James Franco begins 'revolutionary' film class with local high schoolers

Actor returns to his alma mater, duplicating hands-on educational model he experienced

Actor James Franco never took a film class at Palo Alto High School, but he did take journalism with Esther Wojcicki.

In the mid 1990s, he wrote for Paly's student newspaper, The Campanile, which Wojcicki took over in 1984. The Campanile is today as it was then run entirely by the students themselves, with student-editors planning and leading classes throughout the 10 or so production cycles each year. Wojcicki, who students past and present refer to affectionately as "Woj," takes mostly a backseat as a guide and mentor.

The model of the class – founded upon student agency, genuine teacher-student collaboration and the creation of a product with real-world application – had a profound affect on Franco.

"I didn't realize it as much at the time as I do now but she really empowers the students because … it's highly self-run," Franco said in an interview with the Weekly on Sunday afternoon in Paly's state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, which houses the school's robust journalism program and on Sunday served as the setting for the first session of a special film class Franco is teaching to local high school students this year.

"Woj certainly is a guide and a support and also can push (students) in directions and maybe get them to do better when she sees potential but she gives them the power. That's really the model that … I took on when I started teaching my own classes," he said.

Franco is putting that model to use with a group of 40 aspiring filmmakers who were selected out of more than 500 local high school students who applied for a space in Franco's film course. Franco announced over Labor Day weekend on social media that he would be teaching what he described as "the class I would have wanted in high school."

The film production workshop class, which began on Sunday, will run over the course of this year with the students meeting with Franco once a month for four hours and working with each other in between. (He'll be flying in from Canada, where he's currently working on a mini-series.)

The end product will be a "professional level" feature film produced by Francos' Rabbit Bandini Productions. (The company recently produced the 2014 film "Palo Alto," directed by Gia Coppola and based on a collection of short stories by the same name that Franco wrote.)

Franco — who is currently teaching graduate-level film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and the California Institute of the Arts — said that every class he teaches is project-based, "so instead of a newspaper we make a film." On Sunday, he called this particular class, for high school students, "revolutionary."

So the group of 40 students started on Sunday by reading through the script for the film they'll produce. "Metamorphosis: Junior Year" is based on a young adult novel of the same name by Franco's mother Betsy, who will also participate in the class and attended on Sunday. (It's a family affair: Franco's younger brother Tom, who has both acting and teaching experience, was also there and will be helping out with the class. All of the Francos and other members of James' team helping with the class were fingerprinted like any other school volunteer would be, said Paly Principal Kim Diorio.)

The main character in "Metamorphosis" is Ovid, an "introspective, charming, and sweetly-neurotic artist-type" high school student struggling with overbearing parents, a girl he likes, being bored in "Living Skills" class and choosing art over a traditional academically driven path. James Franco said the novel was inspired by Paly.

On Sunday, the students broke into groups of five – each group with a designated director, writer, editor, cinematographer and producer – and chose characters from the script whose stories they will develop more in depth. Each group's mini episode will later be combined to make the entire film.

Over the next few weeks, before Franco returns again, the student writers have been tasked with outlining and writing their scenes. Future work for the whole team will include shooting and editing these scripts, drafting "visual plans" (which includes elements like detailed shot lists and character biographies, according to the course syllabus) as well as schedules and budgets.

Much like the Paly journalism program, the class allows students to have "one foot in the classroom and one foot in the real world," as Franco wrote in a foreword to Wojcicki's recent book, "Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom."

"But the important part of working on the paper," Franco wrote, "that I understood subconsciously then, and that I understand explicitly as a teacher now, is that my work was being seen by a public, and that that changed the work. ... None of us lives in a vacuum, and neither should our work."

The 40 participating students are almost exclusively from Paly and Gunn high schools, with only two from Menlo School and Los Altos High School. Many have previous film experience and have or are taking the available related coursework at Palo Alto's two high schools, which is limited to theater, video production and film composition and literature (there is still no actual film course).

Paly senior Andrew Baer, who described himself as a self-taught filmmaker, said he was most interested to see how the student collaboration would play out.

Just the night before, he screened "Unmasked," a documentary about teen mental health and suicide that he created with a group of 13 Paly and Gunn students last summer.

Other students, from freshmen to seniors, have spent years putting together short YouTube films. Two have already taken several acting classes with Betsy Franco, who offers classes at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre.

"I've just been making videos with my friends for a couple years," said Paly freshman Sam Cook. "And then when I heard about this class – it's like (a) dream come true, almost. It's a big deal to me."

Wojcicki said she was so impressed by not just these 40 students but almost all of the 550 or so who applied for a space in the class that she decided to offer them an alternative.

The Paly Media Arts program partnered with Cinequest — a San Jose nonprofit that "fuses the world of the filmed arts with that of Silicon Valley's innovation to empower youth, artists and innovators to create and connect," its website reads" – to offer a self-paced online film course to the rest of students for free.

Students will be required to complete several assignments, including creating a short film – which will be their ticket to participate in Cinequest's annual film festival. The class' final film will also be submitted to the film festival.

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