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James Franco was eager to film the production of Of Mice and Men in which he made his Broadway debut, but it wasn’t as simple as he thought it’d be. “I thought I just could bring in my old film school friends and we could just film it that way, quick and easy, and it turned out that that wasn’t the case,” Franco tells EW. “So we needed a company that could both film it, and have some sort of distribution system to put it out and recoup the cost.”
That’s where National Theatre Live stepped in, making the Anna D. Shapiro-directed show the first Broadway production filmed by the company. Now, audiences who missed Franco and Chris O’Dowd in Steinbeck’s classic during its New York run can catch it on Nov. 6 in movie theaters across the United States and Canada. (There will also be encore screenings for those who can’t make it that exact day.) “I guess as a person that comes from film I like the idea that there’s a record, but if the record can be even more than just that—a record that only a handful of people will ever go and watch in the Lincoln Center library but is in fact its own kind of entertaining piece of work,” Franco said. “I’m glad that all the work we put into it is preserved in such a well done form.”
Going into filming, Franco explained that he and his cast mates weren’t sure if they would have to alter their performances for the camera. Before a camera crew came in and filmed a rehearsal, Franco said the cast didn’t know whether they would need to bring their “performances down.” According to Franco, they wondered, “Should we be doing more of our subtle filmic performances?” But after they watched the footage, they realized they didn’t need to change a thing, and that NT Live could capture the experience of seeing a stage production. “It’s still from the audience’s perspective,” Franco said. “If we were going to film this like an actual movie the cameras would be onstage in an actors face. The cameras would be more in line with the character’s eyeline rather than the audience’s POV.”
Franco was interested in honing in on the play’s theatrical elements in filming it. “Even though I love the two movie versions of it, I felt like the filmed version of the theatrical production would be even better, because even though the play takes place on a ranch, the ranch is just a backdrop,” Franco said. “If you did an actual movie you feel the pressure to open up the space, to go out and see them working, but you actually don’t need that for the drama of this narrative.”
The filming process also came at the end of the show’s run, which Franco said only grew in quality. In fact, the cast came back to do two more performances for NT Live’s cameras in a sort of victory lap after they had closed for paying audiences. The show started previews in March and ran through July 27. “We could just use the 150 live performances that we had done as just rehearsals for this,” Franco said. “It’s almost like the best rehearsed filmic performance that I’ve ever done.”
You can get a taste of that performance with the exclusive clip below, in which George (Franco) tells Lennie (O’Dowd, in a Tony nominated performance) about a place where the two could “live off the fat of the land.” Of course, there are rabbits.