Franco’s Disciples: Talking with Three James Franco Protégés

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No matter what you think of prolific writer/actor/director/student/Instagrammer James Franco, it’s impossible to deny that the projects he works on are always ambitious and frequently fascinating. Franco’s latest is no exception: The Color of Time—which Franco produced and which stars Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain, Zach Braff, and Franco himself—is a film both written and directed in a collaborative effort by 12 NYU grad students who were taught by Franco. The film, shot on location in Detroit, is a meditation on the work and life of poet C.K. Williams, and is a compelling look at an iconic artist’s struggle to create new work. Three of the young filmmakers who worked on the film live—or have lived—in Brooklyn, and we spoke with them recently about what it was like working on the film, what they’re working on next, and what it’s like to have James Franco as a mentor (spoiler: It’s apparently the best thing ever). The Color of Time will be released by Starz Digital in theaters on 12/12 and VOD platforms on 12/9.



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Sarah-Violet Bliss

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn Heights, an idyllic brownstone neighborhood full of families with terriers and tweed jacket intellectuals like Norman Mailer.

How would you describe James Franco’s teaching or mentoring style?
The busiest man I’ve ever met. Even so, he manages to be present and endlessly supportive. He trusts his students to take on the challenge of an ambitious project and rise to the occasion. His input and guidance is deeply valuable and it was an incredible privilege to study with him.

Your previous feature, Fort Tilden, earned plaudits for its depiction of archetypically shallow twentysomething North Brooklynites on a journey of arguable self-discovery throughout the rest of the borough. In general, how important is place to your filmmaking—do characters and events exist for you independently of the place from which they arise?
It depends on the story, but in most of my work characters are very deeply tied to where they come from and where they choose to live. Fort Tilden was particularly location dependent; the scenes and characters in that film could only exist in the cultural context of Brooklyn (and Queens). You wouldn’t be able to just plop those characters in a city like Seattle and have the same impact.


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Pamela Romanowsky

Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m 31, was born and raised in Minnesota, and have been a New Yorker for ten years, a Greenpointer for eight of those. I had never been to New York before I moved here for what I thought was a four month internship. I fell in love instantly and I never went back.

How would you describe James Franco’s teaching or mentoring style?
James is one of my closest and most treasured creative partnerships, an exceptional person and a total force of nature. He has an infectious passion and fearlessness, and a really admirable sense of dedication and loyalty. He’s very present and generous with his time, and if you spend very much time with him, you’ll realize quickly how much you’re actually capable of accomplishing in a day. His momentum is completely sincere, and deeply inspiring.

How was the collaborative nature of the production, from writing to shooting to editing? Was it difficult, as a filmmaker working on developing your own technique and voice, to work with so many co-directors, or was it exactly what you needed at this point in your career.
It wasn’t difficult, no. Directors have to love collaboration—it’s 99% of the job. And if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by smart, talented people who believe in each other, it’s the best part of the job. We had the luxury of time and good communication to work out a shared vision and aesthetic, and within that, each writer/director had the freedom to zero in on what was most important to him or her. The poem I adapted, Tar, (and to some extent the whole film) is about how memory affects our perception of the present, which is something I’m fascinated by.

So, what’s next?
Right now, I’m finishing post-production work on The Adderall Diaries. It’s my first feature and a project very much born out of my friendship and collaboration with James, who is both my star and producer. I spent about two years writing and developing the script, including a magical year of workshopping with the Sundance Institute, and was lucky enough to assemble an incredible cast (Ed Harris, Amber Heard, Christian Slater, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Parrack) and crew (including three Color of Time friends: DP Bruce Cheung, costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo and producer Vince Jolivette). We shot the film in June here in New York (largely in Brooklyn), and I’ve been editing since. It’s been a joy to work on, and I’m really excited to share it.


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Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m 29 and have been in Bed-Stuy for four years. Before then, I lived for one year in South Williamsburg. I was born in Santiago, Chile. During my teenage years I spent my afternoons watching films in an old theatre next to my public high school in downtown Santiago, changing clothes every time, so I could get in and break a Chilean prohibition on students going to the movies wearing uniform. In 2014, I received my MFA in New York University’s Graduate Film Program, which I attended as a Fulbright and Chilean State scholar. I’m a founding partner of Cinestación, a Santiago-based production company that creates highly creative auteur cinema from Chile and the region. Also, I’m a serial tea drinker who does not want to join Instagram.

How would you describe James Franco’s teaching or mentoring style—aside from the obvious emphasis on learning by doing? Hands-on, hands-off? He seems like a pretty busy guy…
He puts a lot of trust in the people that he decides to work with, so there was a lot of creative freedom for the adaptation of the poems. He pushes you to make your best work by giving this trust to you, knowing that you’ll handle your creativity in a good way. So he really gives you space. I really appreciate his continued support in my career, something I feel grateful for. We share an interest in similar narratives, versions of masculinity portrayals in film.

How was the collaborative nature of the production, from writing to shooting to editing? Was it difficult, as a filmmaker working on developing your own technique and voice, to work with so many co-directors, or was it exactly what you needed at this point in your career?
At the beginning the prospect was daunting, how to balance very specific voices for a collective film. During the process of creating it, we realized that there were common themes and overarching threads between the pieces, which became a great way to put them together, so it became much less difficult as we went along. Everyone was very aware of what everyone else was doing, so that also raised the quality overall I believe, since we would share feedback with each other about the pieces.

So, what’s next? Do you anticipate staying in Brooklyn to continue your filmmaking career here?
I am now developing my first feature film, San Cristóbal, thanks to the support of a Development Fund given by the Ibermedia Program. The project was also selected for BRLab, a laboratory at the Mostra de Cinema de Sao Paulo, among other development initiatives. It is a love story between two young men on an isolated island in southern Chile. We are in the middle of our fundraising efforts, aiming to have a shoot in 2015.

After five years, Brooklyn is a huge part of who I am now, I know it by heart and I bike everyday on its streets since I almost never take the train.  I would like to create projects that take place here, later on, after I shoot my first movie in Chile. I received a lot of support from Chilean institutions for both my education and my film projects so I feel like I have to give back somehow, so I really want to make that first film, and then contemplate other future films that can be more linked to the Brooklyn reality.

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