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Carl Franklin

Carl Franklin

Articles - Directing

Unlike most actors, directors almost always seem
to jostle restlessly when they find themselves in front of a
camera. Carl Franklin, the acclaimed director of One False Move
(1992) and last year’s Devil In A Blue Dress was no different.
He sat, impatient but still, as our photographer snapped photo
after photo. "I’m very uncomfortable about this," he
said after about six shots. I tried to reassure him that the
shots would be great. After all, Gregory Zabilski is considered
one of the best photographers in town. "Carl, people don’t
know what you look like. You’re an enigma," I said. That
seemed to suit him just fine as he forced a smile.

It wasn’t until we moved indoors, away from the hot
lights and curious onlookers, and into the quiet and casual elegance
of Georgia’s Restaurant on Melrose Avenue, that Franklin began
to relax. We unwound with a glass of merlot and a few off-color
jokes. By the time his order of swordfish arrived, it was safe
to turn on the recorder and go on record.

Erich Leon Harris (EH): The striking thing
about Devil In A Blue Dress is that from frame one, we know this
is a Carl Franklin film. The shot starts on the corner of 34th
street and Central Avenue, then cranes up to show Los Angeles,
circa 1948, then moves into Joppy’s Bar where we meet Easy Rollins
(Denzel Washington). Visually, that specific time and place was
so integral in successfully setting the viewer down in a world
that most of us had never seen before, then going forward with
the story.

Carl Franklin (CF): I believe that in any
kind of storytelling, be it through literature or film, the introduction
is key. In a novel, it’s going to be the first line. In film, it’s
the first frame. It should somehow engage you. It should mystify
you and absorb you into that world to make you curious. It’s an
invitation. It’s like going to someone’s house, and them stepping
out and saying, "Come inside." Either you want to or
you don’t.

EH: From the moment you’re at the front door?

CF: From the moment you’re at the door, and
from the kind of invitation that you’re extended. In this particular
case, I wanted to swallow people up in that world, to let them
feel the kind of excitement that Central Avenue had represented.
A lot of my impetus for doing Devil was the atmosphere. I was trying
to recreate the ambiance of that era. That’s what so many people
fell in love with when they read the novel by Walter Mosley: the
ambiance of 1948 L.A., specifically the ambiance of 1948 black
Los Angeles, Central Avenue being the cultural center that it was,
especially for music.

EH: How important a part did the production
design play in your pre-production planning?

CF: That all came from deciding what was the
overall genre of the film–whether it would be strictly a film
noir, or would it be social realism? What was the business of the
movie? Had we wanted to make this strictly a caper that dealt with
a guy trying to find a woman, the need to establish that social
environment would not have been that important. We could have suggested
certain kinds of streets, been much more subjective in the way
that we shot it and much more sketchy in our production design.
But because the novel did not totally confine itself to film noir,
I didn’t feel I could, either.

Denzel Washington in Devil In A Blue Dress.

EH: What’s your take on film noir?

CF: In film noir, the character is normally
kind of cynical. He usually exists in an independent context. We
never run into a Philip Marlowe. We never run into a Sam Spade.
The characters usually are enigmas. You don’t know where those
guys came from, you don’t know what area they live in, you don’t
know anything about their lives other than the particular moment
that you find yourselves engaged in the story. Easy Rollins is
just the opposite. He’s not your typical film noir detective. He
becomes a detective, but he exists in a very definite context in
a very definite neighborhood. He is a mechanic. He is a veteran
of World War II. He is a migrant from Texas. That said to me that
the richness of this story is in its social context, along with
the psychological makeup of this man.

EH: An argument could be made that Mosley’s
novel gives a nod to Chandler and Cain and other writers of that
period. What filmmakers do you draw from stylistically, if any?

CF: I’m sure that anytime you see a piece
of my work, you’re seeing the accumulation of my relationships
with all kinds of people from who knows how far back. I remember
first being moved toward acting by a scene from On the Waterfront
when I was about seven years old. I didn’t even like movies like
that at the time. It was a serious-content, black and white. It
looks dreary and all of that stuff, but I was magnetized by Brando
for some reason. So you are going to see certain people show up
in my work, and I have absorbed them. But I don’t study directors.
I don’t know the names of directors when I go to see films that
I like. I like to be totally suspended as an audience member and
will find certain elements showing up as a natural consequence
of what I experience.

