Cinequest Q&A: “The Public”

Emilio Estevez portrays Stuart, a librarian with a difficult situation on his hands in the new film, “The Public”. Photo Credit: Hammerstone Studios
Writer, Director and Actor Emilio Estevez Brings to Life the “Last Bastion of True Democracy”

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

One of Cinequest’s main events is a riveting film titled “The Public”. Written, directed, and starring Emilio Estevez, the film tackles the themes of homelessness, mental illness and human morality.

In the film Estevez is a librarian named Stuart who is caught in a difficult situation during a freezing cold Midwestern night at his branch in downtown Cincinnati. Due to the extreme temperature and recent exposure deaths of homeless patrons of his library, he must make the difficult choice of defying the city laws and his superiors by allowing the homeless population that he serves to stay overnight in the warmth of the public library.

Although ultimately a drama, this is a hopeful movie that tackles several key dilemmas in our world today, while keeping true the idea of community, and doing what is right. Set in what Estevez calls, “the last bastion of true Democracy”, “The Public” ultimately exposes problems in our society built into city laws, the media and people – but offers insight into how communities can persevere and coexist.

The films talented cast includes: Jacob Vargas, Gabrielle Union, Taylor Schilling, Jeffrey Wright, Christian Slater, Jena Malone, Alec Baldwin and Michael K. Williams.

Recently I had the great opportunity to speak to Estevez about his journey to make this film, from his initial idea, working a fast-paced filming schedule, and his nervousness showing the film to a theater full of librarians. His revelations will give a lot of insight into what makes this a special project for him that has taken more than a decade to create, but finally, is here.

Cinequest’s showing of “The Public” will be on Wednesday March 9, 2019 at the California Theater. Following the screening there will be a discussion with Estevez as well as San Jose 2017 Librarian of the Year, Jill Bourne.

What was your inspiration for “The Public”? Why did you want to tell a story like this?

This journey began almost twelve years ago, it began with an article in the LA Times. It was written by Chip Ward. Chip was a Salt Lake City librarian, and he was retiring. His essay, which was printed in the Times, was called “Written Off”, and it was about how libraries had become de facto homeless shelters and how librarians had become first responders and de facto social workers. And so I was moved by this piece, and I had done a lot of research for this film that I had directed called “Bobby”, at the downtown LA branch of the public library, so I knew what Chip Ward was talking about to a certain extent, but I had to go back to see if things had gotten as bad as he had talked about in the piece. So, I believe that week I went back down to the library, I started doing research, I started hanging out in the library and it was out of that that I began to think of a story that would basically be about, what if the patrons that depend on this place for shelter and for warmth decided that they weren’t going to leave? And how would the library react? How would the police react? How would the local politicians and the media react? And that was sort of the beginning of it.

We’re seeing that not much has changed in the last twelve years. I would say the problem has probably gotten worse when you look at librarians that are now tasked with administering Narcan to patrons who are experiencing overdoses in the libraries. And they’re often training librarians to know how to use these Narcan kits. We’re experiencing a crisis and I think we need to start calling things for exactly what they are. This is not a “climate change”, we’re in a climate crisis. This is not a “homeless issue”, we’re in a homeless crisis. And I think it’s not semantics. It’s real and it’s not alarmist, it’s very real.

It’s especially very real to the people who are experiencing homelessness, people who are on the streets experiencing mental health issues, who don’t have a roof over their heads. And that is really where it starts. I don’t know if you know the numbers, but for emergency assistance for an individual who [is] on the streets without a roof over their heads, in Los Angeles anyway, is roughly about $68,000 a year. If you put that same individual in permanent supportive housing that number goes down to $15,000. It’s pretty significant.

When you were writing the script did you intend on setting it in Los Angeles, where you first came up with the idea?

It was set here in Los Angeles and it was set in the library that I had access to, so I chose my locations based on the downtown branch. We don’t obviously see weather change and get quite as cold as it does in the Midwest, it certainly doesn’t get below zero, but it does get cold. There are three or four nights a year downtown where it can get to 30 degrees or below but as the years went on and as it became more and more difficult to get this film made, I was offered to take a look at Cincinnati Ohio as a possible relocation to set the film. I had been spending a lot of time there, my mother is from Cincinnati, my dad is from nearby Dayton, and so we began to re-invision the movie set in the Midwest. Which I believe helps, it certainly helped the bottom line because of the tax rebate that they offer, but it also helps the credibility of the film, especially in the wake of the polar vortex [that] descended upon the Midwest, and dozens of people died.

