Truly connecting to something you want to believe in and that fulfills an emotional void in your life is a gripping sentiment that not only drives the cast and crew of the new crime thriller, ‘Child of God,’ but also the main character, Lester, in the story. The drama, which is based on Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 third novel of the same name, showcases the interest of James Franco, who co-wrote, directed and starred the film, to push the limits of what society feels comfortable watching and publicly discussing. Lester is an isolated, lonely man who is unable to adjust to the sudden and damaging obstacles in his life, and searches for a personal connection to fill the void. But he’s unable to find anything or anyone who truly makes him happy, due to his seemingly outrageous behavior.
Set in a small town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee in the 1950s, ‘Child of God’ tells the provocative story of Lester Ballad (Scott Haze), a dispossessed, violent man who attempts to exist outside the social order. After being deprived of his parents and his family’s farm and home, he’s driven by famished loneliness as he descends to become a cave dweller in the mountains. Despite the help offered to him by Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) and Deputy Cotton (Jim Parrack), Lester falls deeper into crime and degradation. Living outside the social order but desperate to find companionship, he turns to loving a recently teenage girl, who he comes to think of as his girlfriend. After the reckless trail of pain and despair Lester leaves behind him, a group of townspeople, led by Jerry (Franco), become so angry with the lonely man’s seemingly odd behavior they set out to take the law into their own hands and punish him themselves.
Franco and Haze generously took the time recently to sit down at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York City to talk about filming ‘Child of God.’ Among other things, the filmmaker and actor discussed how they couldn’t believe the fantastic things they captured on screen, from the production design by Franco’s frequent collaborative, Kristen Adams, to Haze’s believable, heartfelt performance as Lester; how there were several scenes that really excited both Franco and Haze, including the moment where Lester finds two recently deceased teenagers in their car, which showed his true character development and behavior of wanting to connect with anyone he finds; and how they think the title of ‘Child of God’ applies to a person like Lester, who hasn’t been shown love and has been banished from society, and is therefore trying to connect to anything he can.
Question (Q): What was the financing process like for ‘Child of God?’
James Franco (JF): We didn’t really pitch the movie around. Vince (Jolivette), my producing partner, deals with that end of the business. So I didn’t have to go to anyone and say, “The world needs this.” (laughs)
It’s a negotiation between art and business, which is something I think about a lot. When I went to film school to become a director, I had been working as an actor for about 12 years. I realized this is now the moment I get to say, “I’m going to make the movies I want to make.”
As an actor, I’ve been in the biggest blockbusters, as well as critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated and winning movies. I understand what that whole world is. I don’t need to make a movie to aim for commercial, or even critical, success. I can make the movies I want to make, for the sake of loving those projects. So I’ve had to balance certain things.
This isn’t one of the main reasons why I did ‘Child of God.’ But certainly in the back of my mind, I can look at it and say, It’s a very tough subject, and it’s a period piece in the 1950s. But a lot of the story takes place in the woods. Plus, there isn’t a ton of actors in the film. We can actually manage this dark piece of material, and it doesn’t have to cost what it does to recreate (the 1920s) in ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ Since we’re out in the woods, the trees in the ’50s look the same as they do now.
Q: James, you’ve had the luxury to have appeared in several blockbusters, since your career as an actor has lasted for over a decade-and-a-half, and can now choose more versatile projects. But Scott, why would you want to take on such a dark role at the beginning of your career?
Scott Haze (SH): The way I look at this situation, this character is someone whose father committed suicide and had his land taken away from him, and no one has shown him love, So that forced to live in the woods and find shelter. There are times in my life where I’ve felt lonely and like I didn’t fit in. In high school, I felt like I didn’t fit in with the football team, so I was on the basketball team. I think there are times in everyone’s lives where we all felt lonely.
Lester is the perfect example of someone who back in the ’50s couldn’t just hop on the Internet and find someone else who likes necrophilia. He also likes to live in caves and hunt. There’s an obsessive thing that happens in Lester when he finds love, and then love’s taken from him. He wants that feeling again, by any means necessary. But it’s not like he can go out and get another girlfriend. So I think the story really plays on being loved and being lonely, and what that isolation can do to the heart. That’s what I connected to a lot, and what I tried to get across.
Q: There was one scene in the book that involved a mentally challenged child, which you didn’t include in the film. Did you film that scene?
JF: I had it in the first draft of the script. I know myself; when I adapt these books that I love, I want to put everything in it. But inevitably I’ll do an edit. When I did the first edit of this movie, it was way too long, but it’s so hard for me to cut things, like that scene, out of the script. Part of the reason why I did was budgetary. The budgetary restrictions sometimes make you question things, like “Do we need another murder?”
The scene featured the murder of a woman and a child burned in a house. But will that serve the story we’re telling? It’s one thing to put it in a book, and another thing to watch it in a movie. It’s fascinating in a dark way, but I think it would ultimately turn Lester into more of a monster. I tried to put up a smoke screen, so that people can still emotionally connect to him, while he’s still doing these bad things. So to put in such an explicitly horrible act would make it harder to keep people watching Lester as anything but a complete monster.
