James Franco and Matt Rager on 'As I Lay Dying'

By Merve EmreOctober 27, 2013

James Franco and Matt Rager on 'As I Lay Dying'

IN HIS 1930 MASTERPIECE As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner wrote, “When something is new and hard and bright, there ought to be something a little better for it than just being safe, since the safe things are just the things that folks have been doing so long they have worn the edges off.” There is nothing safe about actor-director James Franco and his screenwriter Matt Rager’s film adaptation of As I Lay Dying (2013) — the story of the Bundren family’s journey to bury their mother, Addie, among her kinfolk in Jefferson, Mississippi. Franco and Rager’s As I Lay Dying is an adaptation in the strictest sense of the word: a faithful transposition of Faulkner’s experimental narrative techniques into the visual realm. Here the pair discusses how they made Faulkner’s journey their own. 

— Merve Emre


MERVE EMRE: How did you two come to this project?

JAMES FRANCOAs I Lay Dying is one of my favorite books. I remember my father recommending it to me when I was about fifteen and spending a weekend reading it while my friends were out partying on Friday and Saturday night. I fell in love with it for several reasons: it packed an emotional wallop; it was structurally and syntactically complex, as a teenager I couldn’t quite grasp everything, and I loved that, it turned the book into a puzzle to figure out, the best kind of puzzle because it was an artistic puzzle; and I loved how epic it felt even though on one level it’s just a simple story about a death in a family.

Once I started directing my own movies I realized that it was the time for me to start championing the projects that I believed in. I no longer had to wait for someone to cast me in good films; I could go initiate them and make them in the ways I want to. I also realized that I am a director who works best with adaptations rather than original screenplays. I love collaboration and an adaptation is a way to collaborate with authors whom I love, like Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy, or Frank Bidart, or Charles Bukowski, or Robert Boswell, or C.K. Williams. Even if they are no longer alive I get to engage closely with their work, and it is as close to working with them as I’ll ever get, and I would argue that their work puts me closer to them than if I were working with them in person. So, I immediately started looking at all the books I’ve ever loved over the years. I started with poems by Anthony Hecht, Frank Bidart, Spenser Reece, and Hart Crane; then I moved to the great novelists: Faulkner and McCarthy.

I know my weakness when I adapt authors I love: I try to put everything in. I wrote a draft of As I Lay Dying that was 160 pages, a typical screenplay is about 110–120 pages. Matt is a good friend from Yale and is very smart about literature. I asked him to write a draft based on what I had done — which was pretty close to the book anyway — and he put it into great shape.

MATT RAGER: James and I came at it from the fiction side of things. I had been reading some of his short fiction and giving him feedback on it, and we had been sending things back and forth and toying with the idea of trying to do some sort of strange, experimental collaborative fiction project. We were talking about the different projects he was doing, and he happened to mention that As I Lay Dying was something he had been working on and thinking about for a long time. At that point he actually had a completed draft. So he sent me the draft and asked for feedback, and I read through it and gave him a whole series of notes; some more film-centric things like pacing, but others too — larger theoretical questions about what it means to adapt a literary text like this.

Eventually his producer Vince [Jolivette] read my notes and then he and James came back to me and said, “Hey, do you want to take a stab at the script?” That was the exact sentence. And I said, “Sure,” not knowing exactly what that would entail. And then they basically just sent me the script and said, “Have at it; do what you would do with it.”

ME: In editing the initial draft, what did you two tinker with? Were there certain stylistic features that you had initially carried over from the book that you thought wouldn’t be productive in the film?

MR: The version that James had was long. A major part of my job was trying to carve it down into manageable size. As I Lay Dying is a really important book to James — it’s one of his favorite books — and he always wanted to put everything in there. I worked as the outside perspective that was wiling to say, “In the dramatic movement, maybe we don’t need this subplot, these side characters.”

The main issue we had was length. Not from the crass or simplistic notion of making it shorter, but from the standpoint of thinking about the difference between reading a text and watching a film. As I Lay Dying is designed for you to circle back around to the same scenes and the same characters from different perspectives. So it sets up this recursive reading habit, which is so different than when you’re sitting down to the two-hour burst of narrative you get in film.

It was actually a really fun way of thinking about modernist literature. Unless you’re a narratologist, you don’t really think about the narrative in terms of pacing. You pay attention to the themes, forms of language, symbolism. It’s amazing that when you read really closely, you don’t picture what things look like. What does it look like when Vardaman is crouching in the river? What does Dewey Dell’s breadbox look like?

So you go back to the book as a book you think you know well, and you realize certain things. For example, Addie doesn’t die until page 130 of a 200-page book — I’m approximating here — and yet from a narrative perspective, she’s dying, she dies, and they get on the road. To put it bluntly, we were trying to figure out how to get her dead sooner and how to get the Bundrens on the road sooner. We needed to signal to the viewer upfront that it was ultimately a journey narrative.

