Directed by Oscar-nominated James Franco from a screenplay by James Franco and Matt Rager, As I Lay Dying is adapted from the 1930 classic American novel by William Faulkner.
The story chronicles the Bundren family as they traverse the Mississippi countryside to bring the body of their deceased mother Addie to her hometown for burial. Addie’s husband Anse and their children, Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and the youngest one Vardaman, leave the farm on a carriage with her coffin – each affected by Addie’s death in a profound and different way. Their road trip to Jefferson, some forty miles away, is disrupted by every antagonistic force of nature or man: flooded rivers, injury and accident, a raging barn fire, and not least of all — each individual character’s personal turmoil and inner commotion which at times threaten the fabric of the family more than any outside force.
William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, while working at a power plant and according to literary legend, the author claimed: “I did not change a word of it.”
The novel was published in 1930 and was Faulkner’s seventh. 15 different characters narrate As I Lay Dying over 59 chapters.
Bringing As I Lay Dying to the screen faced as many natural and man-made challenges as the Bundren family: 25 days to shoot on a low budget, finding local actors in Mississippi, a dangerous water stunt in a running river, the burning of a barn. But before all that, the biggest hurdle was turning Faulkner’s complicated, 56,000-words, 59-chapters and 15 different characters into 120 concise screenplay pages. That process took much longer than the time it took the Bundren family to deliver their mother to Jackson, and the six weeks it took Faulkner to write the novel. But no one has ever suspected James Franco of being an underachiever.
As Franco explains, “As I Lay Dying, the book, was one of the first novels I read outside of the high school curriculum. My main interests were art, literature, acting and film. As I Lay Dying was a book that my father gave me and I can remember spending a weekend reading late into Friday night and Saturday night, when all of my friends were out partying. It was a difficult book back then. I just tried to understand every line of it. It stayed with me. I thought it would be a very interesting movie because of its structure. Each chapter in the book is in the first person by different character. Even though it’s very complicated in the way it’s told, it had a very simple structure. There was a journey that an audience could follow, and I thought that combination would allow for a good movie because you could have complexity, but it would be hung on a very clear through-line.”
Franco continues, “After years of acting I started thinking about writing or directing movies. Having never directed a film, taking on As I Lay Dying seemed almost impossible. I wouldn’t know how to do it. Then I remembered reading a biography on Sean Penn — I know Sean, we worked together on Milk, but I didn’t ask him about this. I read that at one time had wanted to do an adaptation of As I Lay Dying, and he would play the character that I eventually played and Jack Nicholson would have played the father. So that was probably the first spark that made me start thinking, ‘this is something that’s possible.’ Years later I started thinking about As I Lay Dying again. So I started inquiring into the rights.”
As I Lay Dying is considered a masterpiece in American literature, but was always considered an impossible challenge for adapting to film: “As I Lay Dying is dense and people have always said it will never be made into a movie. When James adapts books into screenplays, he wants to be very loyal to the book.”
“There were a lot of things that I was interested in the book, Franco says, “On one level it’s a very simple story, and on another level it’s told in a very complex way. I felt like it’s about a farming family just trying to bury their mother. You could say each member of the family has his or her own need, and that its about a family coming apart — that the death of the mother is an event that starts a chain reaction. On another level it’s an epic journey. Going from go the farm to the city — they pass through a flood, they go through fire, they undergo great physical hardships. Their journey signifies something bigger… maybe that’s journey that we all go through in life or that’s the epic nature of the day-to-day that we all go through.”
“As I Lay Dying” be shown exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas nationwide starting Nov. 27.