As per usual, James Franco seems to be everywhere these days. He’s been on episodes of The Mindy Project as a too-charming-to-be-true doctor. His adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying—which he co-wrote, directed, and stars in—comes out on iTunes, DVD and VOD later this month. His novel Actors Anonymous was just published. And that’s not to mention the dozen-plus movies listed on his IMDB page that are in some stage of production.
Then there’s Sal, the least high-profile of his current projects, but in some ways the most personal. The film, which chronicles the last day of Rebel Without a Cause actor Sal Mineo’s life, touches on not just the tragedy of Mineo’s death (he was stabbed to death at the age of 37), but on what it means to have, and then lose, what’s most important to you, which in Mineo’s case was acting. After reaching the height of fame as a young heartthrob in the 1950’s, Mineo had trouble landing roles later in life in part due to his homosexuality.
"Even though his star had faded and it was hard to find work as an actor at the end of his life, he was still very passionate about acting," Franco says. "And there was something very endearing about that, and something very tragic about that, because he was an artist that couldn’t practice his art like he once could. And as a creative person, I find that to be a very sad and tragic situation."
In addition to Mineo’s story, Franco was intrigued by the idea of telling that story within the framework of a single day. That combination, he says—a compelling narrative coupled with a stylistic challenge—is what led him to not just star in (he plays director Milton Katselas) and co-write the film, but direct it.
"When the idea of the last day of his life came up, I thought, ‘Okay, that could be really interesting,'" he says. "I knew it would be a project where I would feel pushed as a filmmaker to try new, stylistic things."
As with a lot of Franco’s work, the idea for Sal was spawned by various influences, including some of the actor-filmmaker’s previous projects. "After I did James Dean, I was still very interested in that film (Rebel Without a Cause) and the legend behind that film, and the people behind that film. I just felt like there was a lot to mine there." That interest eventually led to several projects. One was a big, collaborative art show at MOCA called "Rebel." One was the movie Sal.
"And I guess I had that interest on the back burner, and then at some point about three years ago, a new biography of Sal Mineo came out. Somebody from my agency sent it to me, and I read it."
In the end, Franco didn’t rely on the book for his movie in the adaptation sense, though actor Val Lauren—who plays Mineo—spent time with author Michael Gregg Michaud talking about Mineo’s personality and character traits, and Franco ended up having to buy the film rights. ("We had to pay him a lot of money, and we eventually didn’t even use his book.")
When it came to research, Franco relied on his collaborators.
"Val did a lot of research for me as far as who Sal might have talked to on the phone that day; what they might have said; what the relationship was like; what his daily activities were. And then any articles that came out after his death, the news stories that reported his death, a lot of that was done by Val and my producer, Caroline Aragon," says Franco.
Sal first premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, but because of Franco’s busy schedule, it’s only being released now. This is somewhat ironic, given that Franco’s no less hectic now, between the launches of Actors Anonymous and As I Lay Dying.
But he says he doesn’t mind all the peddling, which doesn’t feel like work. "It’s not like a long, world tour with something like Oz, where it’s seven countries and you answer all the same questions about what powers would you want if you were a real wizard. That’s really draining.
"When I’m promoting projects that I directed myself and that I put together with my own company, it’s really a pleasure to go out and talk about them and try to share them. I don’t feel like I’m selling myself for the man. I’m just trying to get the projects that I love and care about, and fostered from the beginning, and have people see and support them."