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Continuing his strike as one of the most tireless and unpredictable multi-hyphenates working in film today, James Franco brings to Toronto the North American premiere of his latest feature, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s first novel, In Dubious Battle. A tale of labor strife amongst fruit pickers and orchard owners in 1930s California, the work mixes politics with human drama as it captures the rivalries and conflicts that arise in times of activism. In addition to directing, Franco stars alongside Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Duvall and Selena Gomez. The screenplay is by Matt Rager, who scripted Franco’s other recent Great Novel Adaptation, The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Below, Franco discusses his love for John Steinbeck, what a tale of the ’30 American labor movement has to teach us today, and why he’s embraced such a frenetic artistic output.

In Dubious Battle screens at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, September 12.

Filmmaker: When did you first read Steinbeck’s novel, and what inspired you to direct a screen adaptation? As a raw material for cinema, what did it offer you that you wanted to explore?

Franco: I grew up reading Steinbeck, and I read the novel in high school, but it definitely wasn’t one of my favorites. (Those were probably East of Eden and Cannery Row.) But when I acted in Of Mice and Men on Broadway I reread a bunch of Steinbeck, including In Dubious Battle. It is part of the unofficial “Dustbowl Trilogy,” which also includes Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. They all take place in Northern California, which is where I grew up. After doing Mice… I was very interested in doing some Steinbeck material on screen, but I found that while Mice… was perfectly suited for the stage because of the incredible characters and the intimate scenes, it wasn’t as well suited for the screen because it didn’t require any scope; all the major scenes took place in confined spaces like the bunkhouse. But In Dubious Battle, although it was weaker on character, had an epic conflict between two irreconcilable groups. Once the conflict starts it never lets up, and man,y many people, of all kinds, are brought into the fray in various ways. I thought that that kind of set up would be much more cinematic, and the tension and conflict would drive the film from beginning to end.

Filmmaker: You’ve made In Dubious Battle following adaptations of novels by Faulkner and McCarthy, and a film about Tennessee Williams, in addition to other works of literary provenance. How much do the stylistic traits and formal devices of these individual works shape your decisions in terms of adaptation and direction, versus your own developing style? In other words, do you seek to remain faithful to these works, or to artfully betray them in some way?

Franco: With all of these classics my primary intention is to be faithful to the novels, in spirit, structure and style whenever possible. I started with McCarthy and Faulkner, two of my favorite writers. I figured that only adapting the story and not the style would not be adapting those writers, because their styles are so integral to what they write. The Sound and the Fury without Faulkner’s style and structure is just southern melodrama, so I had to adapt everything, not just the narrative.

And now with Steinbeck I was trying to be as faithful to his spirit as possible. Some things changed from the novel, mainly character developments, because Steinbeck was still learning how to create fully dimensional characters when he wrote this early book. We added dimension to all the characters, and wove them together more, sort of like an Altman film.

Filmmaker: Why tell a story about the 1930s labor movement in the States today, during a time of global capitalism? How does the story you are telling connect to the present moment?

Franco: Filmmaker: It’s very topical; the idea of battling “the man” will always be relevant. Unions, wages, 1%ers vs. the rest, strikes — these are things that will always be relevant as long as there is an exclusive upper class resting on a larger lower class. But what I was really interested in showing was man in conflict with himself.

Filmmaker: Let me ask you about your famed productivity. In a world where so many directors wait years between movies, the sheer number of films you’re able to make can seem mind-boggling. That said, there are directors in the past — Fassbinder and Raul Ruiz come to mind — who have made a kind of hyper-productivity their own style. Could you tell me what role this extreme productivity and the volume of your film work plays in your overall concept of yourself as an artist?

Franco: Fassbinder is a huge influence: his rebellious spirt, and his incredible productivity. He was doing in an independent, artistic, pro-active way what they did in the old studio days when John Ford would direct three movies a year. Also Cassavettes is a huge influence, the ultimate “one for them/one for” me creator, whose “one for them” was often a classic such as Rosemary’s Baby. He learned how to pull the kinds of movies that he loves into being when no one else would.

When I do many different kinds of things, and in quick succession, it allows me to take more risks, because I’m not putting everything in one basket. But it also allows me to be more disciplined in my approach, because each project gets its own approach. If I did fewer projects more of a burden would be put on them to deliver everything I want, whereas doing many allows me to spread out my ideas among many projects.

