Spinning Platters Interview: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman on “Howl”

by Jason LeRoy on September 17, 2010

Script supervisor Tony Pettine discusses a scene with directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein in the courtroom set of HOWL. Photo courtesy of Telling Pictures.

The Times of Harvey Milk. Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt. The Celluloid Closet. Paragraph 175. Over the course of 25 years, two Best Documentary Oscars, and a smattering of Emmys and Peabodys, San Francisco-based filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have forever changed the face of documentary film-making and revolutionized the portrayal of gay and lesbian subjects in American culture. Now, they’ve made Howl (opening in Bay Area on September 24), their first scripted film, in which James Franco brilliantly embodies Allen Ginsberg. They recently sat down with Spinning Platters to discuss their latest effort.

Did this project begin as a documentary?

Rob: Well, all projects begin as documentaries in some sense. You’re immersing yourself in the material and gathering information in order to get started. So, we were immersing ourselves in the material and trying to figure out how we wanted to approach telling the story of this poem, how it was created, and what was behind it.

But we quickly realized there was very little documentary material from that era. People didn’t have portable film cameras then, and no one knew what the impact of “Howl” would be. There isn’t even an audio recording of that first performance at the Six Gallery. So, creatively, we came to understand that we wanted the film to be a present tense story, not a past tense story.

Jeffrey: And we wanted it to be adventurous in its formal structure; challenging in a way that would resonate with the poem. And we’ve always wanted to work with actors. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while, and have been preparing to do for a while.

And how did you get James Franco?

Rob: We literally got to him through Gus Van Sant, our executive producer, texting him and saying, “I just read this really cool screenplay, are you interested?” And James said, “Is it good?”, and Gus said, “Yes,” and he read it, and we met the next day, and then we were off and running.

You’ve worked with actors in voice-over and interview settings. How was the experience of directing them as characters?

Rob: It didn’t feel that different, really. It didn’t feel that different from working with real people, except it was a little easier. A lot easier, really, because they’re trained to deliver what you’re looking for. You don’t have to do quite so much tugging to get what you need.

Jeffrey: The difference is that the pressure on the set is always about time, and making sure you get what you need within a reasonable time frame. Some actors require more time than other actors, and you have to just be sensitive to helping each particular actor in whatever the moment or situation demands.

Do you love the research process of your films the most?

Rob: I wouldn’t say most. I’d probably say least! [laughs] But it’s necessary, and certainly every visual detail comes from that kind of documentary research. Our production designer, Thérèse DePrez, loved working that way, as did the whole team. But the part we both enjoyed most was live-action directing, working with actors, because that’s when things are really happening. Those are the moments you’re going for, when you see it finally coming alive in front of you. The other stuff is really tedious. It’s necessary and vital, but just…tedious.

You created The Times of Harvey Milk 24 years before Van Sant made Milk. Did that make you more sensitive to the process of creating a scripted film about a frequently documented cultural icon?

Rob: Your question makes me think of how documentary informs narrative and how narrative informs documentary. That’s something that we were certainly more aware of on the other side of having made this film then before we made it. We’ve always thought of our documentary films as “narrative films,” so when people say this is our first narrative film, we have to hedge a bit because we’ve considered all our films to be narrative. This is our first scripted film, our first scripted film with actors, so we have to qualify that. But I think both forms inform each other, and that’s why it was so exciting for us to experience that.

Do you view Ginsberg as a hero of liberation like Harvey Milk?

Rob: “Hero” feels a little too…it almost dehumanizes the character. I don’t think of Harvey Milk as a hero, and I don’t think of Ginsberg as a hero, even though they may have done heroic things in their lifetimes. I think Allen’s creating of this work of art at the point and time that he did was heroic, and he was speaking from such a personal place. And he was addressing issues of sexual liberation in an era where it was impossible to do that. The culture just didn’t allow for it. So, as an artist, that’s a heroic endeavor.

Jeffrey: The Beats were the very beginnings of the counterculture, which I think is still very much alive today, and it’s crucial that it remain alive. But all of the movements that grew out of the ’60s and ’70s — the seeds of that were in the work that Allen was doing in the ’50s.

How did you Allen-ize James Franco?

Jeffrey: We just pushed his ears out! We did some things with makeup to emphasize the wideness of his face rather than the longness of his face, and pushed his ears out a little, and dyed his hair. That’s it. The rest is entirely him. His body language just sort of becomes Allen. Lots of people think of Allen as the older, larger version of himself. But people don’t really know the young Allen. He was 30 when he wrote the poem. One of the things we did before we met James was send him a DVD of still photos of Allen from that period, so he could see immediately that it wasn’t such a stretch.

Are you still working on a film about Linda Lovelace?

Rob: We are still working on it, and it’s not the Lindsay Lohan film [Inferno], which people are getting confused about. [laughs] But yes, we’re very much in the development stage, working with the writers. It will be another scripted film.

Do you set out to make films about social issues?

Jeffrey: I grew up with this idea that the personal is political, that everything you do is social and political, and that everything you do should hopefully make a difference for the better. We don’t set out to do films on social issues; we just find issues or stories that are compelling and important to tell.

Rob: We’re not good with categories. This may sound disingenuous, or even dumb, but we don’t even consider ourselves to be gay filmmakers. We’ve never consciously decided that we’re doing a story for any particular agenda. It comes from a much more personal and intuitive place. It’s about finding these milestone moments and realizing how things changed because of them, which we’re also seeing with the Lovelace project. “Howl” was the opening salvo to the cultural revolution that followed.

Jeffrey: And things have changed, but things have also stayed the same. The poem still feels very relevant, like it could have been written today. These issues haven’t gone away: sexual liberation, the militarization of culture, consumerist society, corporate control of culture… All this stuff has just grown since then.

There was much excitement when Jon Hamm joined the cast. Was Mad Men already on the air when he signed?

Rob: Yes, Mad Men was on. He was actually the last actor to come on board, just a week before shooting began. It was literally a matter of days from when he signed on to when he was on set. We were very excited to work with him. People have a knee-jerk reaction when they see him and only think of him as this one character, but there’s really a lot of nuance to his performance.

Ultimately, why did you choose to make this film?

Jeffrey: I just loved this idea of this group of sexy young writers who were determined to change the world, and actually did have a great impact on the culture. It’s really inspiring.

Rob: People thought we were nuts to make a film about a poem, but the right people came along at the right time. It just seemed like a golden moment. We were excited and challenged by the ways we could bring to life that golden moment in the life of an artist.

Howl stars James Franco, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, and Bob Balaban. It is distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories and is unrated.

Keep up with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman at their production company, Telling Pictures.

Read Also:

Previous post:

Next post: