tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS May 5, 2018 4:30pm-5:01pm PDT
- [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. - i'm evan smith, he's a hugely talented and much loved actor who won academy awards for milk and mystic river. he's also a director, a political activist, and the author of a novel, his first, called bob honey who just do stuff. he's sean penn, this is overheard. let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn, or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa and- i hate to say that he'd made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and, over time, took it on. let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak. are you gonna run for president? i think i just got an f from you, actually. this is overheard. (audience cheering)
sean penn, welcome. - thank you very much. - very nice to meet you, an honor to meet you. - thank you, back at you. - as a fan of yours and as an admirer of your work for many years, of course i've been excited about this, running around telling people, i'm gonna interview sean penn. and i got two questions from people when i said that. the first was, is he gonna smoke the whole time? (audience laughs) it looks like the answer is no. - it's early in the interview. - it is, i just want to say, if it gets tense or boring, smoke 'em if you got 'em. i'll cut my hand, if you have to actually. - i'll just drink the water down real fast. and take a souvenir home. - that'd be fine. we'll just put the ashes on youtube, it'll be good actually. all right, the second question is sean penn wrote a novel? and i have to say that i actually thought that myself. and then i had to go back and see that it was your first novel. - [sean] mm-hm. - so you're 57, almost 58 years old, you've had an extraordinary career. you don't have to do anything else. you're already great, so why do this? why write a novel? - i have never, i have secretly not differentiated between, you know,
fixing a kitchen sink, acting in a movie, writing a movie, directing a movie, writing as a journalist, doing a novel, it's all kind of just one thing. how do i want to and what are the available ways to express what's on my mind or in my heart at the time? - yeah, it's all about format. - yeah, and so this was a point in time where i wasn't enjoying working on film. i wasn't enjoying the key to film, which is creative collaboration. it was time just do something of my own. - and you're still there, kind of, sort of? - i'm very much there, yeah. - well, i want to come back around to that, because i think the idea that you might no longer be interested in doing work that we all get to see is not a good thing for us. - well, everybody will get over it. - you seem to have gotten over it already, actually. all right, so you thought well, that's not working for me. there are no things in the kitchen that need to be fixed, and so i'll right a novel.
- [sean] mmm-hmm. - that's pretty much it. - this novel's premise, the idea for this novel came from where? - well, i think it's kind of in looking at where things are, or seem to be in our country, in the world. you know, i'd certainly played my little roles in debates and sometimes heated ones. - your point of view is well known. - and well loathed, in many cases. - well, you know, in some cases. again, you've got people that like you and don't like you no matter what you say. - right, so i felt that i was struggling. 'cause, of course, if one has whatever platform one has, any citizen has, i think an obligation to participate. and in my trying to go at something directly, i felt, you know, too many patterns of what now is
just adding to a divisiveness. and some of what happens during that period, while you're reflecting on that is, is coping. and you're coping with not only, let's say the political climate, the sweepingly dramatic technical climate that for a 57-year-old who doesn't like reading directions means that i have increasingly gotten out of the loop of connection, in terms of that kind of connection. - right. - i've never turned on a laptop computer. i don't know how to. i don't like feeling instagrams flying around and people self-advertising and all of these things. and increasingly i had felt that in cultures of discomfort, that these certainly were proving themselves
to be useful tool, and will do, as all technology can and will be a useful tool. but in the comfort zones of their use, they seem to be being so abused as to discount human connection, to create a false courage for the way people use them socially, and so on, and so i thought, well, if i could talk to all of this stuff and take a character who's somewhere in his mid-50s, an american man, trying to cope on the quicksand of all of that. - right. - that coping, it was easy to find humor in. you know, my own stumbling about, where are my glasses, and they're on my head. whatever that is in my daily life. the way that computers, when i get near them, they don't function. - right.
- people will tell me, no, no, no, you've got it wrong, come sit, i'm gonna show you. and then all of sudden, this has never happened before, because i'm close to it. - well sean, there are universal aspects to the story that you tell and to the characters in this book. and the main character, in particular, you create. but not everybody in his fifties who is concerned about technology kills old people with a mallet. i mean, the fact is that there are aspects to this book that are in the realm of satire, that are in the realm of an exaggerated narrative. i mean, i've always wanted to ask you, since i got my hands on this book, why didn't you just write this book as a film? or why didn't you write this book as non-fiction, if there was a part of this that was actually tied back to you? it's also an extraordinarily pointed satire on the world in which we live. it completely keys off of the 2016 presidential election in ways we'll get to in a second. but it's very much a book about what's happening now. - [sean] yeah. - even though it's fiction, it could just as easily been written, if you had elected to, as non-fiction. - although it never presented itself that way to me. it came as a kind of rhythm of speech.
