Emilio Estevez on making "The Public," a film about dignity, homelessness and libraries

Salon sits down with the erstwhile Brat Packer to discuss his new movie "The Public," a film 12 years in the making

Published April 10, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Emilio Estevez - Credit: "Salon Talks"
Emilio Estevez - Credit: "Salon Talks"

Emilio Estevez carries the pop culture associations of a long career — as a member of the '80s Hollywood breakout cohort the Brat Pack, his fame was solidified in coming-of-age hits like "The Breakfast Club" and "The Outsiders," in addition to cult classics like "Repo Man." Estevez continues to bring intensity and wit to his performances, but the writer/actor/director has also centered projects in his recent filmography that address trauma in some shape or form.

Estevez currently stars in the new film "The Public," which he wrote and directed as well. It's a David and Goliath story, featuring a knockout cast of Hollywood talent — Alec Baldwin, Jenna Malone, Christian Slater, Gabrielle Union, Jeffrey Wright — about mental illness, homelessness and democracy, and it takes place in one of the last places for the disenfranchised in America where they can still be welcome: the public library. "The Public" is open now in theaters nationwide.

Estevez sat down with me in Salon's studio last week to talk about the long road to making "The Public," his love for libraries, how his father Martin Sheen's many arrests in the '60s shaped his understanding of nonviolent civil disobedience and working with a range of actors, from background artists who are experiencing homelessness to stars like Alec Baldwin. Watch our conversation or read it below.

You've been on the road for this film quite a lot.

Man, we have been on the road now for about six weeks. This has been a tour that has been punishing as well as very illuminating in terms of the movie that we made. So, you know, this is a film that celebrates the outcasts and the misfits and the marginalized and the disenfranchised and the poor. And the screenings that we've been doing now, there's a 30-city tour. We've been screening for librarians at libraries. We been screening at some film festivals, but also homeless shelters, homeless advocacy groups. And what has been happening is, I'll stand in the back of the theater and I watch the reactions of these people who are portrayed on screen and they're seeing themselves in a heroic way. And they're seeing themselves portrayed in a way that they haven't seen before. And there's a lot of dignity on that screen. And there's a lot of love and a lot of care given to humanizing these individuals who oftentimes are overlooked, including librarians. You know, we forget the role of librarians these days. And they were Google before Google.

Absolutely. And you know, if I might say, this might be the sexiest that librarians are ever going to look. Not in the literal sense, but because of the utility that they have that we in the every day fail to think of.

That's right. And the services that the library provides me with. For instance, I renewed my passport last year at the Cincinnati Public Library, which is something you don't think about it. You're always like, "Well, I've got to go to the post office." No, it happens in the library. Many libraries across the country will have what are called maker spaces. So Cincinnati for instance, has a green screen. So if you're an aspiring filmmaker, you can go and experiment with film. There's a recording booth. If you're an artist that you've written a song, go lay down the track. If you're a writer you can self publish and it's all happening in your local library.

Now this does beg the question, Emilio, the idea for the film, the genesis, I understand, was an LA Times piece . . .

That's right, yes. Written by a librarian.

By a librarian. What made you interested?

So I had done the bulk of my research for a film called "Bobby" at the downtown [Los Angeles Public Library], the the central library branch. The bulk of the research happened in the bottom floor. So genealogy and history. And so I spent time there, but I was sort of in isolation. So I owe a debt of gratitude to the LAPL for providing that space. That safe space where as a researcher you can get sort of lost. So I read this article, it's printed in the Times, it's about how libraries have become de facto homeless shelters and librarians are now first responders. And I got a sense of that while I was doing the research for "Bobby." But man, he was talking, this is happening, this is an epidemic. So I was inspired by the piece.

I was looking for something to follow "Bobby" up with. Went down back to the downtown branch library. And I was like, "Wow, this is on on point." So I began to imagine what a story would look like if the patients, many of whom are marginalized and poor and the homeless and suffering from mental health issues. What if they said no? What if they staged an old fashioned '60s sit in and said, "We're not leaving." And how would law enforcement react? Would they continue to criminalize the poor and would they inflict violence on them? Or would they figure something else out? How would the media react? Would they spin it as a ratings grab and for clickbait? And then finally, how would the local politicians who may be in the middle of an election cycle, how would they react and would they spin the narrative for their own political game?

