Emilio Estevez puts his money where his mouth is: More than two decades ago, after headlining some of the most era-defining youth-culture hits of the 1980s — “The Outsiders,” “The Breakfast Club,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” — he left the studios behind and rebranded himself an independent filmmaker.
“My accountant curses that choice — still,” Estevez said. “Like, ‘How we gonna? … You’re 20 years in arrears.’ He doesn’t really sound like that, but it sounds like that to me. I finally just said, ‘I’m not gonna participate in the types of films other people want me to make. I’m gonna make films that matter to me.’” Estevez even went so far as to self-distribute his last movie, “The Way,” starring his father Martin Sheen as a man who walks Spain’s famed pilgrim’s trail, the Camino de Santiago.
Nor is his latest movie, “The Public,” opening April 5 in a limited theatrical release from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Content Group before going to VOD and streaming later this year. It’s the story of an addict in recovery, Stuart (Estevez), who’s turned his life around by becoming a librarian. Most of the action is set at the Cincinnati public library (Stuart’s colleagues are played by Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone) over the span of a single day. A deep freeze is compelling the homeless men (including Michael K. Williams) who congregate at the library each day to insist upon staying after closing time so they can use the library as a shelter from the potentially lethal temperatures. Stuart, having once been homeless himself, sides with the men in what becomes a standoff, with law enforcement looking to literally turn them out into the cold.
In short, this is also far from the recipe for a commercial hit in 2019. But what matters to Estevez, and to his friend Alec Baldwin, who appears in the film as a police hostage negotiator looking to end the standoff, is it’s personal.
“I take on work to pay the bills, ‘cause I’ve got four little kids,” Baldwin said, sitting next to Estevez in a room at New York’s Whitby Hotel. “I had a really sweet, and really just incredibly enviable retirement package, and that just got thrown into the fireplace about four years ago when I got remarried. I got a five-year-old, a three-year-old, a two-year-old, and a 10-month old. And I’m turning 61. So my whole thing is, there’s work I do for a paycheck, there’s things I would be a fool not to do, and then I get this wonderful experience doing ‘The Public’ with Emilio Estevez, or the documentary ‘Framing John DeLorean’ that I have coming out [June 7] with Dan Argott and Sheena Joyce, and ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ with Edward Norton [out November 1]. I’ve had some nice little things that are like a nice long drink at the oasis, before I got to other, less challenging creative things I do. Which are fun, but silly.”
Estevez has embarked on a 30-city tour to screen “The Public,” usually in special screenings set up for librarians and the homeless.
“He’s going to the home of every American in those 30 cities,” Baldwin said.
To which Estevez replied, “Pretty much! And I’m going to do a Q&A in each one!”
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The idea of setting a film in a public library first came to Estevez when he was researching his 2006 drama “Bobby,” a “Grand Hotel”-style film about intersecting lives on the night Robert F. Kennedy was killed in 1968. He did most of the research at the main downtown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and was amazed at how librarians essentially have become social workers for the homeless who spend their days there. In one public space, Estevez saw the intersection of poverty, addiction, employees forced into taking on responsibilities they weren’t trained for, freedom of information, and net neutrality.
“There’s no separation between the artist and the activist,” said Estevez. “And that has been the case over the centuries. When you look at great movements, they started either through activism or an artist saying, ‘Hang on, this is a mirror that I’m holding up to you. This is what you look like. Stop it.’
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“Librarians are seeing themselves reflected on screen in a non-stereotypical way,” he said. “Homeless individuals are seeing themselves, saying, ‘Wow, wow. Okay. I look heroic. There’s some dignity there. There’s some humor there.’”
Estevez’s logline for “The Public” is it’s “‘The Breakfast Club’ meets ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’” Which, in decades past, might have made for a commercially viable wide release, especially since the film received warm reviews when it debuted at the Toronto International Festival last September. Not today, though. “Distributors are looking for hits,” Baldwin said. “They’re looking for things that are gonna be easier to sell. It’s a business. We get that.”
Baldwin and Estevez have a lot of affection for studio filmmaking. Both recalled the warm feelings they have over their involvement in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise and joked about how both of their characters ended up dead. “I did a gag where Tom Cruise is bending over me as I’m dying, and he’s saying ‘Sir! Sir!’ and I suddenly look up at him and go ‘Ethan, I slept with your girlfriend.’ Death scenes are great for gags.”
“But studio filmmaking comes with its own costs,” Estevez said. “And its own set of restrictions. I don’t know if ultimately what I was trying to say with ‘The Public,’ or how I was trying to frame it, would be supported in the same way [with a studio]. There’s a freedom in making independent films. The good news is, often times, you don’t have anyone to talk to. The bad news is, often times, you don’t have anyone to talk to.”