The face behind the Franco factor

This is Ari; she's the face.
This is Ari; she's the face. // Sarah Sullivan

It all started in a kitchen. In November 2009, James Franco GRD ’16 had come to Yale for a master’s tea. Afterwards, the Yale Film Society invited him to a more intimate get-together. And, surprisingly, he came.

“It was like magic,” quips Ari Berkowitz ’12, who attended the event through an invitation from a friend. “The first time I was going to meet him, it took me an hour and a half to get ready,” she said. After being introduced to him through YFS member Carina Sposato ’12, they spent 25 minutes talking in the kitchen about Berkowitz’s production, “BITE ME BABY One More Time: Twilight: The Britney Musical,” which had gone up the week prior.

Now, a year later, Berkowitz is writing and directing a new musical produced by Franco, tentatively titled “James Franco Presents.” No one outside of the production knows much about the show — and if Berkowitz and the crew have their way, no one will until the show premieres in April.


Three weeks after her first encounter with Franco, Berkowitz received a “cryptic and bizarre” e-mail from a YFS member asking for her information, and whether she was the “girl who did the Twilight musical.”

Franco himself, who at the time had not yet decided to come to Yale for his doctoral degree, sent her an e-mail later on. In his message, he wrote that he had a good time talking to Berkowitz, and that he was interested in doing a project with undergraduates.

What followed has been a yearlong process of developing Franco’s vision through several encounters, e-mail exchanges and conference calls: a meeting at Franco’s place in New York City, which he went on to film with a camcorder. A sit-down in Berkowitz’s off-campus living room, where he ate all the Halloween gingerbread cookies her parents had sent her. Being introduced to Zelda and Tony, his cats.

“During the first three minutes of every meeting we have, I always see a screen in front of his face,” Berkowitz said. “Transitioning to the real person is weird.”

Coordinating these meetings was difficult, Berkowitz admits, considering Franco’s busy schedule as an artist, actor and Ph.D. student. But whenever he does make it to the meetings, he comes focused, with opinions and ideas of what he wants to see in the production, she said. For her part, Berkowitz has continuously written (and re-written) the script and the song lyrics.

“[Franco is] the guiding light, and he’s the one leading [the project] where he wants to take it,” said Stephen Feigenbaum ’12, one of the show’s music composers. “He’s the reason the show is happening, and we are just meeting him halfway.”

Regardless, Berkowitz makes sure to stress the collaborative nature of the project.

From assisting with the budget to adding a funny line in a scene, she asserts that everyone on the production team has a say in the show, even Franco. Just this past Wednesday night, Franco was able to attend callbacks, carrying books straight from class. During the casting deliberations, he chose to set the mood music.

“’70s hits,” Berkowitz remarks, matter-of-factly.


A blurb posted on the Yale Drama Coalition’s website, the only information currently available about the production, reads like several different shows meshed into one. Is it the story of a girl dealing with love? Is it a comedic drama? Does it revolve around the production of a musical about high school?

“Sex, blood and surrealism” are “to be expected,” but aside from these sparse details, crew members interviewed were tight-lipped about revealing any additional clues about the plot. Berkowitz describes a meeting with Franco involving note cards. Using her full array of colored pens, they started jotting down types of characters, themes and plot points that they wanted to include.

The show, she said, draws a lot from her own life experiences, “but it’s not autobiographical.” It is nothing like the “Twilight” musical, to be sure, although she pushed for a similar style. Berkowitz recalled how Franco chided her: “Ari, you have to pull back on the camp.” As such, the new production will touch on more emotional matters: Franco, she said, appears to be interested in the tones of adolescence and growing up.

To help flesh out these dimensions, the show will include a film component that will begin shooting in February, directed by Austin Kase ’11, once the cast is confirmed. Kase is no stranger himself to working with Franco, who appeared in Kase’s short for the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween Show last October. He said his team has already begun plans for this portion of the musical, which is the only part of the performance which will actually feature Franco.

“He might sing and dance,” Berkowitz said with a coy smile. “I wrote that in, but who knows if he’ll do it. He said he would, and he’s excited about it.”


Despite sharing the student experience with the rest of the Yale community, Franco, a scholar, published author and Golden Globe winner, remains a celebrity, on and off of campus.

The crew is already worrying about the space needs for the show, given Franco’s obvious popularity. Berkowitz herself missed the first half of Franco’s screening for his movie “Howl” in October due to a line outside the Whitney Humanities Center that stretched around the block.

In all likelihood, the same fate may befall “James Franco Presents,” but crew members seem encouraged rather than disheartened by having Franco’s name on the marquee.

“The work will definitely stand on its own,” said Adela Jaffe ’13, the other producer of the show. “His involvement can only add things to the project. I don’t think it will overshadow the students’ work at all.”

In essence, Berkowitz maintains, it’s a Yale production. Franco is a doctoral student, and 25 undergraduates are working on it, she adds.

It’s doubtful that this view is shared by everyone, especially those who pulled out of auditions when they found out Franco would not be present.

At least for now, the draw of the show is still very much about Franco.

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