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James Franco's USC filmmaking class breaks ground by, you know, making a movie

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James Franco poses during the photocall of "Sal" at the 68th Venice Film Festival on September 4, 2011 at Venice Lido.
Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
James Franco poses during the photocall of "Sal" at the 68th Venice Film Festival on September 4, 2011 at Venice Lido.

Off-Ramp contributor RH Greene says James Franco's USC film school course is a model of collaborative filmmaking that Hollywood should emulate.

Actor and filmmaker James Franco is noted, and at times mocked, for treating his life and career as a kind of ongoing art project, but one of his projects might change the way you think of him, and the future of filmmaking.

Our story starts at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January of this year. One of the festival premieres was "Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha." In movie terms, "Don Quixote" is a cursed text. Failed adaptations of the literary classic about a delusional Spanish knight  nearly ended the careers of both Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam.

WATCH the trailer for Franco's "Don Quixote"

Who'd be crazy enough to attempt that one? James Franco. Make that professor James Franco, because the "Don Quixote" that premiered at Palm Springs was co-directed by 11 USC students. All professor Franco did was teach the class, fund the project, and co-star in the movie as a brutal highwayman.

"I like to explore alternative approaches to filmmaking," he says. "And maybe one could say teaching is also a new approach, where I am bringing resources to young filmmakers, I am bringing a source text to be adapted, and then after that, I'm trying to take my hands off the final product, turning it over to my students."

But a premiere is the third act of a production process. To understand the Franco/Watson student production model, you'd really have to start over, from Act One, the preproduction phase. Or, the start of class. Veteran producer John Watson co-teaches Franco's class. He says, "My first rule I say to them is leave your ego at the door. This is a joint project." And they leave accepted wisdom for student films at the door, too. "We broke all the rules. They say you don't do period. You don't do horses and animals and children. You don't do stunts. And you certainly don't do massive complicated effects sequences." But they HAD to do windmills, right?

When I visited the class in late February, they were on to the next project. A fresh group of actors, directors and support crew were assembled in a small theatre on the USC campus for a read-through of a script in progress. The script is called "Actor's Anonymous," adapted by student screenwriters from Franco's blackly comic Hollywood novel.

In "Actor's Anonymous," Franco will have a small, self-mocking role as a pontificating actor/celebrity with a dark side. It's a role that mirrors both Franco's status in Hollywood and his passion for teaching. There are 12 student directors this time, 13 including the AD. They are male and female, multi-ethnic. And two days before the start of principal photography, their emotions run the gamut, from chomping at the bit to quietly terrified.

At the end of the class, Professor Franco gives his student filmmakers some last-minute script notes. His comments are solid. Practical. And scanning all the young faces in the room, it's hard not to root for them. Fresh and eager, and watching a shared dream come to life. In class after class, Franco's students aren't creating resume pieces to prove they can make a feature film later. They're making real movies — now — that people are paying to see.

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