Interview: James Franco on "Rebel"

May 10, 2012



In April 2011, MOCA approached Juxtapoz with a unique project that they were producing with James Franco: Rebel, a mult-facitated, mixed-media, collaborative art installation and project loosely based on the making and legacy of James Dean's famed film, Rebel Without A Cause. In July 2011, Juxtapoz published a cover story examining Rebel, interviewing James Franco, Harmony Korine, and Aaron Young, about how the project came about.

What intially was supposed to premiere at the Venice Biennale in the summer of 2011, this May 15, 2012 MOCA will be presenting Rebel at JF Chen in Los Angeles. The exhibition will feature James Franco's conception along with works by Douglas Gordon, Harmony Korine, Damon McCarthy, Paul McCarthy, Terry Richardson, Ed Ruscha, and Aaron Young.

Here is our conversation with Mr Franco in the summer of 2011, with an introduction written at the time by our founder, Robert Williams...


Our ideal today of the restless and psychopathic young person was formed in the middle of the 20th century by basically three motion pictures. One was 1954’s The Wild Ones with Marlon Brando. The second, Blackboard Jungle arrived in 1955 and starred Vic Morrow. But the third film really changed America, and inadvertently, how Western culture perceived troubled youth. It was 1955, and Nicholas Rey’s seminal Rebel Without a Cause” became synonymous with James Dean.

James Franco, in collaboration with five nationally and internationally known artists, has marshaled forces to merge Hollywood cinema together with the open playing field of fine art. The creative functionaries given this task are video virtuoso Gordon Johnson, on site conceptualist Aaron Young and independent filmmaker Harmony Korine, and to ramp up the blue-chip mark even higher, patriarch Ed Ruscha and cultural time bomb Paul McCarthy. Rebel is the logical culmination for Franco and partner organization, Jeffrey Deitch’s MOCA, at the June 2011 Venice Biennale. —Robert Williams


Gwynned Vitello: People will naturally draw a connection with you playing James Dean in your first major role, and wonder if there was something in that experience that made you want to further explore the characters and themes?


James Franco: Yeah definitely. I played James Dean; I admired him even before I took the role, but when I played him I was in a TV movie that took an overview look at James Dean and his life.



Would you say it was reverential?


Yeah. My point is that you know it was a biopic and the aim was to deliver something of what the filmmakers believed Dean’s life was like, give some of the facts. They were searching for the psychological accuracy, at least as closely as they could determine and that’s kind of how the movie was shaped. That is how biopics are shaped: Let’s give a portrait of the person and try and be true as we can to who that person was.


A year ago or so, I read a book about the making of Rebel Without A Cause and it was fascinating. It consisted of a lot of stories that I had already known in some form or another, but it was really interesting to see everything together and to see how it all added up and I had an inclination about it. I thought it was probably a little cheesy to just do a movie, a standard movie about the making of Rebel Without A Cause because it’s fifty or sixty years later and the stories are kind of old. But in other ways, the people that were involved with the original Rebel had become iconic and in some ways, bigger than the actual facts that actually happened. There are all these legends who have grown round James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Nicholas Ray, and Dennis Hopper and they mean much more than who they actually are.


We thought, “What if we approach a project from the art world then use Rebel Without A Cause as inspiration and source material but then collaborate with people from the art world and use the ammo to let the material develop where ever it may go?” We are no longer dealing with the facts that happened. We are now dealing with the myth, the legend and all the implications, all the symbolism, everything that the icons, James Dean, and everyone else came and stood for.



Since you had this in mind and it was kind of simmering for a long time, when the location in Venice emerged, did you say to yourself, “Oh my god this is the time, this is the place to do this.”?


Because the project is very much about Los Angeles, there was something very interesting about designing the whole project with Los Angeles at its heart and then transplanting that into Venice while bringing out parts of LA even when you moved it.



While you were formulating the idea for the installation that was your Rebel, at what point did each artist become part of your scope? Was it like, “I would love to get Harmony Korine,” and then as that grew, you thought maybe Ed Ruscha could bring something. When did the artists become part of the vision?


It was kind of a gradual process because we have been developing this for a while. I’ve been collaborating with different artists for a while now on different projects, so that was something I was used to and something that I actually love, and it’s truly becoming an integral part of what I do. So that was already in my head but, like I said, it was originally going to be just a single screen movie project that we had split into five sections. One was going to be scenes from Rebel Without A Cause that would never be shot, one was going to be behind the scenes and focusing on Nicholas Ray when he was living at Chateau Marmont, as he was when they made the film. One was going to be just dealing with cars and motorcycles because they were so essential to James Dean’s image and who he was. One was going to be animation, and the last was going to be based on the1950’s educational film, Age 13, as inspiration for retelling James Dean’s childhood.


We were going to do them all on our own with my production company, and then we started thinking about who we’d cast for Nicholas Ray and although he does not look like him at all, one of the producers said, “What about Paul McCarthy?” He knew Paul was one of my favourite artists. So then that got us thinking that we wouldn’t just ask him to play Nicholas Ray. If you work with Paul McCarthy, you want him to bring the whole package. Then we reached out to him just as a collaborator, and said, “You’ll play Nicolas Ray,” but also help us develop this if you want. And he did. So then, that started the ball rolling and we started thinking about which other artists would be great for this. Douglas Gordon has dealt with film in his past work, Harmony is also a film director and artist, so he was great. Then Ed Ruscha is basically the heart of the LA art scene and, in other ways, deals with cinema in his work.



And Aaron Young?


Aaron Young has done lots of work with motorcycles but he’s also done a lot of work with video and cameras in very interesting and conceptional ways. So we thought he would be a good fit for the motorcycle and car section.


We watched Age 13, and couldn’t figure out who the audience was for that film when it was made in 1955. Would you tell us a little more about how you even found it and about your interpretation of the film within the context of Rebel?


We reshot it and reinterpreted it. Age 13 comes from a series of movies that a man named Sid Davis made. He made hundreds of them on topics ranging from learning to skateboard, to protecting kids from paedophiles, stuff like that. They are very dated, very conservative, and very homophobic. Very awful in all the backwards ways. But it was great source material, because Age 13 was a classic, and is longer than anything else. It deals with a kid who looses his mother at a young age, his father doesn’t like him and so he starts acting out.


And that parallels James Dean’s life in some kind of ways. His mother died when he was young and his father sent him away to live with his aunt and uncle. I think that experience had a lot to do with forming James Dean’s personality, this feeling of rejection, this feeling of being anti-authority, needing approval.



Is it just a coincidence in your films that you deal with misunderstood adolescence?


It’s not a coincidence. Where some people are more drawn to wars as a subject because the stakes are heightened and a way to tell extreme stories, I feel the same way about stories about teenagers. Everything is heightened in that world, everything is new and so it’s just a period that I found to be very powerful with the kind of things I want to explore. It’s kind of as if I haven’t grown up or something.



MOCA presents Rebel, conceived by James Franco with Douglas Gordon, Harmony Korine, Damon McCarthy, Paul McCarthy, Terry Richardson, Ed Ruscha, and Aaron Young. Rebel will be on view from May 15 through June 23, 2012, at JF Chen, a newly emerging contemporary art and design space, located at 941 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 90038.