Emilio Estevez Talks New Movie "The Public"

emilio estevez

On screen and off, Emilio Estevez has been a lot of things: high school jock in detention, repo man, gunslinger, hockey coach… teen heartthrob, actor, director. His latest project combines the latter two roles to make him yet another thing: an advocate for victims of homelessness.

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Estevez’s new movie The Public sheds light on the homeless epidemic that has long been present, growing, and largely ignored in the U.S. over the past few decades. It does this in the context of revealing a side effect trend of the epidemic: libraries have become a source of refuge for homeless individuals.

Estevez learned of this trend from an essay written by Chip Ward, a former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library. The essay was published by the LA Times in 2007.

“The thesis of his essay was that libraries have become de facto homeless shelters, and librarians have now become de facto social workers, and first responders,” says Estevez. “And he said…it was happening in every urban library across the country.”

Moved by the piece, Estevez began to think about how to share that story with audiences. He eventually landed on the plot of The Public: “what it would look like on a particularly cold night, if the patrons of the library—many of whom are homeless—decided to stage an ‘Occupy’ [movement]… how would the media get involved, how law enforcement would react, how politicians would try to spin it…and how they would criminalize these people for simply wanting to stay alive—which we see over and over again, the criminalization of the poor and the marginalized… I felt that this was an opportunity to tell a story about the unsung, about how the simple act of wanting to stay alive can ultimately cost you your life.”

Estevez completed a script on that premise in 2008, but lost funding for the project early on, so production was delayed indefinitely. As frustrating as it was, Estevez says he’s ultimately grateful for the delay because the original ending was darker, and he realized over time that he wanted the film to be more optimistic—a celebration of nonviolent civil disobedience.

“It needed to end on a much more hopeful note, it needed to say to those in power that we still matter,” says Estevez, who wrote, directed, and stars in The Public alongside Alec Baldwin, Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black), and an abundance of other notable actors.

Now, 12 years after the journey of The Public began, the film is complete, with its better ending, and has been released to the public. It premiered early April, fittingly just ahead of National Library Week April.

The premiere, in select theaters, followed months of a promotional tour during which Estevez screened The Public in libraries, community centers, and other public entities throughout the U.S. One stop was downtown Minneapolis, where he screened the film in late March at the Hennepin County Library-Minneapolis Central.

“It's part of a grassroots movement to get people juiced up about the film, create awareness, create a buzz. We don't have a big budget,” he told the Twin Cities audience during a post-screening Q&A. “It’s not a giant tentpole movie… they come out here [like an oil company] and drill down into your wallets and extract all your money… I'm out here with a divine rod and a shaman trying to figure this out.”

StarsandCelebs.com’s Amanda Ostuni was on scene for the event, and in addition to hearing what he had to say during the Q&A, was able to chat with him during a media group interview, as well as one-on-one.

Here’s what he had to say in those various conversations:

Media, before the Q&A: What are you looking forward to with this latest screening and audience Q & A?

Emilio Estevez: Putting some light on the issue, I think—I’m always up for a good dialogue and a good conversation about this. I’ve been working on this for 12 years so to finally put it out into the world and have people react to it is, it’s just magical.

Amanda Ostuni: What have been the reactions so far to the film?

Emilio Estevez: Amazing… We did a thing in Houston, Texas, it’s called Movie and a Meal—about 150 individuals experiencing homelessness saw the film and they saw themselves on the screen and they were very empowered. This movie celebrates the outcasts, the misfits, the unsung, and it celebrates librarians because they provide an extraordinary service and most people don’t know what the daily life of a librarian is. They think they just sit around and read all day, so I think this film dispels that myth.

AO: As you’ve visited different libraries across the country for this film, is there anything you’ve seen in terms of how a particular library handles the homeless situation, or any feedback you’ve received that would have changed how you approached the film?

Emilio Estevez: No, I mean when we screened the film at the ALA [American Library Association] Conference [in New Orleans last year]—which was the most terrifying screening for me because it was a room with 1,000 librarians—the first question was, “how did you get us so right?” So, I felt relieved, first of all. I felt like this movie celebrates the misfits and the outcasts and it celebrates the marginalized and it celebrates folks who don’t see themselves portrayed on screen—rarely, if ever.

Audience, during the Q&A: What research did you use to inform the film?

Emilio Estevez: So I was given a lot of access at the central branch of the LAPL [Los Angeles Public Library], and I was given access to the closed stacks, access to librarians, access to just be able to sit, and I would put my hoodie up, and I would just sit there and I would just observe.

