On a Friday evening in August, James Franco is yelling to a colleague to turn up the music at Le Baron, Andre Saraiva's new nightclub in Chinatown. "Don't be stingy, Shruti!" he calls across the room. "Louder!" The air is hazy from an overworked smoke machine wheezing in the corner. Franco is unshaven and wearing an almost laughably stereotypical director's uniform — flannel shirt, nondescript jeans, sneakers, and a backwards baseball hat over scruffy hair. He's surrounded by publicists, makeup artists, hairdressers, and video assistants — but they're not here for him. They're filming a new campaign for shoe label Stuart Weitzman, starring model Petra Nemcova, who wears white Swarovski crystal-studded pumps and very little else for this scene. Franco breaks into his crinkly-eyed smile and leans in to examine the screen on his video camera. "Louder!" he shouts again.
So what is Franco, whose list of job titles and academic credits has grown so long it's become a punchline for jokes about multitasking, doing with Stuart Weitzman? The link can be traced to the upscale branding consultancy Lipman, which Weitzman hired recently to revamp its image as sexier and more youthful. Franco has a longstanding relationship with Lipman; he collaborates frequently with Amir Zia, Lipman's creative director, who also worked on the ads for Seven jeans that Franco appeared in and directed last year.
Franco bumped into the Weitzman team — literally — in the Lipman offices last winter and got interested in their rebranding strategy, which had already begun with Mario Testino shooting Natalia Vodianova topless for their spring campaign. "We all started talking about the possibility of doing some cool videos about the shoes," Franco explained in an e-mail. "We started talking about ways to tell mini narratives while mostly focusing on feet. These videos are much more abstract and stylized than than the previous fashion campaigns I've done."
Once he'd signed on for the project, Franco developed storyboards inspired by the 1989 film Mondo New York, which follows a young woman as she encounters bizarre characters in seedy places around the city. Franco's version is obviously slicker and more aspirational, with Nemcova traipsing through hot spots like Le Baron, Peels restaurant, the Hole gallery and Freeman’s Alley. "In a way the characters became the shoes and the city," writes Franco. The soundtrack, Girl in a Coma's rendition of Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight," played an important role too: "We eventually settled on a song and the idea of a single performer. The song dictated that the events would take place at night, and the fact that it was a single walker helped shape the story into one of a mysterious woman who takes in the city during the heat of the night."
The nature of the shoot allowed for plenty of random bystanders to take part. Several scenes were filmed with Nemcova striding down an open sidewalk, where any passersby could approach. "Petra wore very revealing clothes, so her presence was definitely noticeable on the street, especially with a camera crew following her," recalled Franco. The East Village portion of the shoot was particularly eventful: "It was a Friday night so there were plenty of people out having fun. Some people tried to contribute to the video with drunken comments, but I don't think we're going to use much location audio — oh well. Petra was fearless so that made it easy."
Titled Walking After Midnight, the resulting short film will be released in four parts on Stuart Weitzman's Facebook page throughout the next month. We've got the exclusive first look at the debut video here.