Penn Jillette on his crowd-funding scheme, Donald Trump and atheism: I regret my "big swinging dick attitude" about Christians

The Vegas magician on his time with Trump and why he's asking for money: "I just can't do 3 million on my own"

Published September 18, 2013 10:59PM (EDT)

  (NBC/Mitch Haaseth)
(NBC/Mitch Haaseth)

Penn Jillette, the Las Vegas magician, outspoken libertarian and atheist, and erstwhile "Celebrity Apprentice," has a moviemaking dream.

Jillette has previously produced the documentaries "The Aristocrats," about a famous dirty joke, and "Tim's Vermeer," about theories surrounding the Dutch painter. Both of those, he told Salon, were funded out of pocket, a method that would be unsustainable for his new fiction film: "Writing a check for half a million that you won't see for a few years does make a difference in how you live," he said. "I just can't do 3 million on my own."

The performer is sanguine about potential lack of interest in his project, for which he is seeking just short of a million dollars, to be raised before Nov. 5, on FundAnything, a crowd-funding service.

"Director's Cut" takes on the story of an obsessive fan who kidnaps an actress and makes someone else's film into his own; Jillette is to play the villain, and the casting of the actress will depend on the degree to which Jillette's fans overfund the project.

Playing the villain is a new turn in a career full of them; the magician, whose television series "Bullshit!" conveyed for years his libertarian and atheist ideas, has lately been a reality-TV fixture -- FundAnything, indeed, was co-founded by "Apprentice" major domo Donald Trump. Jillette's feelings on his reality television career are wide-ranging and exhaustive. In a book excerpt previously published on Salon, Jillette wrote: "The nightmare of Trump is not that he doesn’t care what people think; it’s that he desperately cares what people think and … he’s doing the best he can." These days, Jillette says that he was using reality television in order to convey a deeper sense of humanity through a flawed medium, much like a friend in the Monkees. (Maybe it's better to let him explain.)

Ardent fans may be disappointed that this project doesn't assay Jillette's pet political topics. But Jillette seems to be interested in living and letting live. After all, tomorrow he may well have a religious epiphany -- though that may be deferred if he gets funded and spends some time shooting his film.

Who do you view as your core fan base, the people most likely to help fund you?

I have more contact with people who consume, for lack of a better word, my product than any other performers. Every night, after the show, we meet everyone who wants to meet us. We stand there for 45 minutes to an hour. When we play England, or a 1,400-seat theater in Vegas, a 3,500-seat theater on the road, our after-show can last longer than the show itself. I'm lying a bit there. Not longer. But the people that listen to me, they talk to me.

All the other performers I know go backstage and hide. There's a few changes in my life. Other performers are terrified and hate quiet audiences. Teller and I love them. The most quiet audiences we've had have been the most enthusiastic audiences. They just carry on. I can't get myself in a head space to applaud when I don't care.

The other symptom of meeting a lot of people is: I have a very clear image of who would contribute to this movie. The short answer is me. I was a very early adopter of crowd funding. I enjoyed, separate from the rewards, watching someone put something together and being pulled into the inside. Twenty bucks pulls you into the project -- it's amazing. I've been waiting for the right time to do something myself. The last two movies I've done -- "The Aristocrats," a movie about a joke, and a movie about Vermeer -- they're very different movies that I was able to fund myself with my own money. That's the best and worst way to do it. It's nice to have all that control and all that power. It's also bad. For one thing, you have your own money on the line -- but what's scary is you don't have other feedback. And you want other feedback. "Director's Cut" is a movie I've wanted to make for four years and I simply don't have enough money. Doing the documentaries was the price of a small house, doing a scripted movie is the price of a business. I can't write a check for that. We will make a $3- to $4 million movie with the help of investors, calling in favors -- but we're also getting a fan base of people that say yes, this is a movie I'd like to see.

Money is important. What money means is more important. If there aren't people willing to put up the money, then I really shouldn't make it. I have all these quixotic feelings -- I want to make the movie, I want to make the script, but I'm also trying to listen to feedback. I'm going to put out there the whole pitch, the whole script, the whole idea. It seems like if this movie should be made, there should be enough people to be excited about the idea. There are exceptions: There's bunches of movies you could not have predicted would be good, and would not have been crowd-funded, and they were wonderful. It seems like I should be able to gauge from the success of this. And we have three to four different budgets. From a three- to four-week shoot on available sets on up. The more money we have allows Adam, the director, to do what he wants to do. I'm so focused on writing ideas and being in it, that budget is less of a concern for me.

Tell me a bit about the script -- it seems something of a metacommentary on fame?

I got fascinated by director's commentaries and how there was an intimacy that you automatically got. I love the way you get completely sucked in. You listen to the commentary on "The Silence of the Lambs" -- even when he's saying crazy shit, he's your friend, and he's inside of you. I get obsessed with the possessiveness you get with the director. And there are exceptions to this. I'm talking about the ones where the director is in the auteur position. There's a lie built into that. Movies are made by hundreds of people. You don't have a movie made by fewer than dozens of people. And yet all of this is portrayed as one person's vision. Teller says art is making what you had to do look like you want to do it. Even in brilliant movies with brilliant directors, that's a real human thing we do everywhere, not just in show business. I was overwhelmed with the idea -- what if the person you were listening to was not involved in the movie and kidnapped the actress -- forgive me for saying actress, but it's easier than "female actor."

