For an entire generation, the ‘Brat Pack’ of ’80s American teen movies – Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy etc. – ruled. Fusing geek chic with too cool for school, they peaked in 1985 with the double feature of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and Joel Schumacher’s St Elmo’s Fire.
Appearing in both, Emilio Estevez shone. Not one for looking back, the actor/writer/director is mostly bemused by the mad-love for those films, always knocking back reunion calls. “I find that if you live in the past, the past is what’s going to influence your future,” he levels over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I’m interested in doing new work.”
Not that he’s miffed when I suggest I feel the emotional residue of Hughes’ high school detention hit in the library rebellion at the heart of Estevez’s latest movie, The Public. Inspired by a Los Angeles Times feature by Chip Ward, former assistant director of Salt Lake City’s public library, it’s set in Cincinnati’s equivalent during a brutal cold snap. Estevez plays librarian and recovered addict Stuart Goodson alongside Jena Malone’s woke millennial co-worker Myra.
They’re faced with a mass sit-in by their homeless regulars, led by Jackson (The Wire’s Michael K. Williams), who refuse to leave at closing time and risk dying in the icy chill. Goodson sides with them, though Myra’s initially reluctant. Beyond the library walls, fake news and political spin conspire to whip the story into a hostage scenario, unleashing riot police and laying bare America’s contemporary concerns.
“Some critics here in the States said that the movie takes on too much and that these situations are hyper-sensationalised,” Estevez notes. “I stood back and said, ‘have you not been paying attention to what’s happening?’”
Intersectional by design, Estevez sees public libraries as a safe harbour in the maelstrom of his nation’s great divide. “It’s about homelessness and mental health, the climate crisis, the militarisation of the police, and the economic divide that continues to get wider between the have-a-lots and the have-nothings,” adding that 57,000 people sleep rough in LA every night.
He had intended to set The Public in the architecturally impressive Los Angeles Central Library, but the idea was vetoed by the then head librarian who informed him a blanket ban was imposed after a previous film crew’s lighting set off the sprinkler system, damaging heaps of books. “I asked who these amateurs were,” Estevez laughs, revealing it was Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, starring his father Martin Sheen (Estevez cameoed as a young Jed in 2003 episode ‘Twenty Five’) and Brat Packer Lowe.
In truth, The Public shares more in common with that rousing political drama than Estevez’s ’80s output. The move to Ohio made sense, not just because it gets way colder there. It’s also a ‘purple’ or swing state that was seized by President Trump in 2016 after backing Obama twice, remaining a major pulse point.
The way politics impacts on everyday lives was also central to Estevez’s Bobby (2006), set in LA’s Ambassador Hotel in the early hours of June 5, 1968, immediately after the assassination of Presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. “Single-location shoots save money, and if you have a lot of actors, like Bobby did, they can join us for several days for relatively low fees while working on bigger films,” Estevez says.
Featuring an embarrassment of riches that includes himself and his dad, Laurence Fishburne, Anthony Hopkins, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Helen Hunt and Christian Slater, co-star Shia LaBeouf was apparently star-struck filming Bobby. “He looked at me and said, ‘oh my god, there are so many people here that I admire. I don’t know where to look first’.”
Slater, who first worked with Estevez on Young Guns II (1990), plays a manipulative mayoral candidate in The Public, trying to leverage the library sit-in to appear tough on crime, strong-arming Alec Baldwin’s police negotiator. “I love the idea of assembling actors like a basketball team,” Estevez says. “You could pass the ball to any one of these folks on the floor and they’re gonna go for the shot. Chances are they’ll make it.”
Starry ensembles also help coax financiers and take the pressure off performers. “There’s safety in numbers, and in not having to shoulder the responsibility. My films don’t make hundreds of millions of dollars. The only person that gets blamed, if it sinks, is me.”
Estevez can also claim all the glory if they suggest a great idea that works, not that there was much room for improv on The Public’s 22-day shoot. He’s confident laying down the law when he has to, even when directing brother Charlie Sheen, or their dad. Sheen senior played Estevez’s father in The War at Home (1996), about a Vietnam vet trying to readjust to civilian life, and again in SBS On Demand highlight The Way (2010). The director’s appearances in the latter are fleeting, with Sheen as a grieving father who hikes the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage through rural Spain carrying his son’s ashes.
Very loosely based on journalist Jack Hitt’s memoir Off the Road, it’s an uplifting journey that, refreshingly, resists too much transformation. “Studio execs always say, ‘where’s the character arc?’, but how many people do you know, friends and family, that haven’t changed a bit in the last 20 years?” Estevez chuckles. “And yet characters are expected to change over the course of 120 minutes? It’s absolutely foolish. So, at the end of the day, they’re all perfectly fine being exactly who they are.”
Sheen had a competing vision. “Dad wanted to tell a very Catholic story, and you know I was baptised but I’m not practising, so I pushed back,” Estevez reveals.
Turns out famous families aren’t that different after all, niggling over the details. “The difference is that everything we do is public,” he chuckles. “We’ve weathered a lot of storms during the last 50 years, whether it’s my father or Charlie. There’s no hiding from it. No wishing it away like I want some of my films to disappear off IMDB.”
Emilio Estevez’s The Public is in cinemas on August 1. You can catch The Way now at SBS On Demand:
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