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Actor and filmmaker James Franco is noted, and at times mocked, for treating his life and career as a kind of ongoing art project, but one of his projects might change the way you think of him, and the future of filmmaking.

Our story starts at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January of this year. One of the festival premieres was “Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha.” In movie terms, “Don Quixote” is a cursed text. Failed adaptations of the literary classic about a delusional Spanish knight nearly ended the careers of both Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam.

Who’d be crazy enough to attempt that one? James Franco. Make that professor James Franco, because the “Don Quixote” that premiered at Palm Springs was co-directed by 11 USC students. All professor Franco did was teach the class, fund the project, and co-star in the movie as a brutal highwayman.

“I like to explore alternative approaches to filmmaking,” he says. “And maybe one could say teaching is also a new approach, where I am bringing resources to young filmmakers, I am bringing a source text to be adapted, and then after that, I’m trying to take my hands off the final product, turning it over to my students.”

But a premiere is the third act of a production process. To understand the Franco/Watson student production model, you’d really have to start over, from Act One, the preproduction phase. Or, the start of class. Veteran producer John Watson co-teaches Franco’s class. He says, “My first rule I say to them is leave your ego at the door. This is a joint project.” And they leave accepted wisdom for student films at the door, too. “We broke all the rules. They say you don’t do period. You don’t do horses and animals and children. You don’t do stunts. And you certainly don’t do massive complicated effects sequences.” But they HAD to do windmills, right?

When I visited the class in late February, they were on to the next project. A fresh group of actors, directors and support crew were assembled in a small theatre on the USC campus for a read-through of a script in progress. The script is called “Actor’s Anonymous,” adapted by student screenwriters from Franco’s blackly comic Hollywood novel.

In “Actor’s Anonymous,” Franco will have a small, self-mocking role as a pontificating actor/celebrity with a dark side. It’s a role that mirrors both Franco’s status in Hollywood and his passion for teaching. There are 12 student directors this time, 13 including the AD. They are male and female, multi-ethnic. And two days before the start of principal photography, their emotions run the gamut, from chomping at the bit to quietly terrified.

At the end of the class, Professor Franco gives his student filmmakers some last-minute script notes. His comments are solid. Practical. And scanning all the young faces in the room, it’s hard not to root for them. Fresh and eager, and watching a shared dream come to life. In class after class, Franco’s students aren’t creating resume pieces to prove they can make a feature film later. They’re making real movies — now — that people are paying to see.

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James Franco, in Palm Springs Wednesday to discuss a collaboration with his USC film students, said he was happy to have his latest project screen at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, rather than die at film school and only be seen by a few – a common fate for student films.

“I’m so proud. This is so great to have a film school here and show a film,” he said, prior to the film’s screening in the Palm Springs High School auditorium.

Franco talked at great length about the collaborative process and what it was like to make “Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha” with 10 student directors. What he did not mention, but was on some people’s minds – was his controversial movie “The Interview” released just weeks ago and likely the most talked about movie in years.

Franco and Seth Rogen, his co-star in “The Interview,” have stayed mum about the movie in the media since hackers threatened Sony with Sept. 11-type attacks at theaters that screened the movie on Dec. 25. Many theaters, however, decided to screen the movie after all and it was also released through video on demand and on the Internet.

The Desert Sun asked Franco his reaction to the controversy surrounding “The Interview,” but the actor stopped speaking and walked away without a response. He was then led away from the red carpet and into the high school for the 7 p.m. screening of “Don Quixote.”

Franco was accompanied on the red carpet prior to the screening by many of the directors – students in his advanced film production class at the University of Southern California — and actors from the comedy. It tells the tale of Don Quixote, who with his sidekick Sancho Panza, set off on adventures to bring justice to the world.

Franco said he chose the iconic Don Quixote tale by Miguel de Cervantes because it’s one of his favorite books and it also lends itself well to a collaboration with many people. He said the movie was created using an approach similar to a TV series in which there are different directors for each episode.

“It is broken up into episodes so that made it easier to split up the different sections among the students. It’s about knowing how to split up the work flow, designing a script that can be broken up but then also put back together … and once you do that multiple directors is manageable,” he said.

Horatio Sanz, who plays Panza, joined the group of 22 onstage after the screening for the brief Q&A that followed the screening. When one audience member asked advice on how aspiring filmmakers can make a movie on limited resources, Sanz suggested using a cell phone.

“If you have a phone you can make a movie I think,” he said. “Now is the best time ever, unless you don’t have a phone — in which case I will buy you one.”
In his second year of teaching film at USC, Franco said he’s proud of the final product and that likely all his students were getting an “A.”

“One of the things that I try to do with the film classes that I teach is to have the class have one foot in the academic world and one in the professional world,” he said. “We bring in professional, very good actors to be in the project. I try to bring resources that I can manage into the projects and do all that so that the films don’t have to just die at film school, be shown to a few fellow students and then disappear. We can actually take it out into the world and having it here as proof that we succeeded on some level.”

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The Palm Springs Film Festival announced its lineup Thursday, including the world premiere of “Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha,” starring James Franco.

The festival, which runs from Jan. 2-15, will feature 192 films from 65 countries, including seven world premieres. Along with Franco’s “Don Quixote,” world premieres include “Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson” (USA), “Some Kind of Love” (Canada), “Spirit / Will / Loss” (USA), “Walter” (USA) and “Twenty-Five Palms” (Luxembourg), a documentary directed by Fabrizio Maltese from the 25th anniversary of the PSIFF in January 2014.

“This year’s lineup is particularly noteworthy not only for the overall excellence of the 190-plus films included, but for the extraordinary quality of storytelling involved,” said festival director Darryl Macdonald. “In this era of mega-blockbusters, filmmakers worldwide seem to be reacting by eschewing traditional genres and formats in favor of innovative and audacious new approaches to storytelling, with newly emerging talents from regions like Eastern Europe, the Arab countries and Latin America leading the charge.”

Among the festival’s screenings are buzzy Oscar contenders including Laura Poitras’ documentary on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks “Citizenfour” (Germany) and “Two Days, One Night,” which is Belgium’s submission for the best foreign language film Oscar and for which star Marion Cotillard won the best actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

The festival features 65 premieres in total, with five international, 20 North American and 33 U.S. openings in addition to the world premieres. The full program of screenings and award recipients and contestants is available on the Palm Springs Fest website

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