TR Interview: Penn Jillette Brings out the Bad Guy

By Luke Y. Thompson in Movies
Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 8:00 am


He's a magician, satirist, Apprentice, go-to celebrity pundit on all things atheist and libertarian, but Penn Jillette has one more role he'd like to add to his resume: movie villain. Together with director Adam Rifkin (The Dark Backward), he hopes to make his horror screenplay - entitled Director's Cut - a reality, and like so many other celebrities these days, he's lost his patience with studio executives saying no, and taken to crowd funding.

Unlike some other celebrity crowd-funded projects that don't even offer a ticket to the movie as part of the prize, however, Jillette's rewards are insanely extravagant for reasonably affordable prices. Chip in $280, and he'll answer all your phone calls for life (via recording). For $4,100 he'll give you a full Las Vegas wedding ceremony that he'll officiate, complete with VIP tickets to the Penn & Teller show. And it's not all pricey - $35 gets you a T-shirt and the DVD.

For absolutely nothing, you can read my extensive interview with Jillette, who dishes details on the movie, punditry, his philosophies of horror and acting, his friendship with Glenn Beck and more.

Luke Y. Thompson: Tell me about this movie you're doing.

Penn Jillette: Well, the idea I've had for a while is the idea of doing a movie that takes off - it's a found movie based on director's commentary. We've gotten really used to director's commentaries as a form, but no one has really done a take-off on them and really used that, the fact that we know those as a technique. That's not literally true - Spinal Tap did a director's commentary that was in character, and so did Tropic Thunder, but no one has done it as a plot point.

The gag on this is that the director's commentary is on all the time, and you hear from the very first moment of blackness of the movie, you hear my voice as the director in that kind of sterile, intimate, reassuring way that you start to trust the director. You hear him talking about the movie, and as the movie goes on you start to realize that the person talking may not really be the director. Then you realize, a little deeper in, that he really is not the director. And then you realize, a little deeper in that he is now re-editing the movie in ways that are not the way a movie should be done, and that he's a little obsessed with the female star. And then you realize that he has kidnapped and is torturing the lead actress, and making her do parts of this. And then the director's commentary of the movie-within-the-movie starts to intertwine, and it all turns into that kind of thing.

So I pitched this for years around Hollywood, and people seemed to like it, and they were close to starting deals on a few things. But they kept worrying that it was too high-concept, too smart - however you want to put that. And I kind of kept plugging along, thought about funding it myself, because the last two movies I've done - The Aristocrats, which is a movie about dirty jokes; and Tim's Vermeer, which is a movie about 15th century painters - both of those I funded out of my pocket. But this one was a little too expensive, so I kept plugging along, and I was fascinated by the idea of movies that pretend to be something else; just like novels that pretend to be diaries, then pretend to be found. And someone told me about a movie called Look, by Adam Rifkin, that is all ostensibly shot on security cameras.

LYT: Right.

PJ: I saw that movie on a Friday night. Right after the movie, I wrote right to my agents and managers and said "Find me Adam Rifkin. I need to talk to him." I then wasn't satisfied, so I went to Facebook - found out we had mutual friends; wrote to him, got him on Facebook that night, told him how much I loved Look, my favorite movie ever. Could I tell him about this movie I wrote? He says "Yes." Then I said I can't wait - I was going to fly into LA and meet him that Wednesday. I said "Can we talk on the phone?" We talk on the phone, like high school children, until about three in the morning. I explained the movie to him. I then sent him the script. By 4 in the morning, he'd read it. By 4:30, we were partners. [laughs] And I wrote to my manager and agent, saying "Never mind getting in touch with Adam Rifkin - we're already partners on this."

We then sniffed around with him involved, to try to find money. Even the crowd funding thing, I was really interested in. I've been involved in crowd funding, from the other side - I give money to it all the time. I love the democratization of that, and I love the fun that you get in helping someone do something groovy that they may not be able to do without you. And as FundAnything started up, I saw Adam Carolla be able to make his movie that he wanted to make for years - that he had been talking about for years. I started that up, and I'm having a blast with the crowd funding. We're trying to do the crowd funding differently than other people have. We're trying to see the crowd funding as something 'meta,' something deep, in the movie, the way years ago Blair Witch used the web as part of their movie, kind of let it spill into there. We're letting the crowd funding spill into our movie. We did the promo, which I hope you've seen...

LYT: Yes.

PJ: ...we didn't do it as in the kitchen, "Give us money," we rather did it as part of the movie, with the real crew we're going to use and everything. And then we're also going to be - no one knows this yet - but every other day, there will be videos put up by friends of mine, talking about how I'm becoming a really bad guy. So that's where we are in the movie.

LYT: So is that using the heat that guys like Zach Braff have gotten from crowd funding to make it look like you're being a greedy celebrity who wants more money - that kind of thing?

PJ: Well, that's a little bit - I don't think Zach's that interesting, because first of all, he hasn't gotten much heat. You have to weigh the web properly. You have to make sure you're not taking a few nuts and pretending that that's the zeitgeist. Not really. I don't think that anybody really thinks that. Unless you think that anybody in show business is a greedy celebrity, which I think is a valid point, but kind of an uninteresting one. I mean, everybody crowd-funded every movie that's been out. We crowd-funded The Lone Ranger, we crowd-funded World War Z. It's just that there was an intermediate guy grabbing a lot of money, that's all. You have a studio that speculates, and gold mines on that, and takes a cut out of it. People are still paying to see it.

