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James Franco Adapted a Poem to Create the Most Disturbing Short Film You Will Ever See

Michael ShannonJames Franco is everywhere these days. Between acting in just about everything and directing feature after feature, it seems safe to say that he’s in the prime of his creative output. In terms of his directorial efforts, Franco definitely has an affinity for adapting tough pieces of literature, like his upcoming feature Child of God, which is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, plus As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, both of which are based upon William Faulkner novels previously thought to be unadaptable. The adaptations didn’t start with that recent trio of films, however, but in the late 2000′s with several short films based on poems. One of these short film adaptations comes from a Frank Bidart poem called Herbert White, and, as luck would have it, it’s is probably one of the most disturbing films that you will ever see. Oh, and it stars Michael Shannon.

Inspiration for short films can come from any number of strange places, but some of the best short films draw their inspiration from seemingly simple concepts that turn out to be far deeper and more involved than first appearances would allow. Herbert White is one of those films, as it tackles a subject that is tremendously taboo, but presents that subject within the context of a character (Michael Shannon) who is equal parts despicable and dedicated family man.

So here’s James Franco’s adaptation of Herbert White, which as I mentioned before, is extremely disturbing and not for the faint of heart.

In an excellent interview on Vice, Franco talks in-depth about the process of adapting the poem, and the changes that he had to make in order to make it work in the short film format.

Short narrative films work best when not too much happens and the characters don’t need to change that much. Any big change will make the whole piece feel like a morality tale.

Because I didn’t want the movie to hinge on a moment of self-recognition and recrimination, I altered the pivotal dynamic to the family versus his secret life. This is why the family scenes alternate with the cutting machine scenes. The logging scenes are full of noise and energy. They embody the monstrous side of Herbert without having to show the character being monstrous. The juxtaposition with the plain and quiet moments with the family gives them even more power. At the end of the film, there is possibly a moment of self-recognition, but nothing definitive. Instead, the horror that has just been revealed is covered over by the innocuous voice of the son.

The poem that Franco adapted for this piece is, not surprisingly, just as disturbing, if not more so, than the film adaptation. With that said, however, it does provide an incredibly interesting piece of source material that practically begs for some kind of visual adaptation. Here are a few snippets from the poem:

When I hit her on the head, it was good,

and then I did it to her a couple of times, –
but it was funny, — afterwards,
it was as if somebody else did it –

Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.

Still, I liked to drive past the woods where she lay,
tell the old lady and the kids I had to take a piss,
hop out and do it to her –

The whole buggy of them waiting for me
made me feel good;
but still, just like I knew all along,
she didn’t move.

And then there’s this dandy of a scene, which Franco also incorporated into the film in the form of a single, raw long-take.

but the more I drove,
I kept thinking about getting a girl,
and the more I thought I shouldn’t do it,
the more I had to–

I saw her coming out of the movies,
saw she was alone, and
kept circling the blocks as she walked along them,
saying, ‘You’re going to leave her alone.’
‘You’re going to leave her alone.’

If you’re interested in reading the full poem — and I recommend that you do, because it sheds a bit more light on this film — then you can find it here.

Ultimately, this is one of those films that falls squarely into the “not for everybody” category. It might even fall into the category of “not for anybody, except for those who are interested in complex, despicable characters.” With that said, it’s an interesting study in how various types of source material can be adapted for the short film medium, and it’s an excellent example of how cinematic form and language (when coupled with brilliant acting from Michael Shannon) can transform the source material into something unique and provocative in its own right.



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Description image 55 COMMENTS

  • Beebeedeedop on 07.11.14 @ 7:19AM

    James Franco has really taken Cormac McCarthy to heart, hasn’t he… XD

  • Say my name whore. “Oh yes General Zod!”

  • s4ndsurph3r on 07.11.14 @ 7:51AM

    I was a little disappointed. It’s not as disturbing as it was hyped up to be. Didn’t really live up to the expectation. Still good though but not as thrilling as I was expecting.

    • Clerkenwell on 07.18.14 @ 8:55AM

      Yes, I agree s4ndsurph3r. I enjoyed reading the poem afterwards; it is a good adaptation.

