James Franco talks directing biopic 'Sal' and his upcoming Broadway debut

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More than a decade after playing James Dean in the 2001 TV biopic of the actor, ultimate multitasker James Franco went behind the camera to direct Sal, a film depicting the final day in the life of Sal Mineo, Dean’s co-star, two-time Oscar nominee, and openly gay former teen heartthrob who was murdered outside his L.A. home in 1976 at age 37.

Franco pursued the film after reading the 2010 biography of Mineo. Starring Val Lauren as Mineo, Sal was reportedly shot in nine days — “It was shot quickly,” Franco tells EW, adding that he couldn’t remember the exact number — and examines the mundane daily tasks of Mineo’s life while exploring his passion for the arts.

Of course, this isn’t Franco’s only project slated for release — the actor/director/writer/film professor is set to tackle the “Of Mice and Men” stage revival in his Broadway debut next year, as well as more than a dozen other works in progress. Franco took a break to talk to EW about Sal and his upcoming Broadway turn.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What intrigued you about Sal Mineo’s life?
JAMES FRANCO: I thought he was a great example of a passionate artist, and I really liked his work. I also thought his story was tragic, not only because he was murdered, but right before that, his career had faded. He worked very hard in his career, he wanted to direct, he was planning to direct an adaptation of a book, and so I could relate in a lot of ways. It was the tragedy of an artist who can’t practice the art in the way that he used to be able to.

If you wanted to portray his passion for art, why focus on the very last day of his life?
I realized all the things I wanted to say about him could be said if I focused on his last day. I was less interested in telling his life story, so I kind of had an idea of what happened on his last day: It was just full of events that I believed talked about his personal life and talked about his art and his passion for acting and filmmaking, and I thought, “Here’s a great, unconventional way to tell everything I wanted to tell about his whole life, and I could do it in a very concentrated and unconventional way.”

Tell me about getting Val Lauren for the role.
I’d known for years that if I ever did something about Sal Mineo, that Val Lauren would play him. I’d known Val for over 15 years. We met in our first acting class, and we’d joke about — it was sort of a joke and sort of not — about doing a one act play, where I would play James Dean, and he would play Sal Mineo. But Val was kind of delusional at the time, and he thought he should play James Dean and should play Sal Mineo [laughs]. I put that Sal Mineo idea on the back burner, and then the book came out, and I thought, “Alright!” I was like, “Val, would you be up for this?” and he was like “Yeah!”

How did you go about researching for the film?
I knew all I had to do was mark out specific activities for Sal Mineo’s last day. Some were based on what actually happened and some were based on what might have happened, because who knows exactly? Val really just filled out the character. He did so much research on his own that I could just say, “Okay, here’s the path of Sal Mineo’s day,” and Val would just step on set and fill it out. It was in a way almost like making a documentary about Sal, because Val would just be Sal, and I would just follow him.

What was it like, shooting the film so quickly?
It was my second feature after going to NYU film school, and I was sort of used to, at that point, making period films that were set in the ’70s with very modest budgets. I depended on my production designer and producers a lot, who helped me find the locations that still looked like the ’70s. When we made Sal, we were really good at it, and I had a great actor who was perfect for the role. We had to fill in the world around him and make sure that that was at the same level that he was.

You have a long scene in the film where Sal is rehearsing on stage, and the camera barely moves. What went into that decision?
The way we present that scene, it’s really sort of the climax. It’s like, here is Sal rehearsing a play, doing what he does, practicing his art, and so it was more about watching Sal on stage.

You’re actually in that scene as the director of Sal’s play, “P.S. The Cat is Dead,” Milton Katselas. We only see the back of your head — that’s an interesting choice.
I don’t mind acting in my own things. I’d prefer not to, because I love collaborating with other actors, and if I act in my own films, it cuts down the level of collaboration, because I’m just looking at myself. But if I’m needed in a role or if it will help the movie, I don’t mind doing it.

Aside from Sal, you also announced that you’ll be making your Broadway debut in “Of Mice and Men” next year. What’s the status on that?
It’s a project that people have been talking about for a while. There was another incarnation years ago that was going to be directed by the director of this production, Anna Shapiro, who won the Tony for August: Osage County, and I learned that “Of Mice and Men” was her dream project, and for whatever reason, she’s always wanted me in it. She asked me back then, years ago, and it fell apart. Then it came around again, and I was asked to do it before she was asked back. [The producer and I] asked her and she said, “I hope my heart doesn’t get broken again if it falls apart, but I’ll try to do it with you guys.” And she did. I’ve gotten to know her, we’ve been talking about this for a while, so we’ve become friends. I think she’s just the greatest, and rehearsals start in February, and we go up, I guess, March or April.

So you’ve got Sal, Broadway, and half a dozen other projects next year. Any chance you want to take a break?
Well. [Pauses] I mean, I’ll take a break at the holidays.

Sal opens today in select theaters in Los Angeles. Check out the trailer below:

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