EH: I read that during the making of The Last
Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese drew his imagery specifically
from the iconography of the 17th century. Are you saying your process
is more organic, derived from an osmosis of things you’ve seen
or experienced?

CF: There are unconscious influences that
I don’t have any control over, and there are very conscious choices
that I make in terms of film styles that I would employ as well.
But I would not limit my choices to what I am consciously aware
of. For example, people have told me that our film resembles Chinatown.
I don’t think that it does at all. Certainly not in lighting. Chinatown
was much more arid, much dryer in texture, [with] brighter colors.
We went for the dark, deep, almost murky texture that something
like The Big Sleep would give you. It wasn’t until we’d done Devil
and I saw The Big Sleep again that I realized that was the look
I was going for. For me it was vicarious. My concerns were in terms
of the drama–How can we make this film have an immediacy, and
at the same time create a period that will not be questioned? The
only other films that have been made in modern times that have
done that for me were The Godfather I and II, which I thought had
an incredible texture, and at the same time had an urgency that
was very current. You never felt that you were separated by a lot
of fog and mist and yellow sepia-tone filters. So it was the drama
that dictated the look.

EH: I felt that there was a very finite number
of colors on your palate.

Franklin recreated Central Avenue, the heart of
L.A.’s 1940s black community.

CF: Exactly. Everything was done in earth
tones, in browns and yellows and greens, and we even muted down
those colors. We didn’t film any real saturated or primary colors
like blue or red or purple, or anything that would be cool or jump
out at you. That again goes to the whole representation of social
realism. This was 1948 America, Los Angeles, just three years after
the war. It was a very humble time, and for a lot of people the
things that they had were old, from the thirties. There were a
few people who had brand-new things, but for the most part you
saw architecture from the forties going back to the turn of the
century. And you saw clothing that went back to the thirties, with
a very few wearing the latest fashions, and a few people driving
new cars. That was to give it a sense of humility and depth. You’ll
find on the streets today that not everybody is driving a 1996
car. Most people are not. You’ll find people going back to the
seventies with their cars.

EH: Your production company is called Monarch
Pictures. How did that name come about?

CF: Monarch? Well, its a double entendre.
It’s a butterfly, and it’s a king or queen. The logo is a combination
of a butterfly and a crown. A butterfly is a symbol of transcendence,
because what a caterpillar thinks of as death is nothing more than
a butterfly being born. A creative rebirth and a crowning.

EH: When I looked at the production notes
I saw a lot of heavy, heavy cats involved with the making of this
film: Jonathan Demme, Denzel Washington, your producer Jesse Beaton,
Gary Frutkoff in production design, Don Cheadle and Tom Sizemore
. . . that’s quite a body of talent, even though not all of their
names are famous. How important is doing your best work, versus
the rewards and recognition of critics, box-office results, getting
on top-ten lists and so on?

CF: I think they’re intertwined, because what
I would not want–and this may sound weird–is to have a big box-office
hit, with everyone saying that it’s a piece of crap. I would love
a box-office hit with people also saying it’s a wonderful movie,
but I would hate to do something that I was ashamed to watch myself
or that did not entertain me. You work on the average film for
about eighteen months as a director, and that’s a long time to
stay interested in something. If you are to go to work with enthusiasm
every morning, you have to find something that stimulates you.
I don’t know that I could be comforted by just setting up shots
with a lot of neat explosions and characters running and screaming
in various directions. I don’t know how much that would make me
want to come to work every morning. I need to work on something
that stimulates me, that has depth.

I don’t think that quality and commercial appeal
are at odds with each other. I think that it is up to the marketing
division to find a way to reach the people. Especially when you
look at something like Devil and you see how big it plays with
an audience. With such loud responses, certainly it is entertainment.
It’s not necessarily an intellectual film. It’s up to the marketing
folks to get people in to see it. If you get them in the house,
then the film will do the rest. It is not my job to get people
to come see the movie. Those who did see the film loved the work.

EH: I went into my neighborhood Blockbuster
and all thirty copies were rented–this was a weeknight, and the
movie had already been out on video for awhile. People have told
me how they’ve racked up late charges because they had to watch
it again and again. I’m sure that’s a mystery to most filmmakers,
finding good projects with broad commercial appeal.