I just loved the violation of trust that comes from the idea -- we do trust the director, but what if the director was evil. I was so fascinated with something very, very new to movies and very old in literature. The story that masquerades as something else, the novel that pretends to be a diary. That was not possible in movies until this century. Maybe it started with "Blair Witch" at end of the last century.

What do you make of criticisms of celebrities using crowd-funding sites?

The only thing that counters that is the fact that it's so easy to say no. I have a lot of experience with funding these things, I give huge amounts of money to everything from comic books to stuff closer to real charity to movies. And when I feel that way, I just don't contribute and stop watching. The kind of idea underneath that argument is that art shouldn't be sullied with commerce. But nobody went to see "World War Z" because Brad Pitt needed the money. The funding for "World War Z" was crowd-funded, just with a speculator in between thinking he could make the money on the back end.

The perks we're offering are precisely what we'd give to a movie studio. If you were a studio exec investing $4 million from a studio, you'd be able to come to set, see the script, get pictures for your children. It's just an ad hoc studio made up of the same people who are going to pay for it anyway. And nobody makes movies with their own money except me. It's really, really hard for a working entertainer in the trenches -- though there's no doubt I make more than my dad did as a jail guard -- and writing a check for half a million that you won't see for a few years does make a difference in how you live. I just can't do 3 million on my own.

Tell me a little bit about how you're able to maintain an earnest connection with your fans after having been on "Dancing With the Stars" and "Celebrity Apprentice," two shows that are maybe off-brand for you.

I'm pretty good friends with Mike Nesmith of the Monkees and I was a child when they came out. I talk a lot to him -- he was on a show he didn't enjoy being on, but his humanity came through. And the Monkees led me directly to Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix. There was some humanity that came through. He talked a lot to me about Timothy Leary. There are a lot of us from the time where there were three networks and the family watched together -- there was something wonderful about the human sensibility. You take something formulaic, laid out beat by beat, done in the crassest, broadest strokes possible, and you put people in there and you get something else, something you can relate to. If all of that goes beautifully, and there's something subtle and nuanced, you have a masterpiece. And if it's something a little crasser or cruder and the humanity comes in, you get a wonderful dissonance, you see something that interests and touches you.

When I go on these shows, which is my job, to sell my Vegas show, I try hard to be more direct and honest than I am day to day. I watch people on these shows construct a character they're going to play, and I find it so much more interesting -- the purpose of art is to stand naked onstage like Allen Ginsberg said. I would watch that scripted sitcom, so phony, and with Mike Nesmith on-screen, there was something real there. There's a carny rule: Never play another man's game. When I go on Arsenio's or certainly on Trump's show, I'm violating that rule. But even with someone else ringmastering it, there still seems to be something. People seeing me on "The Celebrity Apprentice," they say, "It's weird, I feel like I know you after watching that." And even creepier, I have the sense they kind of do. It's wonderful to see, with Dixie cups and shitty string, something gets through. I'm talking to Donald Trump. There couldn't be a more imperfect translator! I, too, am bothered by someone saying, "I need money, give me money." But there's nothing distasteful about commerce.

As someone who entertains audiences and seeks fans, isn't your vocal atheism working at cross purposes with your best interests?

I'm absolutely working at cross purposes with myself. But politicians' highest ratings are when they haven't said anything. It's that first sentence when you say what you believe and feel that kills you -- and it's the same thing with an artist. I talk a lot at atheists' conferences and skeptics' conferences. People say, I want to give you credit for how brave you are for speaking out even though it could hurt you -- I always say, "Well, yeah, except the more I talk about this, the more money I make." I'm doing fine. People have dealt with huge adversity from their atheism. I'm not one of them. I'm not Salman Rushdie. Maybe because I picked a different religion to not believe in.

One of the things that came out and it does make me cry, one of the things that changed about me during "Bullshit!," when we first started doing it in 2002, and we'd pitched it right after 9/11. When we first started doing it, there was a big swinging dick attitude Teller and I had: "We're telling the truth, fuck you. We're ready for the adversity." We did these mean-spirited shows on Christianity, creationism. And we steeled ourselves for a barrage of hate. And yes, there are mentally ill people who do death threats: We don't count them. Commenters on the Internet, we don't count them either. Mentally ill people come from all belief systems.

But the letters we got from sincere believers, really religious people, all the letters said, I disagree with you completely about your view of God but I love the show, I love the passion, I love how funny it is, and I love that you're speaking honestly. We'd see these and cry our fucking eyes out. If you sit next to me at the end of our show at the Rio, many times a night, someone will say to me, I'm a Christian, a very strong Christian, I disagree with a lot of what you say, but I love hearing you say it and I want you to know a lot of Christians love you. My answer to that is, "Thank you," of course. But my eternal answer is, I listen to gospel music, I listen to Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion." But more important than that, I consume art very contrary to my position. "St. Matthew's Passion" is contrary to my position. I read the Bible. I read the New York Times, which I disagree with in many, many ways, being a Libertarian.

And I'm growing. I don't know if I'll disagree with the Times next year. And I don't know if "St. Matthew's Passion" will touch me in a religious way next year. The sample I described is self-selecting. People I've alienated don't come to my show. But even without those people that don't want to see something done by anyone disagreeing with them, you can have a wonderful, thriving career that will make you cry.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Dancing With The Stars Director's Cut Penn And Teller Penn Jillette The Celebrity Apprentice