How James Franco Learned to Finance Ambitious Literary Adaptations Like 'In Dubious Battle' (Q&A)

James Franco - In Dubious Battle - Deauville Film Festival - H - 2016
Francois G. Durand/Getty Images

The actor-director discusses exploring the work of John Steinbeck, why it's important to "take things into your own hands" and working with 'The Room's' infamous Tommy Wiseau.

Multihyphenate James Franco continues his streak of ambitious literary adaptations with his feature based on John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, which follows a group of farm workers who organize a strike in the 1930s. (He’s already directed features based on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.) Franco also stars in the project — along with Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez and Robert Duvall — which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September.

Ahead of the American Film Market, where the AMBI Group is touting the film to foreign buyers, Franco spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how he finances his projects, his thoughts on streaming and what it was like to work with The Room writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau.

What interested you about Steinbeck’s book?

I grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., pretty close to Steinbeck country. I started reading his books when I was a teenager. About two years ago, I did a production of Of Mice and Men on Broadway, and it was this incredible experience. It got me thinking about doing more Steinbeck and maybe adapting one of his novels because I had already adapted a few American classics into movies. I just started looking at the Steinbeck books that hadn’t been made or had been adapted but were smaller films. I wanted to do Battle because when I reread it, I thought it was perfect — it was part of what is unofficially known as the Dustbowl Trilogy, which also includes The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. It has a similar setting to where I grew up, and it has similar characters and similar circumstances — ranch hands and people working on ranches and farms and a lot of migrant workers.

But what I found in In Dubious Battle is that they had a very clear conflict that started very early on and once it starts, it never died down until the end — it just kept escalating and escalating. And then, looking at it as a storyteller, the actual content of the conflict and why they are fighting is still very topical — that people without rights or without power should be compensated for their work is still a very important issue.

What do you think this film says about what an ordinary person can do to have more rights or have a voice, especially during this heated election season?

Obviously, it’s such a complicated issue. Maybe the message of the movie is about how there are ways to take things into your own hands. I think an issue with this election is that people feel like their voices don’t matter. There’s no point in participating because they’re not happy with anything that happens, so what’s the point? I would just say that it’s always good to get involved in some way or another, that there’s always ways to get involved. Not being involved is not the answer.

When it comes to these ambitious period pieces, how hard is it to get financing and get the movies made?

It’s something that we had to figure out. I remember before I went to NYU for film school, and I had already been acting for more than 10 years, I made some movies just on my own. We were trying to adapt a Faulkner short story called Red Leaves, which involves a swamp in Mississippi and had Native American characters that were living out of a steamboat that had been washed ashore. I remember before film school we were trying to put that together and I thought, "I need all of this. I need the steamboat, I need to go through the swamp," and so we were looking at Louisiana and we’re going to put the actor in the swamps. We ended up budgeting out this short film at a half-million dollars, which is insane, because it’s one thing to try and shell out a Faulkner adaptation as a feature, but for a short film, nobody’s going to buy it. Since film school, I’ve become a little smarter now about how to manage a budget that’s more responsible.

Do you have a preference for how people watch your movies?

I guess it depends on the movie. I personally watch a lot of movies, and I watch them in all different areas. I watch them on a TV, on my computer and I go to the theater. So I guess if I just think about my own watching habits, I should be just fine with how other people watch my movies. [Laughs] But I do still think the big screen is always the best. It’s the most pure experience. Sitting in a movie theater, the movie has your full attention, and viewing it at home, there’s a tendency not to give it your full attention. There’s something good about the purity of [a movie theater].

Your next project will be The Masterpiece, based on the making of the infamously bad 2003 movie The Room. How did that come about?

I’m really excited about this. It’s something that we’ve been talking about for more than two years. I had my first conversation with Tommy [Wiseau] while we were filming The Interview almost three years ago.

Wiseau seems like such an enigma. What’s he like?

The Tommy who made The Room is not who Tommy is anymore. He was somebody that was excited to get his foot in the door to make his dreams come true. He had gotten so much rejection from Hollywood that he decided to just go and make his own thing. That’s one of the main reasons I have such admiration for him; he got it done against the odds. But I think the success stalled him in some way. He hasn’t really made a feature film since then, because Tommy made The Room in a very honest way. But, what happened is that people found it very funny. And so Tommy has now sort of accepted that and taken that on and is happy that people are laughing. In his mind, it’s sort of like they’re not laughing at him, they’re now laughing with him. But what that means is that he could never repeat that because he’s taken on the persona of funny Tommy; the Tommy that he thinks they want. He [thinks he] can only make really weird, goofy things that I know are nowhere as near as good as The Room — because they don’t have the same kind of heart in them.