Rob Epstein already had one acclaimed solo documentary, 1984’s The Times Of Harvey Milk, under his belt when he teamed up with Jeffrey Friedman. Together they continued what Epstein started with Harvey Milk and the collaborative 1977 documentary Word Is Out: documenting topics with gay themes that others weren’t addressing. Their collaboration began with 1989’s Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt, a film that extended the AIDS Memorial Quilt’s attempts to put a human face to the AIDS epidemic. The Celluloid Closet, adapting Vito Russo’s groundbreaking book about how Hollywood’s depictions of homosexuality have changed over the decades, followed in 1996. The team’s 2000 effort, Paragraph 175, documented the Nazi persecution of gay men and women.
Epstein and Friedman’s latest film, Howl, breaks with the documentary world without crossing over into fiction. The film weaves together several threads related to Allen Ginsberg’s landmark 1955 poem “Howl.” One features James Franco as Ginsberg, recalling the film’s sources to an interviewer several years after its publication. Another recreates the 1957 San Francisco obscenity trial targeting publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And a third cuts between a reenactment of the first reading of the poem at the Six Gallery event in San Francisco with an animated realization of “Howl” conceived by artist and Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker. While visiting Chicago, Epstein and Friedman talked to The A.V. Club about their history with the poem, and why it matters just as much today as in Ginsberg’s time.
The A.V. Club: When did each of you encounter “Howl” for the first time?
Rob Epstein: I read it in high school, and probably understood 10 percent of it.
AVC: What impression did it make on you?
RE: The one thing that stands out is “Moloch,” which became a buzzword in high school to mean everything bad and powerful. Moloch will get you.
AVC: What made you return to it later, if you only got 10 percent of it at the time?
RE: I returned to it through this film, and the film came to us through the Ginsberg estate, who wanted us to make a movie about the poem. So, we said yes, and then we set about trying to figure out how you make a movie about a poem. It took us awhile.
AVC: Did you have a similar experience with the poem?
Jeffrey Friedman: Yeah, similar, and I really didn’t relate to the poem at all, because I didn’t understand anything about it. But I related to Allen somehow, probably because he was from north New Jersey, and I was from that part of New Jersey. So there was a familiarity with him, his persona, and where he came from that I did relate to, and that did feel very familiar.
AVC: You mentioned that the idea came from the Ginsberg estate.
JF: Yeah, the idea to do the film, not what the film became.
AVC: The idea to focus on one poem rather than the whole of Ginsberg’s life, how did that come about?
JF: There already exists a documentary called The Life And Times Of Allen Ginsberg, so we knew that that had been covered. As we got into it, we came to see that we really didn’t want to do a historical documentary that would be retrospective, where it would be older people talking about their younger selves. We wanted to come up with a way to make it the present tense, and to have Allen live somehow within a movie as his younger self, at this golden moment. That led us to the notion of writing it and dramatizing it. Then, we discovered all the other elements. We thought, “Well, we’ll just come up with a form where we could work with all these ideas—the animation, the trial, and Allen’s story.”
RE: We wanted to do something challenging, formally. We wanted to do something that was not a traditional biopic. We wanted to do something that would make people open their eyes a little, that would resonate the way the poem did when it came out. It was something very new at the time, and we felt if we made a very traditional documentary—
JF: —or biopic.
RE: —or a biopic, it just wouldn’t do justice to the subject.
AVC: After a string of documentaries, was it frightening to you to break with the documentary form?
JF: No, it was exciting. Exciting and liberating. We’ve been wanting to do a scripted dramatic film for awhile. We have a couple other projects we’ve been developing, and we’ve been on our own doing our own prep work with actors. So, we felt ready at this point in our lives to take it on. It felt like a good first step to working with dramatic material.
RE: I have to say, it felt challenging and fun, and it didn’t feel that different. I mean, it was making a movie. It was making a narrative story out of material that we filmed. The big difference was, we got to create the world we were filming, and that was thrilling.
JF: And you’re doing a feature, and it’s a very fast-moving machine, a very fast-moving train. Sometimes you feel like you’re driving that train, and sometimes you feel like you’re just hanging on for your dear life. That was different. Also, the fact that when you’re doing a documentary, you have to work very cheaply and quickly, and know when you have something, and move on to the next thing. All that, surprisingly, was very valuable in doing dramatic directing, and that, we couldn’t have predicted until we were in the driver’s seat.
RE: Constructing the story out of all these disparate elements is something we were used to from doing documentaries. In documentaries, you pull material from wherever. You might film interviews, use archival footage, recreate things—but the trick is to weave them together in a way that feels seamless. So in the editing room, the process felt very much like something we’ve done many times before.
AVC: You said you didn’t want to do a kind of reflective documentary, where you talk to people who were there, but did you talk to any of the survivors of the era?
