'Howl' Revisits Key Literary Chapter in SF History

Susan Gerhard September 23, 2010

The poet is both a common and commonly disappointing topic for feature films. But the use of a poem itself as the basis for a feature film is rare. Jane Campion's Bright Star, titled after the Keats sonnet it elucidates, is a recent triumph in what couldn't yet be called a genre. The latest entry, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl, is another stunner. Building a narrative that offers context, intrigue and romance to an already storied piece of Bay Area history, Howl manages to be both fact-based and fictively inspired. Aided by an amazingly believable performance by Palo Alto-raised James Franco, Howl dazzles in its mix of Eric Drooker poetic animation and actual Allen Ginsberg transcripts (from letters, published materials and the "Howl" trial itself). SF360 got the chance to speak with Epstein and Friedman here in San Francisco this past month about poetry, prose and process.

SF360: I got to see it at Sundance screening that was a Park City Library love frenzy; how did you feel about its reception there?

Rob Epstein: The first night at Eccles was a little scary. It was the first film out of the gate at Sundance. It was a lot of pressure. And it was the first public screening of the film. The reviews have been good since then. I think that because people were expecting a biopic—the tagline in the trades was 'biopic on Allen Ginsberg'—it required a bit of a recalibration in terms of how it got categorized.  We never considered it a biopic; we call it a 'poem pic.' [Editor's note: The filmmakers appear in person for Friday and Saturday evening premiere screenings at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.]

SF360: Who brought the project to you? And how was it brought to you? Clearly not as a 'biopic.'

Epstein: It literally came to us in a phone call from Allen Ginsberg's longtime secretary, Bob Rosenthal, who called out of the blue. He thought it would be great to do something for the 50th anniversary of the publication of Howl. We jumped at the opportunity. [But] how to hell do you make a film out of a poem? It took us a long while to come up with our own answer to that question. We initially immersed ourselves in whatever documentary material there was. Most of it print. Very little visual. We came to realize that was an exciting possibility. It's a film about language and text; to make that come alive cinematically. We looked at trial transcripts, the [Eric] Drooker book [Illuminated Poems].

SF360: Can you talk about your own experiences with Ginsberg's poetry? Your encounters with him and his legacy?

Jeffrey Friedman: I'd read 'Howl' in high school, not as assigned reading. It was in the air. Ginsberg was certainly someone I was very aware of as a cultural figure. I remember in high school, the radicals in the class above me were always talking about 'Moloch'; that sort of became a buzz word. I think I see it as a gateway drug to the counterculture movements of the '60s and '70s, really the first battlecry of the counterculture. coming. At a time when you think of America as being conformist and repressed, it's very surprising to hear this language that was so shocking in 1955 and it's still shocking....

Epstein: We set out to do two things: What's behind this work of art? And at the same time have the work live within the movie.

SF360: Why did you choose animation, and how did you choose this particular style, to use in the film?

Epstein: The choice was a calculated one in that we wanted to reach young people. And we thought animation is a language, a vernacular is that young audiences would relate to. We wanted the film to be in the present tense rather than the past tense. That was a way to make the poem live in the present tense in the movie as it does in the performative way. The animator was chosen by Allen.

Friedman: Allen and Eric Drooker had collaborated on a book of poetry called Illuminated Poems that we had discovered in the course of our research. We knew we were going to have to find images that would resonate with the poetry. We then started playing with some of Eric Drooker's images, cutting them into a reading of the poem. Something started to happen; something started to come alive. So we met with Eric and proposed animating 'Howl.' He said, 'Let's animate Dante's 'Inferno' while we're at it.'

Epstein: [We tried] using archival imagery, period footage, live-action landscapes: [none made the poem] come alive in a way that was new.  This [animation] was coming alive in a way that felt new and immediate.

SF360: James Franco's performance is phenomenal. Can you talk about his preparation for the part?

Epstein: James grew up in Palo Alto, started reading the Beats when he was a teenager and discovered City Lights bookstore. He had his own relationship with the Beats when we came to him with the script. He was also studying literature at UCLA, and had imagined himself doing a Beat movie. He never thought of the possibility of playing Ginsberg before. To us, it didn't feel like that far of a stretch, knowing what Allen looked like when he was young. James is a great actor. We saw the TV movie that he did playing James Dean: so much dpeth to his performance, so much behind the emotional portrayal. And his mother's Jewish.