it was very much like, as an actor when one stumbles on or creates or interprets a character. you're improvising with thoughts observed as much as held. this is, you know, not an opinion piece. it was things where the points of view of the characters came out by finding something that made me giggle. and going with it and seeing how far i could push that. one being the author, as it were, who is a named character in the piece. and then bob honey himself, and so once those characters started happening, then i just followed that. - there's something about the characters and the narrative that is at once absurd and dark, right? the experience of reading this book, there's a lot of humor in it, as you say, but is also very dark humor and there are parts of it that are not funny at all, but are super dark. and there's an absurdity to it. i know that you've been compared as a novelist to burroughs,
they've talked about the beats are basically the backdrop that this book is reflected against. i actually, when marc maron interviewed you about this book he compared this book to a confederacy of dunces. and i actually thought that was the best analogy i'd heard. i thought that was a very smart one. and, you know, that book has been one that people have attempted for years and years to make into a film and had been completely unable to do it. and i wonder if they would have the same problem with this for the same reason. - well, i think they'd have a problem with it. but there are filmmakers who have solved that with very dense and idiosyncratic pieces. but it isn't my, you know, that's just a kind of folly thought of mine. when i think about something could be a movie, 'cause i do get asked about it that way. but it's the present tense of the writing, where it was very reactive to the things that were immediately going on.
and anticipating some things that, sadly, have occurred since the finishing of it. - right, i wondered about the timing of it, because it really does feel like it was written yesterday but in fact, you probably had to do a little bit of looking into the future. - well, i think i probably drove the publishers a little crazy by continuing to rewrite to the end. - imagine that. but i had a very understanding editor. - well, it's your art, you're gonna do your art, that's it. it's a very lively book, i liked it a lot. the reviews of this book, which you may not care a wit about, have been a little harder on this book than i am, right? i wonder if even that factors into your calculation. do you write a book like this, or do you make a movie like the movies you've made for us or for you? - very different, when a film, especially in the director's seat, or writer director's seat on a film, is very different than the experience of whatever criticism can come this way because you have so many other people's faces in your head that were working hard that, that were your co-collaborators. - it's collaborative, yeah. - and so no matter how thick your own skin is,
you reflect on those people who got up early in the morning and worked hard on that film. this is exactly the book that i intended to write. - this is your book. - this is, every bit of punctuation. - not a collaboration. - and i have, not only total belief in it, but i also am 57 and my pool is heated. (audience laughs) - what can they do to you, right? - the great thing about this is you're not gonna accidentally stumble on this, and then you're assaulted by it on television. you have to buy it, you have to read it if you wanna read it. - that's the nature of it. - and don't, if you don't wanna read it. and also, there's been from zia haider rahman to jane smiley to salma rachid, you know, people that i admired a lot who- - doug brinkley, sarah silverman. - who have taken a real fancy to it, and i think, i'm very proud of it. - well, it has the word sean penn on it also, and nobody who reads this book does not know that it's your book. and i wonder to what degree the reaction to the book is less a reaction to the book than to you.
- i think that there's a syndrome called attribution, where, for example, the politics will be attributed to. there's a gray area and there are people predisposed to not be thrilled with the idea of me writing a novel and so some of that is there are other people, for example, i've only read one or two of them because i could get the sense of how some of the toxicity of the feeling about it by some people. but i'd read the new york times, and it was really interesting to read because it was certainly it was a negative interview, but it was very unbiased, where i could very clearly tell that this wasn't somebody who had a bone to pick with an actor but with a novelist. - this is not about el chapo - this is not about chavez, this is not about something that they didn't like in your past, 25 years ago. - right, but i can also read it and say, this person, bright as they are and
as much as they try to understand the book, they didn't. i know it's there to be understood, because many people do. - they just missed it. - yeah, so i don't have a, it's interesting. it's a first experience with it all and i find myself having a really good time. - well, that's good, you may as well have a good time with it, right? i mean, that's how it's gonna be. it's a political book also, sean, is it not? i read this book with an eye to the politics in it because i couldn't help it, right? so, a couple things that jumped out at me, here is a reference to the leader, the president. "the bloated, blonde high priest in pavonine of branding, the masturbatory populist, who's become a media sensation and then some during his candidacy for king, making despots sing and helping the retro party so inviting of the stupid to conscript the even stupider." (audience laughs)
- i would observe that subtlety is one of your strengths as a novelist. i mean, you know, am i misreading what this is about? help me out here. - i really think this is open to interpretation. - is it? (audience laughs) - i worry about that, you know, there's a letter written to mister landlord here at the end, this's actually gotten a lot of attention in all sincerity that contains a line, "you're not simply a president in need of impeachment, you're a man in need of an intervention. we're not simply a people in need of an intervention, we're a nation in need of an assassin." and people have said actually, well sean penn wants to assassinate donald trump, or maybe we should get the secret service out to go knock on sean penn's door. this is of course fiction, this is satire. - one would think. - one would think, but this reaction to this has been really strong, right? - well look, one of the problems of course, and it's again one of the issues of our social media and so on, is the way that
things can be excerpted for those who typically, and it's a cliffsnotes generation- - [evan] out of context. - out of context and there are many, there are a few things that have been brought up by people who largely didn't read or didn't understand the book, but usually didn't read it and you can tell, where they're bringing up certain things. i would just say that i have offered the full context and i am open to any response to it. - that's right, what about the poem? the last thing i wanna ask you about specifically, is the poem that ends this book, which people are interpreting to be a mocking by you or by the narrator of the metoo movement. my pbs ears perked up, "was is really in our interest to trample charlie rose?" is a line from this, but it actually kind of addresses around this question of the world in which we live in and the moment that we're in right now. was that your intention, is that also being misinterpreted or misread by people who don't get the book?