Filmmaker: Finally, In Dubious Battle deals with, in part, the decision-making of groups. Is there a parallel here to the movie business in any way?

Franco: Yes and no. Many people make decisions on movies, but usually in tiers, and not all at once. A director will make decisions on set, and might consult with a producer about overarching ideas and then go and discuss shooting approaches with a DP. Later, after its shot, the head of a studio, or a financier might come give notes.

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The director and star calls the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency “scary.”
In Dubious Battle on Monday won over the hearts of the audience at the Deauville Film Festival, where the pic received a warm welcome and director and star James Franco was feted following its mixed reception in Venice.

He was welcomed onstage by French actress Ana Girardot, who recited a poem in the spirit of Franco’s creative experimentation.

Franco was on hand to present his fifth directorial effort — adapted from the John Steinbeck novel — as well as receive a career retrospective from the festival. It was the multihyphenate’s second time at Deauville, which screened his James Dean biopic in 2001 at the start of his career.

Steinbeck’s story of striking farm workers was important to the Northern California native, he said, though he added that the book ranks among Hawaii native President Barack Obama’s favorites as well.

That the film was screening on Labor Day in the U.S. was not lost on Franco. “Even though the novel takes place in the Great Depression, it’s still very relevant to a lot of things that are going on now and as long as certain social relationships are in play, stories like this are still important,” he told The Hollywood Reporter earlier in the day.

“I read the news every day and I feel like there are so many [unjust] things. The issue that my movie addresses is rights for the working class and it’s still a very important story to tell,” said Franco. “A lot of jobs in America are being sent overseas and the workplace is changing. I think it’s something that should be addressed, I don’t want a situation where a small minority of the country is living in these walled off palaces and the rest of the country is in poverty.”

He characterized the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency as “scary,” though he dismissed the importance of an actor’s political views on a reality TV star running for president.

Despite being listed as starring in 20 upcoming projects and directing at least a handful of those, as well as being attached to both the stripper tale Zola Tells All and the sci fi actioner Kin, Franco says his impressive IMDb credits are deceiving. Several of the projects are helmed by his graduate students from UCLA, USC and Cal Arts, where they asked him to take part in their films.

“I feel like there is a certain kind of overexposure, but I also know what it’s like to be a young filmmaker,” he said, noting that having his Hollywood name attached can boost a first-time filmmaker’s prospects. “I can do that, just lend myself and put myself in those films to get those films made, it’s worth the risk.”

While Franco is immersed in the indie world, he doesn’t rule out a return to Hollywood blockbusters or franchises, either in front of or behind the camera.

“The more money it costs, the more people have a say in how it’s made, so it would have to be the right people that I’m working with. I’d have to believe in their vision on whatever the money is being spent on,” he said, pointing to CGI-heavy endeavors such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Franco has another, smaller, project with longtime collaborator and Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine in the works, he said.

While he boasts several job titles as notches on his creative belt — including novelist, photographer, poet, professor, sculptor, student and seemingly any new outlet that fuels his creative fires — there’s only one thing Franco rules out: “I’m not running for president.”

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James Franco - The Fixer, King Cobra

Originally published in 1936, In Dubious Battle is the least-known title in the author’s unofficial Dustbowl Trilogy — which also includes Of Mice And Men and The Grapes Of Wrath. Set during a Great Depression labor dispute, its 99% v 1% themes remain relevant today.

Franco stars alongside Nat Wolff and an impressive ensemble cast that includes Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bryan Cranston, Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Selena Gomez, Josh Hutcherson, Ashley Greene, John Savage and Zach Braff.

Wolff plays Jim Nolan, a young recruit who joins Franco’s activist Mac McLeod to organize a group of California fruit-pickers oppressed by Duvall’s ruthless tycoon. The film chronicles their infiltration of the workers’ world, the ensuing strike and how they help and hinder the situation — and at what cost. Check out the trailer here.

Franco, who continues to straddle genres and media, says he chose the book after he had done Of Mice And Men on Broadway. The ideal medium for that, he tells me, is the play because of the setting and what actors can bring to a story that doesn’t move around a lot. Steinbeck, he feels, grew as a writer with both Mice and Grapes Of Wrath. But In Dubious Battle, which was written first, “shows him as more of a beginner, and in particular one of the things he learned how to do in the latter two books was develop character. There are indelible characters in the later books.”

