Exclusive Interview: Penn Jillette Talks DIRECTOR’S CUT (Part 1 of 2)

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SHOCK’s Trevor Parker corners actor and magician Penn Jillette to riff(kin) on his new horror flick DIRECTOR’S CUT.

Ever since the first moving images flickered out of cinematographs and onto screens, film has been considered a tangible form of modern magic. Who better then, to put one over on unsuspecting moviegoers than professional magician Penn Jillette? The towering, talkative member of the prestidigitating pair known as Penn and Teller, Jillette may have spent decades perfecting his illusions and silky slight-of-hand on stages around the world, but he happens to have saved his most devious trickery for film fans in the form of the new feature DIRECTOR’S CUT.

Jillette is the writer and star of DIRECTOR’S CUT, a meta-meditation on ownership and authorship in today’s media wilderness (it’s actually all directed by Adam Rifkin of DETROIT ROCK CITY and THE DARK BACKWARD fame). In CUT, Jillette plays Herbert Blount, an affable if unstable fellow who presents and provides commentary over a standard Hollywood cop thriller called ‘Knocked Off’—a project on which Blount participated as a crowdfunder. As Blount’s presentation of ‘Knocked Off’ unfolds, the delusional cineaste adds in his own special footage and charts a new plot in which he forces starlet Missi (GALAXY QUEST) Pyle into riding off with him into a sunset not found in the original version.

Jillette isn’t exactly a newbie to the world of film, from his and Teller’s early appearance alongside Deborah Foreman in the dimwitted comedy vehicle (pun intended) MY CHAUFFEUR, to a lead role in 1989 cult favorite PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED, to writing and hosting a series of successful documentary shows taking on all manner of modern swindles and scammers. It all led to him having the idea to write his own film, as he says, “because I was obsessed with the kind of intimacy you get from a director’s commentary, and how that could be turned around to fuck people (laughs). You hear this close-mic’d, inverse-square-law, lots of bass, kind of honesty. It’s very paternal and you trust it… I’m always interested in how things that we trust automatically can be used against us. I mean, that’s what magic is, really. It’s finding a way to lie to yourself.”

“So a director’s commentary seemed like the perfect way to kind of get people to be betrayed,” Penn continues. “With a director’s commentary, it’s a different kind of trust, but it’s still a kind of artistic trust. What if the person talking to you doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing? Which, of course, with a director’s commentary it’s always the case, but they just don’t ever talk about it that way. (laughs) They never know what the fuck they’re doing; they just stumbled into a movie. And I wrote (CUT) kind of just to show that I could do it.”

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The twisty script for DIRECTOR’S CUT is an impressive feat in and of itself, balancing multiple stories and conflicting tones at once. For Jillette, the challenge of keeping CUT’s multiple plates spinning was its own reward, and one not always understood by the powers that be. ‘The puzzle aspects of this movie are pretty interesting to me,’ he says, ‘because like CLOVERFIELD, when you’re doing movies that pretend to be found footage it always bothers me when there’s a shot that I can’t explain why it was there. Like Jesus praying in the wilderness alone—how do we really know what he was saying? So I wanted to ensure that every shot (in CUT), without exception, be completely accounted for in the logic (of the film). It was that puzzle part that really interested me. So I banged it out, ten years ago from right now, and then I half-assed shopped it around the studios. You know, everybody thought it was clever, but they gave me the usual jokes you would make if you wanted to make fun of studios—you know, ‘Could we do this with someone else playing Herbert? Does it have to be so-and-so? Can it be more traditional?’ Well, no, because that’s the whole idea. If you want to make it more traditional, you should make it a shitty movie.”

“So I didn’t aggressively, like my life depended on it, pitch it,” Jillette continues. “I probably went to four pitches, which in Hollywood terms is not very many. And I was often talking about other stuff. I won’t say (the pitches) were half assed, but maybe three-quarters assed. And so I continued to be fascinated by movies that pretended to be found footage. I’m also obsessed with in movies are ‘real time’, like with TWELVE ANGRY MEN, and you know, books are so far ahead of movies in that they’ve been doing diaries and ship’s logs, and found stuff all the time, while movies are just discovering it.”

