‘Oz’ to ‘Spring Breakers’: James Franco says he likes to ‘zigzag’

Keeping up with James Franco isn’t easy. He can currently be seen in theaters as the Wizard in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and as an outrageously scary-funny rapper-gangster named Alien in “Spring Breakers.” In the last few weeks, Franco has promoted both films while pursuing his wide-ranging outside artistic and academic pursuits.

He released multiple music videos, including one starring the infamous filmmaker and author Kenneth Anger, as well as a clip with one “Breakers” co-star, Ashley Benson, lip-synching a song by another, Selena Gomez. Even Franco’s grandmother appeared in a clip promoting “Spring Breakers.” And he got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

If Disney’s “Oz,” a prequel of sorts propelled by one of the best-known films of all time, can seemingly take care of itself, “Spring Breakers” has emerged as one of the oddest cultural objects of recent memory. Love it or hate it, people who see it need to talk about it.

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Directed by Harmony Korine and starring young female stars Gomez, Benson and Vanessa Hudgens in counterintuitive casting as college girls who fund a hard-partying vacation with a crime spree, the film is engaging and alarming, a sun-kissed head-trip. Two weekends ago, “Spring Breakers” pulled in the biggest limited-release debut so far this year on just three screens, and this past weekend on 1,110 screens it did a solid $5.4 million. But as it went for a more mainstream audience, the gun-toting, drug-stoked story left many moviegoers confused and some a little upset, inspiring frequent use of the Twitter hashtag #worstmovieever.

Franco hopped on the phone with us for a chat last week but wasn’t interested in typical promo chatter of, say, how long it took to get into Alien’s cornrow hairstyle. Instead, he delved into headier topics. Of the film’s unique looping construction and uncanny ability to be different things to different people, he said: “The movie walks this weird ambiguous line where it’s a celebration and a critique.”

Why do you think “Spring Breakers” has become such a cultural talking point? In particular, why are audiences responding so strongly to your character, Alien? Lines from the film are already pop-culture catchphrases.

Good question. Well, I’m not sure, but my guess is that it’s partly because of the subject matter and elements within it. You’ve got actresses coming from a pop world doing something new, you have music by Skrillex, and then you’ve got Harmony Korine’s sensibility that’s pulling them all together in this crazy kind of culture mash-up. So it’s a movie that’s working on a lot of different levels. It’s not as if it’s aimed at any one group. Somebody who normally wouldn’t see a Selena Gomez movie now can go enjoy Selena Gomez because she still has all the myth and the history that surrounds her because of her other work but it’s sort of almost appropriated and put in a new context. People that wouldn’t normally go see a Harmony Korine movie can go and enjoy it because it’s a Harmony Korine movie with all of his sensibility but it has these other elements infused into it.


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As far as my character, it’s a dream character. He’s a character that’s also playing a character. He is his own creation. If you look at that guy and really think about, if he was an actual person you’d think “What the heck? How did that happen?” He’s quoting things, he’s turning his life into a work of art. And I think that’s very infectious.

[Ever the multitasker, Franco has a brief side conversation with someone else about scheduling -- who needs to be where when and who is available to help pick up paint supplies.]

One of the things about “Spring Breakers” is it’s two movies at once, both this fun, mindless party movie and a more soulful, thoughtful film with a really sophisticated structure. When you were constructing the character and playing Alien, do you feel like you kept that duality in mind?


One thing that Harmony and I always talked about, he’s always described [Alien] as a gangster mystic. And he says that now, but he was saying that back when we were shooting. So what that suggests is that he’s not just a bad guy that pulls these girls into the underworld. There’s another level of significance going on. With one reading of the film you can just say, OK he’s a bad influence and he corrupts them. But another reading of the film is he’s almost in a way like a spiritual guide. Even the way that spring break and these parties are depicted has a kind of weird spiritual undertone. I think they are experiencing some sense of liberation, freedom from the restraints of civilization, and that can be euphoric. It’s just that they get on this slippery slope, and then it doesn’t stop. So the literal reading is OK, this is a warning or cautionary tale. The other reading is that this is much more metaphorical, a way to look at the other side of everything that we think we desire now.

It can be hard to talk about the film in a way that doesn’t seem to take the actresses for granted, that still gives them agency as something other than puppets for Harmony Korine tethered to their media personas. Put another way, do you think they get it?

Yes. It goes along with what we’re talking about in every respect, this sense of multiple levels or different levels of significance happening at once. They walk into the movie with open eyes. They’re not blind to who Harmony was, his past movies, and I’m sure Selena and Vanessa are hyper-aware of how they’re perceived by their fans and the media and that being in a film like this would bring a certain kind of attention, that just their being in the movie would be a story in itself. And what you were saying earlier made me think about the parallel: OK, in the movie it’s girls going bad and then just the casting of the movie, outside of the movie, it’s sort of like the Disney girls gone bad itself. So yes, that’s certainly one level of it. I think they knew what was up. They had to have known, and I think they were really smart. And I think they ultimately grasped the experience.

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So as you are yourself moving back and forth between academia and fine art, commercial movie-making and indie cinema, what do you say to people who seem to be annoyed by this way you are trying to exist in all these different worlds at once, putting out new work in different mediums at such a rapid pace?

So the L.A. Times finds me annoying?

No, no.

They’ve certainly criticized me.


Well then, this writer for the L.A. Times does not find you annoying.

OK. That’s part of my work and I feel like it’s part of our world. I guess I just kind of have to react to that kind of criticism like I do any criticism that is not really analyzing any work I’m doing and really is just kind of prohibitive criticism. I just can’t listen to prohibitive criticism; it’ll just inhibit me as a creative person, and anybody that wants to say that I shouldn’t be that because it’s dilettantism or something, I just feel like that’s ungrounded. I’ve done as much work as anyone that works in these different fields and gone to and studied with the best people. So nobody can criticize me for doing it lightly.

It’s really just a way to put energy in my work. I think it’s important as an approach to work, to be able to zigzag, to be able to do one thing and then step aside and reclassify it or turn it into something else. And that’s just who I am. If I’m only allowed to go in a straight line, then to me the work just gets stale, and I’m just doing something that’s been done a million times before and probably better than I’ll ever be able to do it. But if I can zigzag, that’s something that I feel like I’m in the position to be able to do. That’s what my position affords -- I can do it in a way that a lot of people can’t.



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