MOVIES | “Howl” director Jeffrey Friedman: “We knew we had to come up with something different and challenging”

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Directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein are known as documentary filmmakers, responsible for The Times of Harvey Milk (which won Epstein an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature), The Celluloid Closet, and many others. Their newest film Howl (produced by local company Werc Werk Works, and opening this weekend at the Lagoon Cinema), is the story of Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous poem, and the ensuing obscenity trial. Howl is their first feature film, shot in color and black and white, and also has a number of animated sequences. I had the opportunity to speak with director Jeffrey Friedman about this fascinating project. 


What brought you and Rob [Epstein, the co-director] to this project?
We have become big fans of [the poem] “Howl.” It definitely had a real impact on me in high school, even though I didn’t really understand it then. As I got into the project, I began to see that it planted the seeds for everything that happened in the 60s and 70s and 80s that really affect the way we look at everything. “Howl” affected the way we talk about life, about sex, about politics, talk about culture. The idea that there was this small group of writers who said ‘we’re going to create a new language, a new way of expressing our vision of the world’ and felt they were going to change the world… and did! It’s crazy. It’s crazy! So, it’s very romantic. And there were these young, sexy guys…


And what disparate characters. You’ve got Ginsberg, you’ve got Jack Kerouac the former Columbia football player, and Neal Cassady…
But they’re all coming back from World War II, and 20th Century America as we know it was becoming solidified. The military was being really strong, advertising was becoming a huge part of our lives, and consumerism was exploding. Everyone had to have dishwashers and cars and new houses. These are the kind of things these guys were howling against. But prosaically, the project was brought to us by the Ginsberg estate, who wanted something done for the fiftieth anniversary of the poem. That was quite a few years ago-the anniversary was in 2005. The project kept growing and changing and getting crazier and crazier.


You and Rob typically make documentaries. When I think of that and this feature film, it seems that this would have as much journalism as a documentary. What was involved?
We started with research. We began to learn as much as we could about the poem. There’s always a point in a project where we say “What have we got ourselves into? Why did I say I could make a movie about a poem? How do I do that?” We knew it was going to be about the poem specifically, not a movie about Ginsberg’s life. We felt that had been done, and done well, in Jerry Aronson’s The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg. The more we studied the poem, the less we wanted to any kind of traditional biopic. That seemed so predictable for such an unpredictable and risky work of art such as “Howl.” We knew we had to come up with something formally different and challenging. As documentary filmmakers, we did research. We read interviews Ginsberg gave over the course of his life. Then we discovered there was this Time interview during the obscenity trial that had never been published. What was it that Time didn’t want to publish? We tried to imagine how it would have been, and edited the interviews we had to make up the one in the film. Then we found the trial transcripts, which seemed like a treasure trove. There are moments of the theater of the absurd mixed with real, earnest people trying to understand what this poem is about. There’s this real sense of bewilderment and this fear of the changing world, that’s still so much a part of our culture. We still fear change and the march of history. People are afraid of change and want to push that back. This was a great way to contextualize the poem in its time. With the trial, we can show one way in which the world responded. And then there’s the poem itself, which we wanted to present in different ways in Howl. We really wanted the poem to be central to the film. “Howl” was presented to the world as performance—it was the first poetry slam. We had to show that. We wanted the poem to live cinematically. That’s where the animation came from. There’s a book of Ginsberg’s poems, including “Howl,” that was illustrated by Erik Drooker, who worked on the animation in the film. We had this idea of taking this collaboration and developing it with Erik in the movie. He’s very tuned into Ginsberg’s sensibility and aesthetic. It gave us a lot of security knowing he was on board.


James Franco is really amazing in “Howl”. It’s striking how much he looks like a young Ginsberg. How did he get involved in this project?
We didn’t think of him because we didn’t know his work. We knew him in Spider-Man. Gus Van Sant read the script and he suggested Franco, who was working with Gus shooting Milk. When Gus came on the project as executive producer, he told us that James was really serious, a great artist. We met with James in San Francisco, he’d read the script and right away he said, “I’m in.” There was a confluence of interest-he was a poet, a student of literature, he was the same age when Ginsberg wrote “Howl,” he was a fan of the Beats who had been going to City Lights Books since he was fourteen. He figured he’d be in a Beat film sometime, but he thought he’d play Kerouac. But he really identified with Ginsberg’s spirit.


Was it difficult to make the transition from making documentaries to a feature film? Not to mention one with such an interesting structure? For the first time you’re working with actors, but also animation.
Yes and no. In some ways it felt very natural to us, because as documentary filmmakers, we’re used to creating a narrative out of different pieces, from research and archival footage, photographs and audio tape. You piece it together and make a story out of it. As far as the script was concerned, that felt natural to us. Working with actors was the big challenge, and the most exciting part of it. The bottom line there was realizing that actors are real people, unlike non-actors, the people you interview, they’re very skilled at giving you what you need. It some sense it was easier!


Was the animation a challenge?
It was, but we had a great team. In addition to Erik, who designed the look, we had an animation director, John Hays, who was very experienced, and a studio in Thailand, the Monk Studios which had artists familiar with Erik’s work. That was a very steep learning curve, though. Fantasia, Waltz with Bashir, and American Splendor were all influences.