CBSN

James Franco: "Yosemite" role was "strange" but "positive"

When James Franco began writing his series of short stories for the 2011 book "Palo Alto" he didn't necessarily have the big screen in mind. Instead, Franco, 37, intended to hone his writing craft by putting words to paper.

"When I wrote the book I had already been an actor for over a decade, so film was such a big part of my life at the time. So of course I thought about that [making a movie]. But I was also in these writing programs when I was working on it. And I was surrounded by writers who were hardcore fiction writers and so I really tried to write it just as a book that would stand on its own merit as literary fiction," Franco told CBS News.

Around the same time, Franco was also surrounded by budding filmmakers. Which meant it wasn't long before he decided to turn his short stories into films.

One of those tales, "Yosemite," made its world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in January and will soon have a special screening on July 12 at the ArcLight Hollywood as part of the new ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club. Franco will be on hand for a post-screening filmmaker/cast Q&A, moderated by director/actress Gia Coppola ("Palo Alto," "Casino Moon").

The movie, set in the fall of 1985, chronicles intertwining stories of 5th grade friends in Palo Alto, California, as the threat of a killer mountain lion looms over the community. It's centered around nature, but also does a nice job of setting itself in the '80s, with technology as a theme -- from popping that cassette tape into the car radio to engaging in a very early Internet chat room.

The director behind "Yosemite" is Gabrielle Demeestere, a filmmaker Franco met while attending New York University. She directed the movie from her own script, just like Coppola had done with other stories in Franco's "Palo Alto" book.

"I knew she was really talented," Franco said about Demeestere. "I also knew that it's hard for young filmmakers coming out of the film school to transition into the professional world and I thought, 'She deserved a shot.' And I also thought she would be really good for the material...I did whatever I could to get the money and get the movie made."

Plus, Franco says he liked the idea of having a women behind the camera in the director's chair. There's been a lot of talk lately about the lack of female directors in Hollywood. A recent study by the University of Southern California and the advocacy group Women in Film shows women have represented fewer than 5 percent of directors of top films during the past two decades. Franco, for his part, hopes to help change that.

"I try to be a big supporter female directors. I'm a teacher now. NYU is where I met Gabrielle. And that program, at least when I was there, was very good about diversifying their student body and so I met a lot of great female directors when I was there. I produced 3 or 4 movies with female directors and I'm excited about that. I hope we do change the landscape," he said.

On working with Franco, Demeestere said, "James was an incredibly supportive producer and collaborator in every practical way, but I think he was also genuinely curious to see what I would do with his material and how I would interpret his stories -- he gave me a lot of freedom to create something personal as a filmmaker."

Although he was glad to have Demeestere take the directorial reins, Franco says he briefly thought about doing the adaptation for "Yosemite" himself, but then again, as he says, "I had already seen my version of the book. I was more interested in seeing other people's vision of it -- if it was going to take another step and become a movie or multiple movies. I really was excited about someone else's interpretation of it."

The final interpretation finds Franco starring in the film, too, alongside Henry Hopper, Calum John, Alec Mansky and Everett Meckler. He didn't necessarily intend to be featured in the movie, but Demeestere thought he'd be the perfect person to play the dad -- a computer engineer and recovering alcoholic who takes his sons to Yosemite in the hopes communing with nature will help begin a new chapter in his life as a father.

yosemitestill4000001-copy.jpg
James Franco in "Yosemite."
Rabbit Bandini Productions

The Palo Alto native said playing the father figure "was actually really strange and I think a positive experience for me." Part of that character he says, was inspired by his own father, Doug Franco -- a Silicon Valley businessman, who died in 2011 at the age of 63.

"It's a piece of fiction, but a lot of it was based trips that my father took my brother and I on to Yosemite. So then years later, you know my dad has passed, and Gabrielle asked me to play the role of my father, and it was like playing my dad in a way. And then we went and shot in Yosemite," said Franco, adding, "She chose all the locations in Yosemeti in the park to shoot in, and it was really strange, but we actually shot in a lot of the places my dad had taken me when I was little -- from this specific waterfall we went to, to specific hiking paths that I had done when I was a little boy in real life."

What had started as a project to preserve his childhood stories has now been turned into a film -- and Franco says he's really glad it has.