“The Broken Tower,’’ which gets its Video on Demand release this Tuesday, is notable for two reasons. A biopic about the American Modernist poet Hart Crane, it was directed by James Franco, who also wrote the script and stars as Crane.
That’s one reason. The other? It’s Paul Mariani’s second brush with Hollywood.
Mariani, a very vigorous 71, is the author of a half dozen volumes of poetry, as well as several biographies of 20th-century American poets, including William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. Franco based “The Broken Tower’’ on Mariani’s similarly titled 2000 biography of Crane.
After more than three decades at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Mariani became University Professor of English at Boston College in 2000. That’s why BC was the site for the first screening of a nearly finished cut of “The Broken Tower’’ last April - “as a way to continue to work with Paul, to show our gratitude, just to present it on his home turf,’’ Franco said in a telephone interview.
Mariani has a prominent place on that turf. “Within the English department, he’s legendary,’’ said Ben Key, an English and political science major, who attended the event. “He’s a terrific teacher,’’ said David Quigley, professor of history and dean of the college of arts and sciences, in a telephone interview. “With his rapturous enthusiasm for literature, he really has a way of bringing the words of the poets to life.’’
Franco, 33, has his own rapturous enthusiasm for literature. An undergraduate English major at the University of California at Los Angeles, he’s published a collection of short stories, has a master’s in creative writing from Columbia, and is working on a doctorate in English at Yale. His own enthusiasm made him appreciate Mariani’s all the more.
“He’s made a big impression,’’ Franco said. “Not only is he a very smart guy, whose books I’ve learned tons from. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve met and we’ve become pretty good friends.’’ At the start of a joint question-and-answer session following the screening, Franco sounded like a star pupil addressing a favorite teacher when he turned to Mariani and said, “Just tell me what to talk about.’’
Crane (1900-1932) is the second poet Franco’s played recently. The other is Allen Ginsberg, in “Howl’’ (2010). Crane’s best-known work is the epic poem “The Bridge.’’ His poetry is famously difficult - “The poems were very hard for me to grasp,’’ Franco acknowledged - but the richness of his short life offers real possibilities for a filmmaker. The son of a wealthy Cleveland businessman (the inventor of Life Savers, in fact), Crane dropped out of high school and lived at various times in New York, Paris, and Mexico. He drank heavily, was openly gay, and committed suicide by jumping overboard into the Atlantic.
Sitting at the kitchen table of his Montague home last year, Mariani said he had long thought Crane’s story had potential as a film. “It’s such a roaring-boy’s 1920s life. So that, even if you’re not interested in the poetry, you’re going to be interested in the tragedy of the guy’s life.’’
It took a while, though, before he found out Franco shared that opinion. “About two years ago I got an e-mail from his agent in California. It said ‘James Franco is interested in procuring the rights to your biography of Hart Crane.’ Once, about 10 years ago, someone had called me about the John Berryman biography, ‘Dream Song,’ when that came out. Anyway, my agent, Jill Kneerim, said, ‘Look, Paul, the chances of this being turned into a movie are almost zero. I just don’t want you to get your hopes up.’ I said, ‘OK, I got that.’
“So I get a call from James. He’s at some airport, on his way out to Ireland for his part in this film, ‘Your Highness,’ one of his two stoner films. So we talk for about half an hour. Says he really wants to do this film, that he’d wanted to do it for years. It was a good conversation. I liked him. He was very approachable.’’
Mariani recalled being impressed by Franco’s commitment to “all kinds of serious literature’’ and by his manner generally.
“All I know is he’s very smart, very sharp, drinks a lot of Diet Coke, and he’s someone I could really talk to. He was hungry for the knowledge - and I could learn from him. So it was a series of back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.’’
Franco would call to pepper Mariani with questions. “ ‘What bars did Crane go to in Paris? What did they look like? How do you pick up a sailor in New York in 1925?’ Well, I didn’t know - but I found out! ‘What kind of music might he have played the drums to when he was in Mexico City?’ ’’
When Franco was in New York to film a scene with Julia Roberts for “Eat Pray Love’’ he asked Mariani to come and show him sites associated with Crane. Franco recalls the day vividly.
“Paul and I and my producing partner Vince Jolivette took a tour of all Crane’s residences in Manhattan and Brooklyn. That was incredible . . . From that point on, we just turned to Paul whenever we needed anything. He was on board with the structural idea I had from the beginning, which was that it would be told in sections, it would be kind of episodic. Like his poems that way. Paul and I discussed that, how to tell each section, what were the most important parts. Then I wanted to include some of his letters, and Paul was very helpful on which were appropriate.’’
That help even extended to casting. Crane associated with some of the most famous writers and cultural figures of the ’20s. One of the latter was the photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
“We kept that role open for a while,’’ Franco said. “I didn’t know who to put in it. Then one day it hit me that Paul would be great. Stuck a fake mustache on him, and he even did an accent. Normally, I’m not too big on non-professionals trying to do accents because it gets really heavy-handed or stiff. But he was great!’’
Mariani is modest about his acting turn, although he does note he needed just one take (Franco shot a second for insurance). “People [on the set] clapped when it was done,’’ the professor-turned-actor said with a laugh, “but I thought that was just relief! I studied [Stieglitz’s] life, I tried to get his voice. I knew it was only 30 seconds. But if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it [right].’’
As noted, “The Broken Tower’’ isn’t Mariani’s first brush with Hollywood. While a graduate student at the City University of New York, he taught a humanities course for New York City police officers. One of his students was named Frank Serpico. They became friendly enough that Mariani and his wife double-dated with Serpico and his girlfriend. Serpico would soon become famous for his testimony before a crime commission on police corruption, which led to Sidney Lumet’s 1973 biopic. “I cried when I saw the film,’’ Mariani said. “I couldn’t believe it was so real. Al Pacino did such a damn good job. He really got Frank.’’
Will there be a third brush? “After ‘The Broken Tower,’ ‘Dream Song’ is my favorite of Paul’s books,’’ Franco said. “I’ve told him I would love to do something on Berryman.’’
Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe .com.