  • Well, I shouldn’t have watched that first thing in the morning. Today’s going to have some weird undertones…

    Awesome character piece though, I feel that it did a wonderful job exploring his psyche without bluntly copying the poem or relying on narration (implied stress with his father, use of objects in the house to make him feel imprisoned). And, yeah, the long shot in the car was great. At first I was not liking the overly handheld feel, but it all came to fruition there.

  • CoolHandLuque on 07.11.14 @ 8:38AM

    The sound design is probably the most disturbing aspect of this short. The subject matter of course is super creepy, but listening to this with headphones on (at work mind you lol) the sounds contrasted with that of nature caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up.

    On a side note, I love VICE News with a passion. I think they are doing great work and are totally ahead of the curve with the evolution of modern news reporting. Their documentaries are incredibly effective and regardless if you agree with their ‘politics’, you cannot deny their passion for bringing important issues which need to be discuss out into the public consciousness …. that being said, WTF is up with the title of the page that Franco interview? I mean, that is the headline they want to put out there in hopes of attracting people to click on it and read/watch? VICE News has my utmost respect, VICE on the other hand comes across as immature college Freshmen who have been given too much power over the content of a website.

  • Too much hype for average movie. Seen much better films coming out from film schools like Lodz or FAMU. Few dialogues, wicked main character, juxtapositions and 16mm does it make look arty, but that’s it I think. It lacks sense, it lacks meaning and message.

  • profwilliams on 07.11.14 @ 8:43AM

    Feels like a mashup of many other films (some of them various student films I’ve seen over the years). I kept waiting for…… it. Something…. Different.

    Instead I got the typical, and obvious guy kills girl in woods movie. Forgive me if I was almost expecting a ZOMBIE to pop-up somewhere- every modern day student/short film cliché.

    And like most shorts, it would probably be better at half the time. 14 mins. is an entirety nowadays. At 7? It would be better. And yes, you can still maintain a “slow burn” in a shorter length.

    But, while I LOVE Franco, I bet he didn’t have anyone yelling CUT THIS DOWN.

    Great performances, production design and cinematography!!

  • Does anyone else think Michael Shannon looks a lot like Alfie Allen from GoT?

  • So, is NFS taking notes from Upworthy and Buzzfeed for clickbait headlines? The most disturbing short film you will ever see? C’mon guys.

    • You clicked, didn’t you?

    • Just be glad that I didn’t use this title:

      James Franco & Michael Shannon Collaborated on a Film. You’ll Never Guess What Happens Next!

      Seriously though, I find the concept of Michael Shannon killing young girls, dragging their bodies into the woods, then having sex with said bodies while his wife and kid wait in the car to be wildly and utterly disturbing, maybe even to the point of warranting that title. Of course, you see very little of this in the film, but that’s part of what makes it effective and incredibly disturbing, at least in my opinion.

      • I guess with stuff like The Bunny Game and A Serbian Film out there, the ‘Most Disturbing’ crown gets a little harder to wear every year. Not shorts, granted, but bar-setting in terms of echhh. Or maybe I’m already just too disturbed.

        • And I dug Child of God, and found this effective, just not as hyperbolic as the article title.

          • Unfortunately we live in an age where successful websites depend on hyperbole to drive traffic. Where we differ is that we try our damndest to make sure that all of our content makes those clicks worthwhile for people. Hopefully this one was worth the time for everybody.

            • That’s clearly not the opinion of the majority of comments for this piece – the rub with hyperbole is that it NEVER lives up to the promise. I’m not saying the content wasn’t interesting, but there are a million ways the headline could have gone without mocking your readership as twitchy clickbots. If descending into the hyperbole trash pile is NFS’s editorial policy going forward, then it’s time to thin the subscription pile a bit.

  • I’d say more like the most boring short film you’ll ever see.

  • I thought this was a good short project from James Franco. Tells a story, enters the scene late, leaves early, doesn’t mess around with unnecessary details in the scenes. It was nice. Didn’t feel like the 14 minutes it was. Good pacing.

  • Cosmin Gurau on 07.11.14 @ 9:30AM

    What a load of crap.

  • Can the harsh critics post links to their films? I’d be interested to see what they produce.