SF360: A powerful aspect of the film is the fact that is uses on-the-record language. There were many archives to draw from. Can you talk about your sources?

Epstein: Given our background as documentary filmmakers, our instinct was to be as faithful and true to the facts as possible, from production design to every period element. Also the film is very much about language. We were excited about the possibility of using the spoken word and text from the period and the characters as they were spoken and written, and creating a narrative using the actual text.

Friedman: All of Allen's dialogue is taken from interviews Allen gave over time. It's pretty much verbatim, as is the trial, though the transcript was edited and restructured.

SF360: What was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's involvement?

Epstein/Friedman: We interviewed Lawrence, Peter Orlovsky. . . .Eric: All of those will be in the DVD. A lot of people from City Lights came to a work-in-progress screening, where we got feedback from fellow community members and [our filmmaking] compadres.

SF360: What were their comments?

Epstein: So much is about pacing at that point. Before the work-in-progress screening, we did staged reading at ACT. They found the actors for us from their stable. [It was then when we realized] it can work. We were judging where the laughs were, judging how they were engaged. After the work-in-progress, we cut back on the animation. Audiences could only be outside the dramatic sequences for a certain period of time. We were calibrating that.

SF360: The fate of gay marriage is being decided in courts. I wonder if you can draw a link between Prop 8 and the 'Howl' trial?

Epstein: Jon Hamm's character, Jake Ehrlich, has a great line in his closing statement: 'Let's stop running from nonexistent destroyers of morals.' That's what the gay marriage fight is all about: scapegoatism. That's the message Jake Ehrlich is putting forth. We're dealing with a scapegoat here. That's what we're fighting about.

There's so much subtext going on because they can't deal with the overt text. The whole concept of homosexuality they couldn't debate. Because it was still 'the love that dare not speak its name' and Allen was shouting it out.

SF360: Jeffrey, I remember you speaking at Sundance about the literary world you grew up in.

Friedman: My father published a literary magazine in new york in the '50s; it was a progressive indie literary mag. I felt like I was familiar with that world, but it wasn't my world. I sort of had beatnik parents. At one point, they were working the coat check at the Village Gate, would go over there and hear Nina Simone, listen to jazz. It was an unconventional New York childhood. It gave me a predisposition to feel comfortable in the world.

SF360: Can you talk about your musical choices?

Epstein: We worked Hal Willner who's a music producer and music supervisor and was a friend of Allen's; he suggested a lot of jazz tracks from the period. Jake Pushinsky, who comes from the music world and was working in music before he became a film editor, had some great choices, one of which was 'Lady Be Good,' which plays with the Neal and Allen hookup sequence. Hal's friends with Bob Dylan....And then there is Carter Burwells' original score. When we first approached Carter, he said, 'If you want a jazz score, I'm not the guy.' And we said, 'We want you, and we want to go against the obvious.' Carter's idea was to let the spoken word poetry be the jazz, and to have the music serve as underscore. We liked that approach.

SF360: Can you talk about the rewards/challenges of working in the Bay Area?

Epstein:  The challenge is you are far from the belly of the beast. The reward is that you're far from the belly of the beast. That's why we've both chosen to remain in San Francisco, aside from the fact that we've made our adult lives here. We travel a lot to L.A. and New York. It's a choice to be here. San Francisco is where our community is. Our community roots here mean a lot to us. That's why we've always remained here even if we've flirted with the possibility of thinking that it would be easier [elsewhere].

Friedman: We have a very tight community of filmmaker friends that we rely on to give us feedback; we all go to each others' screenings. While it happens in New York and Los Angeles, it's not in quite the same way.

SF360: Do you mentor young filmmakers?

Epstein: I teach full time at California College of the Arts; certainly in the teaching experience, that's in large part what your job is, but also we're lucky to bring a lot of those students into Telling Pictures when they graduate; that's been really rewarding for us. Just this summer a recent graduate, Erinn Clancy, came as an intern over the summer on another documentary project; we hired him to be the editor of the DVD extras for Howl.

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