So all of these stories. Imagine, this is 2007, I was watching them over the last 12 years unfold in real time, for real, on television, online, in the news cycle. It was very frustrating for me to not be able to tell this story without looking like I was going to just be piling on the obvious. But again, I dug in, I thought this was an important enough story to tell. And the setting of the library was again, to remind people just how vital and important libraries are. There's a great author and activist named Anne Lamott, and she says that communities without libraries are like radios without batteries. And that just sums it up man.

It's vital. It really is on so many levels. In this long production process, especially with material that could be considered controversial and political, especially in today's times, was it hard to fund this film?

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. It's hard to fund all my movies.

You like the poor and the disenfranchised. Thankfully you give them humanity and a voice.

About 20-plus years ago, I took a left turn and I stopped making movies for the studios and I stopped making movies that other people wanted me to make. Other people meaning my agents and managers who are profiting off of that. And I said, "Hey, what are the movies that I want to do?" So I started with a film called "The War at Home" where I played a Vietnam vet, suffering from PTSD. Kathy Bates played my mom, my dad was in it, Kimberly Williams. We had a great cast. It was essentially four people in a house dealing with trauma. It opened on four screens. And I put four years of my life into that film. While it was disappointing, it also set a course for the types of films that I knew that I wanted to make.

Movies about people, movies about humanity, a shared trauma. And I think if you were to look at the last four pictures that I've done, including "The Public," they are informed by this sense that nobody walks the planet pain-free. We all carry a certain amount of trauma and it's about how we process it. And it's also about degrees, but everybody has and operates a with a certain amount of trauma in their life. These four films and this specific film deals with that trauma and the shared experiences that we have as we interact with each other, dealing or not dealing with that trauma.

Now I did want to talk about your actual interactions with the homeless population who frequent the library in Cincinnati as the film depicts. This is a fictionalized account. However, I did speak with a librarian there who worked 14 out of 22 days as an extra on your set. He's worked in a lot of films. Name is Brian Farrell. (Hey Brian.)

Hi Brian.

And he spoke very highly of not just the production process and admiration for your work but how you in addition to hiring regular extras also reached out to the homeless population there to integrate them into the film.

That's right. That was really important. And again, it was part of our outreach program to to reach out to individuals who may be in temporary housing or shelters and say, "We'd like to invite you into the process. We would like to have someone with lived experience to join us." And the response was amazing.

Tell me a couple of stories.

We'd be outside and I heard this guy whispering out from the bushes and he says, "Hey man, I'm a vet and I'd love to have a job." There was nobody around except it's just the two of us. And I said, "OK." I said, "Can you be counted on not just to show up tomorrow, but the next day and the next day?" He says, "I really need a job and whatever it takes to get me there, I'm committed to this." And he wasn't high, he seemed that he was completely clear in all of his faculties. And so, "Yes, join us." And he did. And so I just thought it was important again, to have individuals with lived experience to be part of our troop.

And how did the extras who were, you know, folks who do this all the time —

We call them background artists.

Pardon me.

Yes. Extras. There's nothing extra about any part —

They're not "extra" . . . that word has taken on different meaning in the younger generation? People who support the film, who frequently do this kind of work, how did they integrate with the folks that you hired from the local population?

You know, I don't think there was any . . . there wasn't an us and them. There was nothing divisive about it. It was they were part of a community and they were accepted into the community. And I think that's what you see reflected in the film. I mean, when we first meet in the library, when we first meet our core group of actors playing individuals experiencing homelessness, these guys are a community and they look out for one another. And that was the case with the community that we created on the set. Especially after the lockdown. Once the lockdown happens, it was, OK, this is our group, this is our core group of guys and everybody was in it together.

I know you said it was difficult to get the film funded and it was a very long process from, I think you said 2007?

That's right. 12 years this week.

12 years this week. It's an anniversary. I'm glad we can celebrate with you and see the film. You've got some big names in this film. I imagine some of them are your friends from the acting community for years, but were they just eager to jump in?

They all responded to the script. They all responded to the material. I don't have a Rolodex where I flip through it and cold call them out of the blue. I prefer to go the agent route or the casting director route and just show them the decency of the respect that they deserve. Because nothing is worse than when I get a call and saying, "Hey man, I'm doing this little independent movie and would you show up for a couple of days?" And it's like you don't want to say no to anybody, but at the same time you have to say is it the best for me at this point in time? So with Alec [Baldwin], he was sent the script through his agent and I got the call the next day saying he wants to jump on the phone with you.