    • grantly0711 on 07.11.14 @ 10:33AM

      I’ve said this in every post I comment on, but I’ve yet to get a response. Funny how no one seems to want to provide me their example of how I’m supposed to make a great film

      • Yeah, I mean really…I see no reason to be negative about anyone putting in the time to create a film. Creation is great, no matter who it is, as long as it means something to someone. Maybe James learned something about himself and his craft through this project that we don’t experience, but the fact that he made this and shared this is great.

    • CoolHandLuque on 07.11.14 @ 10:37AM

      They’re too busy shooting videos of their cats with a GH4 to post links to their work.

    • profwilliams on 07.11.14 @ 5:37PM

      This is always a dumb comment. So what, only Spielberg can comment on a film? You certainly realize that André Bazin and Ebert (save for BTVoTD) were no filmmakers, yet, like many great critics was rather insightful in their comments.

      So then, why not folks here? Or are you one of those kids used to a trophy and can’t bear to hear a harsh word above “Great Job!”?

      Really, do you hate all criticism, or just that you disagree? Folks are allowed to like/not like as they please. Personally, I find it refreshing to hear the comments– positive and negative- about the film. I enjoy considering what others have to say, and being open-minded I allow myself to revisit an opinion.

      And I’m sure Mr. Franco, an artist who understands that art is to be criticized, would too.

      So please, for once and all STOP asking “can I see your film?” when you don’t like a comment. It’s reductive and makes the writer seem small.

      • No, I’m just actually interested in seeing other people’s work who are actively producing things. Can I see your work? I think a lot of people can be armchair critics, and hide behind the internet. If James Franco didn’t produce this and it was not some big name person, would they criticize so harshly and absolutely? I doubt it.

        I didn’t state that I felt one way or the other about the critics’ comments, just that I would like to see their work. Don’t try to spin comments for your soapbox morality lesson.

        People just like to dish it out, but when you ask them to put themselves out there, they run back into the woodwork with other vermin.

        • But you first said you only wanted to see the films of the “harsh critics.” It sounded to me like a challenge, not a sincere request. It sounded like a thinly veiled way of saying, “Only make positive comments. Otherwise, if you don’t have a film of your own to show, shut up!”

          This is an unhealthy attitude for a filmmaker. Filmmakers interested in improving their work should welcome all criticism, positive and negative. In fact, they should welcome the negative more than the positive. It’s only by correcting our mistakes we improve. And there’s nobody who can correct mistakes better than the viewers who have used some of their valuable time to watch, think, and post notes. They are our audience, the vast majority of whom have never made a film. We ought to listen to them. I, for one, didn’t find this movie interesting, informative, entertaining, or instructive. Oh, I also wasn’t particularly disturbed by it.

  • I’m a fan of Franco, but explaining your film afterward is an insult to the film itself.
    Speaking about “Disturbing” and “Michael Shannon”, What a great film was “Take Shelter”.

  • I appreciated the piece. While the title seems like hyperbole, it also seems damning for the audience that it isn’t more disturbing to us. Yes, perhaps the lengthy slow burn coupled with the forewarning before hitting ‘Play’ undermined the reveal, but our desensitization is clearly present. Thanks for sharing.

  • I try not to be one of those people that hates everything they see but, if it didn’t have the “most disturbing short film you will ever see” which, with a title like that, you HAVE to watch it, I would have abandoned it within the first few minutes. Very little there to hold my interest. I kept telling myself, hold on, the payoff might be worth it but, nope, it was weak as the footage before it suggested.

    And the cinematography, the primary thing that will keep me watching… very unremarkable. For the record, I HATE shaky-cam except in the rarest of moments when it can (read: might) support the story. Color is weird and pasty. Way too long. Shoot machinery much?!

    On the positive side, what I do take away from this is that I shouldn’t hesitate to make my own short but, I fear, since I am not a ‘name’ in Hollywood, my film will attract a very limited audience, at best.

  • Good sound design. Michael Shannon is great!
    But the pacing is a little too slow.
    If you can get up and walk away, fix a coffee, and then return and nothing has happened then it’s unnecessary screen action.

    Imagine sitting by a campfire telling this story verbally. Would it take you 14 minutes? Would you use 4 to 5 minutes of your time telling us about his tree cutting job? Would you tell us about the phone call with his dad?
    Great effort but not the sharpest of story telling. Franco could have gotten to the heart of the story faster and told it more cinematically.

    • There isn’t only one way to tell a story… Taking the time to show his family, his job, etc, adds more to the film and the caracter than the corpse rape scene, which would feel lonely and useless without those first ordinary minutes. That’s closer to cinea than 99% of american films…

      • Dang internet…I think my comment is not making it’s point.
        I believe showing all of those things are necessary, I just don’t think they should have been shown at that length. There’s a point when you get your idea across and anything extra is just wasted time or chalked up to artistic license. If you can cut it from the film and it still tells the same story and causes the same reactions within the audience…then why was it there in the first place? Trim the fat.
        Franco intentionally left those long edits in there I’d like to know what purpose they served other than to make the film fill a certain time requirement.

  • (sorry for my bad english)
    i think it was a great short, with a simple story plot and a great edit, palpable tension.
    MInd you i just watched the movie without reading the post or care about the headline, so didn’t have any expectation to begin with.

    Afterwards, i agree with some of the comments regarding the hype, the headline might be misleading…
    Usually, i believe we tend to appreciate a movie in very different ways depending on the mindset we’ve been set into prior watching it .

    Fore example, if it wasn’t about James Franco or Vice, like a blind test, how would you have criticise it ?
    If you told me Michael Bay did it, i’d be in awe ! David Cronenberg, meh… a film school freshman? too shaky and immature…what a dilemma!

    I’m not trying to start an argument, on the contrary i’m being genuinely curious here. I find myself struggling alone about this quite often and would love to hear from the community ;)

  • Not disturbing but good enough. Thanks.

  • “Disturbing”. “Disturbing”. LOL !

  • This film comes in a long line of themed films that glorify violence against woman. Is our industry really so male dominated and misogynistic that it cannot see blatant trends of rape and violence against women being repeatedly shoved down our throats?

    Objectively, James Franco is a terrible artist and film maker. He perpetuates privilege in an industry that is capable of so much more. Why we give him a pedestal to make things on is beyond me? His only redeeming work was in Freaks and Geeks.

    I am sorry that Michael Shannon participated in this. I like him as an actor. Less so now.

    • +1. James Franco is a hack…and I think even he knows it. He isn’t even good at the thing he is famous for (acting) that allows him the fame and notoriety to inflict his many other “talents” on the public. If he is the modern renaissance man, then ladies and gentleman we are screwed. I will never understand how he has fooled so many people into talking about his acting/films/books/whateverelsebullshitheclaimstodo as if he were competent in one area…much less all the others. The emperor is naked folks.

      • And yes…LOVE Michael Shannon. Truly gifted actor. Was lucky enough to catch him live in The Killer at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn a few weeks ago….he is the real deal. No idea why he would waste his talents on this.

    • Yes Alex. Films are why women are objectified and raped. Bravo. Not the entire history of mankind. Not every single race over the course of their history. Nail on the head man. Bra-fucking–vo. Every film should have a main character with zero weaknesses and who treats woman with respect and is a good father and blah,blah,blah. Stick to your summer blockbusters jackass.

      Also, yeah. Franco is a terrible artist. Nothing good about his 127 Hours performance at all. Or all the comedy he pulled out of Pineapple Express orr This is The End. And yeah. Hate on Michael Shannon because he wants to experiment. Bet you hated him in Revolutionary Road because “the character seemed superfluous”

  • Not disturbing…pretty much just ‘R” rated material. Many many other films out there that make this seem very tame. However, for the modern day ‘super hero sequel film goer, Im sure this seems really hardcore.

    • It’s not necessarily disturbing in a graphic sense since it doesn’t rely on showing the viewer the horrific things that Michael Shannon is doing, but instead implying them. So many films these days are hell-bent on showing violence as explicitly as possible and as often as possible, so in that sense they are way more hardcore than this one. However, the actual content of this film is just about as disturbing as it gets once you move past the fact that you don’t actually see much violence.

  • So this is what Dexter has been up to since.

  • Perry Wilson on 07.13.14 @ 12:41PM

    Just goes to show no matter how bad something is shot and colored, if you drop someone famous’ name on it, it becomes “wonderful”

  • Nothing original. How many times we saw a story like this? The film was ok, but rather pointless.

  • Cool click bait, bro.

  • You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never
    understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me.
    I am looking forward for your next post, I will
    try to get the hang of it!

  • Why isn’t the editor listed n the end credits?