Interview by Martyn Palmer
For two Spider-Man movies James Franco watched intently as Tobey Maguire immersed himself in the action sequences required for his role and wondered just what it would be like to be up on those wires, dangling from a harness, day after day as director Sam Raimi and his team filmed crucial sections of the films. Now he knows.
In Spider-Man 3, Franco’s character, Harry Osborn becomes a super villain in his own right – a new version of the Goblin, his late father’s alter ego (who was played so memorably by Willem Dafoe in the first film).
It’s fair to say that Harry has issues with Parker, his former best friend. “Yes, he certainly does,” says Franco with a smile. “Big issues. He holds Peter responsible for his father’s death for a start.”
And as the Goblin he’s out to settle the score. Osborn’s emergence as the Goblin meant, of course, that the man who plays him had far more action to do this time. One memorable sequence in Spider-Man 3 is when the Goblin jumps an unprepared Peter Parker and the two duel spectacularly amidst the New York skyscrapers. According to stunt co-ordinator, Scott Rogers, this is the single most complicated and accomplished live action sequence from any of the three films.
“That sequence alone was probably as difficult to do as the entire Spider-Man 2 film,” says Rogers. “Nobody is ever on the ground. They are always flying and nothing stops moving. It’s an amazing sequence.”
So how did Franco do? “James is a great guy and very willing to do what he had to do. He did really, really well,” says Scott.
Franco himself has a renewed admiration for the painstaking process that is involved in putting these stunning sequences together. And he admits that he now sees both director Raimi and his co-star Maguire in a new light.
“In the first two films I was in a couple of action scenes but I didn’t do much compared to the third one,” he explains. “It was a new experience, that’s for sure. Tobey seemed so exhausted after the first and second films and now I can see why.
“The action scenes just take so much longer to shoot than a dramatic scene. I put a lot of care into a dramatic scene but when you are doing action it combines CG elements with live action elements with green screen. So it can be very meticulous and take a very long time.
“I was happy to do it because I know what the result is. But sometimes it can be easy to forget what the result is when you are doing one punch and it takes four hours to shoot. I think Topher (Grace, who plays Venom) said it’s about the result and not the journey.
“I’m grateful that Sam was directing this film because he really can make anything enjoyable and fun because of his personality and the way he brings everyone together.
Franco, 29, likens the experience of gathering the cast and crew back for the third Spider-Man movie to reassembling a successful rock band to undertake a world tour.
“It was exciting,” he says. “And it was different at the same. I think everyone has grown closer since the first one, especially Tobey, Kirsten, Sam and I. The crew was also the same so it kind of felt like family and I think Sam was even more comfortable delegating a lot of the work to people.
“He put a lot of responsibility on the actors to make sure their characters were being represented how they wished and the whole arc of the characters were being told. It was a great experience.”
Raimi is the perfect director for Spider-Man, Franco believes, because of his potent mixture of talent, dedication and, crucially, child-like enthusiasm for the characters and stories that originated with Marvel comics.
“Sam is such a perfect match to Spider-Man,” he says. “It has worked so well because he believes in heroes and nobility and he also has a childish enthusiasm.
“When I watch the DVDs of The Evil Dead, like the behind the scenes stuff, he had it back then and he’s never lost it. And it really works for Spider-Man because the movies have a mix of comedy and action and drama and everything – and together it pushes the envelope.”
In Spider-Man 3, Franco’s character is at the heart of the story. And story, according to Franco, is as important as any of the fantastic action sequences which are featured throughout the film.
“It’s the same approach that Sam had on the first one,” he says. “He approached this comic book genre in a unique way. He wanted to make it realistic and he wanted the characters and the drama of the characters to have just as much weight as the fantastic action sequences.
“One of the biggest compliments I heard about part two was that it would have been a good movie without the action. I don’t know if that is completely true but I think that it reveals that the story is compelling on its own.”
At the end of the second film, Peter Parker was in a good place. He had won the heart of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and what’s more, she knows that he is Spider-Man. At the start of 3, he’s never been happier; the public has embraced Spider-Man as a hero and he plans to ask Mary Jane to marry him.
The only cloud on this blue horizon is that his friendship with his childhood pal, Harry Osborn, has soured because Harry blames Peter/ Spider-Man for the death of his father.
In addition, Harry still has strong feelings for Mary Jane; which leaves her caught between the rival affections of two former friends. And this time one has to wonder if Harry’s intentions are more about hurting Peter than about Mary Jane.
“As far as the story in part 3, the old triangle between Harry, MJ and Peter comes up again,” says Franco. “One of the cool things that Sam does is that he creates themes for each film and the theme really runs through the characters.
“In the second film, it seemed to me the theme was ‘what happens to someone if you don’t have love?’ You see what happens to Harry when he doesn’t have his father. You see its effect on MJ and Peter, when they don’t have each other and on Dr Octavius (Alfred Molina) when he loses his wife.
“I think in the third film it is about redemption and forgiveness. All the characters for one reason or another are pushed to do things that they regret and then it’s a question of who can come back and forgive and get past it.
“Maybe some do, maybe some don’t. I think in this story things are finally going right for Peter and he suffers from pride. Harry, as always, has issues that have built up in the past two films and they find expression in this film. His dilemma is that he is fighting for his father’s honour and he is trying to be the person he believes his father wanted him to be.
“But he is also struggling with the fact that Peter is his best friend and MJ is his friend too, and how can he resolve those two things. MJ is also struggling because the man she loves is changing and how can she live with someone like that? So the triangle kind of raises its head again…”
Franco is, understandably, very proud of the Spider-Man films which have dominated his life for the past six years. “The experience has become more rewarding,” he says. “I do feel that when you contribute more you can take more pride in the product. Definitely.
“I’ve really had such a good time on these movies. I guess there are a few reasons – the people involved and I’m very proud of the results. So if they did another one, for me it would depend on whether everyone came back.
In a relatively short period, Franco has established himself as one of the most talented young actors working in Hollywood. The oldest of three brothers born and raised in Palo Alto, California, he was a gifted artist as a child.
After High School he attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to study English and it was there he first discovered a passion for acting. After a year, he left to take up offers of film work.
He landed a starring role on the acclaimed, short lived TV show, Freaks and Geeks and earned rave reviews for his mesmerising performance as the star of the made for television movie, James Dean.
He made the first Spider-Man film in 2002 and since then has showcased his acting talent in such diverse projects as playing Robert De Niro’s son in the thriller City By The Sea, playing a Prince in the period drama Tristan and Isolde and a pilot in the war drama The Flyboys. Franco has also directed and starred in a film from his own screenplay Good Time Max; about two brothers who lead vastly different lives.
Last year, he decided to return to UCLA and complete his English degree. It was, he says, unfinished business. Combining college with a thriving career has been a challenge but he clearly loves it.
“About a year and a half ago I just came to a point where I wanted a little bit more to my life,” he says. “I always regretted leaving and I had always enjoyed writing and literature, so I decided to go back.
“I’d been writing since I’d left and I’d written a bunch of screenplays with a partner, but I wanted more structure. So I went back and I’ve been back for almost a year and a half and it’s been great. I’m really enjoying it.”
Just like he’s enjoying the day job – acting and throwing himself whole-heartedly to projects like Spider-Man 3. That, he says, was a blast. “It was amazing. Each one has been better than the last and all have been unforgettable...”