- well, there's two answers to that. one is that in the greater context of the book, i think it's quite clear. - makes more sense in the context of the book? - yes, and i think it's quite clear that the questions that are being asked by the character in the book are in fact, deeply in the hope and support that any movement toward equality for any people is one that this character would hope to have high hopes for. i think the book also is about, as much as anything else, is the danger of approaching certain issues by fashion. and that the fashion, while it's righteous, has no foundation if it's principally a fashion. and what is a fashion? a fashion is an anti-war movement that then has a success
only to call its soldiers, upon return, baby killers. - right. - that it defeats the lasting legacy of the anti-war movement in many ways. i think that any movement that's leadership is full of rage, is simply not gonna get the results that one hopes that it will have. - so what is the lesson, sean, for the people today, who seek to create a movement out of a moment? whether it's the parkland kids, who have been so brave in many respects, in igniting a national discussion about guns or go back a step from that, less specific to an issue, but the resistance that has risen up over the last 18 months or so in response to what's happening in washington. i mean, we live in a world in which systems are broken, right, change is hard to come by. change typically comes ground up, not top down. we're looking to people around the country and around the world to rise up and to make change, but change is hard and not every moment
is a movement, we've seen this repeatedly. - yeah, i think that what struck me about these young people in parkland was that after being in the immediate hellfire of that moment and seeing their friends maimed and killed and one of the significant parts of it i think, is to imagine that caliber of weapon in those close stone walls and corridors of that school, and what that really is when it happens for 14, 15, 16, 17 year old kids. and within days, they were talking with such dignified and inclusionary tones, reaching out to ask the understanding and perhaps move the ball a little bit with people who may previously have not understood how to look at gun legislation and so on,
without this nonsense that it would be against the second amendment or so on. but i think in terms of moving the ball forward of a significant moment was watching the cnn town hall because it occurs to me that cnn might've considered a sacred enough moment, i know people have to pay their bills, to not have commercial interruptions. and what it tells me in terms of how to keep a movement going is that if you have leadership like these kids have started, on their side of this movement and welcome would be another side demonstrated and debated, if they reach out to the other grassroots movements, covering the spectrum of those things that concern our country and our culture, then when those commercial entities say to a network, you've gotta move on from this subject, they are handing the ball to your team and your team is all there
for all these issues at the ballot box. so, i think it's about getting a real coalition of these young people and for us to listen to 'em because clearly they're showing a kind of hope and leadership that for most of us, the idealism and hope starts to get more chipped away, more cynical as we get older. - but, you're still optimistic, at least in terms of what you see right in front of you, that there is an opportunity to move up. - you can't not, when you see the grace with which, and the courage with which these kids handled that. - right, we have a few minutes, i gotta ask you about the movies. i'm sittin' with sean penn, for god's sake, when am i gonna have the chance to do this again? you've made an extraordinary number of movies, you say that you're moving a little bit away from thinking that hollywood is a good place for you to be, but you acknowledge that you've had a great career. we can say to you, you've had a great career. - oh, i've been very blessed, yeah. - i want to ask you about three movies in particular. i think that of all the roles you've played, awarded properly, people giving you recognition or not,
milk is like the greatest thing ever. and i wonder how you came to that role? i'm just curious to know why you thought that was a good role for you to play. - well, you know it's very funny, i had not seen this director, gus van sant, for a couple of years and then saw him just the other night, and i was able to tell him something that's really been able to process. you know, most of us are good at taking a compliment from afar, not so much close up, and all the years since i've worked on that movie, it was the easiest one to legitimately deflect any compliment that i've gotten because this is one of those rare opportunities where a director so owned the movie, and so took care of it all. - the director? - took care of all of the actors in ways that you know, i thought i recognized fully at the time, but really there's a kind of specialness to his skillset as a director that made that
a very special experience, making that movie. - the character, the movie, the moment, all of that together, you, it just all felt right. and it was bigger, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. why did you make the decision to adapt into the krakauer, jon krakauer? - into the wild. - into the wild, emile hirsch starred in that film. that was an extra, and you both directed- - sorry, i'm scrambling for a lighter, has anybody got one? (audience laughs) - ima say, this is pbs, i'm not sure we have lighters actually on the set. - i got it, i got it. - you're good, talk to me about that film because you know, that again a tough book to adapt, right? - yeah, yes and no. - and you both wrote and directed it? - yeah, i have been talking about this book and people wanted to talk to me about authors that may have influenced me and frankly, i have to confess that all the time that there are so many authors i know i love, but my retention is awful.
