The Old West
James Franco: How Cormac McCarthy Changed My Life
‘It felt like Faulkner and Melville but with grisly scenes of murder and atrocity that gave a contemporary and strangely authentic feel, as if McCarthy had actually been there.’
I read Blood Meridian when I was in my early twenties because Harold Bloom said it was one of the best books of the second half of the twentieth century. I had dropped out of UCLA to pursue acting, but Bloom was my man to point me to the important works in the Western canon, which I read fervently to make up for my lack of education. It took me a couple reads over the years to appreciate Blood’s dense, almost biblical prose, prose that delivers some of the bloodiest, darkest, and bleakest renditions of the old West I’d ever encountered.
It felt like Faulkner and Melville but with grisly scenes of murder and atrocity that gave the flavors of the old masters a new, contemporary, and strangely authentic feel; as if McCarthy had actually been there, otherwise how would he know such idiosyncratic details? Yet Blood took place in the middle of the 1800s and McCarthy wrote it in the middle of the 1980s. He could capture such an authentic tone simply because he was a master. A joke P.T. Anderson told me after watching my film, Child of God:
What’s the difference between Cormac McCarthy and God?
McCarthy is God.
Later, after acting in Freaks and Geeks, James Dean, City by the Sea, and Spider-Man, I went back to UCLA to finish my bachelor’s degree in English. I was older than most of the other students by six years, but I did it because I was serious about literature, and because the UCLA English department at the time (before the housing crash) boasted some of the top scholars in the country.
While there, I took a class entirely devoted to McCarthy’s work, taught by a poet named Cal Bedient. Because Bedient was so interested in film he allowed us to write screenplay adaptations of McCarthy’s works; I wrote a short film script inspired by the hog stampede in Outer Dark, and another based on the scene in Child of God where Lester Ballard, the crazy outcast, discovers two dead teenagers in a car in the wilderness, and over the course of the scene realizes in stages that not only can he steal from the bodies, he can have intimate relations, and not only that, he can actually take one home so that he, the doomed reprobate, can have a companion.
As horrific as this sequence sounds, I thought it was a beautiful portrait of a lonely man figuring out a solution to his predicament. It was told almost entirely through behavior: Lester finds the car with the bodies; Lester takes their money; Lester comes back and fondles the girl; Lester comes back again and sleeps with the girl; Lester finally realizes that he can take the girl home. It was such a satisfying escalation because we can understand the development of his thoughts through his behavior, rather than having him tell us what he was feeling. It was a beautiful example of show-don’t-tell. And on a larger scale this is how the book worked: It was a gradual, poetic, and convincing development of a man into a murderer.
McCarthy’s book was at least partly inspired by the real Wisconsin killer, Ed Gein, who was also the inspiration for Robert Block’s novel, Psycho, which was adapted into the Hitchcock film; and also an inspiration for the film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You can see the way that Gein, a murderer, and body collector—he made furniture: skin lampshades, skulls for bedposts, bone chairs—was worked into all of these pieces, each one involves a bit of body repurposing. But all three of these pieces are completely different in narrative, tone, and emphasis.
Where Psycho focuses on the psychology of the killer, and resides in the Thriller genre, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is stridently a Slasher film that banks on gore. Finally, McCarthy’s book, Child of God, goes a little farther than the other two in subject matter because Lester is a necrophiliac. Tonally, however, it is very peculiar: It is undeniably Southern Gothic, but it has its own brand of off-beat humor.
I liken Lester Ballard to Travis Bickle, in his isolation brewed monomaniacal madness mixed, with a little bit of Chaplin, with his bumbling ways as he seeks love in all the wrong places. Lester is a strange little man alone in a cabin, not far from The Tramp locked in his cabin in The Gold Rush. And it was this humor in the book—just watch the way he tries and tries to hide a frozen body up in his attic—that was a huge key for me when making the movie.
I wanted Lester to be likeable, not because I would ever condone what he does if he were a real person, but because I needed him to be A) watchable, meaning I wanted the audience to be shocked by the material, but I didn’t want them to be repelled, and humor is a powerful weapon when eliciting the sympathy of the audience, and B) I wanted Lester to represent something more universal, not just a monster running around in the woods, but someone, albeit a deranged someone, who wants what we all want: to love and be loved.