After learning his craft under schlock-king Roger Corman, Carl Franklin made a big impression with grubby cop noir One False Move (1993), and then adapted the excellent private eye thriller Devil In A Blue Dress (1995). Engaging Meryl Streep weepy One True Thing (1998) followed, before the critically-derided High Crimes (2002). He returns to form with Out Of Time, a twisty-turny noir which reteams him with Devil star Denzel Washington.
The articulate, intelligent director talks to BBCi FILMS about God, The Godfather and why women better watch out come the end of the world...
Why did you become a director?
There were a lot of reasons. I'd been an actor and as a black actor (this was in the 70s) there were not a lot of opportunities, certainly to advance to any level. So that meant not only did I not get a chance to exercise a craft that I had studied, but it was tough to make a living. So I wanted to get more control and I started writing. I think writing started to make me more interested in the creative part of the process.
It's something that I evolved to, it's not something that I wanted to do at the beginning. In fact, in 1977 I went to see a psychic who told me that I was going to be writing and directing and producing. I'd already started writing but the directing and producing stuff I'd never wanted to do. I was sure that she was telling me what she thought I wanted to hear.
Also, some of it has to do with when I had children. When you're an actor or single or whatever you can be more focused on yourself, at least that was my experience, but once I started to have a family then I began to think about other people's lives. That makes you more interested in your own life story and I think maybe that had something to do with it. I became more interested in the whole overview, as opposed to just, "God I get to make love to this girl," or "Man, what a fight scene." You know what I mean? Wanting to tell stories.
If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?
Oh I'd be a criminal, of course. No. I had gone to college and first I wanted to be an attorney (thank God I didn't stay for that) and quickly I wanted to be a history professor. I think that's probably what I'd be doing, teaching history.
What other director (past or present) would you like to see at work?
Probably [Yasujiro] Ozu [Late Spring, Tokyo Story], just because I would like to know what it is he does. His style is so subtle. There are tons of people who I admire, who I have learned from, borrowed from, been influenced by, but Ozu remains an enigma to me, in terms of the way that he does what he does. And the mesmeric quality.
What was the last movie you paid to see?
I saw The Last Samurai last night. I liked it. Of course I've got criticisms but overall I enjoyed it.
What was the last movie you walked out of?
It's been a while. I don't remember what it was actually. I'm sorry.
Do you believe in God?
Yes I do. I don't believe in some dude sitting out on the throne, man, with a list of rights and wrongs and ****ed off. I don't see how one cannot believe in God. When you cut your hand, the blood congeals by itself. If you break a bone it mends itself by itself. When you go to bed at night and go to sleep you don't have to think to breathe. The stars move in a rhythm, they don't collide. There is basic order in the universe and something is ordering it. I think God is beyond us so that's what's difficult. It's hard for people to accept. They want to say God but they want it to be something they can comprehend and, you know, if God is God, God is God. You can't tell us what to do, nor delineate its agenda.
Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?
It's hard to say. There are several people in the Denzel [Washington] realm. I don't know any world leaders or anything like that. There's Meryl [Streep, star of Franklin's One True Thing], there's Denzel, there's a few people. Morgan Freeman. Tom Hanks. I would love to have someone in there like Mandela. I met Castro once (I went to Cuba in 1999 with a human rights delegation) but he's not in my Rolodex.
What's your favourite movie quote?
Actually it's probably kind of profane. It comes out of Coup De Torchon, when the Philippe Noiret character goes mad. At one point he's going to kill this guy who's begging for his life and says (I'm sure I'm misquoting), "But what does that have to do with the great question?" And the guy says, "What do you mean?" And he says, "The great question, 'Does a dog scratch his balls because it feels good or because they itch?'" [laughs] My favourite quote!
[The exact exchange in Bertrand Tavernier's 1981 black comedy: Lucien Cordier (Noiret): "Do you know the question no one can answer? The big question?" George Le Peron (Jean-Pierre Marielle): "Go ahead." Cordier: "When you scratch your balls, is it 'cause they itch, or 'cause it feels good?"]
Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?
It's hard to say... Probably me! Ha! No. I don't know how he's viewed in his own country, but Ozu again. Ozu is, I think, an amazing filmmaker - Tokyo Story, Late Spring, those are wonderful films - but I don't know that he's underrated. Underrated according to whose scale, you know what I mean?
I wouldn't say that, that would not be kind, because it's a contemporary filmmaker! [laughs]
What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?
I remember once we had a Doberman, my first wife and I, and we moved from the Bay area to LA and we had to get rid of this dog because we didn't have room. And someone called up and asked if the dog was party trained. And we said, "Potty trained?" And they said, "Party trained" and hung up. [laughs]
Do you believe in test screenings?
