James Franco — actor, director, writer, artist and teacher — commanded the attention of 700 screaming students gathered in UC Irvine’s Barclay Theater Saturday night. The 127 Hours star kicked off Chancellor Gillman’s 2015-2016 Illuminations initiative with a night of insightful reflection on the arts and Franco’s own development as an artist.
The three-part event included a master class exclusively for select students enrolled in the single unit Illuminations Colloquium seminar, a Q&A session in the Irvine Barclay Theater’s Cheng Hall and a VIP reception in the Barclay’s Jade Room.
In the master class, Franco addressed a group of 30 students and spoke about his creative process, preparing for various roles and his book turned movie, Palo Alto.
“When I was young I didn’t know much about films […] I prepared in isolation mostly. When I was working on Annapolis, I had nine months before the filming started and I trained as a boxer [since my role in the movie is that of a boxer] and had the emotional arc of the character all prepared.” explained Franco.
When the filming started, he realized that his vision was different from the director’s. He had a hard time putting aside his own inclinations and adjusting to the director’s vision for the film. That’s when he realized the importance of collaboration and started researching his roles together with his directors.
Franco then spoke on his book Palo Alto, which has since been adapted to film and stars Franco himself. The semi-fictitious book is a collection of short stories documenting the trials and triumphs of Palo Alto high schoolers during the age of hormones and heartache. The film, in contrast, focuses on the anthology’s final entry — the story of a girl named April.
When asked about the film adaptation, he answered “I wanted a young, female director who could take my adaptation and make it different, and that’s when I met Gia Coppola […] She carved out April’s narrative for the movie and highlighted her and made her central to the movie.”
Soon after, the class ended with a group picture and Franco signing copies of his books for students that had them. Students were then escorted to Cheng Hall for the main event.
Emerging from shadowy stage left and inaudible through the audience’s deafening applause, Franco took the spotlight and began a general lecture allowing a broader spectrum of questions and topics regarding his career. A video compilation of excerpts from Franco’s films — along with clips of his experience directing and teaching creative writing classes at UCLA — served to introduce the subjects he touched upon.
What followed next was an uncommonly profound and insightful Q&A session headed by Illuminations Director Julia Lupton. She asked him a number of questions regarding his film career, and perhaps more importantly, about his journey and belief in the importance of school and education.
Franco iterated his beginnings at UCLA as an English major. His father originally wanted him to study math, but Franco’s passions were ignited by literature and the discussions that came with it.
However, being surrounded with people who were involved with film and media, he realized acting was something he wanted to do. Yet, even after trading UCLA for film school, Franco still wanted to discuss literature and the arts.
“I worked hard, but acting wasn’t going to allow me to express or design anything I wanted to. I wanted to go back to a place where I could meet people that shared my interests. I wanted a creative posse where we could bounce ideas off each other,” explicated Franco in reference to dropping out and ultimately returning to UCLA.
In the pursuit of greater artistic freedom, Franco went on to finish his degree and pursued numerous MFA programs at various schools.
Ironically, he was rejected from the MFA writing program at UCI.
The conversation naturally flowed towards Franco’s experiences with teaching, including his creative writing classes and graduate film courses. Similar to what he said earlier, Franco endearingly discussed how his style of teaching differed from other instructors.
“Everything is project-based, with the entire class involved in one project. This is to ensure that criticisms become consistently constructive. As a student, I’d seen some criticisms given to a person based on his background, and I wanted to make sure the classes I taught were more subsidized.”
As the lecture came to an end, Franco was confronted by the final and most important question: what was his opinion on the importance of exposure to the arts for students in every major?
He concluded with this thoughtful, perhaps rehearsed, answer: “I believe art helps us reflect about who we are, and where we are in the world. It’s a way for us to discover a path to what we want to do with our lives.”