Engaging audiences in a movie about poetry sounds like a daunting proposition, but with James Franco as the Beat bard Allen Ginsberg, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman do just that.
Making a movie about poetry is something that’s rarely been done before. Sure, cinema has introduced us to the lives of poets—Plath, Rimbaud, Parker, Eliot, Shakespeare—but with more focus on their (often sordid) personal worlds than on the poetry itself. Finding the meaning behind the words is left to the audience’s extracurricular exploration.
By comparison, HOWL is a refreshing anomaly: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman—established documentarians (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet)—have taken a multi-faceted approach to explicating the seminal Beat poem. Yes, we learn about the life of its creator, Allen Ginsberg (a transformed James Franco, who is a revelation), but all through the lens of the creation of his 1955 epic. We get to know HOWL on several levels—through Ginsberg’s own words and memories; via adaptive animation from Eric Drooker; and through the infamous obscenity trial it provoked—all of which allow us to understand how radically HOWL affected American society.
In the 1950s, Ginsberg’s graphic and vivid language was considered taboo to the moralists who were the squeakiest of wheels. When its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was accused of selling obscene material, the public trial only served to shine a spotlight on the work, making it an instant bestseller. A half-century later, the trial is a landmark example of freedom of speech, and Howl is one of the most famous poems of all time. (How many other poems can you even name?)
We sat down with Epstein and Friedman at a recent roundtable in the Oscilloscope offices, where they shared their impressions of Ginsberg, Franco, and what makes HOWL still relevant 55 years after its publication.
Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein
Q: So HOWL is a movie about poetry. How did you even start to conceive how to do that?
Jeffrey Friedman: Yeah, it took us a while to figure it out. We just approached it as we would any other project by starting to do research. We wanted to understand what went into the making of the poem; Allen’s creative process and his personal process; and what he had to go through to get to the point where he could produce this poem.
We wanted to understand the world that the poem [was] being introduced into, and the obscenity trial seemed like a ready-made theater to show that. We wanted the poem to live on its own, [which the poem does in] different ways in the movie: it lives as performance art, which is the way it was first presented to the world, as spoken word—it was really the first poetry slam—and in the animation, which was inspired by Eric Drooker’s collaboration with Ginsberg on a book of poems, including part of HOWL, called Illuminated Poems.
Rob Epstein: We wanted the poem to be a character. That was the starting point.
Q: I’m fascinated by your switch from doc to narrative. Were you always planning that with HOWL?
Rob Epstein: When we started immersing ourselves in research, we didn’t yet have a concept. Once we did, the first idea we had for the film was pretty close to what it ended up being: we knew we wanted to do a dramatic film that had the veracity of a documentary. We became less concerned with category than with approach.
Q: How much of the dialogue in this film is verbatim from interviews or the court transcripts and how much was written?
Jeffrey Friedman: 95% is verbatim from court transcripts and interviews Allen gave over the course of his life.
Q: Did that make the process of writing the script more difficult or less difficult?
Rob Epstein: That part was not unfamiliar, because [like a documentary] you have this massive amount of material that you have to cull down and make coherent, give dramatic shape [to], and figure out the essence of each character that you’re characterizing.
But it’s in large part a film about language, so the idea of being faithful to the actual language as source material was an important part of the concept.
Q: How did James Franco come into the project, and what it was like working with him?
Rob Epstein:Gus Van Sant, who is our executive producer read the script and liked it and was in San Francisco shooting Milk at the time. He suggested that James read the script and James liked it. We met with him soon thereafter, and we learned that James had a very close relationship to the Beats, having read them from when he was 14 years old, and he was a student of literature at UCLA. So he had a natural affinity, and then we looked at a lot of James’ work… We saw in [his portrayal of James Dean] so much depth, not that he just so physically personified Dean but that there was so much emotional depth to that performance, so we knew that he could act the part of Allen Ginsberg.
Jeffrey Friedman: James came on very early—before we had financing; he just loved the project. He said he always thought he would do a Beat project, but he assumed that he would play Jack Kerouac [laughs], so I think he was kind of tickled that we were asking him to play Ginsberg. And in fact, his mother’s Jewish, and he’s the same age that Allen was when Allen wrote HOWL, so it was really a confluence of interests.
Rob Epstein: It was really interesting working with James as he developed the character—seeing the work of the actor, which is the whole physicalization and vocalization of Allen. That’s something we couldn’t help him with; he had to find that himself, and he found that just by listening to a lot of audio, in particular an interview that Allen did from the ‘50s with Studs Terkel... you really get a sense of his personality in that interview. James listened to that again, and again, and again, and again.
Q: How much makeup did you use to transform him? Did you use any prosthetics?
Rob Epstein: Just the ears were pushed out. And we dyed his hair.
