James Franco Explains His Love of Faulkner (Q&A)

James Franco Still - H 2015
Courtesy of New Films International

"If you are doing it for the right reasons and working on it as hard as you can, then the rest of it is out of your control if people like it or not," Franco says of his adaptation of 'The Sound and the Fury'.

William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is told from four different POVs, one of which is from the perspective of a mentally challenged character, and has four non-linear temporal shifts. It is a difficult enough story to read, much less to film.

But James Franco, having previously adapted Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, was up for the challenge of bringing to life the story of the social and economic decline of the once aristocratic Compson family.

The adage "the book is always better than the movie" doesn't deter the This is the End actor from continuing to pursue literary adaptations.

Franco's next directorial project is John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, with two more adaptations  Steve Erikson's Zeroville and William Gay's The Long Way Home — on the way. In order to turn written word into moving picture, Franco enlists the help of a bevy of his A-list colleagues, including Bryan Cranston, Selena Gomez, Josh Hutcherson, Ashton Kutcher, Seth Rogen and Courtney Love, among others.

Franco talks to THR about his admiration for the author, gets side tract recounting F. Scott Fitzgerald's misgivings about Hollywood and reveals the book that he most hopes to adapt.  

Faulkner's prose doesn't allow for an easy cinematic adaptation, so what attracts you to this author, specifically?

This is my second Faulkner adaptation, and when I told [Spring Breakers director] Harmony Korine that I was doing The Sound and the Fury he was like "Why do you make it so hard on yourself?", but there are a lot of reasons. I love Faulkner. I have loved Faulkner since I was a teenager, and I have just been drawn to his characters and his worlds. I think his experimental style and his very unusual structuring in his novels is the thing that actually attracted me. I knew it would be very difficult but I also knew from adapting his other book [As I Lay Dying] that if I tried to take on that writing style and structure in the movie that it would push me to find filmmaking solutions that I wouldn't have otherwise. I knew I couldn't take the conventional approach and I would have to find unusual ways of telling this story, which is what I wanted.

What were the biggest difficulties you came across during production?

I knew I wanted to follow the structure. I knew I would have, more or less, four parts. I wanted to give a sense of the subjectivity of the novel, like we are seeing these events through the perspective of each of the [Compson] brothers. The book jumps from time period to time period, from 1928 to 1910 to 1902, and the book gives you a warning when it is going to jump time frame, but it doesn't tell you when it is jumping to. You have to decipher what period it is from what is going on in the scene. So we thought, "Let's do that!" We had to find emotional through lines, so the audience had something to follow, so that even if the scene weren't linear, the audience had something to hold on to.

The Sound and the Fury is considered one of the greatest English-language novels ever written, did you feel any special pressure when adapting the novel?

Definitely. I have done some other classics before this and there is a lot of pressure, but I put that pressure on myself. The fact that I have had to opportunity to adapt this book meant a lot to me, and I wanted to rise to the task. One of the things that adapting great literature does  in the same way as working with great actors  it makes me want to be a better director. It makes me want to try harder. You know, if you get the chance to do Faulkner then you better not mess it up.

On the other hand, there was a previous Sound and the Fury film with Joanne Woodward and Ewell Brenner and the actors are fine in it but the approach to the movie is very different than the book. They did not take on the structure of the book or the style of the book. I felt like, if anything, I am at least trying to be loyal to Faulkner and nobody can fault me for trying to capture not only Faulkner's narrative but also his style and structure. So I feel like my intentions are good and I am working as hard as I can and that is really all that one can control. If you are doing it for the right reasons and working on it as hard as you can, then the rest of it is out of your control if people like it or not.

Faulkner had a screenwriting career, so did you watch any of his work to see how Faulkner did film?

As far as I know, Faulkner hated his time in Hollywood. He was there for 10 years and he worked a lot with Howard Hawks—his two big credits are The Big Sleep and the [Ernest] Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not. The way they did things in those days was in big writer's rooms, where you had to clock in and go to the studio and then clock out. I think he didn't devote himself to screenwriting in the same way he did to his novels. He was in it for one reason. I think he made as much money working in Hollywood in a month then he did working on Absalom, Absalom! for two years. It was really just to make money. [F. Scott] Fitzgerald's downfall as a screenwriter was that he didn't understand the collaborative nature of movies, and I think Faulkner understand stood it. He was like, "Alright I am a cog."

It was different than novel writing, which is very individualistic.

Exactly. Even if you look at Fitzgerald's book The Last Tycoon — it is the only novelistic portrait of a producer that is even slightly favorable. Monroe Stahr [the protagonist of The Last Tycoon] is working almost like a novelist. He has absolute control over all the directors, all the writers, all the actors, and that is basically the control that the novelist has over his charters and his world. But it doesn't work that way in the movies, and I think Fitzgerald wanted it to.   

Do you have a dream book that you hope to adapt?

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Fingers crossed that it happens someday.

The Sound and the Fury is out in a limited theatrical run and on VOD on Oct. 23.