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Student filmmakers collaborate with James Franco for “Mississippi Requiem”

Arkesh Ajay, a graduate student in production directing, was chosen by James Franco to direct “Dry September,” one of a collection of four short films adapted from stories by William Faulkner. (Bailey Greene/Daily Bruin)

By Christi Carras

May 12, 2016 12:00 a.m.

About 15 groups of four UCLA student directors, producers, writers and cinematographers gathered for an interview with James Franco in Melnitz Hall in September.

After a casual half-hour chat with the director, producer and Academy Award-nominated actor, only four teams were selected for the next step.

After the interview process, a total of 19 students enrolled in Film 298A: “Special Studies in Film and Television,” a course taught by Franco, a lecturer in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. When the yearlong program wraps in May, the graduate student teams will have created “Mississippi Requiem,” a film collection of short stories by William Faulkner, starring Franco himself.

Each short film was produced, written, directed, and filmed by the class of students in the master of fine arts program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

Franco has taught the course at UCLA three times before; however, in previous years students enrolled upon recommendation from other faculty in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. This year marked the first time Franco interviewed and handpicked the students himself.

“I got to get a sense of their personalities, and fortunately I chose a group that ended up working really well together,” Franco said.

Before the interviews were conducted, the prospective student teams were emailed a list of Faulkner’s short stories to which Franco had secured rights. In preparation for the meeting, the student groups each decided which of the stories they wanted to adapt. The winning teams chose to discuss “Elly,” “A Rose for Emily,” “Dry September” and “That Evening Sun” in their interviews.

Franco said he chose to adapt Faulkner’s material for its dark and unconventional style, which forced his students to make creative filmmaking decisions in producing, directing, screenwriting and cinematography.

“I thought that the students would be pushed to make some unusual choices, or choices that they maybe would not have made otherwise, just because the source material is so particular and dense and unusual,” Franco said.

Safiya Farquharson, a student in the graduate producer’s program, said she felt her team, comprised of mostly women, was selected for their feminist take on “A Rose for Emily,” which centers around the mysterious life and death of the title character. “A Rose for Emily” was directed by Kelly Pike, a graduate student in production directing.

“(Pike is) really captivated by the subject matter of death and the afterlife and what happens there,” Farquharson said. “She really gravitated toward that story.”

Graduate student in production directing Arkesh Ajay also attributed his enrollment in the course to his take on his Faulkner piece that focuses more on race than on gender. During his interview with Franco, Ajay said his vision to humanize both heroes and villains of all races in Faulkner’s “Dry September” struck a chord with Franco.

“(Franco and I) got along well, and it seemed like we had a shared vision from the very beginning,” Ajay said. “It was very clear to both of us that we exactly are seeing (the story) from the very same place.”

Ajay said he and Franco kept their vision in mind for “Dry September,” particularly when shooting Franco’s scenes. The pair was careful not to dismiss Franco’s character, who is a racist, white lynch-mob leader, as a one-dimensional villain.

“The tendency when you find someone racist (is to think that) person is evil,” Ajay said. “And once you claim someone is evil, that’s the end of him.”

Instead, Ajay aimed for a more rounded performance when directing Franco, exploring his character’s potential fears and motives.

Ajay said directing accomplished actors like Franco, Topher Grace and Alicia Witt allowed him to elicit reactionary performances from other, less experienced actors on set. He recalled asking Franco to amplify his emotions and gestures while filming one scene in order to evoke natural fear from the actor opposite him.

“He would change something in his performance just slightly so that the other actor would react to it in a way that is what I want,” Ajay said.

But Ajay and Franco did not always see eye to eye. Ajay recalled one instance during the scriptwriting process for “Dry September,” in which Ajay’s writer created a character not originally included in the Faulkner story.

Whenever Ajay and his team disagreed with Franco on an aspect of the script or a visual technique, Franco engaged them in an open discussion, allowing the students to express and explain their opinions.

“He would give suggestions like anyone else, and I was free to take it or reject it,” Ajay said.

The directing and producing students expressed both their admiration for Franco’s dedication to the class and his accessibility as a teacher. Graduate student in producing Aaron Edmonds said he was pleasantly surprised by Franco’s perfect attendance record in spite of his other commitments.

Franco said he enjoys teaching classes at UCLA because it provides an escape from the business side of the entertainment industry, allowing him to work with and learn from young filmmakers with pure intentions.

“I really like being around that kind of spirit,” Franco said. “It reminds me of why I do it and why I got into filmmaking and what I love about it.”

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Christi Carras
Carras is an A&E senior staff writer. She was previously the assistant editor for the Theater Film and Television beat of A&E.
Carras is an A&E senior staff writer. She was previously the assistant editor for the Theater Film and Television beat of A&E.
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