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Interview: James Franco and Zach Braff on Oz, Imaginary Monkeys and the Impact of Directing

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Oz-The-Great-and-Powerful-James-Franco-and-Zach-BraffOz the Great and the Powerful hits cinemas today. Earlier in the week we spoke to stars of the film James Franco and Zach Braff about iPads on sticks, using their directing experience to enhance their acting, and the strains of repeating the same answer in countless different languages.

On the mechanics of working together when one character s ‘real’ and the other digital

Zach Braff:  We wanted to improve on what they did in Mary Poppins and Roger Rabbit. We had multiple ways we did it; I was on set the entire time. It was very important to Sam that we create this buddy relationship, he would say, ‘I know you’re animated, but I want it to be like two buddies on a road trip, bickering, joking, whatever’.

So sometimes at its most rudimentary I was in blue screen pyjamas, just crouched down next to him, acting it out, and there were always three different video cameras on my face, capturing my gestures, my facial expressions, and of course my voice was captured on the film camera. Then the animators would then animate off of that performance, that video performance. Sometimes when I couldn’t be there – because he’s flying, or in a tree or whatever – it got a little more elaborate, in that James would be looking at what looked like an iPad on the end of a stick, and I was in a video booth, and he had a little earpiece. It was very technologically advanced.

Sam was very adamant, and it was very, very important to him that it was the opposite of that: that this relationship was always real, and that it was organic, and we could improve and go off script, and it wasn’t just, ‘OK James, relate to this tennis ball’. I think that’s one of the reasons people are really liking the relationship that we had was because it was more real than your average situation like that.

James Franco:  One of the most important things for me in acting is connection with the other actors. So if Zach hadn’t been there, let’s just say he wasn’t there, and then he came in at the end and voiced an animated thing, that character would be – basically created by the animators, and my reactions to it would have nothing to do with Zach. In this way, the relationship that is on screen, arises from what Zach and I did together, and makes it very specific to that. And so it’s not only about Zach’s character or his performance, it’s about my performance in relation to Zach.

The other funny thing is, actually on Snow White, the first Disney feature length film, I think they did something very similar, where they had an actress play out all the scenes, and then the animators worked off of that.

ZB:: I know that when you’re walking around the halls at Disney, they have these amazing photographs, and one that always stuck with me is, these animators, sitting with their pads, staring at a young faun for Bambi. I always thought about that, because Sam didn’t want to do the motion capture thing, he wanted to almost, in a bizarre way in this most technically advanced movie, revert a little bit back to that, and give the animators the equivalent: a video performance, rather than have a computer interpolate facial expressions.

The impact of having directed on performing

JF: I don’t know if it changed how I looked at scripts, it probably did, but what it changed more was how I saw actors, and how I saw my role as an actor. Once I directed, I realised what a director is looking for, from not only the actors, but from everyone. And I saw that when I was hired as an actor, I wanted it to be less about me. When I was a younger actor I would go into projects and my attitude would be a little bit more of, ‘what can I get out of this? How can I serve my role, and myself, and my career?’ Now I really look at movies as a director’s medium, and when I’m hired as an actor I want to serve the director’s vision, I want to help the director tell his or her story.

In most other departments you see this attitude of trying to figure out what the vision is, and bringing all your best stuff to complete that vision; sometimes in the acting world there’s a disconnection or something, and people don’t think that way – sometimes, not always, but sometimes it’s like that. I just want to be like every other craftsperson there, I just want to serve the director, and play my part as they see it.

ZB: I agree. Once you’ve directed, and you’ve had actors who are there to serve the project, and then you experience the opposite, my gut is like, ‘what can I do for you, Sam, today’. In this particular instance it was pitching jokes, I’d say, ‘I’m going to pitch jokes until you’re nauseous of hearing Monkey jokes, but you just tell me when to shut up’. I feel like that’s my job, and I would do that, and it’s all about serving the filmmaker, and you hope that when you’re in charge, that everyone has that with you.

Film as a director’s medium and becoming a better person

JF: I just didn’t like the way that I was behaving on set. It was such a trial, I’d been taught that directors didn’t know about acting nowadays, they all cared about gadgets and all that stuff, so I’d go on a set ready to battle for my interpretation of the character. So going to work was a very unpleasant thing for me and the people around me – this was when I was younger, it was a while ago – and I just knew I didn’t want to work that way anymore, it was making me really miserable.

So I had to go through a series of things, I went back to school, I did a lot of things to try to change how I was operating in my profession and in my life, and one of those things was directing my own films, and going to school and whatever, took a lot of pressure off of acting in some ways, and also opened my eyes to certain things, and I came to that understanding. It’s made acting in films so much more enjoyable and rewarding, and I think it’s made me a better actor because I’m not strangling the performances anymore, I’m collaborating.

On Braff’s directorial career

ZB: It’s very hard to get them to come together. As James said, I wouldn’t be in a movie I didn’t want to see, I really don’t want to direct a movie that I didn’t want to see. Everyone in town passed on Garden State, every single person with a phone and a desk passed on it, until I found a mortgage broker with a crush on Natalie Portman and he took a risk on me. So you’d think that, I had this phenomenal success with it, that everyone would be racing to support the next endeavour, and they would have if I wanted to make the same exact movie over and over and over again, but the other projects that I had, either I had financiers drop out or stars drop out or studio heads get fired, and it just hasn’t lined up perfectly.

But I’m really hoping this is the year, because I have a couple of scripts, and a couple of projects, and you know when you really want to make something unique, and it has your voice, you need to fight, its’ a struggle. You need to say, ‘no, I’m not going to cast that person who would get it made tomorrow’, because I don’t believe in that person, ‘no, I’m not going to change the whole third act and you’ll green light it then,’ because that’s not what I want to do. I just haven’t rolled the right dice yet, but I can’t wait to do it.

The films Braff is working on

ZB: Someone told me a new word that I really like, ‘melancomedy’, which I realised is my favourite genre: really sad, depressing subject matter, but you’re laughing the whole time.

JF: That’s your style.

ZB: That’s my thing. I’ve only made one movie, so I don’t know if I can have a style, actually even the movies in which I was an actor

JF: And your play.

ZB: Yeah, that’s my style. I like things that find a – fun is the wrong word – that look at the things that hurt us most, that pain our hearts, but we find a way to laugh at them.

On the cameraman who had been filming the entire interview on Franco’s behalf

JF: This is Jay, he works with me. He’s not one of my students, but this started as a project with my students at UCLA, and they’ve been on the tour with me, in pairs. One pair came to Berlin, one came to Japan, one came to Moscow; but I’d had enough of that, so I didn’t let them come here. I’m just worn out. But it was a way to – it’s really not about me, that’s just the way that we have allowed them access – I wanted to show them the whole apparatus around selling a product like this, but we do have all this footage, so now we’re just finishing up, even though the students aren’t here, because we realised that we have hours and hours and hours of me saying the same thing to people who speak different languages.

‘Selling the product’

JF: I try to do it as well as everyone. I’m so glad that Zach’s here to back me up, it’s just hard.

ZB: It’s hard to say the same thing. You guys know better than anyone how it goes, you want to keep telling everyone how great it is, but – I’ve done half of this; he’s done every country on Earth. I think he’s up for the Antarctica press junket next.

 Oz the Great and Powerful is out today, our review is here and out interview with Director Sam Raimi is here.