One of the more intriguing films opening this November stars Sean Penn in the most unconventional role of his life. In “This Must Be The Place,” from the Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, he plays Cheyenne, a rich, retired rock star, now about 50, who chooses to hold on to the way he looked in his glory days – hair dyed black and back-combed, mascara, pancake make-up and scarlet lipstick. (The real rock icon he most closely resembles is the Cure’s Robert Smith.)
Squeaky-voiced and defiantly eccentric, Cheyenne lives with his wife (Frances McDormand) in a rambling mansion in Dublin; Ireland is a tax haven for creative artists. His home is filled with expensive gadgets, toys and art works. He spends most of his time shopping in a neighborhood mall. He’s a jaded husk of a man with no apparent purpose left in life.
But when he hears his father is dying, he travels to New York. It turns out Cheyenne is Jewish, and at the funeral he learns his father was persecuted in a Nazi death camp by a German soldier, now elderly, and secretly living in America. Acting resolutely for once, Cheyenne decides to track him down.
In this story, an audacious mix of the comical and deadly serious, Cheyenne, trundling a little suitcase on wheels behind him, travels through small-town America, encountering its essential strangeness: one out-of-the-way town bills itself as home to “the world’s largest pistachio.”
The film inevitably recalls other movies about weird, eccentric Americana: David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” some Coen Brothers titles – and David Byrne’s “True Stories,” which was a whimsical account of a small Texas town. It’s also reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” – another film about middle America by a European director. Intriguingly Harry Dean Stanton, the lead in “Paris, Texas,” has a cameo role in Sorrentino’s film.
“This Must be the Place” is Sorrentino’s fifth feature; its predecessors — “One Man Up,” “The Consequences of Love,” “The Family Friend” and “Il Divo” – were all made in Italy and between them earned him a growing reputation as one of Europe’s most interesting and accomplished directors.
The film shares its title with a song by Talking Heads, whose former frontman David Byrne appears and sings “This Must Be The Place” it in a concert performance.
Sorrentino, who is 42, discussed the film during a visit to London. (Weinstein Co. and Sorrentino have trimmed the film since its 2011 Cannes debut, where it met a mixed reaction.)
David Gritten: Were you deliberately looking for a story idea that would allow you to film in America?
Paolo Sorrentino: No, the initial idea which I had been kicking around for a number of years was to write a story about a Nazi criminal, now very old, hidden away somewhere. Then I met Sean Penn in Cannes (in 2008, when Penn headed up the jury, and Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” was in competition). We agreed we’d like to work together. I had the idea that it would be more interesting to have the main character somebody who did not live that period in the first person — who would have knowledge, but who would be forced to delve into that world and go and seek someone who was a Nazi criminal.
How much of middle America did you explore?
Quite a lot. It took several trips. Beforehand, I’d never been to Los Angeles. I knew New York and San Francisco. Then I started going to different places, like Las Vegas. But almost randomly I was guided by the sheer gusto of visiting places that were off the beaten track.
Quite a lot found its way into the movie. Quite a lot did not. But any road movie is written twice – once in your own mind, and then again when you actually shoot it.
David Byrne, like you a European who went to America, has a big influence – he gives the movie its title and acts in it. Did you feel influenced by his “True Stories”?
For sure, David Byrne had an influence on it but not especially through his own movie. It’s an all round influence. The same goes for the Coen Brothers. What they have in common is that they take something that might be deemed nonsensical and extrapolate the sense in it.
David and his band perform the song in the film, with a gorgeous string arrangement. What was behind the decision to show them playing the entire song?
“This Must Be the Place” is my favorite song ever in the world. But it was also a reaction to the way you see music portrayed on TV with frantic edits. I wanted to go against that grain and show it in a calm, collected way so you can concentrate on a very beautiful song from beginning to end.
With Sean Penn’s Cheyenne, you’ve captured that syndrome of people who are stars as young men, then they grow older and can’t make a graceful transition into middle age. In a sense, he’s lost. Pop stars often seem to buy big houses, fill them with things, but don’t know what to do with themselves.
I was fascinated by the idea of people who are crystallised in the moment of their highest and biggest success, without the vitality they used to have when they were experiencing it.
Cheyenne is nobody’s idea of a man who would hunt down a Nazi in hiding.
I found really fascinating the idea of somebody who is starting afresh: that search and hunt has given him a new lease of life. He’d like to think that he himself would find a new impetus, something different. Even with the movie industry it’s not easy to find a new movie with the enthusiasm I had when I shot my first. The problem is you know what it entails. You have to dig deep to find the enthusiasm.
There’s a perceptive scene when Cheyenne says to Judd Hirsch (who plays a Simon Wiesenthal-inspired Nazi hunter: “You’re also a celebrity.”
Yes. Cheyenne, who makes his vanity a virtue, recognizes it in the other character.
Was the Dublin setting in the original script or because you were partly financed by Irish money?
In the first draft of the script, Cheyenne lived in the suburbs of London. But there’s a deep melancholic atmosphere about Dublin that paralleled the feeling of the main characters. In a subsequent draft he moved to Ireland because of tax relief. That was cut for the final movie. But he’s a character who was careful with his money.
Because the Holocaust and its aftermath is such a sensitive area, have there been comments about the way you blended comic moments with such serious material?
I think so, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Certainly there were no criticisms on the part of Jewish people.
Were you and your cinematographer (Luca Bigazzi) inspired by the images of other films about middle America: the big sky, the plains, the iconic gas stations?
I’m not denying any influence of past movies. But maybe it’s more subliminal. It’s been inspired by still photographers like William Eggleston, who have portrayed that landscape.
How was your experience of shooting in America? Inspiring? Enjoyable?
It was very easy – dream-like, but a long dream that came to fruition. It’s been a bit difficult to wake up and get out of it.