James Franco talks about shooting action scenes, Spider-Man 4, and his next film, The Pineapple Express

As one of the more diverse actors of his generation, James Franco has brought a Jekyll and Hyde somberness to the role of Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man movies. In Spider-Man 3, Franco was allowed to stretch the character in ways that fans of these movies haven't seen before..

In the film, Peter Parker has finally managed to strike a balance between his devotion to M.J. and his duties as a superhero. But there is a storm brewing on the horizon. As Spider-Man basks in the public's adulation for his accomplishments and he is pursued by Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), who rivals M.J. for his affections, Peter becomes overconfident and starts to neglect the people who care about him most. His newfound self-assuredness is jeopardized when he faces the battle of his life against two of the most feared villains ever (Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace), whose unparalleled power and thirst for retribution threaten Peter and everyone he loves.

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We recently caught up with James Franco when he sat down to talk about Spider-Man 3 and the other projects he has going on.


This film seemed like the perfect character arc for you...

James Franco: I think that's right.

Would you have been willing to do the third film had that arc not been so prevalent?

James Franco: Just not do it? I think that would've caused a lot of problems.

Did you have concerns going into it about that?

James Franco: I was telling a story about how when they did the first one, I knew that it would be a big movie and be a successful movie but, until I actually saw it, I didn't realize how special these movies were and the heart that Sam would infuse into them. After seeing the first one I think I was a convert. I just totally believed in Sam. There was never any question about doing the third one and as far as the arc that was in it, we had been developing this script since the premiere of Spider-Man 2. I remember meeting Sam and his Brother after it came out. We met a few times over the course of the year, just to talk about the character. It wasn't a surprise and I was pretty confident.

So you had an active role in developing the script?

James Franco: That's the great thing about, Sam. He's extremely collaborative. Since the beginning he's been collaborative. I remember on the first one, Tobey, Kirsten and I going in and the characters were just being filmed at that point. There were a lot of discussions about the characters, who they would be and how they would act. He really involved the actors and then from there on to the second and third films, he's become even more collaborative. Especially on this third one, he gave the actors a lot of room and responsibility that their characters were being portrayed properly and that the arcs are complete.

Can you talk about the physical stuff you had to do? There was more this time...

James Franco: I certainly did. I was much more a part of the action in the most creative way on this film than the others. I now realize why Tobey was so tired after the first two films. It's not that any part of the action scenes are especially dangerous or strenuous, it's just that they take so long to do. I have three major action scenes in the film, and they each took about a month or a month and a half to shoot. Compared to a dramatic scene that takes at most a day, maybe two.

You're hanging on wires...?

James Franco: Yes. There were two different fight scenes. The first fight that Peter and Harry have is an aerial battle in the beginning of the film. That was all green screen flying through the city. That process involves me putting on the suit and boots which always takes about a half an hour. The camera crew has to light for about an hour, then the stunt team has to rehearse, then I have to get strapped into the wires, then you have to raise me up. Everyone gets coordinated, the costumer has to make sure that the costume looks right, the wind fans go and we're ready to go. They say "Action" and I go like that! Then cut and that's it.

Then I get down, undress a little bit, they reset for the next shot for an hour or two and so it takes about a month and a half to do. It's not like I'd be exhausted after doing one of those shots it's just that you go in everyday and it's this process. It's draining, just because of the length. It's a matter of staying motivated over a month and half and keeping a continuity of performance over a month and a half. In the movie the scene's gonna take about 5 minutes so the performance has to be continuous.

We did a more traditional fight scene that was done in a way that I've done them before. A more traditional fight scene where you choreograph it... you have to know when somebody's throwing a punch and know when to fake the hit. Even that took six weeks. We shot a couple of weeks on Main Unit, then I went back for about a month on Second Unit and shot that. I think on a different film that scene could have taken a week to shoot but they're very meticulous on Spider-Man.

What do think of the final film?

James Franco: For my character, I enjoy the turns that he gets to take. Harry is definitely villainous in this film but he also has a point where he becomes the old, good Harry. He's a bit more innocent and goofy. It was unusual for me to have those kinds of scenes in the Spider-Man franchise, they were fun. I really had a good time playing the scenes where Harry's turning back and Peter's not quite sure what's happening. That was fun just to work that out. Just as a viewer I thought the way they executed the Sandman visual effects were incredible.

