Celebration And Discovery In Santa Barbara

Honoree James Franco greets his pal Seth Rogen backstage at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday night.

It’s always a pleasure to visit Santa Barbara, and I’ve been hosting tributes for their annual Film Festival for many years, so it took no arm-twisting for me to say yes this past weekend. James Franco was given the “performance of the year” award for his exceptional work in 127 Hours, and his old friend Seth Rogen agreed to present the actual trophy following an onstage interview at the historic Arlington Theater. But somehow Franco and his manager didn’t know what the evening entailed, so the actor was unprepared for a lengthy q&a before a houseful of admirers. And he was late.

The tribute started a full hour after its scheduled time, following much hand-wringing and pacing back and forth by festival honchos backstage. It’s a measure of Franco’s charm—and the enthusiasm of his many fans in attendance—that the audience warmed up right away. So did the actor, who is not only nice but exceptionally articulate. We had a great conversation, harking back to his—

—first paying job in the acting profession (on a now-forgotten TV series called Pacific Blue) to the conflicting advice he received on whether or not to take the role of James Dean in a TV movie that jump-started his career. He also revealed that he almost turned down the series Freaks & Geeks in favor of another teenage show. At the last minute, that offer was withdrawn, and he went on to bond with Freaks’ Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and others who have remained friends and colleagues ever since.

Well-selected film clips traced the last decade of his career and revealed his range, from the intense drama of Nicolas Cage’s little-seen Sonny to the stoner comedy of Pineapple Express. But perhaps the most interesting part of our talk was Franco’s admission that at one point, even as he was experiencing success, he wasn’t enjoying the process of acting. By returning to school and pursuing a variety of creative endeavors (including writing, painting, and filmmaking) he freed himself from the feeling that he had to be in control of every aspect of the films he was in. And by joining with old friends in making Pineapple Express—and getting to play a comedic role—he learned for the first time that he could actually have a good time in the bargain. (He recalls Rogen remarking, years ago, “Why would you want to be in a movie you wouldn’t want to see?” but the significance of the statement didn’t dawn on him until then.)

He also explained his unusual relationship with the TV soap opera General Hospital, and how he turned the simple idea of appearing on a daytime drama into a gigantic experiment in postmodernism that ultimately involved an interactive exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Franco is as sincere as he is engaging, a creative spirit who is riding high on a wave of success. He is constantly challenging himself, along with our expectations of what he is capable of.

Seth Rogen wrapped up the program with a lively, ribald speech about his pal. He comically speculated that if he hadn’t switched roles with James in Pineapple Express—he was originally going to play the drug dealer—he might be competing for an Academy Award and hosting the Oscar show this coming month. But he also made it clear that there is great affection between them and the audience reveled in having both of them onstage for the evening’s finale.

It was tempting to sleep in on Sunday morning, but my wife and I set our alarm so we could take in at least one movie during this busy festival weekend. We chose well, thanks to a tip we read in the Santa Barbara Independent, the town’s weekly newspaper. The New Zealand western Good for Nothing was making its world premiere at Santa Barbara, and Festival Artistic Director Roger Durling introduced it as a “delicious” film.

Over the last ten days we’ve all read about indie films being acquired by U.S. distributors at the Sundance Film Festival. I can only wish the same happy fate for this lively and original movie by writer-director Mike Wallis, It would be a shame if people only got to see it on DVD or through some form of streaming: as an homage to spaghetti Westerns, it is meant to be seen on the big screen. Essentially a two-character piece, a big part of its impact comes from the contrast of two lone figures against a vast Western landscape.

The story is fairly simple: a proper young Englishwoman, having just lost her father, travels to the far West to join her uncle at his ranch. Instead she is abducted by a violent (and randy) outlaw.

At a q&a following the Sunday morning show, Wallis joined his leading man, Cohen Holloway, and leading lady Inge Rademeyer, who is also his fiancée and the film’s coproducer. They told a sold-out crowd how they pieced together this labor-of-love over the past three years, gathering props and costumes off the Internet and calling in favors right and left. Having worked as a runner at Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital around the time of The Lord of the Rings, Wallis was able to show his rough edit to a colleague who arranged for them to use Jackson’s post-production facilities. Another lucky break earned them the offer of an original score by renowned composer John Psathas, who recorded it with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Their can-do spirit put a smile on everyone’s face, all the moreso having just encountered Rademeyer in character onscreen, quite different from the ebullient young kiwi happily discussing her adventure in getting the movie made. (She discouraged anyone from doing double duty as producer and actor—too distracting to the actor!)

I wish Wallis and Rademeyer every success with their cheerfully eccentric Western and hope it finds the audience it deserves here in the States.

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April 2024