JF: Matt has touched on something about adaptation that I love: when one adapts a book into a film he is forced to turn things into concrete images because film deals with the image. Every choice you make from the costumes, to the locations, to the cast, to the shooting style, to the lighting, and on and on, will contribute to how the film looks. It is a matter of reading the book and trying to interpret something that is text-based into something that is image-based, and I feel that this kind of creative interpretation is akin to scholarship. It is the way a creative person does scholarship: you try to find out what the author was trying to do, to determine the picture he was trying to paint, and then you interpret those perceived intentions. That being said, this approach is only applicable if you are making a more or less loyal adaptation of the book; if not, maybe you don’t care what the author was trying to do.

Like he said, Matt helped me cut out some of the excess in the script. But we still had a ton, ha! We ended up shooting some stuff that we eventually cut in the editing stage. For example, they first go to Samson’s bridge before they try to cross the river at Tull’s place. In the book it’s fine, but in a film there wasn’t much need to see two bridges that are out, we get it with one: the river rose and knocked the bridge away; they needed to cross some other way if they want to get to town. Sometimes things can be told, or need to be told, more economically in a film.

ME: What scenes or overarching narrative decisions changed for you between writing, filming, and editing As I Lay Dying? 

MR: There are cases where the final product was not what either one of us had really imagined. For instance in the book, they go to Samson’s barn the first night they’re on the road before they get to the river on the second night. It’s not in the film, but we filmed all of that. We really wanted to establish that this was a long arduous journey, and we wanted to track the passage of time; these are some really great scenes because the whole family is sitting in the barn because they’ve refused the charity of Samson’s family, who argues about them in the other room. But then when we watched the earlier cut we realized how much it slows the film down and that we really needed to get them to the river faster. But the performances did that work for us. For instance, Jim Parrack, who plays Cash, was so good at wearing the arduousness of the journey — particularly after his leg injury — that the extra night at Samson’s barn becomes unnecessary.

JF: There is a scene that comes at the end of the book where Anse steals his daughter Dewey Dell’s money, which she has been saving to get an abortion. He forces it from her, and it’s devastating because you see how selfish Anse actually is: he only wants the money to get new teeth. We filmed it, and it was an awesome scene, some of the best acting on the shoot. But in the final cut it became a double beat because we already knew how selfish Anse was, and Dewey had already had her low point with the pharmacist (he rapes her), so to have one more scene, albeit a great scene, would have hurt the whole movie. This certainly was like killing one of my darlings.

Another small but poignant thing we shot but cut was the scene where little Vardaman drills holes in his mother’s coffin to allow her to breathe because he doesn’t believe she’s dead, and inadvertently he drills two holes into her corpse’s face. This is a great scene because it shows how much the boy cares for his mother but also how misguided his actions are. It’s a mini paradigm for how the rest of the family behaves throughout the novel, especially Anse: their intentions are not evil, but they are misguided and lead to harm. Ultimately we had to cut the scene because we needed to get the story on the road, so to speak, and we already knew that the boy missed his mother, and we would get enough of the Bundrens blundering in the rest of the film.

ME: It sounds like you two had pretty complimentary approaches to adaptation.

MR: One of the things I tried to do was emphasize to James that all adaptations are interpretations, and that this was, therefore, his interpretation of the book through the film. There’s so much in the text that’s ambiguous that the relevant question becomes, which parts do you try to portray with ambiguity, so viewers can offer their own interpretation, and at which place do you as the writer and filmmaker offer an interpretation of that ambiguity? 

JF: I suppose I was most interested in capturing the structure and characters of Faulkner’s novel; I wanted both the content and the style. So, we ended up using split screen because we wanted to give a sense of the multiple perspectives in the book — based on the fact that each chapter is told from a different character’s first person perspective. If we had broken the film along the lines of the chapters I was worried that it would be too clunky going back and forth so often. The split screen was a more fluid way of delivering the same feeling.

The other technique we used to capture the material of the book was a kind of reality television confessional to deliver the interior monologues. In the book the interior monologues are so dense and complex; they use diction that these characters wouldn’t realistically use. It’s as if Faulkner is speaking for these characters. He is giving voice to their deep feelings, to their souls. So, we wanted to capture some of that language, but we couldn’t just do it with normal voice-over; we needed to make it strange. There is something very intimate about the interior monologues, so I thought talking directly to the camera would give a sense of this intimacy.

ME: Were there specific parts where you wanted that interpretive work to be different? I am thinking about Addie’s section, when she speaks after she’s already died, and it’s unclear where or when she’s speaking from. It seems like a difficult scene to hash out in terms of chronology and visualization.

