Features & Columns
James Franco's A California Childhood's flyleaf roster enumerates the parks of Palo Alto. The Sheraton for Bar Mitzvahs, the Stanford Park for Bat Mitzvahs. Ernie's Liquor. A-Street (Addison). V-Street (Ventura Street). The Century 16 (not the Stanford Theatre or the Palo Alto Square, interestingly). Also included for Francomaniacs: his transcript from Palo Alto High, along with the essay he used to get into college to be a journalist. When James Franco shows us his transcripts, what is he trying to show us? That his education was typical? How can you be a lively and pretty good painter at age 18—fond of graffiti art and TV references, genially ironical, in serious thrall to BasquiatÉ and still only get a B in Art History? And where did he get the sangfroid to describe watching Night and Fog and being surprised by seeing naked, if dead, bodies in school.
"Penises on the men and vaginas and breasts on the women. They didn't seem like real penises. I looked close. Some were big.
"I had a cat named Toby. He was put to sleep at the vet's. Gassed. Buried? Incinerated. Way of all flesh and fur."
James Franco's short stories are all about that premoral child's-eye view of what goes on, and in it an implicit condemnation of what can often be solipsistic kid-idiocy.
Franco wanted his stories filmed. He went to Indiegogo and raised $327,929 of the $500,000 sought. The proceeds of the films go to the The Art of Elysium, a nonprofit aiming to bring arts to children in poor health. James Franco (who wasn't available for an interview) explains on the project's Indiegogo page, "Because of who I am, people often believe that it is easy to find investors and distributors for my films. Unfortunately, things aren't that easy. More times than not, I have put in my own money to produce my films and my student's [sic] films. However, this time it's different. We need more funding."
He said he sought "the nostalgic experience of childhood" in Yosemite, a combination of three of his short stories, "Peter Parker," "Grand Illusion" and "Yosemite." The stories are of a drifter's encounter with a wandering child. A father, in recovery from alcoholism, takes his two uncomfortable children for a hike in the park. A mountain lion invades Palo Alto.
The director of Yosemite is a Parisian-American named Gabrielle Demeestere. She won a contest to script and direct the film. It's her senior thesis at NYU but it will also be SAG and union. Producer Shruti Ganguly worked with James Franco on another of his unreleased films, Tar, about the life and art of poet C. K. Williams.
Ganguly invited me to the recent location shoot on Fernando Street in Palo Alto, a quick turn off a part of El Camino where the dry cleaners proliferate. It was easy to find: the telltale white trucks and the hum of generators surrounded one small white cottage with latticed wood. Two lights on stands framed the house. The setting was 1985, so it was clear the person on the cellphone in the driveway wasn't part of the frame. Neither was the car parked on the driveway, with a perforated metal "cheese-plate" on its hood, made to mount the camera on for an upcoming scene of a drive around the neighborhood.
Ganguly and her team had done their work well. Zillow would consider this street Millionaire's Row; Palo Alto was just described by the Business Journal as a "black hole" of affluence whose gravity was raising rents in a 75-mile radius. But this particular house epitomized the side of Palo Alto unchanged since Franco was a young hellion.
The day's work was to catch a couple of scenes of the hippieish drifter Henry having a comic book reading session with his new pal, a 10-year-old boy. It was the penultimate day of the shoot. After the wrap tomorrow, a smaller secondary crew would get some coastal locations near Point Richmond. Unfortunately, the rented mountain lion who'd come out for his scenes was long gone. Later in the month, shooting would resume, and James Franco would rejoin the company in Yosemite valley. Ganguly said that the trick was to make sure that the period looked right: "It's the year right before Palo Alto became the Silicon Valley."
Elisabeth Aultman, another producer, noted that the cusp between old Palo Alto and hyperrich Palo Alto had an analogue in the script. "The transition between boys and adults mirrors this change between the Palo Alto then and the Palo Alto now. Ten years old is a special age." Aultman also acknowledged that it was more expensive to shoot in Palo Alto than in Los Angeles, but that Franco had wanted an ambience he didn't feel like faking in Southern California. To get the visuals right, the filmmakers consulted a "look book" of the mid-1980s, some contemporary photos and some stills from films of the decade.
We stood in the backyard, and the lady who owned the house waved at me over the chaos of cords, grips and gaffers. Henry Hopper, the actor playing Henry, a drifter, had already been given a choppy hobo haircut by the hairdresser, and he was having his bare feet artistically dirtied by a makeup person. Ganguly pointed out that bringing the crew together meant uniting a trio of camps, a group from L.A., a group from New York and a group from the Bay Area. The two directors of photography were Thai and Chinese, respectively; a Panavision grant waived the rental and the cleaning fees on the two Red camera lenses used for the shoot.
Co-producer Clare Aranovich said that one of the secrets of making indie film is looking for freebies: "You have to ask and you have to be used to the idea that people will say 'no.'" Many said yes; Betsy Franco had helped to organize couches and floors for the crew to sleep on. Yosemite is an LLC, not a 501(c)(3), but it benefits a 501(c)(3), so the charitable donations came in: furniture for the set, snacks for the crew. Ganguly looked over such sundry errands as checking to make sure that the child actors on set had their homework printed out for them.
Today's shoot was scene 65, taking place in the living room of this tiny 1930s house. The directors assembled in the kitchen; the petite Ganguly perched on the sink's counter. Gabrielle Demeestere sat on a classic folding director's chair next to her script assistant, silently studying a monitor slightly smaller than a 1970s hotel TV set. The atmosphere was quiet and intense and without tyranny: the director murmured through the microphones as the view parallaxed between the two cameras. There was no break between takes, to save time and money. The images came in on the monitor in good Vermeer colors as the actors adjusted themselves on a sagging couch in the next room.
Scene 65 had the young Alec Wasserman as Joe, and Hopper sitting on a sagging couch reading a comic. It was Spider-Man in Franco's original story, hence the story's title "Peter Parker." Such is licensing: Franco could be seen in a movie trying to stab Spider-Man with a dagger, but he couldn't have a visual of a Spider-Man comic in the film he produced. For the purposes of the movie, the book was about an imaginary vigilante called "Night Crimson."
Whatever the two actors were saying to each other was kept in the headphones. It was a typical blind-men-and-an-elephant experience of watching a movie being made, seeing this mere sliver: a Rorschach of an adult male stranger seated next to a child, from the days when the word "inappropriate" was a lot harder to understand than it is now. Certainly, the scene was trying to depict an incident of those puzzling and inexplicable encounters one mulls over for life.
James Franco's restlessness is reflected in these myriad projects, in his poet biographies, in his Faulkner adaptations and in the many short stories recalling, in flat reportorial language, his high school fights and trysts. The nerve of it all is startling, dismaying: he wants to produce multitudes, and he's also wanting to host the Oscars in a dress. What will he do next? One worries, mostly, about his influence—what kind of maniacal creator will try to top all this? Would Shia LaBoeuf have irrevocably humiliated himself as a filmmaker/plagiarist/performance artist/creep if he hadn't been trying to emulate the dynamism of the Franco family and their best known son?
The question remains too of how much a sense of place had in the development of this family's efforts—of the valley's insistence on omni-ness. Betsy Franco says, "I never saw the Silicon Valley as just a place for science and engineers. I go to the high schools and say, 'Hey, want to be an artist?' Some people need to be an artist no matter where they live."