Out of the Woods: On James Franco and Moviemaking

Still from ‘I Think You’re Totally Wrong’ trailer

The age-old conversation - or debate, depending how heated you get - about life versus art has stuck around for a reason: there's no real right answer. This didn't stop best-selling-author-slash-university-professor David Shields and Shields's former student stay-at-home-dad-slash-writer Caleb Powell from quarantining themselves in a cabin in the woods for four days in 2013 to debate the topic. Their impassioned, meandering conversation became the book I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. When James Franco got his hands on the book, he read it and decided he wanted to adapt it - though "adapt" isn't quite the right word for how to bring a book like this to screen. The film is now complete and awaits all that is to come - festivals, the critics, distribution.

Having seen the trailer and having read the book - and knowing Franco's quirky, high-quality taste in cinematic source material - we wanted to know more and so went to Caleb Powell to answer a few of our questions about the adaptation process and more.

SIGNATURE: In a completely candid conversation such as you and David Shields had over the course of your four days together, very personal details were sure to come out - as some did, right from the start. It's unlikely, I gather, that those in your personal life, i.e. your wives, will read what you've written post-publication. Did you feel compelled to get their sign-off on some of what was said prior to publication?

CALEB POWELL: To a degree. Our goal was to write a personal no-holds-barred narrative, and then face the logistics. David's wife read and enjoyed the book before publication, no problem there. My wife still hasn't read it, but she's seen the movie and knows of the content. She understands, although at first she felt uncomfortable that the details about her first marriage would come out. But the culture has changed, and she no longer feels how she did twenty years ago about having a husband that was in the closet.

SIG: When James Franco first approached you about turning your conversation-slash-quarrel into a film, what were your initial thoughts? How did he sell you on the idea?

CP: My first thought was, fuck yeah! But afterward I didn't know how optimistic to be; over ninety-five percent of options never become films. And he didn't have to sell us, he just said, "I'd like to make this into a film." We said, "Let's do it."

SIG: Can you talk a bit about the making of the movie? Did you have to re-create the conversations for the camera? I didn't get the impression from the book that you had a cameraman - or James Franco - along for the adventure. Did the conversations feel odd, having them again?

CP: The book consisted of just the two of us and a recorder. James didn't come into the picture until after we edited a solid first draft. We had such familiarity with the material that re-creating our conversations felt natural. Just like speaking at bookstores, saying the same thing, re-creating and embellishing. As far as shooting the movie, there were twenty hours of film, the cameras just rolled as David and I rehashed main arguments or added fresh material. It did feel unusual, but we had to be so focused that we had little time to contemplate. That came later.

SIG: James Franco, as director, also steps into the action of the film to discuss in a somewhat meta turn of events the making of the film. How comfortable - or uncomfortable - were you with this treatment of the story?

CP: In the moment, the discomfort was related to damage control, specifically, the secrets David began to reveal. James's self-insertion worked to explore crucial questions about risk and betrayal. Create art or protect your personal life?

SIG: What surprised you most about working with Franco?

CP: I was surprised just to be working with him. After that, nothing was surprising. Flying to Los Angeles, getting picked up at the airport, staying at The Standard, waiting for the crew to set up and people come out of the forest asking James for an autograph, all seemed a side story. Almost a distraction.

Not knowing James, unlike David, I had few expectations, and thus few surprises. I observed how he stayed in the background and let his crew do the work, but if he wanted something addressed, he spoke. He has a sense of what creates drama, and a talent for picking competent people he's worked with previously. He recruits them, so to speak, for his own projects.

SIG: In the film, how close do you remain to the original dialogue? Were there adjustments made, either by you or by Franco?

CP: Bryan Darling, the film editor, balanced new and old material quite well. Though we diverge from the dialogue, the spirit is quite close. I don't think we really, as David likes to say, "Throw out the script." That's only half true. For example, the beauty in nature/Pollock/Rothko, my first marriage, my Polynesian adventure, David's salary, atrocity porn, David's tendency to pull rank and remind me that he's the successful author, my envy and recognition that I lack any writing career; all these topics are in the book and film. The film becomes a quasi-sequel. What I like is that the film and book contrast. They're two separate works.

SIG: You covered such a vast array of topics over the course of those four days - family, work, writing, film, religion, therapy, politics, drugs, relationships, and so on. Looking back, is there anything you didn't talk about that you wish you had at the time?

CP: Yes. Perhaps the fact that many artists struggle. If your art does not afford you a living your choice is between your life responsibilities and art. Writing is a lot easier on a full stomach. We touch on this a little, but could have explored more.

SIG: What do you hope viewers will take from the film? Is this different than what you'd hope readers would take from the book?

CP: I'd like to think viewers come away engaged and inspired to create well and live well. I don't think the battle is life vs. art so much as how to combine the two, how they enhance one another. And though the book and film overlap, the book is quite different, more involved with conversations that fall into literary criticism.

SIG: The cinematic trope built around two men engaged in conversation is ongoing: There's "The Trip" with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, which you bring up in the book; the more recent "A Walk in the Woods," based on the Bill Bryson book; the documentary "Best of Enemies," featuring the 1968 televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.; "The Sunset Limited" with Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, based on the play by Cormac McCarthy. So: What do you think is the appeal of two men talking out life, philosophy, politics, and all the rest? And why, do you think, don't we see it more with women central to this simple plot setup?

CP: Let's see, "Thelma and Louise," would that count? Definitely, two women bullshitting doesn't have as many examples. How many films pass the Bechdel Test? Namely two women talking about something other than men. Equal rights between genders is still developing, but I think in the future women will carve this niche out.

SIG: Aside from one another, if you could spend four days with anyone else - alive or dead - for the sheer purpose of intelligent discourse, who would that person be?

CP: Well, I'd love to talk to someone like Chinese dissident Ai Wei Wei or jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and his wife, Ensaf Haidar, now in Canada petitioning for his release. But if I could have four days with anyone, it'd probably be my friend Ceza Nabarawi. It's not her real name. Ceza Nabarawi was an Arab feminist in the 1920s, which is why my friend chose the pseudonym. I mention Ceza in our book. She was a student of mine when I taught English in Al Ain, a city in the United Arab Emirates. She's intelligent, a devout Muslim, and a feminist who lived in Canada and the U.K. We've corresponded over the years about her experimentation in the West with sex, drugs, and alcohol; though she never took off her hijab in public. When she returned to the UAE her close friend was murdered. I'm also part Persian, I was engaged to a Muslim women, we lived together for a year, and for her I read the Koran, sat in on Islamic study sessions, and attended mosque. Four consecutive days with Ceza could accomplish what four years of letter writing could do, and we'd have plenty to talk about.