wanted to have a girlfriend. And I think that in the right circumstances, hopefully people are shown love and they’re not banished and cast out from society like Lester was. But the idea of a child of God, and if anybody’s a child of God, here’s one person. It’s examining one person’s life in these circumstances that deals with a lot of social issues that we all experience on a level, whether it’s loneliness or not feeling like you fit in. Or saying, ‘That person’s not cool, I’m not going to talk to that guy, that person can’t sit with me.’
Like that scene in Forrest Gump that scene that touches everybody’s heart. ‘You can’t sit here,’ and he keeps walking to the back of the bus, I think that was Lester… So I think it really examines that we all are, whatever you believe in, we all have hearts and we all have dreams and desires, and this is how this guy’s life turned out.