Carter’s abstruse new feature, Maladies, in which the multi-hyphenate James Franco plays a mentally ill thespian named (surprise) James, reunites the actor and the mononymic artist in their first film project since 2009’s quasi-meta-doc Erased James Franco. A bold addition to the Franco’s-Reflections-on-Franco genre, Maladies premiered at the Berlinale in the wake of the fuss he kicked up at Sundance, where no one would shut up about his man-on-man BDSM featurette Interior. Leather. Bar. Carter’s film, which employs extensive voiceover and stylized speech patterns, is set in a Grey Gardens-y Long Island beach house populated by the unhinged Franco, a cross-dressing Catherine Keener, and a moon-eyed, nearly mute Fallon Goodson. We chatted with Carter at the festival about his friendship with Franco, his interest in queer sixties culture, what he learned about collaboration from making the film, and why viewers that don’t get his work are “fucking lazy”—and welcome to call him for clarifications.
How did you meet James?
I had this film idea, which ended up being Erased James Franco, of having an actor revisit and reinterpret every piece they’ve ever done. Which is kind of a tall order, because you’re asking them to do something they might not want to do, for some nobody. James collected my paintings—I knew him through that. I sent him this crazy long email describing the project, and he said yes. We have a good friendship, and I think that’s all anyone could ask, or hope for.
How did you and James get started on Maladies?
We started it together, but then I just ended up writing it entirely. I wrote the main character for him, and then Catherine and Fallon and David Strathairn and Alan Cumming all came on. We shot it in December 2010; it took a while for it to come out into the world.
James collaborates a lot with other artists, but whenever a new project with his name attached comes out, the masses tend to focus on him. Were you concerned that Maladies would be dismissed as another “James Franco” thing?
Well, it’s hard to get around the fact that I wrote and directed it, so I wasn’t too worried. To have James as a person, friend, and really talented actor be part of it is, like, fine with me. Also, I’ve been working long enough that my ego isn’t that fragile; I’m not twentysomething, I’m fortysomething. As you get older you don’t really worry about that. It enriches the experience to work with people that are huge. You know, the vortex of James Franco or Catherine Keener—I’m not too worried about being sucked into it.
The main characters are artists. How much of yourself do you see in them?
James once told someone about the film, “I play myself and Catherine Keener plays Carter.” I hadn’t thought about it, but he’s totally right. Or the other way around: James plays me, and Catherine plays James. Also, a lot of moments in the film came from my life, like where James tells Catherine about a cross-dresser that had a hard time in his neighborhood growing up. That was an illustration of someone I knew in my neighborhood, in Harlem.
How did Catherine get involved?
She fell out of the sky and said yes! Well, no, actually, James suggested her. They’re friends. When I talked to her on the phone, it was love at first sight.
And Alan Cumming? Same with him?
Nope. It sounds weird to say that I just met him at a party and asked him to be in my movie and he said yeah, but that’s what happened. His diner scene is my favorite, because he’s kind of hidden, and you’re like, “Is that Alan Cumming?” And then he just kind of goes away.
Tell us about the look of the film.
I wanted it to be set in the early sixties primarily for Catherine’s character—as a transvestite cross-dressing person—because I’m interested in people living gay lives in the closet in that time period. And you need a lot of stuff to make something look “period.” So whatever we could do in the short time frame we had to make that happen, we did.
This is your first narrative feature. What were the biggest challenges and surprises?
Having to work with a lot of people. Which I don’t … do. Or hadn’t. I had to learn how to, like, deal with other people in my face. I mean, I’m not complaining—it was great to learn about other people and what they’re going to do to my work, and then, subsequently, our work, to lift it to this final product. It’s really different than being alone in the studio. I’m really lucky to not only have directed, but written a movie and gotten almost all of what I wrote on paper to the film.
So no one really intervened on the final product?
Not as far as the story goes, no. This is really vain, but I don’t think they’d know how to, because it’s such a weird and open script and a personal and poetic thing.
Are you planning on making another feature?
