Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, is a film unlike any other. Slate called it an “affectionate and artistically audacious movie” and Newsweek dubbed it “a response to a work of art that is art itself,” which, according to this interview, is exactly what the filmmakers hoped for. The following conversation between poet D.A. Powell and the film directors Epstein and Friedman was conducted via telephone on September 10, 2010. Howl opens this Friday.
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D.A. Powell: You've been collaborators for over 20 years. Can you describe a bit how the two of you work together?
Rob Epstein: You’ll see that actually over the course of this interview. We really have no prescribed roles, no formula we can articulate. We both have sensibilities that complement each other.
DP: Unlike film, poetry is a fairly solitary art.
RE: Although Ginsberg did do collaborations with Kerouac.
DP: Yes, true! But for the most part poems work individually. “Howl” is Ginsberg on his own, though he’s certainly in conversation with many others. What led you to this rather singular artistic vision of Ginsberg’s called “Howl”?
RE: We like the idea of working with poetry because we know so little about it. That’s what made it that much more intriguing as a subject.
Jeffrey Friedman: We were trying to understand the poem itself, and what’s behind it.
RE: Because it was such a monumental work. This is a poem that, when it was introduced, actually changed the culture. It was a golden moment for Allen, and that was the moment we wanted to concentrate on. What happened in the courtroom became a great vehicle for talking about the world at that time.
DP: Yes, the courtroom is the Greek chorus of the drama. The poem, in all its rage and eloquence, takes center stage. What were some of the things you had to take into consideration in order to “translate” the poem into the highly active and visual form of film?
RE: Ginsberg was already in the habit of translating his work. That’s why, when Allen first presented the poem, he presented it as spoken word. So we thought of the poem as performance. Which was a new idea when it was introduced. The poetry slam and hip-hop poetry all came out of that. We wanted to re-create that iconic moment, when people in literary culture were electrified by the performance. And we wanted to visualize the poem, so we started with Allen’s collaboration with artist Eric Drooker.
JF: At the time he died, Ginsberg was working with Drooker on a project called “Illuminated Poems.”
RE: We started playing with those drawings in the editing room, and decided to take it a step further. To use the drawings as a conversation with Allen’s original idea. And even the deconstructive element of the animation—because it has deconstructive elements—goes along with Allen’s deconstruction—Allen was essentially trying to deconstruct poetry as part of his art.
DP: And the animation has moments where, instead of illustrating the text, it’s actually deconstructing the text.
RE: Yeah, Allen was playful in that way. We felt he would have enjoyed that.
DP: The core debate for the trial is obscenity. You might have easily played down the “offensive” language, yet you neither shy away from the potentially objectionable language nor overuse it.
RE: The whole notion of obscenity is so quaint now. We live in an era in which nothing is held back. But it’s paradoxical. Because even though there’s such exposure to everything all the time, there’s also a lack of authenticity. And Allen’s whole point was that if you were going to talk about sex, you needed to be authentic.
JF: The 1950s was an era looking for scapegoats.
RE: In his summation, Jon Hamm’s character is essentially making an indictment against society and the way [City Lights founder and publisher Lawrence] Ferlinghetti is being used as a societal scapegoat.
JF: We use the scapegoat as a way of combating things we fear or don’t understand.
RE: Certainly the argument against gay marriage can be looked at that way. It feeds off of demonizing the proponents of equality.
JF: We also wanted to know how far we could go with the animation and still stay true to the poem. You should have seen some of the conversations we had. Our assistant editor wanted us to do a whole book about the e-mails surrounding the penis forest.
RE: A lot of the animation was being done in Thailand. The Thai animators kept sending these huge penises.
DP: Well, I wonder if that says something about the difference in cultures.
RE: Yes, they’re very generous people.
DP: While poets often lead interesting lives, those lives don’t necessarily create drama. And the main drama in Ginsberg’s life—the trial—is mostly played out without his being there. What was the creative solution for that?
RE: It’s a documentary film. We knew we weren’t setting out to make a drama. We were setting out to make “the poet pic.”
JF: What we liked about the trial was that it provided texture to the period. The content of the language, again, is what we found dramatic, more so than the trial itself.
RE: Although the trial did give us a chance to flesh out the era.
DP: Yes, the era is definitely captured visually through the trial scenes. I loved Mary-Louise Parker’s ensemble.
RE: She took a lot of interest in the look of her character.
JF: She picked out her own wig.
RE: And the glasses.
DP: The wig and glasses are perfect. After all, she plays someone who’s teaching at Dominican.
RE: And even though audiences love a good trial, this trial was less of an edge-of-the-seat drama.
DP: I guess most people know the outcome or would assume going in that the trial turned out well. Otherwise, the poem wouldn’t be available.
RE: There was also a lot of pain and drama in Allen’s life, as you know, but we wanted everything we referenced to tie directly to something in the poem. So when we show his interactions with Neal Cassady or Jack Kerouac, we’re only using those as structural elements directly related to “Howl.”
DP: James Franco does a terrific job in the film, but he’s maybe not the first person I’d think of for the role of Ginsberg. Why did you choose him?
RE: James is a great actor, and he’s also roughly the age that Allen was when he wrote the poem. He’s also a student of literature and a writer. And he went to Columbia University and Brooklyn College, which are both institutions Allen had connections to. And his mother is Jewish. Also, this poem was so much the expression of a youthful creative energy on the part of Ginsberg, and James Franco has that youthful creative energy.
DP: Did Franco have to go through any sort of physical changes? Did he have to put on weight for the role?
RE: He did go through a big physical change while he spent time with Allen’s ideas and recordings. He took a little weight off. He added prosthetics to his ears to push them out. He worked on the physicalization and vocalization of Ginsberg’s character. This last work on building the character, James did on his own.
DP: I think Franco does such a great job of reading “Howl.” I’ve heard Ginsberg in person as well as on recordings. and there were moments in watching the film where I was thinking, “Is Franco lip-synching Ginsberg?”
RE: I’ve read reviews where they assumed that James is mouthing along to a recording. That’s wonderful.
DP: What a great testament to Franco’s ability as an actor. That’s the hardest part to pull off: not just the sound but the spirit. The difference between imitation and re-creation. He’s not just imitating but rather re-creating Ginsberg’s physical presence in the world.
You guys are primarily documentarians, and I noticed in this film that you stick primarily to source text. But while this film has documentary elements, the participants in Ginsberg’s life—as well as Ginsberg himself—are being played by actors. Did that create different demands for you as directors?
JF: Absolutely. It created new challenges.
RE: But using source elements from different places is something we learned in making documentaries.
DP: So often in documentaries, you have the element of surprise. For example, in Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, your film about the AIDS quilt, you had to surrender to a certain amount of surprise, the things that were unscripted. Were there certain things that surprised you in the making of this movie?
JF: You always hope to be surprised by wonderful performances, and we were. The actors playing the roles embodied their parts and the situations. Those moments are gold.
DP: Will there be more projects ahead that incorporate poetry?
RE: When we make retrospective films, we’re looking at the culture in a particular moment. In this case, we were looking at the culture through the lens of poetry. But hopefully every film we make has some poetry in it.