We jumped on the phone, he says, I want to play this role. I love the script I'm in. When's your start date and let's start working and reverse engineering from that. So once an actor like Alec comes aboard it makes it a lot easier to attract others. He's an actor magnet and so is Jeffrey Wright. And Michael K. Williams, who's just electric in this film. Again, these are actors' actors, and once you say to other actors, "Hey, you're going to be in this scene . . . with Alec," people come to play. They want to come in and hang out in your sandbox.

But Christian [Slater], I'd worked with before on "Bobby" and "Young Guns 2." Jacob Vargas, I've worked with on "Bobby." But these are also actors that I didn't know. Some of them were, first time I'd seen them was on the set or in wardrobe.

And you specifically requested them just looking at their work.

We're looking at the work and again, who was available, because we shot this movie in 22 days. Which is not a lot of time. So it's about . . . you know the cast, everybody's very busy. Everybody's in demand. So it was about, "Here's when we're starting. I need Jena [Malone] for six days. I need Jeffrey Wright for five days." And then really the onus was on my editor, Richard Chou, who's an amazing editor.

It's so hard to edit.

But he cut "[One Flew Over] a Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Conversation" and "Risky Business" and he won the Oscar for the first "Star Wars." This is our third film together. And so I leaned into Richard, I said, "Make it look like they we're all here at the same time." 'Cause they weren't. And that was the feat, making it look seamless.

And it does.

Now you started out your career in more popular films, the John Hughes era that a lot of people know you from. I was practicing my dance. I really want to do the library dance with you, but we really don't have the space here. I'm referring to "The Breakfast Club," if you're too young.

That is a film that just continues to live on. It really does. And guess what, it takes place in a library, imagine that.

Look at that, synergy. And you know you think of "The Outsiders" still having tremendous relevance today. And I would say it was not a leap that, even though you did films that could be deemed, you know, popular and were some of the most watched films of those years in 1983 and 1984, they all had this undercurrent of social issues and challenges in society. What would you say are the primary problems facing our country today? Are they economic, social, ideological? Is that too big? We'll just move on with it.

Do we have two hours?

We don't have two hours. We have like six more minutes?

Good Lord.

The primary challenges of today I think are . . . let's boil it down, distill it down to one. We are in an increasingly more connected world. We're more disconnected and more divided than ever. Tribal politics, social media, all of this noise and madness has separated us from ourselves and from our neighbors. And so if I were to sort of really dig in, and this is my opinion as to what ails the nation more than anything, is the fact that we're not talking to each other. We're not talking with each other. We're in isolation. And in an echo chamber where you can only hear the sound of exactly what it is you want to hear. So let's get away from that curated life and let's reengage with those that we may disagree with, because that is the only way you're going to find common ground.

It's what Rebecca Solnit, the author, talks about. It is the radical center. So how do we find the radical center? When she's talking about land conservation. The people that want to protect the land can find a radical center with cattle ranchers who also want to protect the land, but for different reasons. So how do we get as a country to that radical center where we can find that common ground? And I think as Thomas Jefferson said, "America is the last best hope for mankind."

And I think that that still rings true. And we have to be an example for how the rest of the world can and should behave, in that we are a melting pot for the rest of the world. When we talk about immigration. Guess what? Unless you're an indigenous person, you are from somewhere else. All of us are. So in California we talk about this all of the time. Unless you're a Chumash Indian, you are from Europe or from the Middle East or from Africa. You are from somewhere else. So the truth of that is we've got to get together on so many issues, but again, we have to all find that radical center.

That's an interesting phrase. Your family, the Sheens, you grew up in a very progressive, activist family. As I mentioned before we came live, our parents met in a talk group in the late '60s run by a very outlier thinker named Dina Harris. How did your upbringing influence your sensibility now and what do your parents think of the films that you make? Martin and Janet Sheen.

Yes. Martin and Janet. They're together now 58 years. They were both from Ohio. My mom was born in Cincinnati. My Dad from Dayton. They came to New York in 1959. My mom got a scholarship to the New School as a fine artist and my dad came with $200 and a bus ticket that he got from a priest in Dayton. They wound up here in New York and eventually moved in together and got pregnant with me and then married in that order. We lived in every borough but Queens. We moved all over New York City and the boroughs. It was a very interesting time to be in New York during the '60s, especially in 1968. And today in fact, we're celebrating the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Two months from now it'll be the anniversary of death of Bobby Kennedy, the Chicago riots.

So '68, to be here in New York during that period of time was . . . you could not, not be politically aware because the world looked like it was turning completely upside down. So from that point on, I think my blinders sort of ripped off. My dad got was politically active his whole life. But in the '80s, actually the early '80s, he started to get arrested. He started to go out and protest and he was protesting against nuclear proliferation, immigration issues and for the homeless. And so I think he's got 68 arrests. All nonviolent civil disobedience actions. And that is reflected in this film. You know, the ending, you know what happens. We figure out a way to diffuse the situation using nonviolence.