I learned a lot from this experience and I’d hate not to parlay it into something else. It’s a skill set that’s hard to come by. I could do another really great movie—I have one written in my head, half-written down, set in the same time period. Catherine will be the main character. If you know someone, it’s easier to write for them. I don’t know how you write a movie and think, “Oh, I don’t know who’s going to do this.” Or you hear people say, “I’m a screenwriter! I’m a developer!” But how could you write a screenplay and not want to direct it? How do you just give it up or sell it to someone else? I don’t get that. To me it’s much more, like, I have to do the whole thing. Otherwise, why would I bother?
More like a purity of vision than an ego thing, then.
And on the flipside to that—and this isn’t necessarily about Maladies—if you’re working with a director, you should really listen to them, give them as much as you can, and not get in their way. It’s gonna work because it’s theirs—they know what it should look like. Otherwise you have a shitty product that’s like, hackneyed and weird. Which happens in a lot of movies.
Do you ever think about how your work is going to be received?
No. Not at all. Except for when you come to things like this, and you’re like, “Oh, shit. People are, like, seeing it, and they’re gonna write about it, and blah blah blah.” But no, even in my studio, I never, ever care. Well, I shouldn’t say I don’t care, but I don’t think about the other end. Though maybe I did a little bit in Maladies in that it’s a narrative, and I wanted people to be, like, “I’m glad I’m here watching this; it’s not too out there.” But that’s it. I’m just so happy I was able to make this piece of art, that it exists in the world. But beyond that, would I be bummed if people didn’t like it?
Or, more accurately, would you be bummed if you didn’t feel people were getting what you were trying to say?
I would be disappointed because they’re fucking lazy. I can’t stand that. And that’s a lot of people. I mean, fine, people are lazy and you gotta expect that, they wanna have the answers to everything, they want things sealed up tight, and that doesn’t happen in a movie like this. But, you know, fuck ‘em. If they want to know why James dies in the end, or what mental illness he had—they can ask me. They can email me. But otherwise, yeah, it’s disappointing. And it’s not about their attention span; it’s that their willingness to go somewhere is really thin. Some people are good at it, and it’s great. But those that aren’t—well, it’s like, “That’s not my problem, it’s yours. And you’re missing out.”
You’re speaking a pretty rarefied filmic language, though, and I don’t think viewers will always get it—not out of laziness, necessarily, but rather because they’re not used to this sort of thing, not sure what to make of it. So when you say, “If people don’t get my movie, they’re lazy,” could you also argue that as the filmmaker, you have a responsibility to make your art at least somewhat accessible to them?
I don’t think this is a difficult language; it’s a very tight narrative. The characters are definitely accessible and likable. It’s not a very trying picture for an audience. Also, the word “responsibility” bristles me, because I don’t think I have a responsibility to anybody.
Did you ever think, though, that whatever you made—no matter how honest, true, or pure —is not something everyone would be able to understand?
Of course I thought about that. And not only me, but every fucking person that’s working on this movie has thought about it. But you don’t have to like the entire movie. There are things you can take away, that seep in like a sponge, like a scene or a phrase or something. And if that happens 10%, 20%, or 80% of the film—if you’re lucky—that’s a success, to reach someone.
Will how people respond to Maladies change your approach to your next feature?
I hate that I’m saying yes, but yeah. I know it’s pretentious to speak about myself in the third person, but, “Carter, you just learned that people are gonna sit down and, like, watch this, and maybe you could give a little more, make it a bit less challenging, work a little harder on the narrative.” But without compromising anything.
Have you sat in on the public screenings yet?
The response at the premiere was amazing; people really loved it. I was told that they just kept clapping. At the Q&A, there were a lot of questions about mental illness; they want to know what illness James has. But it’s really just a stylized idea of someone who’s ill, and it’s also not really the focus of the movie—I’m more interested in Catherine’s situation. But I think people are too shy to talk about that, or they don’t know how to.
You said earlier that now, in your forties, you’re not as vulnerable as you used to be. When did our ego stop being so fragile? Do you remember when you were still vulnerable?
Yeah, and I’m sure I still am. But I actually relish bad reviews; I think they’re kind of fun to read. It’s just one person with a pen, not fifty people in a theater. And if they don’t get it? Well, I just wish I could actually call them and shed some light on it for them.