Directed by James Franco, and based on the chilling novel by Cormac McCarthy, ‘Child of God‘, tells the provocative story of Lester Ballad (Scott Haze), a dispossessed, violent man, attempting to exist outside the social order. Consecutively deprived of parents and housing and driven by famished loneliness, Ballard descends literally and figuratively to the level of a cave dweller as he falls deeper into crime and degradation.
Set in a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee in the 1960s, ‘Child of God‘ is structured in three segments with each segment describing Ballad’s ever-growing isolation of from society and social mores. ‘Child of God‘ also stars Jim Parrack (True Blood), Tim Blake Nelson and features an appearance by James Franco.
Opening in select theaters across the country TODAY, ‘Child of God‘ screens in NYC at the Village East Cinema. Anticipating the film’s release David Teich sat in on a roundtable interview featuring James Franco and Scott Haze.
Find Tickets and More Information for ‘Child of God’ in NYC – HERE
David Teich: In both the film and the original Cormac McCarthy novel, the narrator refers to the main character, Lester Ballard, as a “Child of God—just like yourself perhaps.” James, What does that quote mean to you? And what does the title of the film mean to you in general?
James Franco: Obviously it’s a very ironic title. What kind of child of god is Lester? He’s obviously not Jesus. But for me the point was that, even though his actions are so disgusting and atrocious and wrong, they’re coming from a place that’s very human. I brought this idea up to Cormac—and I don’t know if he agreed with me—that Lester is a guy that is thrust out of civilized society, he wants what we all want, he wants to connect to another person, but he can’t. And so he resorts to extreme means to do that. It really guided the way I made the movie. The movie has necrophilia, but it’s not a movie that thrives on that. It’s not a thriller or a gross-out movie that’s banking on the disgusting horror of Lester’s actions. It’s more a character study using extreme actions as a way to talk about more universal things. It’s the kind of the connection that, of course, none of us would condone if Lester was real. But within a fictional framework, he’s a monster through which hopefully we can see something of ourselves.
Q: James, you like to work with books as a source material. Why does that work for you?
JF: All directors and artists are different, and they should be—you wouldn’t want them all the same…I went to film school, and one of the things that these MFA programs teach you is to find your own voice, your way of doing things. And before film school I had written original screenplays or co-written original screenplays, and I found that I somehow just wasn’t quite pushing myself far enough. And then I started adapting things. I adapted a poem by Frank Bidart…and 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 to make the adaptation good…so I don’t embarrass myself. So I found that it makes me a better director when I’m working with a source text that I really respect. And I’ve come to really like collaboration.
Q: Did you collaborate closely with Cormac McCarthy on Child of God?
JF: I talked to Cormac, but it wasn’t a close collaboration with him personally. But in another sense it was a very close collaboration, because when you adapt a book, you’re reading that book in a different way. If you just read it to read the book, you’re taking in the narrative, you’re taking in the characters. But then if you make a movie it’s really an act of translation, so you really have to say, well, what did he mean here? What is he going for with this scene? Why is that in the book? Do I need that in the movie? Is that going to help me tell the story? 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 excites me as a creator.
Q: (to Scott Haze): Did you read the book?
Scott Haze: Of course. It’s the first thing I started with. If you’re going to do a Cormac McCarthy novel, you read the book.
JF: Sometimes it’s very important to read the book, and 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. So I think that guided Scott.
SH: Yeah, plus, when we started, the script was still being worked on.
JF: Oh, you didn’t even have the script to work from? (Laughs.)
SH: Nah. I just started with the novel.
Q: Speaking of collaborations, it says in the production notes that Scott really committed to this role to the point that he lost 45 pounds and lived in isolation. Whose idea was that?
JF: I didn’t lay out a diet plan for Scott. (Laughs.) We just had a very brief conversation early on, before we went into production or even pre-production. He had just played someone in the military, his head was shaven, he was very built. And I said, “I think I want to do this book Child of God and I want you to play the main character, so don’t cut your hair and—”
SH: Quit eating.
JF: (Laughs) Did I say that? I mean, I didn’t say starve yourself.
SH: I mean, if you read the novel, it says he’s a ghastly character who creeps around the East Tennessee hills.
