Director talks as ‘Howl’ returns victorious to ATL

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imageOscar winners Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein never back down from challenges, so a feature about Allen Ginsberg and his poem “Howl” never daunted them. The film opens Friday in Atlanta, with James Franco as Ginsberg.

“Howl” was Allen Ginsberg’s first published poem, and it immediately made the 29-year-old a startling new voice of his generation. It was something of a slap in the face to the 1950s establishment, and the poem was eventually called obscene and brought to trial. Franco stars as the gay Beat poet (top photo).

The film premiered at Sundance early this year and has played at several film festivals on its way to a theatrical release. Locally, it tied for the Best Film Jury Award at Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBT film festival, early this month. It returns Friday for something of a victory lap in a limited run at the Lefont Sandy Springs.

image“Howl” depicts the character as an excited young man reciting the poem in a club for the first time, and intertwines the reading with professional and personal snippets from his life and the indecency trial.

It also weaves in dream-like animated segments by designer Eric Drooker. As Epstein and Friedman (second photo, l-r with Franco) were doing research, they discovered Drooker’s work and realized he was friends with Ginsberg.

According to Friedman, the goal for the animation was to make it “feel like a narrative; what Ginsberg’s world was like.”

Friedman and Epstein got a call from the Ginsberg estate back in 2003. They were asked if they would be interested in doing something to commemorate his life and work. They were intrigued, but one major question did come up.

“How do you go about making a film about a poem?” Friedman recalls.

imageThe filmmakers began working on a script and developed it at the Sundance Institute Writer’s Lab. Along the way, they hooked up with James Franco, who loved the idea and wanted to bring Ginsberg to life.

The two had Franco in mind from the beginning.

“James is very real,” Friedman says. “He is generous and open. Everyone who knew Ginsberg knew that about him too. He is also a great actor.”

Speaking of great actors, the supporting cast includes Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams as witnesses in the 1957 obscenity trial, which becomes the heart of the film. David Strathairn plays the prosecutor who thinks that “Howl” should be banned, and “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm is the defense attorney lobbying for freedom of speech (third photo).

According to Friedman, all the actors they asked wanted to be part of the film.

“They all responded to the material,” he says. “No one did it for the money – they thought it was a cool project.”

Friedman says that Ginsberg’s legacy was about being truthful to oneself.

“He was about speaking the truth, being open and honest, specifically as a gay man out there in the world,” Friedman says. “Back in 1955, he was making statements about the culture around him.”

Through their company Telling Pictures, Friedman and Epstein have worked on several documentaries that deal with LGBT issues. Among them are the Oscar winner “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” “The Celluloid Closet,” and “Paragraph 175.” Epstein also directed the Oscar winner “The Times of Harvey Milk.”

“Howl” opens Friday at the Lefont Sandy Springss 8 and is also available On Demand.

imageJim Farmer is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and public relations professional specializing in film promotions. He is the director of the annual Out On Film and has been a theater and pop-culture critic for more than a dozen years.

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