And I think the best researchers are the ones that learn how to close their mouth and open your eyes, take notes, and don't—there's that fine line between being a vulture and being a researcher. And you have to tread that fine line, especially in the library, where these folks—especially individuals experiencing homelessness—they're not too keen on wanting to talk to people about their condition and situation.

So for me it was again, just spending time being there, letting a lot of the folks know that I wasn't a threat, that I wasn't going to stereotypically portray librarians in the way that they so often are in Hollywood movies, and that this was important to get this right.

Audience: Can you tell us about your own interactions with homeless people and homelessness before or while making the film?

Emilio Estevez: Sure. So, when we went to Cincinnati to make the film, I made it very clear to our casting director that I wanted as many people who had a lived experience to join us. Of course, we had to make sure that they would return, because once we created the lockdown, there had to be consistency among the actors that are featured on screen. So, we sat down with them and said, “here's what we're asking of you. You will be paid, you will not be embarrassed, even though we're asking for some nudity at the end.” Spoiler alert! And that put a couple of these gentlemen back on their heels a little bit. Some of the other actors had to check in with their families, make sure it was okay that they participated in this end scene. But overall, we were very inclusive. And we encouraged those that were experiencing homelessness to participate with us.

In terms of the research, I've been very fortunate to have a father who's very, very active politically and a “social justice warrior”—before we called it that. He's been arrested 66 or 68 times… for all non-violent civil disobedience actions—anti-nuclear, immigration, and homelessness. So, years ago, he played Mitch Snyder, who was a homeless advocate, and he made a film about him. So, I was very fortunate, at a very young age, to be exposed to what was happening out there, and the idea that homelessness is really a relatively new situation.

This didn't happen overnight. It was a 40-years-in-the-making of a crisis that we have right now. It happened when HUD [the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development] got hit [saw significant budget cutbacks] in 1980, it happened when the Mental Health [Systems] Act was overturned [in the 1980s]. Those two issues forty years ago set the stage in motion for the issue that we have now. So I believe that we can't get to universal healthcare until we get to universal housing, we’ve got to put roofs over—we've got to put people in a shelter, we’ve got to get them permanent supportive housing, and then we can get them well. You can't get well if you're still on the street.

The audience erupted in cheers at this comment.

AO: So, you had some exposure to homelessness but didn’t realize how connected it was to libraries until later in life… what was your relationship to libraries growing up?

Emilio Estevez: Well it was a place that my parents could drop me off and I would be safe in the stacks. It was a place that I could explore my own personal curiosity. I think that these days, because of Google, everybody just sort of cuts to the chase, everybody is not as patient as they used to be. And I think when you open up a dictionary and look for a word, as I did when I was a kid, you would stop along the way, and it may take you 20 mins, 30 mins to get to that particular item that you were looking for, same with an encyclopedia. And I think that we’ve lost the sense of curiosity and we want everything as quickly as possible. And I think that we miss a lot on the way to getting things quicker.

This comment touches on one way that libraries have changed—in how people use the books in them. But the main focus of The Public is on a larger change, this idea of libraries becoming de facto homeless shelters. As such, some libraries, like the Hennepin County Library-Minneapolis Central have brought in social workers to be on hand as library staff

Media: When you see a library have a social worker on hand, like the Hennepin County Library-Minneapolis Central does, what do you think of it?

Emilio Estevez: I think it’s important. We tried it in Los Angeles for a while, but it was actually, it’s a model that was created in San Francisco because there was such a need, because librarians were—they didn’t go to library school to learn how to cope and deal with people experiencing homelessness and types of mental illness. Obviously, there’s a great mix of patrons that come through these doors—everybody is welcome, nobody is turned away, the public library is free for all, and it is a judgment-free zone, it is a zone where facts live. So, I think to include social workers who are skilled, who have the tools to deal with people experiencing mental health issues, I think that’s the best course of action frankly.

AO: So, is encouraging more libraries to do this one of the goals of the film—or what are the takeaways you hope people get from it?

Emilio Estevez: Well I hope that the film creates a conversation, that we can have a dialogue about what’s going on in this country—on any given night there are over 560,000 individuals experiencing homelessness, many vets, many children. So I think that this film, while it doesn’t attempt to solve the problem, I believe that it forces us to maybe check our bias at the door, to look at people who are experiencing homelessness as not just—it’s not a condition, it’s a situation, and so how do we help them get past this situation that they’re currently struggling through?

The Q&A moderator noted that Emilio has made other socially conscious movies prior to this film. He then relayed a related audience question…

Audience: Can you tell us more about why you began making social justice-minded films and what other issues you’re involved in?