Jeffrey Friedman: James was hosting Saturday Night Live one week and he brought pictures of Allen to the makeup room and showed the makeup artist and said, “What do you think?” and he said, “Yeah, you could do that. Just push out the ears a little.”
Q: He just did an interview with The Advocate where they asked him, “Why do you keep playing so many gay characters? Are you gay?” And he’s like, “I’m not gay, but there’s something in me that makes me able to relate to these characters and play them. What do you guys think that is that’s in him that makes him be able to relate to gay people so well?
Rob Epstein: I think the fact that he doesn’t even think in those terms so much. He just thinks of it as part of the human experience, and there’s something within that that he finds compelling and interesting… And maybe because so few actors have been willing to mine that material, maybe that’s another thing that James has been drawn to.
Q: You mostly focus on HOWL in this movie and the court case as well. Did you consciously avoid the rest of Ginsberg’s life?
Jeffrey Friedman: The purpose of this film was to understand HOWL as a cultural phenomenon. It was a poem that began what we think of as the Beat literary movement, the San Francisco renaissance, which became a literary movement and a cultural movement and evolved into all these other cultural movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We sort of saw the seeds of all of those in this poem that was written in the mid-‘50s.
Rob Epstein: We saw HOWL as the film about this particular golden moment in Allen’s life when he was finding his creative voice, and when all his compadres, these young artists, were in their prime: both sexual and creative. And metaphorically, it’s the transition from the black and white world of the ‘50s to the color world of the ‘60s and beyond.
Q: One of my favorite lines in the film is during the courtroom scene: “You can’t translate poetry to prose; that’s what makes it poetry.” Would you talk about the process of translation poetry into animation? Do you think it’s a better fit?
Jeffrey Friedman: Well, we don’t think of it as translation, we think of it as adaptation, the way you would adapt a novel. So you have to make it specific, because you’re creating something visual, so it’s a very specific vision that we try to imagine as what might have been going on in the head of the poet as these images were emerging.
We have all these different realities in the film. We have the present tense, all in color, which is the obscenity trial and the imagined interview with Allen, which was inspired by this Time magazine interview that he gave during the trial that was never published. And then we have flashbacks (in black and white) to events in his life and the first reading of the poem. But we also wanted the poem to live in a kind of timeless, unreal world, so the animation was a way of trying to create that.
Q: In the film, we see the funny and unbelievably ignorant parts of the obscenity trial. When you were reviewing the court transcripts, were there other moments where you could kind of see the other side, the witnesses’ point(s)?
Rob Epstein: No, it was even more ridiculous than it’s presented in the movie. We really had to work to create some dramatic tension because it was so lopsided. We didn’t change any of the transcript, but we did try and give it as much equal weight as we could.
Q: You kind of feel sorry for them because they’re so fearful and so close-minded.
Rob Epstein: That’s really what it comes down to—and thematically that’s what we wanted the audience to get from it—that ultimately this is about fear and scapegoatism, and that’s the eternal dialectic that we felt like continues to play out and will continue to play out in democratic society. So now it’s gay marriage and the Koran.
Q: They thought they were so upstanding and upright and they couldn’t imagine how anybody could be that way. Did you find that kind of funny when you think about it now?
Rob Epstein: We found some of the dialogue funny, just the notion of parsing: “What is an ‘angelheaded hipster’?” Having to have that explained in a trial, there was something kind of delicious about that. So when we were working with the material, we realized there were those moments that would play well theatrically as just wonderful scenes, and then there were bigger scenes that we felt really resonated.
Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg (l) and Aaron Tveit and James Franco (r)
Q: For me, the whole Beat thing was an obsession in my 20s—I read Kerouac, I visited San Francisco, I made the pilgrimage to City Lights. What makes this the right time for a Beat movie, either for 20-somethings or for everyone?
Jeffrey Friedman: People in their 20s are responding well to the movie, so it still sparks something. They still read [the Beats], and they are the people who come up to us after screenings with the most excitement and enthusiasm.
Rob Epstein: It seems like the perfect time to bring Ginsberg and his rebel spirit into the zeitgeist, in this age of Palin-ism and reality television.
Q: Finally, there are so few poems that most people can name. It’s nice to give this one a new life in a new form. What do you want people to take away from the film?
Jeffrey Friedman: You can’t translate film into prose! [laughs]
No, I think Allen’s dedication to authenticity is something that I respond to, and I think audiences respond to, and I think it’s something that we need to hear. And Jake Ehrlich’s [the defense attorney portrayed by Jon Hamm in the film] plea for not being ruled by fear—a lot of what’s going on in the world is being navigated by making us afraid, and I think it’s a dangerous tool.
Rob Epstein: What Ginsberg says about everyday attentiveness—he’s specifically talking about what it takes for him to be an artist, what it takes for anyone to be an artist—is that your senses have to be attuned. But I think that can apply to just being alive.