Photos by Julie Cunnah
James Franco’s self-declared favorite film is My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s 1991 touchstone about a narcoleptic, lovelorn hustler (River Phoenix) who falls for an intermittently interested cohort (Keanu Reeves). After Van Sant, who directed Franco in Milk (2008), showed him hours of dailies from the original shoot, the actor-turned-director decided to recut the film into My Own Private River, featuring the unused footage for the first time.
Screened as part of Film Comment Selects, Franco’s cut—which is the exact same length as Idaho—is puzzling, sometimes beautiful and undeniably indulgent of his love for the original movie.
Appearing in person afterward with Film Comment editor Gavin Smith, Franco chose his words carefully as he discussed the thought behind the project. He resisted Smith's entreaties that his version of the film “does a lot more justice to River Phoenix’s acting,” especially in some improvised sections. “I never wanted to this to be seen in competition with that, or in any way trying to outdo that film,” Franco said. Later, pressed by an audience member on that point, he said his film had a “delicate” relationship with the original, sighing.
“I was working with this material with a lot of love and respect, and trying to honor the material.” He paused. “While changing it.”
The talk proceeded to deconstruct differences between the two movies. Franco also homed in on thrown-out footage of the final scene filmed during the original shoot, in which Phoenix wouldn't say his final lines over 15 takes while the crew excoriated him. He then smashed his face in a celebatory cake for the crew, which Franco reenacted with an animated lurch. “River didn’t want this movie to end,” he said. “You look at it and it’s like, ‘Wow. That was the last take of his best performance of his life.’”
The screening was held in conjunction with an installation in the Furman Gallery imported from Los Angeles, featuring three different video pieces (including My Own Private River) inspired by the original film.
If you missed it, watch complete video of the Q&A below: