The Howl Interview

Perhaps the most exciting movie of 2010 for Beatdom readers is ‘Howl’, a 1950s era feature film about Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial for his epic, generation-defining poem of the same name.

The movie will star James Franco as a young Ginsberg, with Alan Alda as Judge Clayton Horn, Jeff Daniels as prosecution witness Prof. David Kirk, Mary-Louise Park as prosecution witness Gail Potter, David Strathairn as prosecution attorney Ralph MacIntosh and Paul Rudd as defense witness Luther Nichols.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are both Academy Award winners as documentarians, and the Allen Ginsberg Trust asked them to director the movie to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ‘Howl’. Gus Van Sant is the producer.

‘Howl’ is appearing at an important moment in time. When Ginsberg wrote his masterpiece in 1955, America was in a difficult place. His poem changed literature by tackling this weird world with an autobiographical, highly personal eulogy for his friends.

Now we are once again in an intimidating world. America’s military mistakes are costing the people, while freedom is speech is being assaulted. Now more than ever the world needs to remember Allen Ginsberg.

Just as ‘Howl’ was a groundbreaking poem, the movie is certain to defy expectations. Trying to pin down just what it will look like is no walk in the park. Eric Drooker has animated long tracts of the movie, which is partly based on the poem itself, and partly based on the obscenity trial. There is documentary footage spliced with the acting of some of Hollywood’s finest contemporary talent.

To learn more about this exciting project, Beatdom sat down with the Oscar winning directors…

I read that the Allen Ginsberg Trust actually contacted the two of you with the idea of creating a film to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ‘Howl’… That’s a huge compliment on your work. Did they explain why they believed you were the right directors for the project?

No, but we were honored to take on the challenge.

In Beatdom, we try and tie the Beats to the modern world as much as possible… So, how relevant do you think the themes of the poem, as well as the results of the trial, are in today’s society?

The poem is a cri de coeur against an increasingly militarized, consumeristic, dehumanized society that was born out of World War II. Those trends are still very much a part of the fabric of our lives today. We’re still at war, our economy is still based on more and more consumption and devastation of the environment. It could have been written today—and it would still be shocking.

The world of contemporary art and entertainment owes more to the Beats than most people would admit. How significant do you think the ‘Howl’ obscenity trial was to subsequent artists?

That’s hard to assess. Just knowing that it was judged “not obscene” and that it continues to be published, widely read and taught in high schools and colleges, has got to have had an impact. Allen described the poem as promoting “frankness,” and set an example for subsequent generations of artists.

Now, let’s talk about the movie… Allen Ginsberg is a one-off, ridiculously unique character. How did you go about trying to capture him and present him on film?

Through his own words and ideas, as best we could. As documentarians, it was natural for us to start with existing documents. We learned about an interview that he gave to a Time Magazine reporter while the obscenity trial was happening, but that Time never published. That inspired us to reconstruct this “missing interview” using transcripts of existing interviews with Allen that he had given over the years. To illustrate the important relationships in his life—with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky—we worked with our cinematographer Ed Lachman to adapt the black-and-white style of photographs and 16mm movies of the period to evoke the mood of the time. And we worked extensively with James Franco to bring texture and substance to the role—he’s an amazing actor.

What exactly will the movie focus on? It’s called ‘Howl’, and said to revolve around the trial, but how much of Ginsberg’s life, the influence of the Beat Generation, and the actually poem itself, have you managed to capture in the movie?

Our goal was to try to convey the personal and artistic transformation that Allen had to go through in order for him to get to the point where he could create this totally unprecedented masterpiece. We use the central relationships in his life at the time—the guys he loved—as the focus of his journey. The immediate effects, and the most virulent, was the arrest of the publisher on obscenity charges. The trial itself is an absurd exercise in defining socially acceptable art and sexuality; at the same time, it helps elucidate aspects of the poetry.

What made you cast James Franco as Ginsberg? What do you think he will bring to such a challenging role?

James didn’t seem like an obvious choice at first, but Gus Van Sant, our executive producer, encouraged us to consider James. Then, as we learned about his serious commitment to art and literature—the guy is in three masters programs!—and after meeting with him and seeing some of his work, we realized he could bring something really interesting to the role. The film is about the poet as a young man—Allen was 29 when he wrote “Howl.” We had been looking at photos of young Allen, who was quite adorable, so the casting seemed less outlandish than it might appear. James is even half-Jewish!

James worked really hard to make Allen’s words his own, and to embody his vocal and physical mannerisms. Rob and I worked with him several times over the course of the year it took us to raise the financing—so this was totally speculative on James’s part, and demonstrated a real commitment to the project. By the time we went into production, we felt he was truly channeling Allen.

I heard that Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker will be involved in the movie… What exactly is his role in ‘Howl’?

We struggled for several years trying to come up with a cinematic form that would be formally groundbreaking in a way that would do justice to “Howl”—a work that broke rules, developed and helped create new forms of artistic expression, and changed the way we think about poetry and literature. It was daunting. The first glimmer of an idea came when we discovered “Illuminated Poems,” the book of Allen’s poetry that Eric illustrated. We met with Eric to talk about his collaboration with Allen, and gradually came up with the idea of creating an animated interpretation of the poem. That mushroomed into a bigger collaboration with John Hays, a very talented animation director, and eventually with Juck Somsaman and his crew in Bangkok, where the images are coming to life.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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