In 1955, an accomplished 29 year-old poet presented his vision of the world as a poem in four parts…
So starts Howl, the first narrative feature for Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. The duo started their collaborative partnership in 1987 with the documentary, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. It went on to win an Oscar; it was the first for Friedman, and the second for Epstein, who had previously won for another documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). They are also responsible for the groundbreaking documentaries, The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Paragraph 175 (2000).
The idea for a film about the famous poem began when Epstein and Freidman were approached by the Estate of Allen Ginsberg to make a film celebrating the 50th anniversary of Howl. Both men were Ginsberg fans and recognised it as a great opportunity. “We jumped at it without really understanding what we were getting into,” Friedman reflects. “The poem was a liberating event for a generation of artists and writers and we wanted to do something that at least took some risks; something formally adventurous and challenging in the same way that the poem felt when it came out.
The Sundance Institute supported the project through its documentary and narrative film funding strands.
“We went to Sundance and told them we were going to make a formal hybrid about a poem,” Friedman says. “They got very excited about it. They are very supportive of cross-genre work and they encouraged us to mix and match as much as we could.”
A long development period followed, during which the filmmakers considered how best to represent the poem in film form. Three dominant components of the story emerged: the need to represent the poem itself; the need to represent the character of Ginsberg; and the infamous obscenity trail in which the publisher of Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore, was prosecuted and stood trial in San Francisco Municipal court. The trial became an era-defining battle for freedom of expression.
“It really all came together when we found the elements we wanted to use,” Friedman explains. “We found a book of poems called Illuminated Poems that Allen had published, in collaboration with Eric Drooker. We got in touch with Eric to talk about doing the artwork for the animation. We also wanted to understand the world from where the poem came, the world into which it was introduced and how that world responded.
“There were great interviews with Allen where he talked, at different times over the years, about the writing of the poem but there was no footage of him as a young man. There was footage of him as a much older man, looking back, but we really wanted to capture the youthful energy and rebelliousness that the poem embodies, so we had to recreate these interviews. Then we found the trial transcript, this amazing theatre of the absurd, where lawyers were questioning literature professors on the meaning of life and poetry. It was almost too good to be true. Once we got to that point it only took about a year to write the script.”
Photographs from the period inspired the composition of the film, and its makers interviewed Ginsberg's friends and acquaintances, including Ferlinghetti, who first heard Ginsberg read Howl at the Six Gallery.
“Most of the art direction at the Six Gallery came from Ferlinghetti's description,” Freidman says, “and a couple of written descriptions from Kerouac and one or two others that we found.”
Friedman says that his and Epstein's instincts as documentary filmmakers informed their decision to “approach the film from the perspective of what really happened. We also felt we'd been given a great gift and a great responsibility and we wanted to do it justice.”
Howl stars James Franco as Ginsberg, John Hamm as defence lawyer Jake Ehrlich, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels and Alessandro Nivola as witnesses, and David Strathairn as the prosecuting attorney, Ralph McIntosh. On casting the ubiquitous Franco in the lead role, Friedman admits that he didn't initially know the actor's work.
“We gave the script to Gus Van Sant and asked him to read it. He liked it and agreed to executive produce. We asked him if he had casting ideas and he suggested we talk to James. We didn't really know James' work except for Spider-Man (2002) at that point, but we looked at all we could find of his previous work. We were really impressed by his depth of commitment to emotional truth and character.”
Friedman was particularly impressed with Franco's starring role in the James Dean biopic: “There's a very superficial physical resemblance but it is his poignant, emotional embodiment that is really impressive”.
When the filmmakers met with Franco they quickly discovered that he had an affinity with the Beat Generation and its creative endeavours. “We found out that he was a poet, a student of literature, an artist and that he was the same age as Allen was when he wrote the poem. And he had a history with the Beats. He had read them and been influenced by them as a teenager. He grew up in Northern California and he and his friends used to hang out at City Lights Bookstore on the weekends. He very much knew about the subject. He told us that he always figured he'd be involved in a Beat project at some point but had always assumed he'd play Kerouac or Cassidy. I think he was very surprised and tickled to be asked to play Allen.”