Emilio Estevez: Sure. So, I made a lot of crap. [Audience laughter]… and about 20 years ago, I stopped making movies for other people and I started making films for myself. And with that comes a tremendous cost. You are oftentimes very alone in the process. You're alone in the struggle to get these things made. You can imagine, with a movie like this, you walk into an executive’s office in Hollywood, and you say, “I'm going to make a movie about a library and it's gonna deal with homelessness and mental health issues,’’ and you just see their eyes glazing over because it doesn't necessarily push the blockbuster buttons. And yet, these are the movies that I'm drawn to, these are the pictures that move me, and the movies that I want to see. So, I just dug in, and you know, lost a lot of the support in the industry because I didn't want to play that game anymore. And yet, I go back to standing in the back of this theater tonight and watching how people are reacting and how they're connecting to it. So, I think I'm on the right path. I think that there's more out there than the Marvel movies and the slasher films. And I think there are stories that unite us, films that celebrate our humanity, and our connectivity. And I think that those are the movies that I want to pursue.

[I’m considering] a series about this, because I do think this is a great, this movie is a backdoor pilot to create a series. The idea would be to perhaps start in Cincinnati and then move the show like True Detective does. The second season could be in Minneapolis or Seattle or, again, change the region—I'm guessing with all the librarians here, there's probably 1,000 stories in this room alone. So, I just think the territory, it's really ripe to be mined.

Audience: How did your experiences both as the son of your father [Martin Sheen] and with your friends [including actor Rob Lowe, who in his memoir, wrote about their shared childhood making backyard films] growing up affect your career as an actor and a director?

Emilio Estevez: Well, if you were to look at some of those early films that we shot on an eight-millimeter in our backyard, as my mother said, “it's a wonder any of you have a career.” They were God-awful and they’re in a vault somewhere, it's going to be pushed into the ocean, no one’s ever gonna see them again.

You know, I think when you're young, you have an idea that you're gonna be a filmmaker, you have a little eight-millimeter camera, and everything that you're doing is derivative. Everything is a rip-off of The Godfather or a rip-off of Jaws or anything that was influencing you at the time, those are reflected in those early movies, if you want to call it that. I was very blessed to be included in my father's journey, and he and my mother are still together after 58 years, which is a rarity in in Hollywood, certainly—a rarity anywhere for that matter. So, they insisted that the family travel together. They insisted that we all go as a unit, they believed that if the family stayed together, the family would truly stay together… So, I was very fortunate to travel all over the world, all over the country… I got an opportunity to see Terrence Malick work, or Francis [Ford] Coppola work on Apocalypse Now, or see all of these pioneering filmmakers in the middle of creating—and some of them at the height of their artistic talents. And so, I think that informed me probably more than making these crappy little eight-millimeter films. To be able to have that access and have that exposure is something that I feel was invaluable.

Audience: And for our last question, because this movie is so near and dear to our community, can you tell us about a favorite memory or memories from filming The Mighty Ducks in Minnesota?

Emilio Estevez: Well it's a very strange movie, because you know, it was one of those features that Disney… they didn't really have a plan for it other than just “we're going to make this film.” It was what they call a programmer. It was something that the studio just sort of was like “we're going to make this movie, we're gonna plug it in,” and all of a sudden it took off. And then there's a hockey team—sorry!—named after it and it became something larger than anybody really expected. I think they should probably reboot it. I don't know how, but I think there's probably a way to reboot it and I think there’s still certainly an interest.

Moderator: Would you be part of the reboot?

Emilio Estevez: Well, we’ll see. I do remember being here in, I think it was January, and it was the warmest winter that Minneapolis had experienced in decades. And so, we needed ice and we needed it cold and then all of a sudden, we had to make it up. I just remember it being, just thinking how ironic, we’re in one of the coldest places in the United States, and here we are, you know, unable to affect that.

Since Mighty Ducks was fairly comedic and he’s done other comedy…

C.J., a Star Tribune columnist: Comedy or drama, which is more difficult?

Emilio Estevez: Well you know with the drama, there are a lot of different ways to play a scene. Comedy, it’s either funny or it’s not, and so comedy if you don’t do it right… And it’s great to see jokes in this movie land with audiences. It’s great to see that they got my sense of humor as a writer, as a filmmaker but… I’ve felt it the other way, too. I felt it when your jokes go over like what I call a lead balloon, but it didn’t happen in this one.

AO: So, comedies or more movies like The Public—what’s next for you?

Emilio Estevez: Well I’m on this for the next couple of months, and then all the ancillaries, too. I mean again, I’ve got 12 years invested in this, so it’s been a long journey, a long process, and I need to see it all the way to the end. I’ve got another project I’m toying around with about immigration, so that could be next. It’s certainly another hot topic, certainly a political topic, so yeah, that might be next.


Follow The Public here and find out where it may be playing in a theater near you.

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