James Franco at UCI Illuminations

IRVINE — On Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, I attended an Illuminations event at the University of California, Irvine where actor, teacher, and author James Franco, 37, spoke about his education, the process of writing Palo Alto, acting, teaching, and his bar mitzvah for Hilarity for Charity.

After showing a short video that features clips of Franco such as scenes from 127 hours and Pineapple Express along with footage of him teaching his class at UCLA, out stepped Franco  clad in a checkered black and white shirt, black jeans, and a pair of sneakers to greet the cheering sold out audience.

While discussing his education, Franco mentions how he wanted to go to art school and his father had originally wanted him to get into math but had decided to not pursue that career and eventually ended up dropping out of college. Ten years later, he had decided to go back to UCLA and explained how “It [school] was a place where I can meet people who share my interests.” Franco even joked how he applied to UCI but did not get in.

“… If you are creating for an audience there must be a balance between full artistic creativity and giving people what they want.”

As the topic turned into a conversation about literature, Franco said that literature is about finding your own voice, finding “what is unique. What are you gonna add to this sea of creativity” and he explains how being in film and studying literature was his way to stand out. “I had been in the film industry for 15 years and studied literature so I found that my thing was to bring those two together,” said Franco. When asked about the arts versus entertainment, Franco explains how he has a “creative stature in the film world” and his “soul goal is not to sell tickets. It is going to be less on the entertainment side and more on the artistic side.”

When asked on what appealed Franco to do independent work, Franco said, “If you take on any creative endeavor, there always seems to be a balance unless if you put it in a vacuum. If you are creating for an audience, there must a balance between full artistic creativity and giving people what they want. What am I giving and what am I fighting for in order to do something real.” He even discussed how during the filming of Milk, “at the time there were still a ton of straight actors playing gay roles” and explained how people asked if he was sure he wanted to play a gay actor. When asked about filming the nude scene for the film, Franco mentioned that he hated doing the nude scene and luckily only had to film it twice.

Next, Franco was asked about the process of him writing Palo Alto and his decision on why he decided not to direct the film. Franco mentions that “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner and Freaks and Geeks were both inspirations to him while writing the book and even though Palo Alto is a good neighborhood to live in, Franco explained that books are “based on our experiences but like any writing, things are changed.” On why he decided on not directing the film, Franco said he did not have the energy to change the book and needed “someone to come in here and be loyal to the book but not be precious with it”

“… the show is ‘Geeks and Freaks’ not ‘Freaks and Geeks.'”

It was interesting to find out that the reason Franco decided on not using a pen name is because he enjoys “the idea that this James Franco thing kind of links all of them. There is a connection to what I write.”

While discussing the filming of Freaks and Geeks, Franco said, “Seth and I did a lot of grumbling and complaining about the geeks getting more air time” which led to him cracking a joke that the show is “‘Geeks and Freaks’ not ‘Freaks and Geeks.’” He continued by explaining how the freaks would meet up and film scenes on the side and plot to add the scenes onto the series but never did it.

“…In a way we are kind of stars of our own Instagram show.”

Franco also had an interesting take on the film Springbreakers. Instead of seeing it as a party film or to warn people not to go to spring break because similar events will happen, Franco mentions that “in its own way, Springbreakers is real life now … In a way we are kind of stars of our own Instagram show. It is more of a fantastic presentation of this idea that we are all a set of actors in our own way and in that sense it is kind of neologistic in the we talk about each other.”

It was also interesting to hear him discuss his teaching methods. While at teaching at UCLA (and Palo Alto High in the near future), Franco explains how all of his classes are project based and he has his students work on the same film but each student has different scenes to take care of. The reason for the same film is because “it fosters that kind of group mentality” and he “does not want it to be you against the class.” Franco’s goal for the course is for students to work together and ask say to each other “how do we make our film better rather than I watched your thing and this is what I didn’t like.”

Franco opening the gift given to him by UCI.

Franco opening the gift given to him by UCI.

Finally, Franco was asked about the Bar Mitzvah he had celebrated the night before (Fri. Aug 2).  He explained how he was “never really religious and Seth (Rogen, 33) said ‘let’s do it [have a bar mitzvah] for the charity!’” and explained how the “real thing” was last night and will do more for the charity in the upcoming future. When asked what if  he knew what else was planned for the event, Franco said he does not know much about the planning but knows that Miley Cyrus will be performing at the event.

As the panel came to a close, a couple of the audience members were given the opportunity to ask Franco questions, Franco was given a gift – which was revealed to be a journal – from UCI, and asked to take a group selfie with the audience.

Franco setting up his camera for the group selfie.

Franco setting up his camera for the group selfie.