Oscar-winning documentarians turn their talents to feature films with ‘Howl,’ a tale of art, homosexuality & censorship

REEL LIFE  |  Gay documentary filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein tackle their first narrative feature, a coming out tale about gay poet Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Movement.
REEL LIFE | Gay documentary filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein tackle their first narrative feature, a coming out tale about gay poet Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Movement.

In their latest film, Oscar-winning documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads, The Celluloid Closet) take a dramatic detour toward feature filmmaking. Howl — which opens today at the Angelika Film Center — stars James Franco as gay poet Allen Ginsberg, whose controversial 1955 poem became a cause celebre following an obscenity against Ginsberg’s publisher, the legendary City Lights Bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ultimately it is through poetry that Ginsberg is able to express his feelings for his friend and fellow writer Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi), and Franco’s effortless portrayal of the poet is nothing short of poetic.

Friedman and Epstein sat down to talk about their visual style, working with Franco and how the film was itself a kind of coming out story.

— Gregg Shapiro

Dallas Voice: Were either or both of you readers of poetry before becoming involved in the film project? Friedman: I read a little poetry, not much: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman. I had read Howl in high school. But I wasn’t an avid poetry reader.

Epstein: Most of it goes over my head.

What was your impetus for making the film — Ginsberg, the poem, the trial? Epstein: I think it was Allen as an artist — that was the most compelling thing. Trying to figure out the source of his creative self, particularly with this poem. I think that it was the kind of treasure hunt aspect of this project that attracted us.

Friedman: It was what Allen had to go through, as a man and as an artist, to get to the point where he could write this poem. A lot of it was a coming out process, which we discovered in the process of doing our research on the film.

How do you work as co-directors? Epstein: We kind of look at each other and say, “Are you going to do this or am I going to do this? Okay you do this.” So [there is] a lot of back and forth and also a lot of going off and having your own reflective time as well and then coming back together with new ideas and fresh approaches and then hashing it out again.

The film is a sort of cinematic quilt: Ginsberg reading the poem in a coffeehouse, Ginsberg being interviewed by a journalist, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s obscenity trial. How did you decided on these components visually? Friedman: We knew we were making a film about a poem, so we looked for different ways of looking at the poem. One of the ways was the creative process and that was Allen’s story and we told it using Allen’s own words in a recreated interview and with flashbacks from scenes from his life that fed into his creative process.

We also wanted the poem to live on its own in the film so we recreated the first reading of the poem at the Six Gallery, imagining how that might have been to be there that night. Then we also recreated it as an imaginative ride through the poet’s mind, using art from Eric Drooker who had collaborated with Ginsberg on a book of poems and had a good understanding of Ginsberg and his mind. Then we wanted to see how the poem was received by the world, by society at large and that was what the trial represented for us. That was very much the traditional, conventional world into which the poem was launched. Those were people trying to make sense of it and trying to suppress it in some cases.

It seems that Howl is recited in its entirety in the film. Epstein: It’s about 80 percent.

How important was it for you to have the audience have the experience the poem that way? Epstein: We wanted to be faithful to it as a literary work to the degree we felt the film could hold. That’s about as much as we thought the film could hold.

Friedman: But because it was first presented as performance, that gave us an opportunity to create a performance.

Franco has Ginsberg’s cadence down. How did you decide to cast Franco? Epstein: James was the same age Allen was when he wrote the poem. James also was a student of literature — from the age of 14, he grew up reading the beats and hanging out at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. He grew up outside of San Francisco, he studied literature at UCLA. So it was a whole confluence of circumstances that were personal to James that made him seem right for the part. But also he is a great actor. We were really impressed by what he did with the James Dean story for playing that on television and that he wasn’t afraid of taking on a living icon and personifying, rather than impersonating.

Friedman: We had a long time to work with James. James came on the project very early. He was very excited about it and very committed to it way before we had financing. We just had a first draft of a script so we had several opportunities to work with James on the script and to go through it, talk about it and to really explore what the words meant to Allen and where these experiences came from, in Allen’s life. James had a long time to think about that while he was all of his other things. I think it all sunk in. Then we asked him to start listening to Allen’s readings and we gave him an interview he did with Studs Terkel. So he started getting the physical mannerisms. He looked at some early film of Allen, saw how he walked and how he moved and how he used his hands. That was the last touch.

It must have been nice to have that available because for a poet, who basically lives on the page, he was someone who was accessible through recordings and film. Friedman: Yes. They were all from a little later in his life but we assumed that the later mannerisms are just manifestations of the earlier ones.

The film also has terrific actors in small parts, including Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Jon Hamm and Bob Balaban.  Epstein: Specifically because those [characters] are on the screen for such a short time, we really wanted actors that would make an impression. Mary-Louise Parker, for example, playing this 1950s English teacher who was appalled by the language in the poem — she is on screen for maybe five minutes but she makes such a strong impression as that character. It was important to get that kind of specificity to really give an impression of the period because each of them really does help to create this composite impression of the period.

Have you begun work on your next film project? Epstein: We’re developing a couple of scripts with writers but they’re really still in the developmental stage so there isn’t much to talk about yet.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 22, 2010