Inside Look: James Franco's First Fashion Film
by sari anne tuschman
James Franco steps behind the camera.
James Franco has seemingly done everything an actor, artist, and filmmaker can do. And defining “everything” is not a simple task. He has enjoyed a successful acting career that has led to several award nominations, including an Oscar nod for 127 Hours and a gig cohosting the awards show the same year. Daytime TV fans have been entertained by his logic-defying and performance art-inspired recurring stint on the soap opera General Hospital. Ever the seeker of knowledge, he has earned and continues to pursue graduate degrees, including a PhD in English from Yale University and a recently completed master’s degree in poetry from Warren Wilson College. He even penned a book of short stories entitled Palo Alto: Stories (named for his hometown), and had an art installation based on his obsession with James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause at last year’s Venice Biennale (the show will soon come to MOCA). But that barely skims the surface of Franco’s apparently endless creative pursuits.
One of his latest projects brings him into yet another unexpected sector: He served as the director and photographer of LA-based 7 For All Mankind’s spring fashion campaign. “[What appealed to me about it] was the approach they wanted to take,” says Franco about the campaign. “They wanted it to be like we were making a movie, but it’s a movie that doesn’t have the same kind of pressures to sell tickets or entertain an audience. It was a project that allowed me to work with film and actors and all the elements I work with in the movie industry, but I could be much more free and open to exploration.”
The out-of-the-box campaign was a collaboration with 7’s creative agency, Lipman. “We had the idea of creating this moment inspired by 1970s California, and Los Angeles specifically, and the movement that was happening then—freedom of expression—when jeans were such an integral part of the culture,” says the agency’s founder and chief creative officer, David Lipman, who approached Franco about the project. “[James] and I are both madmen, and we were out to create an art film about California.”
The result was anything but a traditional fashion shoot. Almost everyone on set, including crew and talent, was handed a camera—from Polaroids to disposables—and all snapped photos, many of which will end up in the actual campaign. Franco, who acted as the director of the art film, shot both video and still photography while everyone around him recorded the process. (One can’t help but imagine Andy Warhol would have become a fan of denim after seeing this campaign.) The ultimate product comprises several videos—from short films to one that is more than three hours—as well as a print campaign that premieres in magazines this month, with each publication receiving a unique layout.
The stars of the ads are a mix of talent Franco helped cast, including models Lily Donaldson and Amber Anderson; Dennis Hopper’s son, Henry Hopper; and Vogue editor Lisa Love’s daughter Nathalie Love. “I was more or less surrounded by friends, and the people I didn’t know were—for the most part—game,” says Franco of the two-day, labor-intensive shoot in Santa Monica. “Everybody kind of jumped into it. We weren’t working in a normal way where we have it set up, and people pose and try to get the perfect shot. Instead, we approached it like a movie, so we had different scenes—not completely scripted, but scenarios where all the performers and models interacted with each other. And we had multiple moving-film operators and still-film operators and just captured it, which gave it a feeling of life rather than strictly posing for shots of clothes.”
Of the unlikely choice to use Franco for the campaign, Barry Miguel, president of 7 For All Mankind, says the decision was rooted in the company’s passion for its home state. “We wanted to tell a story about our California roots,” he says. “James Franco so embodies those ideals and the creative energy that exists here. He is truly a modern-day Renaissance man, and we were confident his artistic vision would encapsulate the idea of a free-spirited, modern California.” Franco delivered on their vision, and then some. “We shot at the beach, at a beach house, and primarily along PCH,” says Franco. “We used sun-dappled scenes; a lot took place outside, and the activities were California-based.”
And while a denim campaign is obviously a commercial pursuit, it should come as no surprise the überartistic Franco managed to keep his focus squarely on the creative elements of the project. “Of course everybody was dressed in 7 For All Mankind, but fortunately for us, the clothes looked great, and they fit,” says Franco. “It was as if the clothes were just for the characters that were involved in the film. In essence, it was like wardrobe. And we could just go and make our movie.”
The stunning and complex end result may be a glimpse into the future of how brands represent themselves. “We created this whole story line and narrative,” says Lipman. “James’s creative mind is so inventive. His dedication and enthusiasm for creativity are like you read about—and beyond even that. We [made] what we believe is a new form of advertising.”
photography courtesy of lipman
We go behind the scenes with James Marsden, and ask him about the shoot, living in LA, and what's next.