It would be very true, I think if I were going there and saying, "I'm a celebrity, so send me money." Although that would be valid; people would just say "No." But I'm not. I'm saying, "I want to make this movie, and it's going to be fun." The thing people have commented on the most , I think , is the fact that our rewards are stupidly valuable. In some cases, the face value of the reward we're giving is higher than what we're charging for it. [laughs] We've got rooms at the Rio, and the Penn and Teller show, and the DVD, and the poster, and the T-shirts, for whatever it is, $500 bucks, and you end up with something that would cost you, if you didn't make the movie, $600. So we're doing some weird things, because we're able to have the economy of scale, we're able to kind of pick our movie up. But no - no one, no one should contribute to this movie for humanitarian reasons. They should contribute to this movie because they think it will be fun, and they want to see the movie, and I believe that's what they're doing. The problem with attacking Zach Braff for that is it pretends that he's not making a movie.

LYT: You mentioned some of the other movies you've made, but I was thinking also in terms of horror, I saw the short movie you were involved in a while back called "The Little Dead." Was that any sort of inspiration towards the horror genre?

PJ: Well, no. The inspiration towards the horror genre is, I think, our whole country. George Romero - you know, I had no interest in horror. Adam Rifkin has an interest in horror that goes back to classic horror, as does my buddy Gilbert Gottfried, but mine came with people - I'm a little too young for this, but not much - when Night of the Living Dead came out, and everyone was talking about it as a horror movie, but I wasn't interested. But then people were talking about it as an intellectual movie - George Romero's description of it is what happens to the United States when a truly radical political system takes over, and I was really fascinated by that. But I was fascinated by the idea that you could work in horror and if you put some blood, some scares, and often some breasts in, you could do any intellectual idea you wanted; you could do an art film. I was really interested in that.

As a matter of fact, my favorite movie of all time is original Romero Dawn of the Dead, though I love James Gunn's version as well - my favorite movie is the Romero Dawn of the Dead, because it talks about such strong intellectual ideas, and does it with this shock of the visceral. I think you want your visceral and intellectual to collide as fast as possible. Of course, the other one that kind of invents what I love about this is Psycho, which has the very deep premise that everything bad that happens, happens because of love, whether it's romantic love or whether it's familial love that destroys us. It's a pretty rich, deep idea to be done in a popular movie. So yeah - that's my love of horror. Zeke, who works with us - I've known him since he was a child - Zeke did The Little Dead thing, and we helped him out with that, once again, contribute here and there, and also acted in it. But that was just helping out a buddy, and having fun. It wasn't really my start of interest in horror.

LYT: So horror, the way you talk about it, is almost like a magic trick - you misdirect people with the exploitation, and then they don't realize what they're getting in the subtext till afterwards.

PJ: Right! Exactly! You know what? Teller always says that we have to give people something to pretend they're doing while they're really looking at you, and that's kind of what entertainment is to me.

LYT: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask: Is Bullshit as a show completely done, or is there any chance that you'd ever come back to that?

PJ: We're always trying to. It's just that we left Bullshit in order to do other projects, and we're always hoping to be able to go back, and maybe someday that will be true.

LYT: Do you own the rights to it, if you wanted to take it somewhere else?

PJ: No, no, no - it's complicated. It's more complicated than your sex life.

LYT: [laughs] I was going to say, if you crowd-funded that (the show, not my sex life), I'm sure it would get through the roof in a heartbeat.

PJ: The problem is, it would involve crowd funding Showtime. [laughs]

LYT: Did you ever want to direct this movie yourself?

PJ: No, no - directing's for schmucks! I mean, don't tell Adam Rifkin this, and don't tell Teller this, but directing is for losers. Directing is just being there and having people yell at you all the time. I've always wanted to write, I've always wanted to produce, I've always wanted to perform, but direct? No fucking interest.

LYT: How much of a stretch acting-wise is this for you? Is it a character very close to yourself, or are you going the opposite direction?

PJ: It's so far from myself it's insane. And I guess actually I should make some sort of joke that that would be better. The truth of the matter is in order to do stuff that's really scary, you have to be secure and happy. All this stuff about digging in and finding your inner demons I think is bullshit. You know, I know Romero. George Romero is the kind of guy that coaches little league, and is completely happy with his family, and has no murderous tendencies whatsoever. And Arthur Penn was a good friend of mine, made Bonnie and Clyde - no violent sensibilities whatsoever.

That kind of violence in fantasy and violence in reality overlap is the kind of mentally ill stuff that Hillary Clinton says about video games. It's just crazy, crazy, crazy. The fact of the matter is, you don't need to be a fan of teen suicide to get something out of Romeo and Juliet. So no - it's something I've always wanted to do, to dig into that psycho side, but only because of how interesting that is plot-wise, and what beautiful things you can say with it. Nothing to do with digging in and finding my evil side.

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