It might be an understatement to say that “Child of God” (based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name) is not an easy movie to watch. Directed and co-written by James Franco, “Child of God” tells the story of Lester Ballard (played by Scott Haze), a degenerate criminal fugitive who is hiding out in the backwoods. Franco has a small acting role in the movie as one of the townspeople who go on the hunt for Lester.
On the surface, the movie sounds like cat-and-mouse thriller. But the story is really about Lester’s isolation and madness, which includes his sadistic violence and a disturbing scene that shows him committing necrophilia. Here is what Franco and Haze said in a roundtable interview with me and other journalists at the New York City press junket for “Child of God.”
There’s this quote in both the “Child of God” book and the film: “Just like yourself, perhaps.” What does that mean to you?
Franco: “He’s a child of God, just like yourself perhaps.” That’s from the book, and I put it in the movie. I had the sheriff say it. It wasn’t necessarily the sheriff who’s the narrator in the book, but he became the conscience of the film, or at least the person who knew Lester the best.
Obviously, it’s a very ironic title. Lester seems like what son of God? Like Jesus or something? He’s obviously not. But for me the point was that, even though his actions are disgusting, atrocious, and wrong, they’re coming from a place that’s very human.
I don’t even know if Cormac agreed with me. I brought this idea up to him that here is a guy that’s thrust out of civilized society, he wants what we all want, he wants to connect to another person, but he can’t. So he resorts to extreme means to do that.
It really guided the way I made the movie. It has necrophilia, yes, but it’s not a movie that thrives on that, or a gross-out movie that’s banking on the disgusting horror kind of his actions. It’s a character study using extreme actions as a way to talk about more universal things.
If you’re asking about the title, that’s the connection that, of course none of us would condone, if Lester was real. None of us would condone what he does, but within a fictional framework, he’s a monster through which hopefully we can see something of ourselves.
Why do you like to work with books as source material for the movies you direct?
Franco: All directors, or artists or whatever are different and they should be. You wouldn’t want them all the same. I just saw an interview with Robert Altman talking about the same thing, that his process is not Kubrick’s process, and you wouldn’t want it to be. Kubrick makes his kind of movies, and Altman makes his kind of movies.
I went to film school, and one of the things these MFA programs teach you is to find your thing. Your own voice, your way of doing things. Before film school I had written original screenplays or co-written original screenplays, and I just found for me that I somehow wasn’t quite pushing myself as far as I think I could.
It really started in film school with poems. I did that with a poem by Frank Bidart, and by this guy Spencer Reece. I had such respect for Frank. Then when I got Michael Shannon in that movie, “Herbert White,” it was like, my gosh, I’ve got this source text that I have such great respect for, and I’ve got this actor I have such great respect for — I better not let them down. I better do everything I can so I don’t embarrass myself in front of Michael.
It makes me a better director when I’m working with a source text that I really respect. I’ve come to really like collaboration. When you adapt a book, you’re reading that book in a different way.
If you just read the book, you’re taking in the narrative, you’re taking in the characters, you’re understanding it in a certain way. If you make a movie it’s really an act of translation.
You have to say, “What did he mean here? Why is that in the book? Do I need that in the movie? Am I in line with him here? Do I want to be in line with him here?” All of those questions are questions of collaboration, and that is what excites me as a creator.
But not all actors do read the book, right?
Franco: It’s also on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s very important to read the book. Sometimes, if it’s a movie that’s decidedly not loyal to the book, maybe it would be better not to read it. But we knew from the beginning that we wanted to capture the spirit of this book.
Scott Haze says he lost 45 pounds to play Lester Ballard in “Child of God.” As a director, did you have any special diet plan for Scott to lose weight?
Franco: I didn’t lay out a diet plan for Scott. We just had a brief conversation very early on before we went into pre-production. He had played someone in the military, so his head was shaven and he was very built. I said. “I want to do this book ‘Child of God,’ and want you to play it, so don’t cut your hair and quit eating.”
So it was your idea for him to lose weight?
Franco: No, I didn’t say to Scott to starve himself.
Haze: No, he didn’t. If you read the novel, it says, “He’s a ghastly character who creeps around.”
Franco: As soon as we knew we were going to be going … I kind of knew that Scott was ready to throw himself into something. I didn’t really have to say much. And I was right. He took it and really ran with it. So I can’t take much credit for what he did in his preparation. That was all his own volition.
Can you talk about “Blood Meridian” and who you would get to play the evil judge?
Franco: Nowadays, there’s a lot of guys who could do it. He’s kind of ageless. [Marlon Brando] in “Apocalypse Now” is the perfect person … but if you could get Tom Hardy maybe or Russell Crowe.
For more info: “Child of God” website