JF: As soon as I said we were going to be shooting in January, I kind of knew that Scott was ready to throw himself into something. So I didn’t really have to say much. And I was right. He took it and really ran with it. I can’t take much credit for what he did in his preparation. That was all of his own volition.
Q: To what degree are your projects collaborations?
JF: Danny Boyle once said to me that, if as a director you insist on your way too hard, then you might just get exactly what you asked for—and no more. I think movies work best when they are collaborations. There are all these different kinds of artists, all these different kinds of craftspeople that are coming together. And you want them all to contribute their best. I want to go into a movie and discover things. I don’t want to go in with everything set. It’s just boring. I don’t want to just figure it out on my own and then just go execute the plans. I want these different elements to come together, and find magic there.
Q: Scott, how would you describe James as a director?
SH: Well the difference with James is, he’s an actor. A lot of directors aren’t. When you’re acting, you want a director to understand the actor’s situation. James has been through the rounds. He’s one of the greatest actors of our generation. So he understands exactly what the actor’s going through.
David Teich: How much freedom did you have in the role? How strictly did James control your performance?
SH: This was the first collaboration James and I had on this level, where I didn’t know exactly how much freedom I would have. So the performance was really just me checking in with James, and him giving me freedom to really prepare. If a director was meddling with that, I would feel more constricted in my head.
Q: What was the toughest scene to shoot?
SH: There was a scene that didn’t make the movie, which was the hardest scene for me, where there were like three to six dogs, and these two dogs had just gotten back from Iraq.
JF: There were six dogs, but two were military.
SH: And with one of these dogs, the dog trainer comes up to me and says, “Do not look this dog in the eye.” And I have a rifle, and a very long beard that looks Taliban—I look crazy. And my job is to tell these dogs to get out of my cabin and wield the rifle at them. And I just remember screaming, “James, this dog is going to kill me!” It’s the only time I was genuinely terrified during [filming].
Q: Do you personally identify with isolated, lonely characters?
JF: I think so. The three features I made after I went to NYU are like a trilogy of isolation. I did a very small movie about the poet Hart Crane, who was sort of artistically isolated, because his work didn’t fit with the prevalent work at the time. I did one about [actor] Sal Mineo in the last day of his life—not that he was an isolated guy, but he spent a lot of time alone that last day. And in some ways you could say he was, compared to the fame he once had, dealing with a much smaller sphere at the end of his life. And then, obviously, Child of God. I didn’t design it that way. But I think that for maybe ten years of my life I was so overzealous about the way I approached acting in movies that I did isolate myself a lot. Not that I was a Lester Ballard type, but I did spend a lot of time alone. If I had to guess why I made three movies that were about isolated characters, that would be one of the reasons.
Q: (to Scott) And do you relate to isolated characters?
SH: The reason why I went to Tennessee was, I knew I couldn’t prepare for this role in Los Angeles. So I went to where Cormac set the novel, the actual town. And I got to experience a lot of the stuff Lester did. I did everything in the book, stuff we didn’t even film…When I was isolated in Tennessee, I really got to understand what it was like to be in your head. That added to the performance. I think about that a lot. When you’re in the bathroom and you’re reading the back of a shampoo bottle, you’re like, “Why am I reading this?” Well that goes on and on for an extended period of time when you start to be in your head a lot. You’re talking to yourself, making up imaginary friends—which is why [my character] becomes friends with the stuffed animals in the movie. Because when you’re alone for a long time you have to connect with something.
David Teich: James, what did Scott’s performance bring to the film?
JF: Like I said, I didn’t have to do much. Scott went off for three or four months, he did all of his own preparation. So when I showed up to the set, it was all there. [I was told], “Scott’s in his motel room, I think he’s got the [fake] teeth in, he wants you to see the teeth and see him.” I hadn’t seen him in four months. And so I open the door, and it was a hundred-and-eighty degree difference from that buff military character with no hair. He was scraggly, like a creature in the dark. And really from that point on, I kind of just had to point him in the right direction. I was loyal to the book, and Scott had been studying the book, so he knew the scenes. And I was just sort of like, “Okay, here’s this scene, I know you know it, so go ahead.” (Laughs.) And I just had to put the camera in the right place more or less.