CF: It’s a tough thing, because as a filmmaker
you have to begin to think in terms of marketing. And that’s a
shame, you shouldn’t have to do that. It limits you and the kinds
of choices you will make. I don’t want to do that to myself, because
that will affect the very creativity that is magical in my life.

EH: What attracts you to a project?

CF: I’m looking for relationships between
characters. I love a man’s struggle with God, as opposed to just
a man’s struggle with another man. To me conflict is not just a
bad guy and a good guy facing off in a gunfight. I like to ask
what are the moral issues at play that will destroy either of these
men totally. Or certainly to have them reassess themselves on the
other side of the conflict. I find that I respond to stories that
inform me of something in the human condition that is fresh, that
is important, that I may have not known about before. I do not
get excited about six and seven-minute gunfights or filming long,
drawn-out car chases. That doesn’t do a damn thing for me.

EH: Your creative path has taken you through
a number of different lives. You’ve worked on the stage, screen
and television, and now you’re behind the camera. How do you at
one point say acting is enough, then decide that it isn’t and move
into directing?

CF: It’s a confluence of things. I don’t believe
that you can separate a person, or a segment of a person’s life,
from his life. I think that everything plays its part in coming
together, conspiring together to create the now. There are several
very important elements that I could look at and say those are
what caused me to want to become a director. One was being a black
actor and looking at the sheer math of the fact that in television,
at a business level, you cannot be on the end of the production
process and expect to have any control over your own life. As I
grew older, I wanted more control over my own life. I didn’t want
to be the last person that people would come to in the process
of trying to put together a project.

I had gotten to a certain age and became a father,
and my expectations of what I wanted out of life were different.
I wasn’t as insulated within my own pursuit of the art of acting,
which gives its own immediate gratification as you are doing it.
I became interested in the whole story, in the structure and theme
of the story. So that meant to deal with it from a writer’s perspective,
at least; hopefully as a director, and maybe as a producer.

But an actor who knows too much about a project or
a process, or about anything that has a dramatic format, will find
himself playing the result–playing the end of a scene–which is
a mistake as an actor. To be too in control of the material that
you find yourself in takes away from the discovery. That’s one
of the problems of the star system today. The big stars have too
much control of the projects, which are going to be more self-centered,
more about personality opportunities, and less about filmmaking.
There are too many star vehicles.

EH: This seems to be a very new thing. The
star/actor/screenwriter.

CF: You can’t get a film done now without
a star, and they know their power. They make lots of money and
they can often make script changes. Not necessarily for the betterment
of the project, but for the betterment of their character or image.

EH: Your work as an actor was in the supporting-player
capacity.

CF: Right. I was never a star. I don’t think
that I was that good an actor. At the time, I thought I was good.
But now I know that I wouldn’t have hired me. I look at the stuff
some of these cats are doing now and I am amazed at their ability
to go to places that I could never get to. I love being able to
create an environment that is conducive to them going there.

EH: When you created the screenplay for Devil,
what were some of the special challenges you encountered?

CF: Well, there were several challenges, but
initially I did not see them. I thought that this novel was so
visual it would almost write itself. I was naive in my initial
excitement.

EH: Was this your first attempt at an adaptation?

CF: Yeah, and I was almost suspicious as to
whether Walter wrote this with the attitude that it would become
a film. Some writers work that way. After having met him and having
worked on the screenplay, I know that was not his objective. This
book had such vivid issues/22/images and had such a smell about it. The atmosphere,
the ambiance was so strong, it was like incense.

Washington with Jennifer
Beals in Devil.

EH: So your initial reaction carried you well
into the writing process, then you had to find the ways to solve
anyproblems in the adaptation.

CF: I was immediately turned on to it. The
way I was exposed to the work was through Jesse Beaton. We were
in pre-production for One False Move, and we were doing the waiting
game, waiting for the studio to allow us to cast an acceptable
leading actor.

EH: Sort of like waiting for the planets to
align?

CF: Yes, we were waiting for the planets to
align. They wanted names like Tim Robbins, Jeff Bridges, Kurt Russell,
Nicolas Cage. They wanted all of these people that they couldn’t
afford, and we wanted Bill Paxton. So we spent about six months
sitting around waiting to be approved. Finally they went with Paxton.
Meanwhile Jesse had read several things, and one of them was Devil
In A Blue Dress. She suggested I read it, I did, and immediately
said we should try and do this. But it was already tied up at Warner,
and later at Universal. It was always something. So we did Laurel
Avenue for HBO. It wasn’t until after the release of One False
Move that Jonathan Demme called up and said he wanted to produce
me in something. So I chose Devil In A Blue Dress.

