Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman talk 'Howl'

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How did the pair turn James Franco into renowned Beat poet Allen Ginsberg?

Award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman made their name with a series of superb docs exploring the history of gay culture. Their new film, ‘Howl', fuses documentary, animation and fiction to follow the journey of beat poet Allen Ginsberg as he writes his most notorious and challenging work.

So did you always want to make a film about the poem ‘Howl’, rather than a biopic of Ginsberg?
Jeffrey Friedman:
‘We call it a “poempic”. We were given this gift, “Howl”, and we felt a certain responsibility in how we presented it. I first read it in high school and it had an impact on me as a part of the counterculture that I very much identified with. It’s an anthem of rebellion; I remember the radical kids in the grade above me using Moloch as a buzzword to mean the powers that be, The Man.’

Why did you cast James Franco as Ginsberg? It’s not an obvious choice.
JF: ‘James was in San Francisco filming “Milk” with Gus Van Sant. Gus has been a friend of ours for years, so we asked if he had any ideas for casting. He said we should talk to James. We said, “Really?!” But we looked at his work, we saw he had a lot of range. Then we met him and realised he was also a serious poet, an artist and a wonderful soul who had been a fan of the Beats since he was 14. He was getting his literature degree at the time, he was the same age Allen was when he wrote the poem. It just seemed natural.’

There’s been some discussion here and in the US recently about how gay history is taught in schools. Your work seems relevant to that.
Rob Epstein: ‘It’s not been by any calculation on our part. It comes from feeling like these are important stories. And I think it’s desperately important to reflect that in education. In the US it feels like so much has changed, and nothing has changed. Thirteen year olds now think it’s possible to come out at that age, rather than 20, which is when I came out. But our institutions haven’t caught up, there isn’t the support for those kids.’

Alan Cumming said recently that he was angry about the way Obama has left out the gay community.
RE: ‘Well, Obama’s got some big problems to face, and I wouldn’t put that one right at the top of the list!’
JF: ‘I have faith that he’s working for us. There are a lot of powerful interests that he’s up against, and I don’t know whether he’s making the smartest moves in negotiating his way through it, but I can’t begin to second guess. He’s much smarter at that than I am!’

Do you think the culture toward gay actors is beginning to change?
JF: ‘It’s always changing. A couple of steps forward, one step back. As soon as something loosens up there’s a backlash. Fifty, 60 years ago it was in some ways much freer and more tolerant than now. We always think we get better and better as time goes on…’
RE: ‘Then Sarah Palin comes along!’



Read our review of 'Howl' here

Author: Interview: Tom Huddleston



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