Cinequest Guide 2016

The Franco File

The Palo Alto-born writer, producer, actor, director and provocateur
comes home to talk about the future of film

James Franco | Festival Highlights | Rita Moreno | SJSU's Kourosh Ahari

James Franco

Blinding, the incredible whiteness of the movie scene today; dumbfounding, the despair of seeing the way the Motion Picture Academy shunned minorities in 2016, causing the #OscarSoWhite boycott: among the nominees, no Ryan Coogler, no Michael B. Jordan and no Tessa Thompson for Creed; no Idris Elba or Cary Fukunaga for Beasts of No Nation; no Samuel L. Jackson for Hateful 8. One of the two main functions of Cinequest 26 is to spread out opportunities and celebrate storytelling.

The fest opens with an early rally in Palo Alto, where James Franco, one of the most famous actors to come from the Valley, discusses the craft of spinning a yarn at a "Storytelling Reimagined Conclave." The author, actor, producer and director will speak with Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube—the streaming service that launched a revolution in immediately-made and distributed content, forever changing the opportunities for filmmakers the world over.

That Franco would speak with the head of the streaming media behemoth is appropriate. He is currently working both as the star actor and co-producer of 11.22.63, one of the most interesting projects he's done in years.

Based on the unwieldy Stephen King novel, Hulu's first big miniseries is a sci-fi thriller about a man who travels back in time in an attempt to thwart the assassination of JFK. With the eight-episode "event," the streaming service is staking its claim in the burgeoning and lucrative business of hiring big stars to act in big-budget serial dramas meant for the small screen.

After teaching creative writing in real life, Franco plays a creative writing teacher in 11.22.63. It's fitting. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums up on "11.22. 63 is mainly about telling stories and listening to stories...and the danger of the listener wanting not merely to help the speaker by validating his experiences, but by directly intervening in his life."

Such intervention can lead to trouble; it's an example of the importance of how the small camera and peer-to-peer sharing remove intermediaries, leading to more raw and immediate first-person storytelling.

Small-town, small-time adult education teacher Jake Epping (Franco) has a pal who runs the local diner, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper). A dying Templeton shares a secret: he's concealing a portal to the year 1960, and with his final breaths, Templeton charges Jake with picking up where he left off by finding a way to keep Lee Harvey Oswald out of the Texas School Book Depository on Nov. 22, 1963. For it was on that day, Templeton is certain, that everything curdled in America.

Franco's Epping is the perfect chrononaut; the actor has a trustworthy and wry face that seems to fit his early-1960s alter-ego, Jake Amberson. This is why Franco was able to carry off the part of James Dean. But Epping isn't a history professor. He's shocked by the racism that made this allegedly sunnier era so poisonous, for one.

It's no spoiler to note that people in Stephen King novels need to be careful about what they wish for. And, as Epping soon learns, his nation had bigger problems than even JFK was equipped to solve. Finally, he heeds what Templeton was trying to tell him: when you disturb the past, the past pushes back. This temporal meddling mutates America into a far more terrifying shape than he could have imagined.

James Franco | Festival Highlights | Rita Moreno | SJSU's Kourosh Ahari