In the basement of a crumbling old mansion in Los Angeles, two women dressed in 19th-century garb are beating each other senseless. One wears a white blouse with lace detailing; the other, a black frock and a gloppy stripe of blood down her face. They brawl in a stone-walled chamber, as gamblers in waistcoats and top hats cheer them on, like Downton Abbey gone Fight Club. In a makeshift dressing room directly above them, James Franco hears the ruckus through the floorboards and smiles as a young woman combs pomade into his hair. He thumbs the enormous handlebar mustache riding his upper lip. “This is fake,” he says. “So I’m sorry if it’s making me talk funny.”
It’s the end of the first week of production on a film called The Mad Whale, made by a group of grad students; Franco, their professor, is about to act in a scene. “They’re in a class of mine at UCLA – I mean USC,” Franco says. He teaches at both universities and got confused for a moment. “It’s a total filmmaking class: In the fall, the writing students come up with a concept, and in the spring, I take over and we shoot it.” The premise of The Mad Whale, which Franco credits himself with devising, is that a doctor at a 19th-century mental institution mounts an all-female stage production of Moby-Dick, using the inmates as cast members. “I liked the framing device of the institution, because we wouldn’t need the same production budget that actually doing Moby Dick would require,” Franco says, “and because the idea of having inmates putting on a play opens up all sorts of unconventional casting possibilities, and you get all this crazy shit outside of the play.”
The Mad Whale is an unmistakably shoestring production. Franco persuaded Camilla Belle and Summer Phoenix to star as asylum inmates, essentially as favors to him; family and friends of the production are helping out as extras. There’s no armada of climate-controlled Star Waggons out front; no brigade of PA’s. In other words, this isn’t at all the kind of set where you’d expect to find a world-famous movie star – except that James Franco isn’t like other movie stars. He’s acted in smash comedies and action blockbusters, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Pineapple Express and the Spider-Man trilogy; and buzzed-about indies, like Spring Breakers and Milk; he won a Golden Globe for a 2001 James Dean TV biopic, and scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his star turn in 127 Hours.