Ginsberg’s Howl to Franco’s Ginsberg

How a famous poem became a remarkable movie.

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.

James Franco, Rob Epstein, and Jeffrey Friedman on the set of HowlJames Franco, Rob Epstein, and Jeffrey Friedman on the set of Howl

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.

* * *

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.

Originally Published: September 21st, 2010

Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...

  1. September 25, 2010
     Patricia D'Alessandro

    Dear Friends of POETRY,
    What a wonderful movie to anticipate
    and include in the wonderful world of films with poetry themes.
    I remember reading "HOWL"
    in the life-changing '60's, as a suburban
    housewife, living in Menlo Park, CA, raising three small sons, curious to know more about this "literature-changing poet" thinking to myself "he must be from another planet and I want to know more about him" even though I was aghast by his use of such scatalogical language, living in a world of "no-no's."
    However, I became a fan of Allen Ginsberg, much to the surprise of friends who could not stand to read his work. I was new to poetry, feeling strongly about studying ALL major poets, in and out of poetry workshops, to better understand what was happening that was so new in the literary field.
    As Dr. William Carlos Williams, was Gingsberg's "mentor", and one of my favorite poets at the time, I could not help but feel that Dr. Williams knew talent when he read it, that was innovative, imaginative, and NEW, and said so in private and in public.
    Having seen Ginsberg perform many times, reading all of his books, which are a precious addition to my own library,
    I thank him for opening the doors to places poets might not have ever dared
    to have visited, thereby, offering an opportunity for the public to "read and accept", "read and reject", or just plain ignore what is written, which is one of the liberties we enjoy against censorship.
    He brought the focus on the importance
    of poetry in our society, and that it is the poets who have the sensitivity to speak out on issues that need to be discussed.
    No matter what one feels about Gingsberg, he was a "pioneer" in the field of poetry, that opened doors to
    imaginery landscapes never experienced before, and for that, we all ought to
    be grateful and applaud him as we would any master in the cultural arts.
    Warm regards,
    Patricia D'Alessandro
    [email protected]
    Host:Barnes&Noble/Palm Desert/Westfield Center's monthly poetry
    series: "Valley Voices of the Muse."

  2. September 25, 2010

    I look foreward to seeing this video version of "Howl". When friends & I first got a copy of Howl in the mid 60's, we read & reread it to ourselves, & outloud to each other and anyone who came around. Howl was irresistible.

    Howl is such a dramatic work of poetry, reminding me of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in the way it flows & insists on being read, shouted aloud!

  3. September 28, 2010
     jennie battles

    Have these gentlemen ever heard of Vachel Lindsay? Ginsberg certainly had...writes about him, etc...Check out Vachel Lindsay, Harriet Monroe, Poetry Magazine...poem titled "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven." It was a "performance poem." January, 1913.


  4. October 9, 2010
     This, this, this

    James Franco looks nothing like Allen Ginsberg. He just looks like James Franco wearing glasses. They should've gotten David Cross.

  5. October 15, 2010
     Jeffrey Romano

    I once had the pleasure of reading Howl out loud to an audience with a Jazz bassist and drummer playing behind me. It was a thrilling experience that made me more fully appreciate a poem that I was already in love with. I can certainly understand Mr. Epstein's comment about "poem as perfomance;" to hear Ginsbergs cadences and language out loud really bring his written words to life: this is a poem that was truly meant to be heard. I can't wait to see this movie.

  6. November 23, 2010
     Barry Silesky

    The film's helpful in keeping alive an important, great poem. But Ginsberg's life that led to the poem was far more fascinating than anything the movie depicted, and the failure to deal with that makes the film a sad disappointment.

    What about Ginsberg's exploration trips to Mexico? His "affair" w/ Cassady and Carolyn's presence? The famous Six Gallery reading that Ginsberg set up after hearing the idea from McClure, getting Rexroth to emcee (after meeting him through an
    intro letter from WCWilliams)? And Ferlinghetti had the book printed in England, worried @ US obscenity laws, it then being seized by the San Francisco juvenile authority!

    And Ginsberg was in Europe and missed the trial completely that August!

    These comprise a fascinating, important, and far more interesting story underneath the trial!

  7. November 30, 2010

    Yes! Vachel Lindsay, a guy who had an aesthetic interpretation of ethics that he literally took to the world, travelling and relying on the kindess of people to trade him room and board for his performing his poems and giving them a copy of his poetic manifesto about beauty rising from the hearts of a grand community! He's a woefully forgotten poet that needs to be remembered, well, now!

  8. December 5, 2010

    *SPOILER ALERT* I drove 280 miles round-trip to see this film, as it was the closest screening available. It was worth every mile there and back. The message for young poets is clear, say what you feel, not what you think others want to hear. Tears came to my eyes hearing/seeing "Father Death Blues". I wanted to applaud, though I was one of ten people in the theater that afternoon. Thank you for this portrayal. I look forward to more films like this on Ginsberg and others of his caliber.