We all know James Franco as one of Hollywood’s top A-list actors and working artists who has his hand in various aspects of the arts, but a handful of film students and emerging talent in Hollywood know him as an instructor, mentor or college professor. In March 2014, he decided teaching at USC, UCLA and CalArts wasn’t enough, so he opened his own school, Studio 4.
In October 2014, James taught his first class at his new school: a Master Class called “Sex Scenes”. The class was later turned into a docu-series, which is currently being released in short video clips on James Franco’s official Facebook page. The Sex Scenes Master Class was made up of 40 students; 20 actors who auditioned in pairs as couples, 10 writers and 10 directors. I was one of the directors selected to be part of this exclusive class.
In early September 2014, James Franco took to social media announcing that he would be teaching a new class at his school and encouraged actors, writers, and directors to apply for the 12-week course which would result in a short film. Having previously taken a writing course at Studio 4 over the summer, instructed by David Garrett & Stacy Miller, which invited several industry professionals to speak and give great advice, and having just screened my first feature film in Fort Lauderdale on the silver screen, I was definitely interested in taking this class to learn from someone who is very successful in an industry that I am also working hard to be successful in. I applied as a writer and a director.
Starting The Class
I found out I was accepted into the class as a director the first week in October. The secret location of the class was emailed to us the night before our first class. Classes met once a week, for three hours, in west Hollywood for 12 weeks from October through December. To give you an idea of how busy this man is, during the time that our Master Class was going on, Franco was also teaching classes at UCLA and CalArts as well as was filming Zeroville, promoting The Interview and hosting Saturday Night Live.
One of Rabbit Bandini (Franco’s production company) and Studio 4’s producers & general managers, Jay Davis co-ran the class with Franco and is credited as the executive producer on all the short films that resulted from the Sex Scenes Master Class. I only had two expectations when I walked into this course: (1) Learn something new, (2) make a movie. Other than that, I didn’t have a clue what to expect. So needless to say, I was not disappointed in the experience.
On the first day of class I sat with some people I knew from the writing course I took. About half the class came from Studio 4 LA and a few came from Studio 4 NY, but some people didn’t come from Studio 4 at all. The groups of couples were varied as these scenes were intended to depict a variety of relationships. The actor pairings were in sets of male-male, female-female, male-female, and younger-older. The writers and directors were evenly split, five women, five men.
The first part of class consisted of introductions. Everyone got up and introduced themselves. After that we were given time to mingle and meet our classmates. We were told to go write names down on a sheet of paper of people we’d like to work with based on their introductions and our mingling. After about 20 minutes of mingling we handed in our pieces of papers with names. James Franco, Jay Davis and their assistants went into a backroom and emerged a few minutes later, having picked our team based on the pieces of paper everyone turned in and trying their best to match everyone up with their first choices. Each team consisted of one writer, one director and two actors.
Keeping It PG
I was teamed up with a writer named Michelle and my actors were the younger-older couple, Jeff Vernon and Jacqueline Bustamante. During introductions, Michelle was the writer who introduced herself as the one who wanted to keep it PG (Franco’s reaction to this was fantastic and you can watch it on his Facebook page in the docu-series video clips). Immediately I knew this was going to be an interesting creative challenge for me and I was excited to take it head on.
The following week we improvised some ideas in class and the writers were assigned to write their first drafts. When I was handed the first draft of our script, the first four pages were a phone conversation between a mother and daughter. This wasn’t going to work for me. In fact, there was very little about the first draft was was going to work for me. My writer and I were butting heads and it was only two weeks in. I asked one of the staff members at Studio 4 if, as the director, I was able to do some rewrites. The answer I received came from Jay Davis directly and was a clear and concise “yes”.
During the next class, James started off by addressing the entire group with a scolding about how word had gotten back to him and Jay that some of the groups weren’t getting along and were having issues working together. He stressed the importance of how if you can’t work with other people and compromise your ideas, you won’t get anywhere in this industry. At first I was sure he was referring to the issues I had with my writers first draft. After class I learned that he was talking about all the groups and not any one group in particular. And the issues I had with my writers first draft were the very least of the problems some groups were having.
As it turns out, pairing up a bunch of strangers who have never discussed their ideas before and aren’t familiar with each others work, can result in a lot of creative differences. But that’s okay, I am of the mind set that some creative tension can be a good thing for a project. It forces people to step outside of their own boundaries and comfort zones to create something fresh and new; something they may have never done. And although I can only speak for my group, that is exactly what happened.
We spent the next several weeks fleshing out the ideas and stories. Every week we got to see the stories take more shape as they evolved into what would become their end product. James did a great job of coaching the actors, getting right up in their faces and giving them one on one feedback on their performances. As a director, I enjoyed watching these actors hone their craft under James’ instruction and watch them implement his notes into their work every week, as the stories and characters developed.
Sarah Kaplan, an actress in the short film Hungry Girl, directed by Skyler Wakil and written by Gina Nicholson, found his teachings in a classroom setting to be invaluable to her work, “Many times in my education as an actor and filmmaker, teachers wouldn’t have enough real-life experience in the industry to give advice or instruction that would be applicable to creating films outside the classroom setting, because James is actually a successful working filmmaker and actor, his lessons come from his own experiences,” she continues to note that, “James as a teacher was blunt and honest, and I can’t even begin to express how important honest feedback is for developing artists. His comments and criticisms led to very real productivity, he would steer us in the right direction, and give us the confidence to move forward even when we were stuck or facing unforeseen challenges”.
