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Interview: James Franco

The Hollywood renaissance man opens up about Daddy, his musical collaboration with Tim O'Keefe

October 01, 2013

Daddy, the conceptual musical duo of James Franco and fellow RISD alumnus Tim O'Keefe, just unveiled another electronic remix of their song "Love In The Old Days," and with it, another bewilderingly surreal video. A gaggle of bewitching young women bring silent movie star Rudolph Valentino back from the dead, take him for a motorcycle ride down Hollywood Boulevard and embark on some mischief at a tattoo parlor. It's another occultish homage to Franco's film school idol Kenneth Anger (who coincidentally made a cameo appearance in the last one), and the kind of atemporal mash-up that feels very at-home on YouTube.

But the video is also pretty emblematic of Franco's overstuffed curriculum vitae, which erupts so frequently in the Daddy timeline that the project can almost feel like a nexus between his various artistic, literary, academic and thespian pursuits (Check out the cover of Daddy's debut EP, MotorCity, and you'll see a bikini-clad snapshot of his Spring Breakers co-stars Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine). We jumped on the phone with the polymath while he was en route to a shoot in Mississippi, where's he's currently directing an adaption of William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury, and found out that this latest missive from Daddy is even more intertextual than we thought. Providence beatsmith Mike Hosker's edit of the group's sing-spoken original appears on the group's recent Love in the Old Days: PVD Remixes EP, which you can download here in exchange for a Tweet or a Facebook post.

What sort of artistic and musical interests drew you and Tim together? So Tim was my fellow student at RISD, and he has a heavy music background. Before he went to art school, he was making music, so a lot of the work he was doing at RISD still had an electronic music base. And he would do videos, or sort of interactive digital pieces, but they would always have a strong audio component. And I guess at RISD I was doing a lot of visual-based stuff and performance-based stuff, but using video. So we kind of came together with the idea that we could fuse those two sides of ourselves—that the band would not be something that we formed to take over the music business, or to try and compete in the music business. That it would be almost like a performance, or that the band would enable us to create personas, through which we could make music and videos that would go along with these personas. I’ve written most of the lyrics for the band so far. A lot of it, especially the new stuff, is based on poems that I’ve written, and then he writes the music. So far I’ve shot a lot of the video content, and he’s done a lot of the editing of the videos.

Were you writing the poems with the band in mind or was it just stuff that you’d accumulated over the years? Well, I guess the [Daddy video] that you’re putting up is something that was just written as a song, so that that really wasn’t a poem. But we’re working on an album of eight to ten songs that come from a set of linked poems that I wrote. The linked poems are called The Best of The Smiths, after the band The Smiths, though there two narratives that flow through the poems that don’t really have anything to do with The Smiths. It’s more like The Smiths set a mood of teenage angst. I have a book coming out in April called Directing Herbert White, and those linked poems will be in the book. So I originally wrote them for that, but then we thought, Well, these would be kind of perfect for a set of songs, and we both really like the sounds of The Smiths and New Order and Joy Division and stuff, so we decided to do an album. Our first album, or our first three songs, were inspired by Motown in a way, and so then we thought, Well, this new project will be inspired by those bands.

And would you say that you have a different persona, or different character, that you’re playing as the singer for both albums? I don’t know. In the sense that the band allows me and Tim to engage with these different kinds of music—like Motown and, you know, British ‘80s, [new wave]—the music is kind of a persona, you know what I mean? It’s not as if I grew up in Detroit in a certain period, or grew up in England in a certain period, but the band allows us to take on those personas, and take on those moods. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s like a novelist… in the way you could say there’s a [J. D.] Salinger persona that comes through in the writing, but not necessarily through interviews, because he didn’t do many. I’d say that right now, it’s like that. It comes through the music and the writing and the videos, other than my body or my person.

And you have no plans to make it a live project? You know, it’s hard: we’re so busy and all over the place but, but I’m trying to get together with Tim as much as possible to finish the ten songs, so that we have something that we can kind of take out, and then once we do that, maybe we will.

