Published May 24. 2013 4:00AM
James Franco's filmography is starting to look like a book shelf - and a very respectable one, at that.
The 35-year-old American has already played poets Allen Ginsberg ("Howl") and Hart Crane ("The Broken Tower"). He recently finished directing an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God" (having first flirted with doing McCarthy's novel "Blood Meridian"), as well as a biopic of the late poet and novelist Charles Bukowski.
But this week at the Cannes Film Festival, he premiered his version of William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," a novel of fractured perspectives and enormous cinematic challenges. Having earlier screened at Cannes a short film he made as a student at New York University ("The Clerk's Tale"), coming to the festival in the Un Certain Regard section - for innovating or daring works by young talent - is something of a graduation for Franco.
"I'm accepted here as a director," he said in an interview on a dock in Cannes' harbor on the Mediterranean Sea. "Of course it's validating, but it's more than that. I've been trying to define it for myself. The validation is coming from the outside, but it's doing something to me on the inside."
Franco's "As I Lay Dying" is a respectable attempt to tackle a difficult American novel, famed for its stream of consciousness and multiple, shifting narrators. It captures Franco - who also stars in the film as the troubled character Darl Bundren - as a maturing filmmaker revealing perhaps his most personal work.
"If somebody asked you if you could do any project, it would actually be this one," he says - high praise from someone who's routinely balancing a dozen or more projects.
Much is made of Franco's industriousness - his juggling of roles including budding filmmaker, comic actor (seen in the upcoming "This Is the End"), lethargic Oscar host, performance artist and eternal student. But it's becoming increasingly clear how central literary adaptations are to him.
"As an artist, you look for what is your unique position? What is your unique voice?" says Franco. "I have these two worlds now. I was a literature major. I'm working on my doctorate in literature. So I have these two worlds that I feel I can bring together."
The subject of his planned dissertation at Yale? Fittingly, it's on the relationship between film and literature.
"When I do bring them together, it excites me," he says. "I feel great energy is created and work that I don't see has existed in quite this way before results. To me, it says: This is what you should be doing."
Cannes opened this year with another adaptation of a revered early 20th-century novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." While Franco's grittier, more low-budget "As I Lay Dying" differs greatly from Baz Luhrmann's 3-D spectacular, Franco says they share a desire to recapture the vibrancy each book had before they were canonized and made into regular U.S. school reading.
Whereas Luhrmann used hip-hop and contemporary music to substitute for the Jazz Age, Franco's film sought to make the novel's then-groundbreaking narration again feel innovative. Much of the film is done in split-screen format, showing the Bundren family members as they travel to bury their deceased matriarch. Co-stars include Tim Blake Nelson, Logan Marshall-Green and Ahna O'Reilly.
"The way that we shot it, the cameras we used, the way that we edited it, the way that we structured the film, the split screen - all those things are very contemporary," he says. "So now you have this period piece that's framed by contemporary techniques that hopefully - and I think it does - gives it a fresh kind of life."
Faulkner's writing is famously dense, and many a reader has struggled to make it through his novels. But Franco, led to Faulkner as a teenager by his father, responded immediately.
"I always felt there's some light coming through," he said of Faulkner's works.
Naturally, another adaptation is up next for Franco. He'll soon begin production on his next directing effort, "The Garden of Last Days," based on the novel by Andre Dubus III.