If you could synthesize the films overall themes and purpose, what would you say “The Public” is about?

It’s about the public commons. It’s about the access to the public commons, it’s about how they belong to all of us, how they don’t belong to the private sector. That they are ours to protect. That people experiencing homelessness have a face, they have a name. Well beyond the bias we have when we look at an individual experiencing homelessness and we may assign a story to them, about how they got there. Regardless of what we believe that story may be there’s a real story. There’s a real human being there, and I think you come away from this film definitely humanizing the marginalized and the disenfranchised.

When you were doing your research while writing this script, did you reach out to the homeless as well as those working in libraries a lot? How was that?

I did. I spent a lot of time in libraries, many different libraries. The bulk of my research was done at the downtown branch of LAPL here in Downtown LA, and some of the folks that I talked to, not the librarians but the homeless folks, were suspicious of my intentions and some of them were on the record, some of them were off the record. But their stories were unique, and heartbreaking and often times very self-effacing and funny. Like I said, equal parts heartbreaking.

If you’ve heard feedback from these groups that you reached out to for your research, what have they said about the portrayals in the film?

I did three screenings in New Orleans at the American Library Association [ALA] Conference last June. I took the film to the Midwinter Conference in Seattle for the ALA and screened it for another couple thousand librarians and so far, the reaction has been very, very positive. I remember one of the librarians, we opened the audience to a Q&A audience and the first question was, “How did you get us so right?” So yes, librarians have seen it and they’ve given it the thumbs up. Homeless advocacy groups and mental healthcare groups have seen the film and they’ve given it the thumbs up. There was a group of folks in [a] screening that had just recently gotten into permanent supportive housing and they sat through the film and they felt like we got it right as well. So, so far, the authenticity of the piece is resonating with those individuals that are depicted in the film.

Speaking of authenticity, I wanted to ask about the mise-en-scene in the film, all those items that are on display in the library in the film. There are quotes on banners and people such as Henry David Thoreau, and Sojourner Truth seen throughout the film’s furnishings. What was the reasoning behind using these examples?

They were individuals who I felt were activists at their time, certainly just outside the door where we have [a] standoff is a picture of Frederick Douglass, he was placed there deliberately and the quote of course is, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” you’ve got Percy Shelley quote from his poem, “The Masque of Anarchy”, that poem is remarkable in that it was one of the original poems about non-violent civil disobedience, [saying] “We rise like lions”.

There was no accident in other the creation of those banners or how and where they were placed. Reinhold Niebuhr, he’s probably best known as the father of the “Serenity Prayer” and given that individuals who are often on the streets deal with substance abuse, I thought that Reinhold Niebuhr and a couple of quotes from him were also appropriate. There were some that didn’t appear in the film. There was Cornel West, we had Rebecca Solnit, Bryan Stevenson, and Chip Ward. I put banners up everywhere and there were only a smattering that survived the final cut.

So, for the literary fans it’s probably going to be nice to catch all those references in the film.

What do we call those? Easter eggs? There’s a couple that are super obvious, and some that are not. When Michael K. Williams talks about the “black prophetic fire”, that’s a nod to Dr. West. When my character Stuart brings up the “Connecticut Four”, without any explanation, that is a nod to the actual Connecticut four who pushed back against the FBI and won a very important case that was opposition to the Patriot Act. There’s a lot. Ally Sheedy published a book when she was eleven years old called, “She was Nice to Mice”, and there’s a scene in the film where you see a young librarian reading to school kids, and she’s reading Ally’s book. So that’s another Easter egg, but they’re not always obvious. But I tried to put enough in there.

There is a scene where Steinbeck’s words are being read to a television reporter for a live news segment. Steinbeck must have been important to you for it to be included prominently like that.

“The Grapes of Wrath”, is celebrating 80 years since its publication, April 14, 1939, it’s having a birthday, so certainly Steinbeck’s words are probably more relevant now than when the book was originally published.

But it kinda bites me in the ass too, because [Stuart] is weaponizing Steinbeck. He’s weaponizing literature and whenever you weaponize literature, often times it doesn’t end well. There’s certainly examples of that in our history where literature or essays have been used to incite. But it is a strong moment and it is a moment where he’s being somewhat unfair, he knows he’s dragging the media representative into the “deep end of the pool” and then watching her drown.

Speaking of weaponizing literature, and the idea of bad versus good, what would you say was the villain of the film if you had to point a finger? Who is at fault or is it just the system itself?