Are you happy to not do one of these big budget action movies for awhile?

James Franco: It's not really a case of doing a big blockbuster vs. the independents, really. It's really about doing movies that I believe in. They make large budget art films. Right now I am doing a comedy called The Pineapple Express. It's a Sony Film. It was written by my old co-star and friend, Seth Rogen, from Freaks and Geeks. It's produced by Judd Apatow that was a chance to work with people that I really enjoy working with. When I did Freaks and Geeks I was still very young as an actor and I hadn't done many films. I didn't realize what a great working experience that show was.

When I had a chance to work with them again I jumped at it. I had wanted to work with them for awhile it's just hard to find a comedy that is good. That I don't feel like I'm making a jackass out of myself for no reason when it's not even funny.

What's it like working David Gordon Green?

James Franco: David is fantastic. He comes from the independent world and this is a much larger film than he's ever done before. He fits right into the Apatow family. The working process he has developed for his films is to allow a lot of improvisation. There's a script, I think on Knocked Up they used more than a million feet of film. That just shows that they let every take role out. They're just improvising on so many things. That's really how David worked on a lot of his films although he didn't have the money to afford all of that film. He gets actors and non actors and goes off script, and allows them to bring so much of themselves to it. Sometimes he'll just say, "Tell a story about this thing in your life." That's how this movie has achieved this very realistic slice of life quality. It's working very well for this movie.

I've heard that the first half is like a stoner comedy than it becomes a huge action film?

James Franco: That's right. Part of the humor is that you have two characters, I play a low level pot dealer and Seth is my client. It's two characters that are completely unequipped for much of anything, especially battling heavily armed bad guys. It's suddenly switches to this action film. The action is done in a very realistic way. I guess that's part of the humor. It's going well, I'm on a break.

Can you talk about some of the character turns that Harry makes in Spider-Man 3?

James Franco: Harry goes to extremes in both directions in this film. I didn't find it difficult playing the scenes. I feel that everything he goes through has been justified by what happened before. I guess I find as an actor, as long as it feels real and justified, it's not that difficult to play. When we worked on it, Sam and I really plotted out where the changes were and how those changes would happen. What were the triggers? And just made sure I knew where Harry's mental state was in each section of the movie. Once we figured that out it was pretty easy.


How did you feel about Harry dying in this movie?

James Franco: I feel like it was a great way to go out. Harry's arc in these films is not complete until this third film. His major conflict is to his father's memory, avenging his father and the loyalty he feels to Peter. He struggles with it the most in this film. Once that's resolved, I don't know what the character can do other than fight alongside Spider-Man. That seems a little strange. I'm happy how the character goes out, I found it a strong point.

Do you think you'll be in Spider-Man 4?

James Franco: I don't think anybody knows what's happening. I think they ordered a script for it, but it doesn't necessarily mean that Sam or Tobey are going to do it. I'm sure they would like to if it's right. I know that Sam has worked 6 or 7 years straight. We finished shooting and then he goes on to postproduction and after that's done he goes on to preproduction for the next movie; designing the effects and writing the script. I'm sure he's a little tired. Although, I know that he loves these movies more than anything and he identifies with Peter Parker. I think it's been such a perfect fit for him, I can see it being very hard for him to let it go.

If they were to make another one, I think they should either use the same group, Sam, Tobey and Kirsten and whoever else, or if they change one they should just change everything.


Did you shoot anything else between Spider-Man 3 and The Pineapple Express?

James Franco: Yeah, I did a bunch of smaller films last year. I did a movie called The Dead Girl. One called An American Crime with Katherine Keener. I did a movie with Paul Haggis called In the Valley of Elah. I did a movie called Camille with Sienna Miller. I have a small part in most of those films. I thought the scripts were amazing and I wanted to be involved with films that I really believed in; that was the only reason. I could go into them and not worry about how successful they were going to be financially, because I was satisfied with the people I was working with and the message that the films had and that was enough

Sean Penn said to me one time, after the movie comes out if it doesn't do well just turn your back and move on to the next thing. Which is easy to do if you know you went into the film for the right reasons. I was just happy to be a part of those movies.

Spider-Man 3 swings into conventional theaters and IMAX on May 4 from Columbia Pictures.

Evan Jacobs at Movieweb
Evan Jacobs