Behind the scenes, it was the writers in the class that had the most gripes because through the course of this class they saw their work changed the most. But the first writer issue happened when one of the ten writers dropped the class four weeks in and left one group hanging, writer-less. Jennifer Crocker, who had previously written for Rabbit Bandini’s reality show (an acting competition) called Studio 4, was trusted with taking on this group in addition to the original group she was assigned to. Just as he instructed the actors, Franco also let the writers know what was and was not working with their scripts and gave his suggestions. Some of the groups took his suggestions, others didn’t.
“I learned not to be married to my work. I think that was the first lesson I learned from any of my classes with Studio 4. Our scripts changed dramatically week to week, and it was fun to watch everyone progress”, says Crocker.
Writer JR Thal says, “I learned a lot about how to work collaboratively in a team. Before the class, one of the hardest things to do for me as a writer was to accept criticisms when I can’t immediately see how they make the story better. In collaborating with a director and two actors, there were a lot of strong opinions on how the story should be told,” and with some praise for Franco, he continues, “Watching James workshop and give notes, without expecting us to take his word as law, allowed me to learn to let go of the reigns a little and trust in the instincts of my team. James only wanted us to make the best short films possible, whether we used his ideas or stuck to our own, and I now emulate that attitude.”
But it was the directors who were given the most creative control and the most responsibility. Ultimately our vision is what would be seen on screen. It was our job to double as producer (or hire one if the group chose to do so), and keep track of the budget, paperwork, accounting expenses, hiring crew, getting equipment, etc. And after all was said and done, we were responsible for the post production, editing and final delivery of our films too.
Coffee And Compromises
I insisted Michelle and I have coffee and discuss our story. This was a team project, not just mine. I wanted us to get on the same page. Compromises had to be made and meeting somewhere in the middle had to happen. We kept butting heads over the idea of me wanting to see the characters in an older-younger relationship and dealing with the sexual issues that arise but she couldn’t get on board with that.
Since Michelle was stuck on the idea of a story where a young woman breaks up her mother’s relationship, I was given the challenge of how to not make that come off too juvenile. Franco kept insisting that Jeff had to get naked in our film, he was like a one man cheerleading squad, egging it on. We worked that into our final version of the script and a “flesh colored dildo” was added to our prop list.
Jeff Vernon, the star of my short film, Burden of Proof describes our film as “a raucous comedy that pushed the envelope,” and adds “the direction brought all the elements of story, character and actions together into a very spicy mix!”
When it came time to shoot our films, the class was great. Everyone pulled together and many of us helped each other out on set as production assistants, assistant directors, extras, etc. Everyone put aside their creative differences and put their best foot forward. This resulted in ten unique short films, each one dealing with sex or sexuality in some way. Some were comedies, others were dramas, one was a horror. Each one examines different types of relationships people are engaged in and the issues that come up between lovers or one night stands.
After The Master Class
In February 2015 we screened our films at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles. Rabbit Bandini and Studio 4 hosted a mini-award ceremony for our Sex Scenes Master Class. Best film and best director awards went to Erica Ortiz for her film Ms. Match, about college kids who hook up from Tinder.
“It was a process of trial and error. With so much input and feedback from the class, it really taught me to listen with an open mind, but to most importantly stay true to my voice and message — even if my collaborators don’t agree with me 100%,” says Ortiz, “At the end of this whole process I can say I am proud of the film we created and we have gotten some pretty cool responses, especially from women. I am so grateful to have been given this opportunity to work with others and grow from the experience of the class.”
Would she do it all over again, given the chance? “I would do it in a heartbeat. It was such a great learning experience collaborating with James Franco, two talented actors and our writer”, says the award winning director. Since the Sex Scenes Master Class ended she went on to graduate from CalArts and is currently an assistant to James Franco’s producing partner, Vince Jolivette.
Sarah Kaplan went on to work with Franco as a co-star along side him in AOL’s season 2 of Making a Scene With James Franco and as an extra in several of his independent films that he’s worked on since. Sarah thanks him for the opportunities he gave her, “I think the best gift James gave me, was to take me seriously as an artist, and to push me to actually make my own opportunities to work, instead of sitting around waiting for someone else to do it for me. He taught me that it is my own job to make my own success, and it is always possible to create the kind of films I want to create, as long as I put in the effort, the time, and the care.”
Jeff Vernon went on to take part in James’ next Master Class, Dark Hours, as a writer at Studio 4. The Dark Hours class just wrapped the filming of their two feature films, Roxana and Typee. Vernon also just wrapped an independent film where he plays Hemingway at the end of his life.
Jennifer Crocker went on to write for the second season of AOL’s Making a Scene with James Franco. She’s also been a freelance writer for Clevver News Feed, and FabLab (on Fox Saturday mornings) as well as an associate producer. Always keeping busy with her writing, she’s getting ready to submit to all the yearly writing fellowships.
A lot of people from the Sex Scenes class have continued on to more creative endeavors with their careers, myself included. But no matter where I go from here in my filmmaking career, I’m thankful for Studio 4. What I got out of this experience was a lot more than just a raunchy comedy to add to my reel, but I’ve made some friends for life that I will continue making films with for years to come.
People have a lot of different opinions about James Franco. But whether you love him or hate him, here’s what I can tell you from personal experience: He’s giving back to artists and the artistic community by connecting people in a creative network that gives equal opportunity to artists based on talent, not gender.
Would you be interested in taking a course like Sex Scenes? If you seen the shorts, which is your favorite Sex Scenes film?
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.