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Jillette says he wanted to go ahead with DIRECTOR’S CUT as an independent project shot on the (very) cheap, and a reluctant viewing of Adam Rifkin’s experimental found-footage curiosity LOOK led him to who would prove to be the perfect CUT collaborator. “As Cocteau said, you have to get your (film) tools as cheap as a pencil and paper before it’s really art,” says Jillette. “And now we’re getting there, at least in the developed world. Many, many, many people have an iPhone, and it’s easy to make a movie on that. So, Ron Jeremy, who’s a friend of mine—the porn guy who can blow himself—he’s also friends with Rifkin. And he told me there’s this great movie called LOOK. And because Ron Jeremy told me, I didn’t bother to see it, because what the fuck does Ron Jeremy know except for sucking his own cock? Which I’m not diminishing in any way… So (LOOK) was playing in Vegas on a night that I could go, and I still didn’t see it. Then a friend that I trust, Mitch Nathanson—he worked a lot on this movie—he told me to watch LOOK. So I watched LOOK and went out of my fucking mind. It still is my favorite movie of this century. I could just not believe how good it was. It is exactly to my heart; it meant everything.”

“I finished watching LOOK at about one A.M. early Saturday morning,” Jillette continues, “and I wrote right away to my agents and managers and said, ‘I’ve got to talk to Adam Rifkin. I have to talk to him.’ I got impatient and went through social media and found out that we had some friends in common. So I wrote to Rifkin and said, ‘Listen, I’m in love with you. Can I blow you? LOOK is the greatest thing ever!’ He wrote back to me right away. Fortunately he had heard of Penn and Teller, enjoyed some of our stuff… We started texting like teenage girls, and I just said, ‘Can we meet and talk and I’ll give you money and suck your cock? Because you’re the greatest man who ever lived.’ He called and we chatted, and I told him that I’d written this script (for CUT), and God damn it seemed right for him. So I sent it to Rifkin at two-fifteen, and at three-fifteen he called me back and said he loved the script. I said, ‘Let’s do it!’, and so by three-thirty, we had decided to make the movie together. I then wrote an email to my managers and agents and said, “Fuck off. I don’t need you. I found Adam Rifkin on my own.’ Then we had the only problem there is in show business, which is getting money. I said to Rifkin that I had shopped (CUT) around a little bit, and attaching him to it simply makes it harder to sell. (laughs) If I go in and say Adam Rifkin’s going to direct it, they’ve got to say something—like to change the director or the star or whatever. We were never going to sell this, and I’d rewritten the script to reflect much, much more of a crowdfunding (storyline), so all of a sudden I told Rifkin that this movie has to be crowdfunded.”

A major component of the DIRECTOR’S CUT storyline stems from a crafty crowdfunder gaining access to a film set and eventually hijacking the production, but Jillette promises that the actual experience of crowdfunding his film proved much the opposite. “One little odd feeling about the movie is that it ends up being this cautionary tale about crowdfunding, and yet it was crowdfunded in a beautiful, peaceful, wonderful way,” Jillette says. “The strongest thing I can say about it is—and this is probably not as shocking to you as it is to me—is that three, maybe four people that crowdfunded, and that I only know through crowdfunding, became friends that I’ll have for life. And that’s amazing; I live a pretty cloistered existence with my family and very few old friends. I work and I’m with my family and I don’t see people. So making four friends through a project is unbelievable. Rifkin is a friend I’ve made because of this, but that’s kind of expected. You work with somebody closely, producing and directing and all of that—you’re either going to make a friend or an enemy. And so Rifkin and I have become very good friends, and that’s maybe the best thing about doing this movie, but you add four people who just gave us money to make a movie and nothing else that ended up being on that level. I spent hundreds of hours, and there’s no exaggeration there, with the people who crowdfunded the movie, and I liked ‘em. There was no Herbert Blount. I can’t say that there were no awkward moments—when you let people into your life, you’re going to get those—but they were much rarer than you would ever imagine. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. Very labor-intensive, and very emotionally tiring… and I’m sure the diamond miners in South Africa are worried about me being emotionally tired (laughs), but you do spend a lot of time doing it, and it’s very rewarding and fulfilling.”

TO BE CONTINUED THIS WEEK…