The villain is violence and criminalizing poor people. Criminalizing homeless people. And not necessarily violence by individuals, but violence by institutions. You see the media, the political wing, certainly a compassionate aspect of law enforcement, but at the end of the day, they still go in there with the battering rams and with the intent to pull them out by force. So, the bad guys are more represented by the institutions and the characters in the films that represent those institutions.

When working with such a diverse ensemble cast, how do you as director/writer/actor get these people on the same wavelength and in the emotional state you’d like them to be?

It’s a bit like being a conductor in an orchestra and you’ve got all these incredible musicians, and they all come with their instruments. And I don’t mean that to sound highfalutin, but it is just that and everybody has their own approach and their own methods on how they approach a scene, and it doesn’t always jive with the person that they may be in the scene with, but everyone has their process, and as a director you are really tasked with allowing everyone to have a voice, to have a seat at the table and to have their opinion heard.

And I just worked very hard to create the space where the actors felt safe, where they felt they could offer opinion or insight, or, “Hey, how about we try it this way, I know it’s not what you wrote, but I believe the intention is the same,” kind of approach. Again, we shot this movie in 22 days, I had to deal with a lot of difficulty moving pieces. The budget is not particularly big, so we were really up against it more days than we were not. It was a very run and gun style of filmmaking and it forces everyone to work together as a team in a way that it might not if you have the luxury of time and a lot of resources.

What was the most memorable part of this whole process, whether it be the research, the writing, directing, or seeing the final product and the effects of its release to the public viewer?

First of all, after twelve years of trying to bring this picture to fruition I think the first time I screened for librarians, in New Orleans las June was probably – the lead up to it was one of the more difficult few hours. Getting through the screening was the next most difficult two hours. However, the Q&A afterwards and getting their seal of approval and feeling that we had not done the usual stereotypes that we see in movies where librarians are depicted, I think that was very gratifying. Because I think, when do you reckon the next time a movie will be made about the vocations of librarians? It’s gonna be a long time, you know. They certainly have seen themselves underrepresented if represented at all in in film and television, and so I think for me that was a really proud moment.

Do you yourself have any memories or experiences at the library or of librarians that might have sparked a fondness for the public library system or served as inspiration?

Not necessarily. [While] I grew up, my parents would drop me off at the local library and I would get lost in the stacks. I remember the library as being a very safe place and going through the index cards and feeling pretty proud of myself for being able to find a book on my own without needing the assistance of a librarian to track it down. I don’t remember any one specific librarian that had an impact, but I did have an extraordinary creative writing teacher at Santa Monica High School, where I attended. I think I was a junior, and so she would start everyday by asking the class, “How is your consciousness today?” Which, the first day of course, everybody laughed. The second day a little bit less. By the end of the week no one was laughing at all because everybody was checking in with themselves; and it was 1978 and teachers could still ask that questions to their class and not be carded off and taken away. So, she had an impact in me and moving forward as someone who would ultimately create his own content.

Back to your film, actor Jeffrey Wright mentions something about how the libraries are the last bastion of true democracy. Do you, after all the work and time spent making this film, still believe that is so?

Yeah, and it was just recently echoed by Tony Marx, who is the president of the NYPL (New York Public Library). He recently said in an article, “Libraries are where Democracy is being saved.” Again, I believe that. When we screened it for librarians in New Orleans, they cheered for that line. I’ve been mocked for writing that line into the pieces by people who have probably never set foot into a library, and yet I know it to be true, and Tony Marx just confirmed that for me and if the president of NYPL says its true then I believe it.

Is it strange or surreal to know that someday your film, “The Public”, will in fact be in libraries to borrow or stream?

It’ll be there this year! Once we get a DVD and get set up on services like Hoopla, sure it will be available to not only the patrons but to staff and librarian staff as well.

Thank you so much Emilio for your time. Now, for my final question, what are you reading these days?

I don’t read any fiction anymore. I haven’t picked up a work of fiction in a lot of years, unfortunately. I’m reading a lot of nonfiction these days; Chris Hedges is a writer whom I read quite a bit of. He has a new book called, “America: The Farewell Tour”, and if you’re familiar with Chris’ work, it’s pretty extraordinary. I just picked up Eric Klinenberg’s new book, “Palaces for the People” and I’ve started to read that. But I’m really influenced by nonfiction these days, it’s proving to be a lot stranger than what can be imagined.

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