A man wearing lipstick in a blonde wig plays guitar and croons onstage. A heartbroken father describes his daughter’s brutal killing after she tried to leave her boyfriend. A Vietnamese Air Force pilot stars in his own son’s movie. We’re not sure what’s in the water that James Franco is drinking, but it seems like he might be taking himself a bit more seriously with the latest incarnation of his Web-based docu-reality series, “Undergrads: South.”
Franco previously received backlash for “Undergrads: West,” which portrayed University of Southern California students drinking and partying in excess. USC was not happy with the series, and it was subsequently taken offline.
Franco’s latest creation, “Undergrads: South,” features students in a much more positive light, documenting four undergraduate filmmakers at the University of Texas in Austin – David Bukstein, Ali Haji, Bao Truong and Morgan Young – in a behind-the-scenes look at students not too unlike himself: ambitious filmmakers who take on too much, but somehow get things done.
Joy Gohring, the show’s director, whose previous series “DateAHuman.com” was praised for its high quality on a low budget, seems to be the go-to girl for Web content these days. She’s gearing up to direct her first feature this summer after winning Best Short at the 2011 Cannes International Film Festival.
I caught up with Gohring during post-production on “Undergrads: South” to ask her and two of the cast members, David Bukstein and Bao Truong, about the project.
This first thing I had to know was, how does Franco have time to take on yet another project?
“Adderall!” Gohring laughs. “No, he’s just one of those people with a ton of energy. It’s part of his company’s philosophy to trust people they hire to facilitate their vision. I guess the combination of his big brain and that trust allows him to dip his hands into many projects at once.”
With hundreds of film students to choose from, I was curious how the cast came together.
“I got a message on Facebook,” Bukstein said, “and so did lots of my friends. But no one believed it was real and some people didn’t even respond.”
Whether Franco took the hint from the media or not, “South” is certainly a change for the better. The nine-episode series is honest and engaging, with real life drama that doesn’t need to be manipulated by untrustworthy reality show producers.
In one very candid episode, Bukstein’s father comes out to his son as a cross-dresser.
“I had no idea that was going to happen,” said Bukstein. “It was a shock to me. He asked me to go see him perform in drag, and I asked him if I could film my reaction. So I did.” (“David’s Dad Does Drag” airs at the end of May.)
Bukstein and Truong said that being on the show changed the way they related to their own lives.
“I kept thinking of my life in terms of plot points, and had a tendency to speak in sound bites,” said Truong. “It was very surreal, especially getting to screen the show at the South by Southwest Film Festival.”
After connecting with the cast, it made me think how awesome this show would be on MTV. Compared to “Jersey Shore” and “My Super Sweet 16,” it’s refreshing to watch a reality show about the human spirit in a state of creation instead of a state of chaos. Sure college can be about getting drunk and getting laid, but what about the part where students actually try to make something of themselves? I’m sure there are at least a few undergrads out there who can relate to that.