Franco talks poetry, filmmaking to sold-out crowd at Chicago campus


Scott Brown/The Daily Northwestern

James Franco, an actor, poet and filmmaker, speaks at the Chicago Humanities Festival Wednesday night at Northwestern’s Chicago campus. Franco debuted his new poetry collection at the festival.

Scott Brown, Reporter

Murderous necrophilia doesn’t usually attract a crowd. But more than 700 people came Wednesday night to see James Franco speak about just that at the Northwestern School of Law.

Franco directed the short film “Herbert White,” an adaptation of a poem of the same name about an eponymous child murderer, for a class assignment while he was a student at New York University. The poem “Herbert White” was written in 1973 by Frank Bidart, who shared the stage with Franco at the event, part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Bidart read the poem for a sold-out audience in Thorne Auditorium, saying it was just the third time he has ever read it in public.

“’Herbert White’, I assure you, is not autobiographical,” Bidart said. “I have this mortal fear that someone will in some naive way assume that this is a confessional poem.”

Franco said he heard the poem while taking classes at NYU and got “tingles.”

“We all have a secret, a side of ourselves we never want to share,” Franco said. “That’s at the core. That was the drama for me.”

Franco soon approached Bidart about adapting “Herbert White” into a short film for a class assignment. The two got together for dinner, and Franco said they immediately connected.

“It literally lasted eight hours. They closed the restaurant down around us,” Franco said. “Our conversation was this beautiful mix of poetry and film and the way those things flowed together.”

For Bidart, the collaboration was an exciting opportunity.

“One of the terrible dangers about being in your late 60s and 70s is that you feel everything you experience is going to be a repetition of what you’ve already experienced,” Bidart said. “But meeting James felt like something new in my life, and I could not see the parameters of where such conversations would go.”

After directing the film, which was screened at the event, Franco said he was inspired to continue to explore different sides of his creativity. Franco read excerpts from “Directing Herbert White,” his upcoming poetry collection. The collection’s title poem was inspired by the experience of making the film. Franco read the poem to the crowd, along with six others that mused on topics such as Lindsay Lohan, life in Los Angeles and the personal impacts of fame.

“All these people were writing about Hollywood from an outside perspective,” Franco said. “But this position I found myself in where I have feet in different worlds, I embraced it and found that actually there was great energy.”

Weinberg freshman Nida Bajwa, who attended the talk, said she was impressed by Franco’s ability to cross lines.

“I think oftentimes when actors try to show different sides of themselves, it’s often negatively portrayed in the media,” Bajwa said. “But the film legitimized him as a filmmaker. He’s not just an actor.”

Bajwa also emphasized Franco’s genuine and down-to-earth personality. As the talk ended and the audience began to applaud, Franco spoke up one last time.

“Thank you everyone,” he said. “This is a night I’ll always remember.”

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