MR: There’s a really beautiful shot in the film of Addie’s coffin as it’s floating down the river and the sun is shining on it; that’s when the voice-over comes in with Beth Grant’s face front and center. The way I always imagined it; you would never see Addie. The voice would be an ethereal, ghostly presence coming in from who knows where. And then they tried that in the initial edit, but it’s a long enough monologue that, as a viewer, it gets awkward having that much vocalization without a face attached to it. And I held on to it for a long time because I had all these theoretical reasons for why we shouldn’t see her. But I agreed at the end upon watching it that it’s just one of those things that doesn’t translate.

In the book, that’s when Faulkner goes into Addie’s long backstory, which is interrupted by a Whitfield chapter. From a literary perspective, that’s immediately subversive. We’re finally inside Addie’s mind and you wonder, “Where did Whitfield come from, sticking his nose and life and hypocrisy into things?” We tried a version of that where suddenly Whitfield is the one talking to the camera, but from a viewer’s perspective you wonder, “Who is this guy? Why is he suddenly on the screen?”

And finally, there was the ending, which is one of the things that’s so weird and interesting and provocative about the book — how it’s constantly undercutting itself, a road epic that’s constantly undercutting its own epic-ness and the last line [“Meet Mrs. Bundren”] that undercuts the whole journey. The family gets to Jefferson, and the funeral is so anti-climactic, and they each dissolve into their private worlds. From a filmic perspective it’s very hard to make that work; on the one hand you want to finish everyone’s narrative; on the other hand, you don’t want to feel like the movie has four different endings.

JF: I never had a problem showing Addie speaking after she was dead. In the book that chapter comes in the middle, and at the top of the chapter it says, “Addie,” like it does for all the other live characters. The book never explains where she’s speaking from, so I didn’t feel a great need to explain how she was speaking. I see it as the spirit of Addie residing in the family. I mean, if you really examine the structure of the book, this chapter is no more troubling than the others. I mean, why would all the characters be telling this story together? Who are they telling it to? Why do they have deep philosophical debates with themselves? How do they seamlessly pick up the story where the last one left off? So, having Addie’s spirit speak in the middle without explaining it was great with me. She was like the weary narrator, the sad spirit who had escaped the confines of the family and was reflecting on why she wanted out so bad. And in a sense she speaks for all of them; they all want out.

The thing about Faulkner is that he writes about very raw material: rape, gangrened legs, people being hauled off to asylums, etc. But sometimes he buries what’s really happening under his involuted prose or his structure. I felt strongly about bringing all this material to the fore so that the movie would have all the energy that is underneath Faulkner’s narratives. Sometimes Faulkner is adapted in a quaint way, and I feel like it’s a betrayal of his very passionate, even melodramatic subjects. Our ending shows each character’s demise in a climactic montage. They sadly each get punished, they each lose something, and then it’s topped by the clownish Anse, with his new teeth and new wife. It shows how epic the journey was, and in the end it was full of sound and fury and signified nothing. Even though it signifies everything, it is a portrait of life, of family.

ME: There’s a kind of difficulty to watching the movie that’s similar in texture to the quintessential difficulty of a modernist text: the multiple narrators, the ambiguous temporality, and the return of symbols whose importance is unclear. To what extent did you want this to be a difficult film or try to transpose the book’s textual difficulty into film? 

MR: We didn’t want it to be difficult for the sake of difficulty, but in that sense if you think about the texture of the book and what makes the book matter, one of the things that matters is the denseness and the layered quality of it. That’s the part we didn’t want to lose. So on the one hand you want to emphasize that through-line. We felt the way to make it accessible to people who weren’t as familiar with the book was to clearly establish the core narrative structure: mom dies, she wants to be buried far away, they get on the road, everyone has their own thing they’re working through. So we tried to hit on that throughout while then not losing the difficulty of the language, layering the denseness of it on top of that. 

JF: I agree. Robert Altman used to talk about having a through-line that he could always return to. This through-line played like a clothesline upon which he could hang all his other more complex material. One of the other reasons I thought As I Lay Dying could work as a film was because it had a very simple base story: the mom/wife dies, they take her to be buried in the city. It’s not only a simple story, it has movement; it’s a journey. It is like they are on a train, within which they each have their own private cars for their own private dramas. I thought that I would be able to experiment more with film techniques because I had such a solid overarching narrative. I could try things like split screen and layering techniques because I knew the narrative would inevitably move because the frame narrative was constantly progressing. 

ME: Can you talk a bit more about how you decided to use the split screen as liberally as you did?

MR: It was a happy accident. We were filming the sequence in which Dewey Dell has a flashback to her first sexual experience, and in the flashback Darl starts talking to her. It inhabits a strange space; you’re not quite sure whether it’s a dream sequence or an actual memory; you don’t know who she’s talking to, or if she’s imagining the conversation taking place, and I think it was when they were prepping that scene, and they were playing with the different ways of setting it up that they came up with the split screen idea.