JF: We did. We actually did interview them, and all of that will be on the DVD. We recorded all those research interviews: [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky. Those are all part of the DVD extras.
AVC: Was there was anything surprising about that process that you didn’t know about the era, or about “Howl” in particular?
JF: The Six Gallery scene in the movie is designed very much as Ferlinghetti described it. He gave a very vivid description of what the room was like—there was a storefront, it was small, about 30, 40 people. So we really designed that based on his memories, [including] Kerouac’s participation. There were some surprises from Allen’s partner, Peter [Orlovsky], who tells this story. The two of them used to walk the streets of San Francisco at night, and Peter used to recite a Hank Williams tune, “Howlin’ At The Moon.” Peter says that’s where he thinks Allen got the idea for the title. So that’s Peter’s perspective.
AVC: I wouldn’t have guessed that.
JF: Yeah. Who knows? But that’s what Peter says.
AVC: What advantages did having such a tight focus offer, vs. trying to tell a bigger story?
JF: Budget, with 14 shooting days. So it made it manageable doing it in 14 days.
AVC: Did the idea of doing an animated sequence come to you before talking to Eric Drooker, or was it the other way around?
JF: It really was a eureka moment. We were doing one of these research interviews with Tuli Kupferberg, a Beat poet who’s actually referenced in “Howl” as jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. It was actually the Manhattan Bridge. While we were there, we picked up this book that he had around. Or he showed it to us, I can’t remember. It was the book, Illuminated Poems by Allen and Eric. We just saw this art with Allen’s text and contacted Eric immediately thereafter and pitched him the idea of “What if we tried to animate ‘Howl’?” And he told us, in fact, Allen encouraged him to do something with “Howl,” and he hadn’t gotten to it. And then we started doing experiments and tests and got very excited about where it was going.
AVC: It’s an interesting challenge, because the poem contains some hard, specific imagery, but if you dwell on it for too long, it literalizes too much. Was that a concern of yours?
RE: Yeah, very much. It was a constant tug-of-war between literalizing and getting too abstract. What we wanted to do was to find a middle ground where we would allude to some of the actual images that were referred to, but not dwell on them, or try to make a big deal about them. Have them there as references, but also have flights of fancy that somehow resonate with the words. The goal was to give the viewer space to just experience the poem, to let your visual imagination go off on its own and let your aural, your hearing imagination follow the words, and somehow find your own way within that.
JF: Sometimes we felt the need to, not so much literalize it, but to give dramatic touchstones, like the Moloch section, to really dramatize the idea of Moloch so that it becomes its own narrative within the animation, and the whole allegory for what’s been going on with the oil wars. There were so many ideas within the animation that sometimes it is a kaleidoscopic and abstract, prismatic barrage of imagery, and sometimes you go on a brief narrative journey within them.
AVC: Why do you think “Howl”—and not any other piece out there—became the focal point for the Beat movement, and became the sensation it did?
JF: Allen said it was the trial that gave it and him his fame. He fully credits the trial, even though he had nothing to do with it.
RE: Everybody who was in that room [at the Six Gallery] when he read it said they knew they had heard something new and amazing, and something they’ve never heard before that night. People in that room knew that something special had happened.
JF: From a dynamic, rhythmic perspective, “Howl” is something that had never been done before.
RE: It was the beginning of spoken-word performance art.
JF: The precursor to rap.
RE: Poetry slams all began that night.
AVC: One thing I liked about Franco’s performance, and specifically his reading of the poem, is that he captured some of the dark humor that tends to get lost. Was that important to you?
JF: Yes. Certainly a lot in the interview, just in his being Allen, he captures a lot of that humor, and a lot of that just comes from Allen’s kind of New York Jewish affect, which James certainly nailed. It was important for us in fashioning the script, in working with a lot of the texts, all of which came from interviews that Allen gave throughout his life, to find those moments.
AVC: Did you study any other obscenity trials, to see how this one differed from other trials?
JF: Well, we looked at Lenny Bruce. And the film, Lenny, we studied for this in different ways, including the interviews in Lenny.
RE: I was very aware of the Mapplethorpe trial when that happened, and saw a lot of parallels.
AVC: One thing that occurred to me was the term that came up in the Ginsberg trial of “moral greatness.” It seems such an odd thing to have in a court of law. Also, the more I thought about it, using a different definition is not necessarily the worst way to judge a piece of work. Do you feel this poem has moral greatness, and how would you define it?
RE: Well, yes. How would I define it? Willingness to be real. It’s an argument for authenticity and realness. As the world around us becomes more and more unreal, and calls itself reality—television and non-fiction books that are actually fiction—our relationship to what’s real and important becomes more and more tenuous.
JF: “Howl” is so epic, and just runs the gamut from our darkest instincts to our most ecstatic transcendence, so I guess that’s how I think of it, as being a morality tale.
AVC: The film doesn’t make explicit connections between the 1950s and today, but I assume we could talk about how you feel “Howl” is relevant in 2010.
JF: Well, it doesn’t make explicit ones, but we feel it’s very implicit. Certainly the trial: Jon Hamm, his character Jake Ehrlich, in his closing argument has this line: “Let’s stop running from nonexistent destroyers of morals.” You take that line, and you can apply it to any one of a dozen news items that are in the paper every day right now, from gay marriage to the burning of the Quran. We—again, our darker instincts as a society, specifically our democratic American society—we fear what we do not know, we look to try and obliterate it, be it gay marriage or the freedom of practicing Islamic religion. Because we’re coming from a place of fear, we try and say this shouldn’t be. And that’s what the “Howl” trial is coming from. People didn’t understand the poem. They didn’t understand the language. They didn’t understand the candor. And they felt threatened by that, so they thought, “Let’s censor it. It shouldn’t be.” So I think that seems to be cyclical in American society, and just part of the dialectic of human society.
RE: Human nature.
JF: Just in terms of Allen’s message, his message, there’s all of his global themes played out in “Howl,” his statements about militarism and consumerism, all these cautionary tales that were so prescient, and things that we deal with now in this age of technology. There are also some—all of his essential humanistic themes about isolation and loneliness and unrequited love. Those are just endemic to being human.
RE: Also overcoming fear of what people think of you. He talks about realizing that it was all a fear trap, illusory, and that nobody would hate you if you just spoke from your heart.
AVC: Franco really captures that sort of beatific aura that Ginsberg had, later in his public persona. It’s a neat contrast with his younger, more erotic self as well. How was that performance shaped, and how was your experience working with Franco in creating the Ginsberg of the film?
RE: We had a long time to work with James, because he came on to the project very early, and we had enough financing for a long time. And he was very committed to the project. We had several concentrated rehearsal periods with him over the course of a year, and we started by going through the script line-by-line and really talking about it, and discussing what it meant to Allen, and where it was coming from, and what was going on in Allen’s life. We did the same thing with the poem, when he talks about madness in the poem, and when he talks about Carl [Solomon], who he met in the mental institution. He’s also talking about his mother, who was mad. And he was talking about his own fear of madness. So we had a lot of discussions about his internal life over the course of a year. And then the very last thing we did was send him audio and video of young Allen, as young as we could find.
JF: The Studs Terkel interview.
RE: So he could layer on the physicality and the vocal rhythms.
JF: We were lucky because we caught James at a particular moment in his life, and really for a year, we had very full access with him, and it was a lot of back-and-forth just between the three of us about the project.
RE: And James has a lot of those big beatific qualities himself, and artistic adventurous qualities.
AVC: Were you actually able to see Ginsberg read?
JF: I wasn’t.
RE: I chanted with him once.
AVC: What was that experience like?
RE: It was backstage in New York at the Academy Of Music before a performance of Paradise Now by The Living Theatre. The cast was backstage sitting around, with Allen leading the chant with his squeezebox. I don’t know why I was there, but I was, but I just chanted. [Laughs.] That’s all I remember.
AVC: Having met Ginsberg, did that give you any added obligation to do justice by his story?
RE: I think our relationship with Bob Rosenthal, his secretary of 30 years, who brought us the project, gave us a sense of responsibility.
JF: Who also completely trusted us. Really, he just gave us the property.
RE: Every time we came back to him with some new crazy idea, he said, “Great! Sounds great! I trust you.”
JF: His only advice was just to make it smart. Something interesting that Bob told us is that when Allen was interviewed, he’d start off the interview somewhat challenging, trying to figure out where the interview was coming from, and then expect the interview to be as smart as he was. That the interviewer would be expected to catch up. And then eventually, he would warm up and open up. And we tried to pace that somewhat in the structure of the interview in the film.
AVC: We’ve talked about how this differs from your other films, but what connections do you see between the documentaries you’ve made and Howl?
RE: Howl is all documentary-based. All the text comes from documentary materials.
JF: And all the visuals.
RE: It’s very rearranged and constructed, but so are documentaries. The process of putting together a narrative from disparate elements is a process we’re used to as documentary filmmakers.
JF: And even re-cutting the animation sequence. Once we got all—it was produced in Thailand, that’s where the animation production house was—once we got the sequences back as they were storyboarded, we would then restructure them, and just work them as shots and scenes, as you would with any material when you’re in the editing room.
Also, in terms of research, we had huge thick binders of photographs, every photograph we could find from every situation we were depicting in the movie, and that was very helpful for all the departments to work with, to visualize the sets and the costumes. That level of veracity was really important, we felt, and that was fun. That was part of the treasure hunt.