It’s a happy morning in July. In the living room away from the hustle and bustle of the hotel, the air conditioning makes Sean Penn (Santa Monica, California, 61 years old) hold out in his jacket despite the heat outside. He waits smiling and asks permission from the press to open the window that connects the room with the terrace. He needs to smoke – he also asks permission from the three journalists before lighting his cigarette. Summer in Cannes is inclement; Inside the room Penn lives in a happy spring. You still haven’t read the reviews from Flag’s day.
The tour of Flag’s day, the thriller that Penn debuts as a director and actor in Spain this week, kicked off last July at the French pageant. The filmmaker was returning to the scene of the crime. For decades, the promotion schedule of a film on its first day of screening in Cannes was unalterable: morning show, posed before photographers and press conference, quick lunch, attention to the French media (and the nationality of the film) and evening gala session. The immediacy of the internet began to upset the agenda, which was blown up in 2016 by I’ll say your name Penn’s previous job as a director, a gruesome love story in the middle of Africa between an NGO director (Charlize Theron) and a doctor (Javier Bardem). When his press conference began, Penn had already read the first comments via Twitter; when he entered the red carpet at night, he had devoured the criticism online, and crawled desolate down the steps of the Palace of Festivals.
After that disaster, which added to previous complaints from Hollywood studios, which had already suffered devastating similar days with other titles, Thierry Frémaux, general delegate of Cannes, changed the scheme of the contest’s contest: first the gala screening would be held , and the next day the promotion with the press (by the way, I will say your name holds the record for the worst rating in the French competition in a compilation chart of critics: average of two out of 10).
So when Penn spoke to the press at Cannes this summer, he had yet to read comments – most of the reviews were very tepid to cold – about his new thriller, based on the true story of the painful relationship between journalist Jennifer Vogel and her father, John, a con artist and compulsive liar who finished off decades of petty crimes with the printing, between 1991 and 1995, of 19 million dollars in counterfeit bills. The film was shot before the pandemic, starring Penn himself and his daughter Dylan —in his first major role—, and that is why the filmmaker confessed relieved that morning in July with the previous day’s gala: “It has been two years waiting from filming to release, and really, all I wanted was to see justice done to Dylan’s work. “
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Fathers and sons
In person, Penn is utterly charming, somewhat stuttering and, at least on the day of the interview, a beaming smile. About Flag’s day, he remembers that he ended up directing it despite himself: “It was the first time that I was a director and an actor at the same time and, if I can, the last. I love multitasking when it doesn’t mean tackling two such stressful jobs at the same time. I tried to avoid it ”. The thriller it had been a decade in development, with Alejandro González Iñárritu as the director and Penn as the protagonist. When the Mexican jumped on another movie, Penn took his place and looked for another actor. “I sent the script to Matt Damon, and he said it would be stupid if I didn’t star in it.” So it was.
When the Penns went from a parent-child relationship on set to being a director and an actress, what changed in their behavior? “Well, I decided that I would encourage her, that I would push her to go as far as she knew she could go. But, in general, I am the same with all actors. As a parent, I have always supported my children and tried to push them towards their dreams, so I don’t change behind the camera. As an actor I believe in enjoying at all times, even when you walk on the darker side of feelings. It doesn’t scare me. At all times I establish a suitable environment for creation, and if you don’t do that as a parent as well … bad. Of course, what I do not fall into is the noise of repeating: ‘Are you aware of the opportunity you are enjoying?’ He knows it well, because Penn is, in turn, the son of director Leo Penn and actress Ellen Ryan. Dylan and his brother, Hopper, who also acts in Flag’s day, They are the children of the filmmaker and Robin Wright, also an actress and director. “All of us, in our work, have sought authenticity.” And how do you recognize that authenticity? “I don’t know, but I can tell you my truth. I’m a guy with a very … intellectual approach to life. I don’t trust people first. At the same time, I am quickly disappointed in myself. In my life, I have struggled to find the balance between what happens outside and what I feel ”.
Penn enjoys detailing the importance of pre-shoot decisions (like using analog film instead of shooting digital) in building his feature film. And he defends a vicarious aspect of cinema: “It gives testimony of a moment. For me, a movie is the most powerful tool to convey memories. Time and feelings pass; instead, a film takes minutes of them, you invite the public to accompany you on your journey to them ”. And that, he assures, is felt in Flag’s day: “It reflects the cinema that I saw in my adolescence, those years when you are very influential. The films of the seventies marked me, with them I fell in love with this work. His aesthetic echoes mine. In fact, I have a very cinematic instinct with everything that surrounds me ”. What do you mean? “Among other things, I bet on teamwork. I am not the director, but the co-director of CORE, for example ”. CORE is the NGO that Penn founded in 2010 to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake, and that over time has collaborated in trying to alleviate disasters caused by other catastrophes such as hurricanes and floods: currently in the United States it performs and distributes antigen tests to detect covid-19.
Before finishing, Penn faces the big question: how did you feel, five years after I’ll say your name stepping on the Cannes red carpet again? “I had one of the best days of my life. I am very proud of my daughter, and I felt that at that moment, at the entrance of the gala, she received the recognition she deserves. Both she and I are natural warriors. The rest are bullshit ”.