Whereas with In Dubious Battle, the characters “are not as fully dimensional as the other books, but the situation is better for a movie” with the action moving around on a vaster canvas. “Steinbeck, by the time he got to Grapes Of Wrath, was doing a lot of research,” Franco says. “He was going out to these encampments. So he had seen by that point firsthand how horrible the conditions were and that people were being ripped off and all their wages were being halved. So by the time he wrote Grapes Of Wrath, he was fully on the side of the workers.”

With In Dubious Battle, it sounded “like he was going for a bit more of an even tone.” Franco’s movie version veers “a bit” from the book, especially the ending. He says the reason for that “was not to change the intention or spirit of the novel, but I really feel like Steinbeck just wasn’t on his sort of dramatic game as well as he was later in his books.”

Franco himself is surprised by the folks he was able to pull together in the cast. “When I step back and think about some of the guys I got in the movie, I think just ‘wow.’ It’s kind of crazy,” he says. “People like Robert Duvall are people I studied when I was in acting school, and they were held up as the greats of the profession. To work with them is a real honor.”

A shift since he began directing has been a bonus. “My whole attitude towards other actors changed,” Franco says. “Meaning, I don’t know, maybe when I was a young actor I was really competitive and it was all about fighting for roles or whatever. But now as I direct, it’s like I want to get along with every actor. I want to love every actor so they can be in my movie, and so whenever I work with anybody, especially people that I really respect, I try to stay in touch with them.”

NYU Film School also boosted his confidence. “When I first started directing, I was really shy and I was a little insecure about my skills. … Now I’m not shy about asking actors to be in my projects; the worst that can happen is they say no.”

This is Franco’s fourth movie as director to premiere in Venice. He says his long-lasting relationship with the festival “might be something to do with being in Europe that they are better able to allow me to be a director in ways that maybe are tricky for people in the States to do. I feel like early on they sort of got on board and were very supportive of the movies I was doing.”

He allows that the films are “of a certain type. I understand there’s not a huge call for Faulkner adaptations in the marketplace today,” he says, laughing. But, he adds, “I feel like I’ve been fortunate. And I think my team has been really good about putting these movies together in a certain way and at a certain price so that it can be really loyal to the novels and that’s really — changing the ending aside — I think we were very loyal to the spirit of In Dubious Battle.”

Franco has recently branched out into television, directing an episode of the Stephen King/JJ Abrams miniseries 11.22.63, and two episodes of the upcoming HBO series The Deuce, which he’s doing with The Wire’s David Simon.

He’s also just completed the Seth Rogen-produced The Masterpiece about The Room, or as Franco says, “the best worst movie ever.” That project is “a very different kind of movie for me. It still fulfills my artistic ambitions. It’s about making things and it’s about art and all of that and it’s also got a different kind of commercial side to it,” Franco tells me.

Then, he adds, “I think the kind of stuff I’m doing is changing while I’m still also very interested in these adaptations of American classics. I guess you could just say I’m still doing what a lot of people say I’m always doing which is a lot of different kinds of things.”

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in-dubious-battle-james-franco-600x401

Multi-hyphenate James Franco, no stranger to classic American literature, has taken his first directorial shot at moving John Steinbeck to the screen with an adaptation of In Dubious Battle. Originally published in 1936, the novel is the lesser-known title in Steinbeck’s unofficial Dustbowl Trilogy — which also includes Of Mice And Men and The Grapes Of Wrath — but has been hailed as among his strongest works. It’s a study of man’s struggle against himself set during a Great Depression labor dispute whose themes are still relevant today.

Multi-hyphenate James Franco, no stranger to classic American literature, has taken his first directorial shot at moving John Steinbeck to the screen with an adaptation of In Dubious Battle. Originally published in 1936, the novel is the lesser-known title in Steinbeck’s unofficial Dustbowl Trilogy — which also includes Of Mice And Men and The Grapes Of Wrath — but has been hailed as among his strongest works. It’s a study of man’s struggle against himself set during a Great Depression labor dispute whose themes are still relevant today.

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