And so the film is not only a celebration of libraries and the marginalized and the poor, but it's a celebration of what nonviolent civil disobedience looks like today.

And you got that from dad.

For sure, for sure. I mean, again, when he'd get arrested back in the day, I didn't really understand it. I understood it fundamentally, I understood what he was doing. Didn't always agree with it because I thought, "You know what, if you took that same energy and you made a movie about what you believed in, couldn't you reach a broader audience?" And he didn't disagree that wasn't his jam. And so I was like, "Okay." I took a different approach. When I started working on this film, I finally understood spiritually where he was at and what he was doing, what he was trying to say by putting himself on those front lines.

He must be very proud of this film, your dad.

He is. Yeah.

And imagine had some input, and to say, "Oh wait, we get each other now."

Yeah, we did. And we've worked together. He and I have worked together four times now. The last film I did, he was the star of called "The Way," which was a film about a spiritual journey across the north of Spain and the famous Camino de Santiago. And he, to this day now, he says that that is the best film that he's ever done. It's the closest to who he is as a human being.

It's a family affair. What a lovely compliment. And you've got your son Taylor who's worked on this film.

That's right. That's right. He worked on this film. He was our fixer in Spain on "The Way." He met his wife there. They're about to have their first baby, and I'm about to be a grandpa in June. I know. How did that happen?

"The Public" opens . . . April 5th all over this nation. It's an important film with a lot of messaging about things going on in society now. Not just in America — homelessness, mental illness, and the importance of the library system and the broad services it provides to all individuals without discrimination.

And it's also very entertaining and very funny, unexpectedly funny.

It is funny. It's funny, but you know, that's the best way I think, to convey all kinds of etiologies.

And it's not cynical humor, it's earned humor. The audience's rewarded with the jokes.

One last question before we go. I know we're almost over. A lot of people ask me first of all about your early career but I said, "No, we're going to talk about this." The film has fantastic music. When it opens we're hit with this deep bass soundtrack from an artist that I was not familiar with. 

Che "Rhymefest" Smith and he just . . .  I credit him being in this film to my mother. So Che was the center of a documentary called "In My Father's House," and the film chronicled his reconnection to his father. His father was homeless for 30 years. Che reached out to him, connected with them and the father said, the only place I want to meet you is in the local library. So they make this documentary about their reunion and about the history of these two men and how they're now coming together. And my mom sees the doc and she calls me, she says, "You need to know who this man is. You're casting right now. You need to find a role for him because he has lived experience and that's important."

And so I wrote his name down, saw the documentary, figured out a way to get in touch with him. And I said, "Hey man, you want to act in this movie?" And he came to play. So he recorded the opening title track, which is called "Weaponized." And then he and Tariq Trotter, Black Thought, did the closing title, end credits, a tune called "Make Noise." And then he recorded a version of "I Can See Clearly Now."

And you just got the rights, I understand, to that.

Yeah. We finally did all the paperwork.

And it was originally supposed to be the Journey song "Don't Stop Believing."

Two weeks before we were to start filming Journey said no. And so I will reached out to the music supervisor and I was like, "What do you mean? It's been in the script for years and it's always been 'Don't Stop;—" And she said, "It's not going to happen unless maybe you write a note to Steve and to Neil and you know, beg." And so I did. Wrote them a note begged, begged them, begged them, and they said, "Nope, still not going to happen."

So I was thinking, "What do we do? I mean what song?"

I was at a buddy of mine's house in Cincinnati and he had Spotify on or something. And the song comes on, "I Can See Clearly Now." And I look at him and said, "Play it again," and he did. "Play it again." We listened to eight times. This is the song, this is the one. And so we set about trying to get the rights to it. And before that even happened Che was in Chicago and he was already in the studio recording that version that that you hear in the film.

Wow. So all kinds of synergies on this film. Oh, and you will release the soundtrack.


And [Che] is not unknown in the rap and hip hop community. He wrote ["Bound 2"], a Grammy Award nomination for Kanye.

He wrote for Kanye and he was also the third writer on"The Glory," the film "Selma" had that wonderful song that won the Oscar that John Legend and Common wrote. So Che was the third writer on that.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

MORE FROM Alli Joseph

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Culture Editor's Picks Emilio Estevez Film Libraries Movies The Public