Setting out in the development of The Public, his latest feature, Emilio Estevez knew he faced an uphill battle — particularly in terms of financing. “Obviously when you’re talking to studios and independent companies about making a film about the library, and about mental illness and homelessness, you can just watch their eyes glaze over,” the writer/director told Deadline today. “Because those subjects aren’t particularly sexy.”
The library may not be sexy, but it is certainly important, functioning as a fascinating backdrop to explore political and social issues. “When you think about the major issues of our time — whether it’s climate change, homelessness, opioid addiction, mental illness, the dismantling of our civil and constitutional rights, racism, class division — the intersectionality of that all happens inside the public library,” Estevez explained.
Inspired by a 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times, The Public depicts the devolution of the American public library as an institution, in a time when libraries have become “de facto homeless shelters,” with librarians forced to play the part of social workers. With the real world account of former Salt Lake City library Chip Ward in mind, Estevez brought on board a star-studded cast for a fictional account of this story, which sees the homeless stage an “Occupy” sit-in at the library — the space that serves as their only home — during an extreme weather event. While the homeless perspective is given due respect, the perspectives of librarians, administrators, and local Cincinnati political operatives are also taken into account.
For star Jena Malone — who appeared in studio today with Estevez (who stars in the film), along with co-stars Christian Slater and Michael Kenneth Williams — it’s vitally important to tell those stories that are “on the front page of our own heart,” and equally resonant on a societal level, with the help of filmmakers like Estevez, who can tell them honestly and authentically.
For Williams, the film’s exploration of mental illness and addiction was particularly resonant. “Mental illness and addiction is something that’s personal to me — people in my family and myself,” the actor shared. “If people in my family who suffer didn’t have the support of each other being in our lives, any one of us could have ended up at the public library.”
Williams noted the surreal conditions of the shoot, which involved shooting every night from 7 PM to 7 AM — when the public library in use was closed. “We were locked in the library with each other for 12 hours and that set a tone. There was no running back to your trailer,” he explained. “We got to really understand what it feels like to have only that [space] to depend on for most of your day.”
More surreal was an incident that happened at the beginning of one day of filming, during which Williams found himself surrounded by lots of new faces who he assumed were extras. “And it hit me: These are not extras. The real people were leaving so that the actors could come in and portray them, and I got caught in the changing of the shifts,” Williams shared. “It was humbling.”
For more from our conversation, watch the video above.