I believe it's good to see how the audience responds. I think the mistake comes from the focus groups. They're used for various nefarious purposes. After they've had the screening - after everybody has organically felt what they've felt, in the experience, which to me is the thing - then they have this 20-person focus group where they ask them questions about it. And these are supposed to be people who are just shopping in the same mall. That's the only qualification they have. And here they are giving you suggestions about the ending and about major plot points and shots, and these cats in the studio actually listen to this ****. And if it somehow supports your argument, then it's a moot point. If it supports something they've been wanting then you'll hear about it. It's a totally arbitrary, ridiculous thing. I think they're good but I think to quiz the audience and to ask them suddenly to somehow become critics is a mistake. Their response is what you want, in the theatre.
How seriously do you take reviews?
You know it's hard not to take reviews to some extent seriously. There are some critics that are just idiots. I don't pay any attention to them. There are certain guys, I can think of a guy on The New York Times right now as a matter of fact, that basically any time they write a review, the underlying, unspoken thing is always, "Look at how intelligent I am. See, I am smart aren't I?" I think that he's one guy in the theatre, along with everybody else, whose qualifications I guess are that they've seen a lot of movies. But I think for them to set themselves up as an arbiter of taste is ridiculous. For anybody to do that. But then on the other hand any time anyone responds to your movie it's hard for you not to somehow be affected by it, because after all it is an interactive medium, you do want people to see your work. Is it really art if no one sees it? I guess it is. I guess it's that old tree in the forest thing.
What's your biggest regret?
Meaning something I could have changed? I look back sometimes at certain things that happened when my children were little. I'm very close with my children, I was a single dad for many years, but there are lot of things you look back on - I hope you don't, but you probably will - look back and think, God I wish I had done this differently, you know what I mean?
There are five minutes left until the end of the world: what do you do?
Depends on who I'm married to at the time! [laughs] But I think you get the rest of it. If I'm not married, then God, some lady on the street's gonna be in trouble! [laughs]
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
You know there have been a few pieces of advice. It's hard to make the distinction. One piece of advice was by Buddy Ebsen [the late character actor best known for playing Jed Clampett in TV series The Beverly Hillbillies], of all people. I was doing [an episode of Ebsen's private eye series] Barnaby Jones and for some reason we were talking and he said, "Remember it's motion pictures." That was a good piece of advice.
Another very good piece of advice was when I was about to do my first feature, which was a little Corman movie [David Carradine thriller Nowhere To Run, (1988)]. I was talking to somebody and I said, "God it's going to freak me out, I don't know if I can handle doing a feature." And the guy said, "Sure you can, you'll do it just like you did your short. You'll shoot it one shot at a time, one day at a time."
And Peter Dekam, who used to be... I don't know if he's still an attorney or not, he told me about the dismal prospects for blacks in cinema in the 70s. I was writing a role for myself and I was getting action on the screenplay but nobody wanted me to play the role. Part of what it was was they used to say that if a black film played those theatres which were located in suburban malls, then it would encourage a black audience and that would mean a lot of blacks coming to the mall. They were worried about vandalism and all of that. It was such a dismal outlook. There was just no way I was going to get this movie done, so I said, "I feel like quitting the business." He says to me, "If you quit, if people like you quit, there'll be no one to change it." I don't know which of those is the best.
And the worst?
It may have been my first wife saying "marry me", I don't know. [laughs] I shouldn't say that, I have beautiful children.
What performer would you love to work with?
You know I don't think in those terms. I never think about wanting to make a movie with an actor. I just don't focus on it. I always think about the material. I don't see actors when I am writing something, when I first get a script I don't see it. I think that when you get to a certain level with players there is no longer a vertical scale and they will all give you their own version of it. And unfortunately, with the way the business is, I'm glad I don't think that way, because it all works down to circumstance - who's hot, who the studio will put the money behind. There are several people I could tell you who I wouldn't want to work with, but I wouldn't want to tell you their names.
What film makes you want to spit?
God, I'm trying to think. Usually I don't stick around for them. I remember walking out of Mountains Of The Moon. That movie really ****ed me off. I disliked this notion that the natives are just so glad to have a European come in, you know? I usually like Bob Rafelson's work. I didn't like that.
What are your three favourite films and why?
The Godfather is certainly one of them. It was such a dangerous movie, at the same time so elegant, at the same time so classic, at the same time so personal, so mythic, so large, so small. So conflicting in terms of its emotions, so unpredictable when I saw it. Another of my favourite movies is probably Chinatown. I just love going into that world. I love the depth of that film and all of the symbolism is so strong. I think it's realised so meticulously well. Late Spring, probably the most powerful movie I've ever seen. You know what, there are others that I don't name, but Moon Over Parador and Bowfinger [laughs]. Love those movies! A lot of fun! Abbott And Costello meet Frankenstein. A lot of fun!