Why Emilio Estevez wants you to fall in love with the library too

Emilio Estevez set his latest film “The Public” in a library “to remind people just how vital and important libraries are,” he told SalonTV’s Alli Joseph on “Salon Talks.” Estevez wrote, directed and stars in the film, a David and Goliath story about mental illness, homelessness and democracy.

“The Public,” in theaters on April 5, was shot in and around Cincinnati on a tight 22-day schedule, with its public library as the centerpiece of the film. Supported by talents like Alec Baldwin, Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Gabrielle Union, and Jeffrey Wright, the film took seven years to make, and began after Estevez read an LA Times article by a former librarian about how the public library system had become a de facto sanctuary for many homeless people, and librarians the de facto social workers.

“There's a great author and activist named Anne Lamott, and she says that communities without libraries are like radios without batteries,” Estevez said.

Estevez used many regular extras on the film, but also engaged the local Cincinnati homeless patrons of the library, offering them work, food, and shelter. “It was part of our outreach program to reach out to individuals who might be in temporary housing or shelters to say to them, ‘We’d like to invite you into the process. We would like to have someone with lived experience join us,’” he said.

Estevez described one such man, a veteran, who whispered to him from the bushes outside the Cincinnati public library, asking for a job. When Estevez queried if the man could be counted on to show up for work that day, and the day after that, the veteran replied, “I really need a job, and whatever it takes to get me there, I’m committed to it,” Estevez recalled.

Shawn Farrell, a veteran of the US public library system, has been working at the Cincinnati Public Library for five years. He spoke to Salon about his experience both as a librarian working with homeless populations in the system for years and as a background actor on the film.

"I've done background work on over a dozen films," Farrell said, “however, as a library employee of nearly 30 years, none have meant more to me than this one. It's not only an honest and heartfelt look at our profession, but a humanizing portrayal of some of our most marginalized users.”

Estevez's family, the Sheens, have a rich history of progressive activism, and Estevez talked about growing up with a dad Martin Sheen, who took pride in demonstrating for causes. "He's had 68 arrests," Estevez said. “When my dad would get arrested, I didn’t really understand it. I understood it fundamentally, but I didn’t always agree with it. I thought, ‘what if you took that same energy and made a movie about what you believed in, couldn’t you reach a broader audience?’”

Watch the episode above to learn more about Estevez’s passion project, how he brought so many A-list actors on board, and why he’s committed to independent cinema.

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