EH: Was that a big call for you?

CF: Oh yeah.

EH: What were the biggest obstacles you faced
while shooting this story?

CF: The biggest obstacles that we had were
in trying to recreate 1948 Los Angeles. Here we are in a town that
has destroyed everything created before 1975. Not only that, but
I wanted to shoot the film with the freedom that you would shoot
a contemporary movie. Because the typical way that period pieces
are shot, especially those set on the west coast is: Exterior shot.
The car pulls in front of the building, you see a character walk
up to the entrance. Cut to the inside of the soundstage. I didn’t
want that. I wanted to be able to make 180-degree pans. I wanted
to have my character in a scene in an interior, and see the world
going on outside. I wanted to surround the audience and envelop
them, the same way Walter did with the novel.

EH: I know that you don’t want to spend a
lot of time moaning about the 1996 Academy Awards, but I can think
of at least four or five categories where Devil was more than worthy
of a nomination. Gary Frutkoff in Production Design; Don Cheadle
as Best Supporting Actor. Not to mention your adapted screenplay
and direction.

CF: Well thanks, but you know that whole Oscar
thing is a campaign as much as running for President is. Often
times a decision is made as to whether they can recoup the money
that they spend on a campaign. If they don’t feel that the film
has a second life, they are not going to do the things it takes
to get it nominated for an award. And black films have another
disadvantage in that it is not perceived that they will do well
in the overseas market. So there is a disincentive to support those
types of films. I think that with all of the talk of Oscars, and
especially with Don Cheadle’s work, more of a concerted effort
should have been made.

EH: I’ll leave that subject as a matter for
the Academy to ponder. Having set up the environment through the
production design, was it easier to direct the actors?

CF: Definitely, because of the advantages
of having actors whose concentration is already locked into an
era, into the specific style which the forties dictates. I found
myself falling into that as well, getting into an environment where
the scene has been set, the people have been dressed, everything
has been laid out, and finding myself totally absorbed in that
world. That again is an invisible inspiration that you always need
when you go into a creative process. It separates it from work
and makes it fun.

EH: As a director, do you project into the
future, or do you wait and see what project inspires you?

CF: Actually Devil sort of destroyed a lot
of [my] agenda, because some of the projects were other films that
dealt with period black subject matter. But since Devil didn’t
do as well as they would’ve liked, it’s going to be harder to get
funding for those projects. But I am not somebody who plans that
far in advance. I get excited by a story and I commit to it. It’s
very hard for me to work on two things at once. I get absorbed.
I get obsessed.

EH: You started your career at the American
Film Institute, and at least some of the MovieMaker readership
is probably made up of people hoping to one day be where you are
now. What words or vibe can you leave them with to energize their
respective programs?

CF: Well, those who are destined to do it
don’t need any encouragement, quite honestly. I don’t think that
you have much choice in this area of creativity. The voice calls
and you listen, and you follow what it says. I don’t think that
you can decide to make a Forrest Gump. I don’t think that you can
decide to make an E.T. or a Schindler’s List or a Devil in a Blue
Dress. I think that the inspiration within you marries up with
opportunity, and through the grace of God your marriage will be
fruitful. You can’t say, "I want to be a comedy director," without
being someone who sees the world in comedic terms. I think you
have to be honest with who you are, and if there’s a voice speaking
to you, be true to your muse. If not, don’t kid yourself.

EH: How do you know if you’re kidding yourself
or if you’ve got the goods?

CF: You don’t really have any choice but to
try. People come to me all the time asking what should they do
to try and make it. To me, that’s the wrong way to approach it.
Make it? Make what? What is this goal that everybody is trying
to reach? Is it to be a star? Well, nobody is entitled to that.
Nobody is entitled to make ten or fifteen million dollars a year.
Nobody has that right. That’s something that comes to some people
as a gift. There is no formula. If I knew the formula, I would
be selling it. The point is to follow your own honest inspiration.
What we do have as individuals is our own individuality. MM

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