Q: Were there any times when you started watching the dailies back and you couldn’t believe what you were seeing?
JF: There were times when we were making it that we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. I had a really great production designer, Kristen Adams, who I work with frequently. She had this little cabin built that we burned down. When I saw it, I was like, that’s the cabin. Then they went and found these actual caves. I was like, this is Lester’s home. Even though we weren’t in Tennessee, and we filmed in West Virginia, it was like, this is it.
It’s like the first time I saw Scott, I thought, I’ll never see Lester another way. He just went off on this four-month cocoon he was in, and then came out of it. He became the character I saw in the book. I think all along the way, for me, it was this very blessed experience of seeing this whole thing come to life in front of me.
Q: Scott, there were some physical demanding scenes in the film. Did you do any training for the role? Did you get injured at all while you were shooting?
SH: I didn’t get injured. I worked on everything in the novel, whether it was chopping wood or crawling around in caves, so I was completely prepared to do it. We did a lot of dangerous stuff. It was an adventure to be on the set when we were on a mountain. There is one scene that did make it into the movie, where I slide down the mountain. It doesn’t look as steep when you watch the film, but I remember standing there thinking, I’m going I’m going to get hurt. But I was ready when we got there. But there were times when I was sprinting all day, and then sore all night.
JF: Scott was almost always in character. There was maybe one lunch, the second-to-last day, when Scott came into the catering tent and eat with us. It was like, “Oh, there’s Scott!” I didn’t see much of Scott, because he always kept to himself.
He was so in character that sometimes I felt like I had to protect him. There was one scene that we cut out, but we were in a rock quarry that we wanted to scramble through. I did it first to show that I didn’t get hurt, and then Scott did it. But at the opening of the cave, when Lester has the animals on his back, there was a river that went into the mountain, and it was so gorgeous. That was my favorite day of filmmaking, but we didn’t use much of it.
We filmed in January, and Scott was already running around in a skimpy outfit. I had to keep telling him, “Scott, if you go in that water, I’m not going to shoot you anymore today.” He was going to go, and Lester was going to jump into the water. But it was so cold, he was going to get sick. I had to say stuff like, “You’re not allowed in that water.” I knew he was so in character that he would do it. Meanwhile, the crew was on the side of this hill, and it was muddy. We were tying ourselves to trees, so we wouldn’t slide down the hill in the mud.
Q: Did you have any trepidation about filming some of the more shocking scenes of the book? Were there any debates over staying true to the book, and taking out what would shock the audience?
JF: We shot my favorite scene from the book. Sometimes as the director, you have a scene or a moment that excites you about the project. For me, it was the scene where he sees the two teenagers in the car. I’m not into necrophilia, but it was such a beautifully sculpted scene that showed character development and his behavior. I really loved that as an actor, director and writer. We shot that scene first. So on the first day, Scott filmed the scene where he discovered the bodies and did all that stuff.
When you have people around who you trust, and you know on a certain level this is make-believe and you’re not actually hurting people, that’s a great filmmaking experience. When I believe in something, I don’t have any inhibitions, and I’ll do anything. So it didn’t seem difficult to me at all.
SH: I wrapped my head around it so much that I would talk to people about the film, they would say, “Oh, you raped those girls.” But in Lester’s mind, they’re his girlfriends. I worked all the things out that people would think is shocking, like that guy lives in a cave, but in times of war, people live in caves. He wanted to live in a cave for protection and safety. If I was trapped in the woods for a long time, and no one was talking to me, and I came across a girl who just died, I don’t know. I worked it out in my head that nothing was shocking.
There were things in the novel that were shocking when I first read it. That’s when I said I had to go to Tennessee. I had no idea what the people in that area were like. The most shocking scene in the movie was probably the one that was cut of the woman and child who were burned. I agree with James that that scene pushed it too far, and we would have lost the audience. My perspective changed after meeting the people who lived in the area during the time the story was set, and the elders who had that accent.
Q: What does the title, ‘Child of God,’ mean to you?
SH: I think ‘Child of God’ applies to a person who hasn’t been shown love, and has been banished from society. He’s trying to connect to anything he can. Whether it’s Lester and his stuffed animals, or the person he comes across who isn’t breathing anymore, he made up imaginary stories about the things around him after he sat around alone for a long time. He found this beautiful girl, and he always wanted a girlfriend.
In the right circumstances, hopefully people are shown love, and aren’t banished from society, like Lester was. Here’s one person whose life is examined in these circumstances that deal with social issues that we all experience on a certain level, whether it’s loneliness or feeling like you don’t fit in. It examines that we all have hearts, dreams and desires, no matter what we believe in. This is how Lester’s life turned out.
Written by: Karen Benardello