It was an important stylistic question. Can you feature the split screen occasionally in a film? Or do you have to introduce it at the beginning and carry it through to the end? It wasn’t until we got back the rough cut of the first 10 minutes and saw side by side that we thought it might work a lot of different ways. For example, you’ll have a character make a statement and then you’ll have the internal reaction of another character to this statement. The standard “camera one, camera two” way of filming conversations means you’re always only looking at one person. So we wanted to see what happens when you could see both people, both sides at once. It sets up the tension of the way these characters are all a family, but no one actually says anything to each other. They’re all circling around each other watching how they react to other things.

I also love how the split screen gets used when they’re in the wagon. I was always picturing a bigger, grander wagon myself. But the art directors knew what kind of wagon a family of that socioeconomic status would have. And the actors were all like “Seriously, this is the wagon we’re going to be on?” But I love that image of them all squished down on one side of this tiny wagon with the first person point-of-view juxtaposed with the small distance between all of them.

JF: The thing about the split screen is it makes everything strange. It captures the layers that are in the book. If Faulkner wrote this book as a straight narrative without any of his modernist techniques, we wouldn’t still be reading it today. The story is simple. We needed to make the film as strange and as complex as the book, while still considering the expectations of the film medium as opposed to the book form. We didn’t want to lose our audience, but if we didn’t capture something of the style of the book then we wouldn’t have been adapting Faulkner.

ME: There are these moments where As I Lay Dying can feel bleakly comic — I’m thinking of the end in particular. Did you two discuss that?

MR: I think the bleak irony of Faulkner’s text does come through, especially on multiple viewings. The question was, how do you remain respectful to the characters that Faulkner ironizes, but on the other hand maintain the deep pathos of the novel? We were willing to risk seeming too solemn with it rather than seem condescending towards the characters.

So much of the comedy is retrospectively funny. You don’t read a scene and go “Ha!” You read it; you read the next chapter; then you loop back and go, “Oh! I get it.” The scene that most generously depicts Darl as the poetic soul that you want him to be is from Cora Tull’s perspective. And everyone else thinks she’s just a moron. Those sorts of things are funny but only with the distance that comes from multiple reading. And so that seems like the kind of thing that was the hardest to replicate in film without laughing at the characters.

JF: I think our movie is appropriately funny. Anse is ridiculous and comedic. But anyone who thinks As I Lay Dying is a comic novel is warped. There are little moments, but that’s all. I think we made the movie funnier than the book is. Tim Blake Nelson is a comic genius and makes that character both comedic and terrifying. We used as much humor as we saw in the book, to do any more would be betraying Faulkner. And I cast Danny McBride! What more can I do? Death, rape, gangrene, broken dreams, insanity, abuse, affairs, lecherous preachers, theft, dead mules, a stinking corpse, vultures… what the fuck is funny?

ME: What does the future hold for the two of you?

MR: We just finished shooting the first half of The Sound and the Fury, which I wrote the script for. I was just down there working on set as a consultant.

JF: We shot more than half, about two thirds. I play Benjy; I’m too old for Quentin. We are trying to capture the style and structure of the book. There is no point in adapting it if we don’t take on the style. That was already done with Sound and the Fury, and the results were less than spectacular. I think all the jumping around will actually be much easier to follow on screen than it is in the book because of the whole visual medium thing: you will see which time period you are jumping to because the actors will be a specific age, and they will be in a specific location.

ME: What have you learned from As I Lay Dying that seems applicable to The Sound and the Fury, a text which might pose even more of a challenge for filmic adaptation. I have in mind Benjy’s section. 

MR: I don’t want to jinx myself because in some ways it’s more of a challenge, but in other ways it’s easier. As I Lay Dying is a journey in which the journey is shown to be futile, whereas The Sound and the Fury works as a family drama. It is at heart a family drama, and you can use that as a stable starting point upon which you layer in all the perspectives and time shifts and all of that.

JF: The big lesson I learned was to place all the pieces for the audience so that I can then take them on a complex journey. As long as I introduce some things in a clear way then I can do more experimental things.

ME: Is Light In August next or are you guys going straight for the Snopes Trilogy? 

MR: I’m not sure as of right now, but trilogies are all the rage, aren't they 

JF: There are about five million books I want to adapt. There is nothing I enjoy more than this: adapting books I love into films and collaborating with the people I love. It’s the absolute best job in the world.


Merve Emre is an English Language and Literature graduate student at Yale.

LARB Contributor

Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), The Ferrante Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), and The Personality Brokers (Doubleday: New York, 2018), which was selected as one of the best books of 2018 by the New York Times, the Economist, NPR, CBC, and the Spectator. She is the editor of Once and Future Feminist (Cambridge: MIT, 2018) and a centennial edition of Mrs. Dalloway, forthcoming from Liveright.


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