- [evan] yeah. - and so, oh i remember the feeling of that book, or i remember that was an exception, reading that book and i'd read it, had read it twice one night when i got it, and the next day i tried to get the option to make it as a movie. - yeah, the next day? - the next day, i made phone calls and then- - this is unusual for you in your experience? - yeah, and the parents of chris mccandless of the book is about, were not ready to seen a film made. ten years went by, and i hadn't read the book at all. - and you needed the parents, not just jon krakauer? - i needed the parents because jon krakauer had the ethics not to give the rights to somebody to make the movie until they approved of it. it wasn't a contractual- - family, he just decides the right thing to do is give the family say over this? - yeah. - yeah, all right. - and so, while jon was for it, would like to see it in a movie, he deferred to the parents, who ten years later, i got to know them in the first round. - right. - they considered it, thought about it, we had a very good interaction and they decided not to do it.
- you put it aside. - so ten years later i heard out of the blue from them, are you still interested in making a movie about our son? and i said yes, very immediately a contract was drawn up and i wrote the first draft of the script without reading the book again after ten years. and when i went back, it was the same thing i remembered reading. that really registered to me and there's a moment in the film where emile hirsch looks in the camera, breaks the wall. - yes. - and for me, i wouldn't normally be prone to do something divisive like that and so on. it seemed to me that why that story touched me so much and why i felt confident it would touch a lot of people for varying ways is that it was everybody's story, of that wanderlust, that finding oneself as a young person. and i think that that was our actor looking into the
camera and saying i know, this is yours too. - i'm you, right, it was incredibly moving. that scene, but that movie particularly. all right, the last thing i have to ask you about is probably the thing you don't like to be asked about the most. no matter how many movies you make you're always gonna be jeff spicoli to people. - i don't hate that. - do you hate being asked about that? i actually thought about ordering a pizza to the set today figuring we could have a little feast on our time, you know. i mean, do you get bothered by that? it was the second film you made, right? taps was first and then that was the second film you made? - i don't, well i get bothered by, i think bob dylan once said the worst thing about fame is people reminding you of who you are. and so when one is in a private thought walking down the street, it doesn't matter what movie or what it is you know, you'd just rather not be reminded that you are perceived indirectly. - yeah, you take pride in that movie all these years later? - oh, we had a blast and i've stayed,
one of my best friends is one of the producers of that movie and stayed very close with a few of the people involved. it was a blast, it was a blast and it gave me a lot of, it was among the movies and the people who gave me the chance to do that, it gave me a lot of other opportunities. - yeah, i gotta tell ya, the best thing i could say about that movie is i could not wait for my kids to be old enough so i could show it to them. and i think in a very personal way, that movie had an effect on my life and on the lives of a lot of other people. so thank you for that. - i think a lot of people - have remembered the movie in a certain way because it was a comedy and shown it to their kids remembering the laughs they had, too early. and when they watched it again with the kids they thought, uh oh, - oh god. - they shouldn't. - they're tellin' me we gotta go. we could sit here and talk about movies and everything else forever, but it's a real treat to get to be with you for a little while. sean penn, thank you so much - you too, thanks very much. (audience clapping) - [announcer] we'd love to have you join us in the studio, visit our website at klru.org/overheard, to find invitations to
interviews, q and a's with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. - when i turned on the television, it was the haiti earthquake and i called some of the guys that i've worked in katrina with and we said let's go down there and so now we got 112 permanent staff down there. all but eight are haitian and it's haitian run and it's going very well on a project basis. - [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy and by claire and carl stuart. (soft instrumental music)
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