When Bob Rosenthal, executor of Allen Ginsberg’s estate, first approached filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in 2005, asking them to do the seemingly impossible — adapt Ginsberg’s 1956 epic poem “Howl” for a movie — they immediately accepted his challenge.
But how to do it?
“There was no way we were going to make the 50th anniversary, but we made the 55th,” says Friedman, 59.
He and Epstein, an Oscar-winner for 1984’s “The Times of Harvey Milk,” had previously directed “The Celluloid Closet,” a 1995 documentary chronicling the history of gays in cinema.
“I’m not sure Bob understood how long it takes to make a movie,” says Epstein, 55. “We experimented with elements of a traditional documentary, but we wanted to figure out something that would be challenging and original in the same way the poem was in its day, and still is. Perhaps we were naive, but we’re proud of what we came up with.”
What they came up with is a heady mix of courtroom drama, recalling the obscenity charges leveled at the poem and its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books, and a dramatic reading of the four-part work by the actor playing Ginsberg, Palo Alto native James Franco.
“Gus Van Sant suggested we meet with James when they were in town shooting ‘Milk,’ and we quickly realized he was a serious student of literature,” says Friedman. “He’s a writer, an artist, and he had a personal connection with the Beats, growing up in Northern California and frequenting City Lights.”
“I didn’t know Ginsberg all that well,” says Epstein. “I’d read some of his work, and I’d seen Jerry Aronson’s ‘Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,’ but I think James was more familiar with the poems than I was.”
From his early teens, Franco, 32, who wrote the 2007 indie drama “Good Time Max” and is pursuing a post-graduate poetry degree, was inspired by the countercultural writings of Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.
For him, channeling the spirit of Ginsberg in “Howl” was both a personal victory and the logical next step in an acting career defined by unpredictability.
“Even now, as popular as he is in a lot of poetry circles, Ginsberg is viewed as an outsider by the establishment,” he says. “When the movie came around, it was a subject that I was interested in, and I’ve made three movies based on poems during my time at New York University. I like the challenge of translating words into images. And it felt like Ginsberg had been part of my life for a long time.”
Allen Ginsberg [Played by James Franco] The poet denounces capitalism and conformity in “Howl,” a controversial poem dealing with homosexuality and other hot-button issues. In October 1955, he and others gave a free reading at Six Gallery, an experimental art gallery in San Francisco.
Jack Kerouac [Played by Todd Rotondi] Known for his free-flowing writing, with phrases often connected by dashes — and inspired by jazz and Buddhist meditation breathing — the writer of “On the Road” was considered the father of the Beat movement, but disliked the label.
Neal Cassady [Played by Jon Prescott] Personified as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s novel “On the Road,” he’s referred to in “Howl” as “N.C., secret hero of these poems.” His sexual relationship with Ginsberg was on and off for 20 years.
Peter Orlovsky [Played by Aaron Tveit] Also a writer, he’s best known for his 30-year, openly gay relationship with Ginsberg, who he met in San Francisco in December 1954. The relationship ended in 1987, but they stayed friends and roommates until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti [Played by Andrew Rogers] The co-founder of San Francisco’s City Lights Booksellers & Publishers was Ginsberg’s publisher for more than three decades. After publishing “Howl,” he was arrested on obscenity charges, but later acquitted.
Starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn
Written and directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes
Note: Epstein and Friedman will appear Friday and Saturday at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., San Francisco, after the 7:30 p.m. screening and before the 9:55 p.m. show.