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Professor James Franco: A UCLA Student Talks About What It Was Like to Take the Actor's Screenplay Class

James Franco in Oz the Great and Powerful
James Franco in Oz the Great and Powerful

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James Franco: actor, director, screenwriter, poet, painter and now professor.

In the fall, the man with many talents decided to take his gifts and share them with the students of UCLA. Franco was still teaching at UCLA for the winter quarter and will move on to USC. Before that he taught at NYU and Columbia.

The fall quarter is over now, but just before it ended we got a chance to talk to Nicolas Curcio, one of the students who scored a golden ticket into Franco's screenplay-writing class and spent three hours a week for 10 weeks with the man.

Since it's James Franco week at the movies, with Oz the Great and Powerful out last week and Spring Breakers opening today, we thought it would be a good time to bring you Curcio's inside scoop on the experience:

Why did you decide to take the class?

When I was in community college I took a fiction/short story creative writing class. And then when I got here last year I took a poetry workshop. I've always just been really into writing so when they offered this type of creative writing class, which was screenplay, I was interested and I figured it wouldn't hurt to apply. I didn't think I would get in but I ended up getting in.

Did James Franco's name lure you to take the class or was it the subject?

I would say it would be both. I read his short stories when they came out and a lot of people don't really like his writing but I think that he took creating writing classes here as well, and that he is kind of in the same type of genre of writing that I really like, which is kind of that new contemporary, dirty new Bukowski era of writing. It's dirty realism. I know that he loves Ginsberg and all of the beats so I figured that it would be cool to see what he is into.

What's your class about?

It's officially a screenplay/creative writing workshop but it's definitely very experimental and a few people were weirded out by this.

So each week we'll bring in a piece of fiction, which is pretty normal for a writing workshop. We are in this zone of writing where everyone knows we are kind of looking for autobiographical, a fictionalized version of yourself...

The experimental part is we film on two cameras the whole class and the readings. We'll film the feedback James gives us, the discussions of the readings and movies of the week.

They are also teaching us how to edit so it's kind of like a writing, film appreciation and editing film hybrid. So basically each week one or two people switch off with the footage and...cut a little three-minute episode with [footage from] the class and with footage that we film on our own.

How did you feel when you first heard you would be filmed?

I was okay with it. The first three weeks everyone was a little nervous. We are all like the writing type and not actors, so it's just weird to be filmed and see yourself. It's pretty normal now.

How was your first day of class?

I think my first day was actually the second week because I was on the waitlist and somebody dropped. It was a little weird seeing him in person. He looked exactly like you expect and by the end of the first class the pressure was off. He's a very accessible, normal person. I think the first couple minutes are weird and then you kind of get used to it.

How is James Franco as a teacher?

I think that a lot of people figured his assistant would teach the class and he wasn't going to be there but he's there every week and he's completely dedicated. We've even met during optional class meetings. He definitely cares a lot about teaching and it's not just something he's just doing. As a teacher he's has office hours and is pretty normal. He's attentive and listens to 12 people each read a ten-minute story and gives five or 10 minutes of feedback every week.

Any lesson that he's taught that stood out?

I wasn't interested in making film before, but now that I've started to experiment with Final Cut Pro it's definitely inspired me to look at film more. I was inspired to turn one of my writings [into a short film] for a campus film fest because now I know how to edit. So I mentioned it to him and he told me to bring it into class so we could watch it. And right away the next week in class he asked if I had the movie and we showed it and the class liked it. So if anything it's just really cool. I'm not saying he's going to expose my work, it's just kind of nice to have someone that you admire see something that you made give you feedback.

Up next: why Jersey Shore was on the syllabus

 

How did watching Jersey Shore end up on the syllabus?

That was the week before I got there so I guess I don't know the whole story about that. I guess the overall huge thing we do is a type of response to art. We'll watch a show like Jersey Shore and the assignment will be "give me your creative response to this" and some people will write a story with themselves in it saying, "I'm sitting here watching Jersey Shore and it's a piece of shit." Or it could be a drunken antic that was inspired by Jersey Shore. So we are not studying film in Jersey Shore, it's more like simply just responding to some type of art that people wouldn't normally think is sophisticated.

What is the message you take from class?

I think I'm more in tune to themes of current art like taking something like fast food and turning it into art. So I learned that anything could be turned into art. We've seen plenty of examples and trends in current literature that is barely 10 years old. It's also about the collaboration because we are all very in it together. No one is competing in the class. Everybody likes each other's stuff and everybody talks to each other.

Would you say you are still star-struck by him?

Not anymore. Even if I was to see him on Conan, because now I know him. People sit next to him and bump arms with him or talk to him during the break. After a couple of weeks you kind of break the barrier.

There are still tons of people [not in the class] who harass him after class each week. I guess no one can stop you from sitting there and waiting for someone to come out but he's a teacher and occasionally somebody opens the door mid-class and interrupts our class just because it's him.

How have you seen him handle it?

I think I was there one time when he left and I know he took a picture with a bunch of kids and I saw them on Facebook. I remember the first day a bunch of people were lined up and would stop him...It's never a paparazzi scene but mostly he just smiles a lot and talks to people.

Would you take another class with him?

Yeah I definitely would. I like that we make the decisions. Week to week as a group we discuss what we want to do, with his guidance. I think that each class he teaches is what kind of things he likes at the moment and wants to show us. That creates a vibe and the students decide from there. I would take it again because each class is unique. It's very flexible.

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