You guys recorded Daddy’s debut EP, MotorCity, while you were in Detroit. What was it about Detroit and its musical history that really spoke to you? I guess I like the music. And I was there, and I guess there was a minute where there were a lot of movies coming in and filming in Detroit, but not necessarily using Detroit for Detroit—or at least I wasn’t aware of many movies doing that, not just using it as a place to shoot, because there was good tax incentives. And so we were there doing Oz, and it was great, because Sam Raimi brought a huge movie there to be filmed, and brought all that work there. But we were shooting on a stage—we were making the Land of Oz—so it had nothing to do with Detroit.

And so I thought it would be nice—this is all kind of subconscious thought, I guess—but I thought it would be nice to do something that engages with Detroit and Detroit’s history. I’m an actor. I started my professional life as an actor, and so I’m used to taking on characters or taking on the lives or the mannerisms or the behavior of others, and so we thought the music could do something similar. And then I ran into Smokey Robinson on a plane. He’s such a great guy, and he actually came up to me, and was really nice, and I asked him if we could do something together. And he said yeah, so he became a part of the project [note: Robinson recorded on MotorCity track, "Crime"].

What inspired the original “Love in the Old Days” theme? Where you thinking about how our generational perceptions of love have changed? Yeah, [the video was] kind of nostalgic images, and then actual images of my parents getting married, and that kind of thing. So really just nostalgia—that’s what the lyrics were about. And then this idea of nostalgia for an old fashioned kind of love. And then the new video involves images from this project we did where we created a resurrection of Rudolph Valentino at the Hollywood cemetery. And that was an idea of kind of playing with, engaging with old Hollywood, and it was a way to have Valentino in the project. I really liked that. I needed a way to include him, so we thought, What if we resurrect him? He was, I guess, so handsome that in his day a lot of men criticized him and tried to bring him down by saying that he was effeminate. Even journalists did that. He even challenged a journalist to a boxing match because he was so mad. Anyway, we cast Rudolph Valentino as a woman to try to catch some of the effeminacy and the beauty and just to kind of turn things on its head. Also to say this isn’t a biopic or anything—this a weird kind of art video. So the idea is that Valentino gets resurrected, but then he gets a day out in Hollywood—in present day Hollywood. I don’t know, it’s sort of like playing with different eras of Hollywood—like, these motorcycles. It’s got this real ‘70s feel. Kind of a timeless feeling of Hollywood that mixes with a lot of different eras.

I needed a way to include [Valentino] so we thought, What if we resurrect him?

How did you come up with that narrative? I guess where that came about was, I’m a huge Kenneth Anger fan, and I love his book Hollywood Babylon, so we just looked at that for any kind of Valentino material, and we looked at Valentino’s movie The Sheik for images. And then I had been taken to the Hollywood cemetery months before for an episode of Into The Night with…, with this poet Frank Bidard. They had arranged it—I had nothing to do with it—but they took us there in the middle of the night, and they took us to the mausoleum where Valentino is interred. And so I guess in my mind I just thought, Well, I like all these elements; how can I bring it together? The motorcycle thing was actually a holdover from another project, this rebel project I did around James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause, and I just wanted this image of motorcycles going up and down Sunset Boulevard, and it hadn’t happened for the Rebel project, so I thought, Well let’s do it here, and the idea is just to give Valentino a day out on the town, and so he’ll get a ride on a motorcycle.

What's most intriguing to you about Valentino? Again, he’s just a great figure in Hollywood history. And I guess what I like about him is that his image is so strong. He worked in silent films, so we mostly just know his image. And my guess is most people just maybe know the name and what he looked like and haven’t really gone back to watch The Sheik. Like when I went and watched those old movies—they were really not that easy to watch. They’re old fashioned, and they’re kind of crudely made, just because of the technology of the time. And so I like him as an image and as this weird symbol of male beauty that was both adored and also envied and derided because I guess… men that weren’t that pretty didn’t like it. Alright, I’m about to lose service and I’m at set.

Interview: James Franco