It all started in a class James Franco was teaching at NYU’s Graduate Film program. The topic was “How to Direct Poetry.” In total, there were 12 student directors and, together, they took a series of poems from Pulitzer prize winning author C. K. Williams’ collection Tar, and turned them into a feature film called The Color of Time.
This collaborative effort opens in theaters today and not only stars Franco, but some of his friends: Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain, and Zach Braff. Even Evil Dead cult icon, Bruce Campbell, stops by to make a appearance.
So, how did they do it? How did 12 student directors come together as a team to transform poetry into film? We sat down with some of the grads this week to learn more about their process.
MM: How and why did you pick your specific poem from the collection?
Tine Thomasen (TT): I read all of the poems with an open mind, but only one stood out: “My Mother’s Lips.” When I heard C. K. Williams read this poem, I knew I had picked the right one. I lost my mother a few years back and this poem was about a loving relationship between a man and his mother. It was filled with a sense of loss; something from the past, unreachable and gone. I connected with the words and just knew I could make images out of it.
Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo (OZH): I adapted “On Learning of a Friend’s Illness,” which has the kind of imagery I’m very interested in, i.e. dealing with masculinity and fragility at the same time. Here, two characters avoid showing how fragile they can be with one another after they discover that one of them is fading away.
Shripriya Mahesh (SM): As a mother of young children, two poems stood out to me, “The Color of Time” and “Waking Jed,” both dealing with childhood. The first one deals with CK Williams’ memories of a difficult phase of his youth while in contrast, the second was a very tender, very quiet moment where he observes his son Jed sleeping and gently touches his face. When you put them together, it speaks to how our childhood experiences really shape who we become as adults.
Alexis Gambis (AG): I was immediately drawn to “One of the Muses” because of how it described relationships in terms of sound, physics, and more abstract notions. I wanted to take on the challenge of transforming a very figurative piece into a narrative story as well as dissecting a relationship. What does one feel when remembering a past relationship and how does the memory superimpose itself with the real events? How do emotions evolve, transform, expand, or contract over time? I decided in my film to replay a significant, fractured moment in a relationship as if it were looping inside C.K. Williams’ mind.
MM: Was it easy to transform poetry into film?
OZH: In some ways, yes. Prose in a script or a novel is more specific whereas poetry is more open and subject to interpretation. Poetry is more guttural or spontaneous and really lends itself to visual language.
SM: Few people actually read poetry nowadays because it seems inaccessible, but it can be the most visual form of the written word.
MM: How did you work with the other directors to make the film a cohesive piece?
OZH: We were all given the book to read and each of us chose a different poem that had mirrored our own experiences and interests as filmmakers. So, there was a common ground for how we wanted the film to look up front. And we were all made aware of what everyone else was doing because we were all reading scripts, giving feedback, etc.
Basically, we would send our treatments and scripts to the group and then receive notes to make new versions. We then made a test shoot, shooting the entire movie with different actors as a training exercise. And we all commented on that. So, it was very much of a hands-on approach from the start.
TT: Marco Mueller, the festival director of the Rome International Film Festival where the film premiered initially called the film a jam session. And I think that’s a pretty fun and accurate description of the film and the process.
AG: Jam session is perfect. I think it’s also important to note that the process of making the film was almost part of the actual story – what is the process of writing, what does it entail, how does a poet make a narrative of his/her own life? I remember very fondly the screenplay readings with all of our fellow writer-directors. We were trying as scientists to search for motifs, patterns, and traces that would allow us to create the overall structure. It was a mind exercise that was quickly transformed into a physical exercise.
MM: Why was it important to have different actors play the part of C.K. Williams?
TT: Well, one could argue that our experiences shape who we are at any given point in our life and that we are different people at different times. This is one of the main reasons we liked having different actors portray him. James Franco played the older version, Henry Hopper the younger one, and two younger actors, Jordan March and Zachary Unger, played C.K. as a boy and a teenager. We never really insisted on having them look or feel the same because we felt it was more interesting to express the idea of how certain experiences and memories shape and change you. That was much more important to us than giving an accurate description of the man’s life.
MM: What was the most challenging aspect of the entire project?
OZH: The scheduling for sure. Since we had a very limited amount of time with the actors, we had to be very efficient and practical, especially when changing locations. For instance, in one segment I directed, we shot an entire scene on a bus while moving the whole crew to the next location on the same bus.
AG: The biggest challenges were those last minute changes and overlapping production schedules with the actors. Filmmaking is never easy and one has to learn to adapt.
MM: What was it like working in Detroit?
OZH: We shot in Detroit because James was shooting Oz: The Great and Powerful there. And of course, there were some logistical challenges because there was a bunch of us and we all had to move around to so many different places to find the right locations. But in the end, it was a very practical place to shoot because you had the city, the countryside, and buildings from different periods of time, etc.
TT: Detroit was an experience for sure! But as a city, it had that quality of nostalgia and even decay – a sort of strange beauty that went very well with the poems.
MM: For each of you, what was your favorite memory?
SM: The period kitchen! We found an amazingly well-preserved kitchen with period ovens and refrigerators that were restored and in excellent working condition. Our production designers had to update the flooring, but we kept everything else. It was a terrific find and I remember the owners of the house, Sharon and Doug, being so gracious and welcoming to us.
AG: Omar’s fake mustache, running with a boom on Shripriya’s set while recording the laughter of Jessica Chastain and a young Charlie swinging in the air (which made me feel like I was working on Nolan’s Interstellar), and then there was the time I got stranded in the middle of Detroit in these fields near a railroad station and a passerby approached to tell me to be on the lookout for fugitives in the area.
OZH: I remember when we shot at an old gas station for the segment that Virginia directed. It was supposed to be a place from the ‘50s, something that was difficult to find. But they managed to find a place and the owner even let us borrow his beautiful period car to be driven by the actors. We couldn’t have pulled off the shoot without multiple favors like this one. We also had to find a trained horse to work with, named Wylie. He was brought in on a truck from a farm near Ann Arbor and he was simply, awesome.
TT: I remember being on Alexis’ set, shooting b-roll from a balcony at nighttime in the freezing cold. It was a masquerade party scene and I was exhausted and cold, with little, knitted gloves barely covering my hands. When one of the actresses finally appeared, all made up with a fancy dress, her hair beautifully curled, with red lipstick and nails painted, I got a great shot looking down at her that actually ended up in the movie. And that made the whole night worth it.
MM: It sounds like the entire project was a great experience for each of you.
SM: Yes, absolutely. In retrospect, it amazes all of us how it came together. When we first signed up for the class, we were to direct the poetry, but in New York with a cast that we found. As it morphed, the only constant was the poems. We shot in Detroit. James requested all of these amazing actors to be part of the shoot. And here we were, all students, getting ready to direct such incredible talent. It was really a wonderful group of cast and crew with such flexibility, openness, and collaboration. The whole project was an incredible memory and opportunity. MM
The Color of Time is available on VOD platforms now and will be released in theaters on December 12, 2014, courtesy of Starz Digital Media.