The sexy Howl brings 1950s poetry to life

The sexy Howl brings 1950s poetry to life

One of the year’s most buzzed-about gay titles is Howl, in which award-winning documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Paragraph 175, The Celluloid Closet) bring “Beat Generation” poet Allen Ginsberg’s landmark 1955 poem to life.

The Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival will screen the hit at Muvico Baywalk on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m.

Employing a triptych structure and superb name cast, the directors weave several strands together: scenes from Ginsberg’s youthful years (and relationships with fellow Beats Jack Kerouac and Peter Orlovsky), recreations of the 1957 obscenity trial against the published poem (utilizing actual court transcripts), and a gorgeously animated interpretation of Howl designed by erstwhile Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker.

James Franco plays the young Ginsberg, while co-stars include Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, and Alessandro Nivola. The directors sat down to discuss the project—and who the hottest Beat was.

Howl_448816069.jpgWATERMARK: This is your first non-documentary project, but about nine years ago there was a false start in narrative filmmaking with a completely different version of what became 2007’s ex-gay drama, Save Me. Can you talk about how that all went down?
ROB EPSTEIN: Craig Chester was developing this idea [about gays falling in love at an ex-gay ministry] and coincidentally we had the same idea and someone suggested we meet and collaborate and we did. The three of us went undercover to Exodus International, and Craig wrote a script and it almost got made. It was optioned by FOX Searchlight and then the production executive, Michael Stremel, who championed it, died. There was a change of regime—and it got put into turnaround. Years later it resurfaced in a whole other incarnation.

One of Howl’s major threads is an animated interpretation of the poem, yet isn’t there an inherent irony in doing so when one of the thrusts of the film is you can’t have a singular interpretation of a poem?
RE: There were people who told us point blank you’re setting out to do the impossible. It can’t be done. And they may still feel that way after seeing the film but I guess that was the challenge that most excited us. To figure out ways to make this into cinema.
JEFFREY FRIEDMAN: The Ginsberg estate asked us to make a movie about this poem, and every development, as it metamorphosed from a documentary into the hybrid it became, they were completely supportive of and gave us great encouragement. And the fact Allen had collaborated with Eric Drooker as an illustrator said to us he was open to other people giving visual interpretation to his work.

So who was the hottest Beat poet?
RE: Then? They were all hot. That’s why we wanted to do it in that period! A bunch of hot sexy guys.
JF: I don’t know. We have no shortage of really good-looking men in this movie. When people think of Allen they think of the old, bald, bearded, paunchy Allen. They forget he was a young, cute guy and when he wrote Howl he’s the age Franco is, basically. It’s a Ginsberg I think most people don’t know.

Still, I was wondering if you would put some body hair on Franco—Ginsberg was rather hirsute and James is smoother than Natalie Portman.
JF: We put some hair on his face.
RE: There’s some prosthetic work. His ears, as well.

Did you consider expanding the film to cover Ginsberg’s later years as well?
RE: No. We really always saw it as this very specific period in time, this golden moment in his creativity and emerging voice, so that was an easy choice. And there’s another film that exists—1994’s The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg by Jerry Aronson. That’s really the definitive bio.

What was your working dynamic like on set?
JF: We do a lot of preparation and work before we get to set so we have a unified vision of what we want to accomplish. We were careful to not contradict each other.
RE: We made it through production pretty much unscathed. The last day we were ready to kill each other.

Did you learn anything about the poem making this?
JF: Yes, of course. We learned a lot about where it came from emotionally. That’s what made it such a rich experience. We learned about the events in Allen’s life that are reflected in the poem, the politics of the time that are still relevant. You can’t live with a poem for eight years and not learn something about it unless you’re really dense.”
RE: And we learned it’s a gay manifesto, which I don’t think it’s really been thought of in that context. Especially in the context of 1955, it’s incredibly radical and prescient and personal and political.

It’s amazing and a bit depressing how the prosecutor in the obscenity case sounds just like Sarah Palin and her ilk. The, ‘we’re just regular folks and don’t understand this elitist gobbly-gook so get rid of it.’
JF: I know. One of the things we found so appealing about the trial transcript was a lot of these things are still what people are saying today about art and what the limits of speech and expression should be. One of the things we were trying to get at with [the prosecutor played by] David Strathairn is where he’s coming from, this bewilderment he finds infuriating. He knows those are dirty words and why should this be considered art. It feels very immediate. It feels like it could be going on today in the courtroom.
RE: Also the whole notion of scapegoat-ism, which Jon Hamm’s [defense lawyer] character articulates in his closing argument: let’s stop looking for nonexistent destroyers of morals—which is what Prop 8 is all about—the whole fight against these nonexistent fears that somehow gay marriage is going to destroy this institution.

How do you feel about narrative versus documentary filmmaking now? Are you hooked?

RE: For us as directors? We dig it. It’s been a series of highlights. An incredibly rich, fun, challenging project but I would say the highlight was on set working with James and those actors. Franco invested a lot of himself in the project and it was a real pleasure to work with him.
JF: Rob likes to say we’ve always approached our documentaries as narrative films. We always think in terms of structure. We’re storytellers and it’s a new way to tell stories and for us it was really exciting to be learning so much. We made animation and never did that before. Working with actors, even having a script before you shoot rather than writing the script in the editing room as you do with a documentary seemed like such a luxury. It was all good.

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