Exclusive Interview: Penn Jillette Talks DIRECTOR



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

On Monday we started a conversation with the iconic Penn Jillette and now…we’re gonna finish it.

Here we go…


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.”

“If you look at it in a deep sense, and through pure economics, our job was to make a movie that pleased the fifty-four hundred people that paid for it,” adds Jillette on the topic of crowdfunding. “Now, when you’re doing a movie through the studio system, your job is to make the movie that they expect you to make with studio money. That’s your job. When you do crowdfunding, if you’re doing EXPLODING KITTENS, your job is to make EXPLODING KITTENS for the people who gave you money to make EXPLODING KITTENS. You don’t have to sell one copy outside of that to be successful. So our job (with CUT) is to please those fifty-four hundred people with our blu-ray. Now because (CUT) hasn’t opened yet, there have just been screenings, we’ve only had about twenty or thirty of the crowdfunders who have seen it. And out of that, a hundred percent of them have absolutely loved it. It’s weird. If you’re making STAR WARS, your goal is to please all seven billion people on the planet. That’s your goal. And if you please six million people on the planet, you are a failure because you made the movie for everyone. You made the movie to sell plastic shit to everyone on the planet. But if you’re making DIRECTOR’S CUT, your goal is to please fifty-four hundred people with DVD’s (of the movie). And I think we have a very good chance of being close to that goal. Now if other people end up liking the movie on top of that, then it’s complete, pure gravy.”

Director Rifkin has a reputation for encouraging improvisation with his actors (Henry Rollins recently told this writer that all the dialogue for his cheerful cop character in Rifkin’s 1994 farce THE CHASE was entirely improvised on-set), though Jillette admits it wasn’t always possible with the dense DIRECTOR’S CUT script. “(The script) is a puzzle box,” says Jillette, “but it’s a puzzle box that Adam had complete control over. There’s a weird moment, weird for me because in so many of my projects I’m vertically involved in everything, but weird in the sense that there’s a moment when you realize that the director knows more about your script than you do. It’s a very disquieting moment. I’d be sitting with Adam doing rewrites and working stuff out—like when Missi came on board, the whole script, the whole tone changed. That meant many, many rewrites, because it was a different vibe. I originally wrote it thinking about Christina Ricci, and when you chance from Christina Ricci to Missi Pyle, everything changes. Even (the actresses’) height makes a difference in every line of the movie; her physical presence, not to mention her background and all that. But it would be really amazing because I’d be talking to Rifkin and all of a sudden he’d say, ‘No, no. Missi’s over there, Herbert’s point of view is here, and you can’t do that.’ I realized that his grasp of the puzzle box that I’d been banging on for ten years is much clearer than mine, and that he was now the authority. So there was not too much room for improvisation. If someone else were directing there’d be no room at all, but Rifkin had the juggling of it so deeply under his control that he could say, ‘Oh yeah, if you do that, we’ll still be okay.’”


Jillette continues in his praise of the versatile Rifkin: “He constantly had the movie in his head. I’ve worked with perhaps the greatest director of the twentieth century, Arthur Penn (with PENN & TELLER GET KILLED). When you work with Arthur Penn, it’s supernatural how someone could be that good at something. Like watching Steve Vai play guitar, and you think, ‘Well, other people aren’t really playing guitar. They’re just fucking around and this is really what you’re supposed to be doing!’ (laughs) I got that feeling with Arthur Penn, and you get that feeling with Rifkin, the way he moves around the set. You know, I have no patience or respect for people who are impolite or unpleasant when working. I mean, there is no reason on earth for anyone on a movie set to ever raise one’s voice. You’re not in the fuckin’ army. You’re not in an Emergency Room. If you’re working in the E.R. and they’re just bringing in a guy who got shot five times, somebody needs to be screaming if something isn’t going right. When you’re making a movie, there’s no reason for that. I know when you’re talking to people who write about movies, you’re supposed to talk about passion and vision, but I think those are givens. Those are the easy ones. But it’s having all of that passion and vision and being able to be competent and polite while you’re doing it. When I saw LOOK, I knew it was the work of a full-blown, no-kidding-around genius, and the amazing thing is that my opinion of (Rifkin) has only gone up since working with him.”

As entertaining as the ‘meta’ aspects and story progressions of DIRECTOR’S CUT assuredly are, the film-within-the-film ‘Knocked Off’ also functions as a hilarious, spot on send-up of serial killer thrillers that dominated theatres in the ‘90’s. Viewers will surely recognize coolly weary cops on the trail of some hyper-intelligent murderer conducting his gimmicky crimes with increasingly ludicrous intricacies, all while surrounded by gorgeously grubby art direction and with a creepy industrial-metal tune grinding away over the soundtrack. Penn insists that these moments can be read by the audience as either acidic parody or loving homage: “I don’t think that those are different,” he laughs. “A long, long time ago, there were two people. There was Stan Freberg, who did a lot of comedy records in the fifties and sixties, and then there was Jean Shepherd, who is a radio guy and best known for narrating A CHRISTMAS STORY. They both spoke at the University of Massachusetts when I was in high school, and they spoke two weeks apart, unbeknownst to each other. And I don’t know if there was any overlap of the audience except for me. Stan Freberg, during the Q and A period, said, ‘Never make fun of anything unless you hate it.’ Now two weeks later on the exact same stage and into the same microphone, Jean Shepherd said during his Q and A, ‘Never make fun of anything unless you love it.’ They were not veering into each other; they had no idea what the other one had said. At the time I was sixteen years old, and here were two heroes of mine, these writers. And it really perplexed me. So I thought about it, and I’ve been thinking about it now for something like forty years, and it’s become very clear to me that they are both absolutely right, and saying the exact same thing. I think that unless you have strong feelings about something, you shouldn’t do any comedy. What makes me crazy, what is the definition of a hack, is the guy who finds a joke, especially a political joke, and has that whole, ‘Well, I make fun of everybody. I make fun of Trump, I make fun of Cruz, I make fun of Hillary, Bernie, Obama… I just do anybody because I’m doing comedy.’ My feeling about that is, ‘Fuck you in the neck. If you haven’t thought about which point you’re actually making, then go fuck yourself.’ And when you do something like (the film within CUT), I am doing a satire because I hate it and I love it. I watch LETHAL WEAPON and I absolutely love the kind of affection in Mel Gibson, and between the buddies and how that works. At the same time, I hate the fact that the buddy stuff is fake, that these are two people that don’t care about each other. I like the kind of excitement of them running after each other, and at the same time I absolutely abhor the macho violence of the culture that is actually portrayed there. Please don’t misunderstand me: I never, ever, confuse depictions of violence with real violence. George Romero is not a violent man. That battle has been fought, and I hope you know what side I’m on. But I’m saying that one of the things that comes up is thinking about the culture, and you swing back and forth. I guess the best way to express that was the movie.”

DIRECTOR’S CUT kicked off this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, and is looking like its wide distribution plan will be locked in shortly. Until then, Jillette couldn’t be happier discussing the experience of finally completing his odd outlier of a movie: “What I told Rifkin when we finished it was that if J.J. Abrams had not made STAR WARS, somebody would have. If we didn’t make this movie, nobody would have (laughs). And that feels good. The ideas that are in this movie—the kind of freaky love, the discussion of what it means to be an amateur, the blurry lines between who people are on camera and then behind or off-camera—Rifkin did it exactly the way I wanted. If anything, he made it better than I expected.”


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