By Robert Toews
Actor-director James Franco and poet Frank Bidart discussed their recent artistic collaboration in front of a packed audience in Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Monday afternoon.
In 2009, Franco adapted “Herbert White,” a poem by Bidart, into a short film. At Monday’s event, Bidart performed a reading of the poem and Franco presented his film adaptation before engaging in a discussion about the project.
“When I heard [Bidart’s] poem for the first time, I was immediately struck by it, and I knew I wanted to make a movie out of it,” Franco said.
The poem, which Bidart described as “very dark,” explores the mindset of the unstable Herbert White, a necrophiliac murderer. It is written in the first person, from Herbert’s perspective.
Bidart, who jokingly pointed out that he was not as insane as his character, noted that this was the first time in decades he had done a public reading of the piece because of its difficult subject matter.
“The poem intrigued me because there is, of course, the voice of the psychotic killer, but in between there is also the voice of a poet, a creative mind trying to make sense of the world,” Franco said. “Frank weaved those two voices together marvelously.”
Franco’s film adaptation remained mostly consistent with the text of the poem, although he did add certain touches of his own, including recurrent imagery of Herbert bulldozing trees in the forest.
“Because film is a medium that handles images much better than words, being loyal to the poem in a film adaptation does not always involve using the exact language of the poem,” Franco said. “I have learned that, to be loyal to the poem, you should be more concerned with being loyal to the tone, to the structure, to the pace of the piece.”
The 14-minute film, which was written and directed by Franco, was screened at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Actor Michael Shannon played the role of Herbert White.
Many in the audience seemed taken aback at first by the heavy subject matter of the project, but most seemed to leave the talk impressed by the manner in which Bidart and Franco explored the themes of self-expression, isolation and sanity.
“The film was jarring, macabre and managed to give a nuanced presentation of a complex human monster in under 14 minutes,” said Shaya Fidel ’11. “To me, it solidified the fact that Franco is a director worth taking seriously.”
Michelle Dadourian ’11 agreed.
“What impressed me the most was [Franco’s] explanation of the artistic process he went through in taking a character described only in words and turning him, with all his warped psychoses and inner demons, into a believable figure on the screen,” Dadourian said.
Co-host of the 2011 Academy Awards, Franco is famous for his acting roles in “Spider-Man,” “Pineapple Express” and “127 Hours.” He is also a film director, screenwriter, author and painter. Bidart is an English professor at Wellesley University and an award-winning poet. Among other distinctions, his work has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
The presentation was moderated by Ken Fields, a professor of English and creative writing.