To be sure, Emilio Estevez knows how to captivate an audience. His previous directorial works (Bobby, The Way), tackled social, moral, and spiritual dilemmas with depth and grace. With The Public, which screens at the Palm Springs International Film Festival Jan. 5, the filmmaker goes a bit deeper.
Estevez wrote, directed and stars in the film, which is also rooted in real-life events, this time based on the 2007 Los Angeles Times article, “Written off: A librarian’s days among the homeless.” Penned by Chip Ward, a former Salt Lake City librarian, that article delved into how the nation’s libraries have become the de facto daytime shelters for the homeless.
Initially meant as a follow-up ensemble piece to Bobby, Estevez’s soul-stirring take on the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, The Public takes place in a Cincinnati public library on the coldest night of the year where a sudden sit-in triggers emotional and moral questions.
“I wondered what would it look like if the homeless, the patrons, and the mentally ill decided that they weren’t going to leave the library at closing time,” Estevez says. “And what would that look like in today’s climate, and how that could be twisted and turned by law enforcement and media to look like something that it wasn’t, which, at its core, was asking for some symptomatic relief to survive particularly brutal cold spell.”
Jacob Vargas, Gabrielle Union, Taylor Schilling, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Slater, Jena Malone, Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Richard T. Jones, Lee Ki-hong, Spencer Garrett, Michael Hall, and Bryant Bentley comprise the ensemble cast, alongside Estevez who portrays a librarian in the outing.
The filmmaker, whose celebrity initially soared in the ’80s with box office hits like Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, will be in attendance when The Public screens at PSIFF in partnership with Palm Springs Speaks: A Speaker Series. He shares more with Palm Springs Life.
This film was 12 years in the making. That must have required a tremendous amount of patience and trust, allowing it to gestate?
A great deal of patience, yes. Having two grown children, my patience has been tested quite a bit. [Laughs] And I say that half-kidding. But I am incredibly patient in general. But I think the story is more relevant now that it may have been 12 years ago. Even five years ago. The focus on libraries is strong. There’s a quote by Tony Marx, the head of the New York Public Library, and he said, “Public libraries is where democracy is quietly being saved.”
Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater are part of the ensemble cast.
Libraries are where facts live, and in this world of alternative facts that we’re constantly being force-fed — daily — libraries are in fashion again.
What was it about the issue of homelessness that really intrigued you?
I now split my time between L.A. and Cincinnati [where the film was shot]. L.A. is the homeless capital of the United States. On any given night, we got roughly 57,000 homeless in L.A. County. No community is immune from the homelessness issue. What is not being addressed is permanent supportive housing. Unfortunately that is a reflection of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard). Nobody wants permanent supportive housing in their neighborhoods. There’s a lot of money under the HHH Measure [the ballot initiative that was approved overwhelmingly two years ago to build 10,000 units of housing for the homeless]. We have resources to build this housing but there just doesn’t seem to be the will within communities to welcome that. If you’re a sentient being with a beating heart—not a bleeding one—that can’t not affect you.
What can the general public do to …
More. That’s it. We can all do more. The solution, I think, is to look at it as our problem and not somebody else’s problem. We got to get to the we. We’re seeing these encampments—Hooverville—all over the country. The Grapes of Wrath actually plays an important role in the film. It’s quoted several times. The Grapes of Wrath will be celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2019—April 14—so there’s so kismet there.
What has the ensemble cast brought to the project, collectively?
The cast that said yes to this has either been touched by homelessness or they are advocates for homelessness groups. Alec Baldwin has done a lot of work in New York City. Jena Malone actually was homeless — lived in a van for a while. And again, I’m not speaking out of class. They’ve all spoken on this subject. Michael K. Williams was directed affected by mental illness in his family. Each and every one of them … they do walk the walk.
Jeffrey Wright is part of a cast that director Emilio Estevez says, “Each and every one of them … they do walk the walk.”
They are committed, and if you read their social handles, obviously, you see that they are committed to peace and social justice. They didn’t do this movie for the money. They wanted to be a part of something that was bigger than the role. Certainly it’s not a glamorous movie. This is a movie about people who ride public transportation and have city jobs and serve at the pleasure of the people.
Has this film changed you, personally?
I grew up watching my father [Martin Sheen] get arrested for various social causes. He’s been arrested 68 times, largely for non-nuclear proliferation, immigration, and homelessness issues. Thank God we solved all three of those. [Laughs] I grew up fundamentally understanding what my father was doing by putting himself on the protest line, but I didn’t understand spiritually what was going on and why he had to do that — until getting under the skin of this film.
There was a much darker ending of the film years ago that I was playing around with, but this version is a much more powerful, kinder ending. Now, I see that it’s going to take all of us standing up and saying, “I think we’re better than this.” So yes, there was an awakening for me — moving in from the fundamental and practical idea behind civil disobedience … to the spiritual.
Would you say you’re a spiritual person?
There are days. [Laughs] I have my moments — where I connect. I think we all are spiritual beings to an extent. I like to say I am a work in progress. I think we all are.
One last thing: What do you really love about filmmaking?
Danny DeVito once said that directing is like death by a thousand questions. I would agree with that. But I love solving problems. As a director, that is the biggest joy. You have this giant Rubik’s Cube and everyday it’s all jumbled and you have to solve it and make sure everybody feels heard, respected, and part of the process. I love coming up with an idea, putting it on paper, and then eventually sitting in an audience in the middle of the country and sweating through that experience, hoping that your instincts were right.
Writer/director/actor Emilio Estevez will participate in a post-screening discussion of The Public at 5:15 p.m. Jan. 5 at Palm Springs High School, 2248 Ramon Road. The film begins at 3:15 p.m. Estevez will also attend a post-screening reception at the Palm Springs Public Library, 300 S. Sunrise Way, sponsored by Momentous, Vaso Bello Celebrations, and Diageo. For tickets and additional information, visit psfilmfest.org.